Sunday, December 29, 2013

Winter Music

It’s been a grand season of music, this year more than ever before. I can’t explain why. Darkened evenings, sitting in front of a fire with the stereo going. And more than that.

It got off to a good start early in December, when Hilary’s parents took us to a concert of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos performed by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. We’ve been listening to these chestnuts for forty years and more now, but not very often. Hearing them live, new voices sing out, the atmosphere is supercharged and their “classic” stature is reaffirmed. Snow had arrived and the bustle of people coming and going in the wintery night in front of Temple Israel lent an additional touch of magic sparkle to the evening.

The next day, as we prepared a Chocolate and Cranberry Layer Cake with White Chocolate Truffle Glaze for an upcoming party, we listened to the concertos again and moved on from there to some of Bach’s cantatas. I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that there’s something joyous, clear, and even-tempered about much of Bach’s music. Never dull, but seldom tortured either.

At the party the next day, while the final touches were being put on the roast pork and the smoked trout-mixed greens-apple salad with horseradish dressing, we played a game in which a series of tunes were played one after another and we had to guess who’d brought each of them. I would never have remembered them all but I still have the ballot. The entries were: “Ant’s Marching” (Dave Mathews Band); Stravinsky’s Pastorale for violin and woodwinds; “Crazy Race” by jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s funk band, The RH Factor; A tender piano ballad, “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden; a jazzy “H.C.R. Strut” (Django Reinhardt); “Per Elena” by Italian film-composer Ennio Morricone; “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo; a segment from a Tchaikovsky concerto played with raucous force by the Stan Kenton Orchestra; the sweet “Teach Your Children Well” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and “Ukelele Lady” performed as a folk-song by someone whose name I’ve forgotten.

Later in the evening we sang a few carols around the piano. Sheila, a professional musician, tried to keep everyone in line while seated at the piano but a few obstreperous tenors in the back of the room (I’m not naming names....) simply would not behave.

Perhaps inspired by this event, Hilary and I went downtown the following evening in the dark to sing Handel’s Messiah in the midst of seven hundred other enthusiastic choristers, with the help of a few soloists and the entire Minnesota Chorale. Sections of St. Olaf Catholic Church had been designated for the various parts, and the resultant harmonies were powerful.

Hilary and I didn’t sing too loud—we don’t really know our parts—but we enjoyed it all the same. And when we got home we immediately put a CD of Handel’s oratorio Deborah on the stereo to sustain the mood.

In the days that followed, we found ourselves sitting in front of the fire repeatedly listening to vocal and choral music. Boccherini’s Stabat Mater was a big hit, for some reason, and one night we listened to Brahms’ Requiem, and enjoyed it so much we immediately put it on again.

When the booming choirs got to be too much, I found myself turning to Handel’s keyboard sonatas, played in pesky style by Glenn Gould—on the harpsichord, no less.

On Wednesday evening we trundled ourselve up to the Brookdale Regal Cinema to catch a simulcast performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. I’ve never see it before, and with Jame Levine at the podium and Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, it seems like a performance not to miss. The tale is feather-light and the arias are few and far between, but the entire three-and-a-half hour production bubbled with good cheer.

And no Christmas season would be complete without a dark, solitary evening in the company of Arvo Pärt. One night when Hilary was working late I listened to his album Alina twice over. It contains the composition “Für Alina,” which marked the composer’s break in 1976 from serialism to the “tintinnabulist” style that made him famous. Pärt’s tempo markings are suggestive—calm, exalted, listening to one’s inner self. For the album, pianist Alexander Malter improvised on the piece for several hours, and Part himself chose two ten-minute excerpts to include, along with other interpretations by minimalist string ensembles. This music goes nowhere. Rather, it burrows deep into the hollows of the soul, probing, echoing, and shining, all at the same time.

In recent days we’ve been pulling out of this long musical exaltation—but not much. Chet Baker’s late album Silence fits the mood of the hour: just look at the tunes. “My Funny Valentine,” “Round About Midnight,” Charlie Haden’s “Silence.” Recorded six months before Baker’s death, it exudes a sad, patient lyricism that’s seldom dull, and the contributions of Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi are consistently thoughtful. The rendition of “Round About Midnight” runs to more than twelve minutes.

But in the end, what can you say about music? I was reading The Frontiers of Meaning: Three Informal Lectures on Music by Charles Rosen the other day, and I came upon this passage:

A few experiences of listening to a symphony or nocturne are worth more than any essay or analysis. The work of art teaches us how to understand it, and makes the critic not only parasitical but strictly supefluous.

I don’t believe that, though it’s true that music is devilishly hard to write about in a meaningful way. The music itself can never be captured in words.

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