Friday, January 15, 2010

Tákacs Quartet

There is something “magical” about attending a live musical performance. I am referring not to the degree of transport generated by the music itself, but to a sort of sympathetic magic along the order of “George Washington slept here.” Thus, "Yes, I heard the Tákacs Quartet perform a late Beethoven quartet the other night.” The performance was intriguing and thoughtful from beginning to end, more scratchy and argumentative and soaring but less deeply meditative than I am accustomed to hearing. Then again, the performers were a long ways away…and that makes it hard to pull off those sublimely interior moments.

Coincidentally, we had just a few days earlier purchased a new receiver. In case you’re too young to have lived through the age of stereo components, a receiver is a device—it can be part of a radio, television set, or telephone—that receives incoming signals and converts them to perceptible forms, such as sound or light. (I guess surround-sound packages have receivers even today.) We also used to call it the “tuner” and even the “amp.” The one we were using was certainly more than 40 years old—I think it belonged originally to Hilary’s parents—and it was well past its prime. A speaker would suddenly cease producing sound for half an hour, then spring to life once again, and the sound itself was haunted by an intermittent overlay of mumbly static. This had been going on for years. I am neither a “techie” nor an audiophile, but it was clear to me that something had to be done.

It came as a great relief, if not a total surprise, to find that the 100-watt Sony 2-channel audio receiver we purchased ($154) from a cheeky sales clerk at Best Buy returned the sound coming out of those little Bose bookshelf speakers to a place it hadn’t been for a long time. Wow! Yesterday I checked out a pristine CD of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet concertos from the library—two pieces I listened to so often in my youth that I wore them out and came to distain them (though I knew the problem was really with me, not them). Luscious sound, great old compositions. You begin to listen to every note, every nuance—to the very timbre of the reed and strings.

This is also how you listen in the concert hall—you don’t have much choice. And though the music is neither so loud nor so pure, the “liveness” adds excitement while the anticipation of how a given phrase will be turned keeps your mind from wandering too far from the thread of the action. You may have heard the piece a hundred times before, but never quite like they’re playing it tonight.

Even the distractions add to the evening’s entertainment.

I was sitting next to a retired Economics professor from the London School of Economics. I know this because I sat next to him a few years ago and he told me. An interesting fellow…but I didn’t want to cover that ground again, and he seemed to be engrossed in his program. (In other words, he doesn't consider me to be an interesting fellow.) A few rows in front of us I spotted the Schubert Club’s director, Kathleen von Bergen, wearing glasses with pale green frames and a sharp black-and-white print dress covered with hollow leaf and knot forms, almost like a wood-block print. Lively yet conservative. The plants on stage looked like giant green tropical clubs, with broad, rounded leaves staying very close to the stalk. At intermission we strolled around the upstairs lobby of the Ordway, looking out at the little white lights strewn through the trees in the park across the street and the huge cloud of luminescent white steam continually erupting from the power plant down the way.

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