Saturday, February 27, 2010

Music Appreciation 101

There is so much going on here these days, but what with working two jobs to help make ends meet - shoot, I don't know why I said that; most days here lately I can't even find the ends, much less make them meet - it's just hard to find the time to sit down and write. But tonight, since Tom's in the the city because he's teaching at Pace University tomorrow (yes, we're both working two jobs), and Mick is in bed fast asleep, my night owl muscle gets to be exercised. So here I sit. Me and that old crow.

Here lately, I'm finding music creeping back into my life, little by little. Nice. When I was little, I used to sing out on the swing set. I remember hearing stories about how I used to sit out there and sing and sing and sing. (Mickey sings. There's nothing I like more than to hear him off in another room singing to himself. He has such a sweet little voice.) Grandma Stover would literally sit me at her knee and teach me Bible songs that I would eventually sing in her Sunday School class. I guess I loved singing. And then, I remember the first time I heard Gordon MacRae in "Oklahoma". Maybe I was 12 or 13. "Oklahoma" was being broadcast on television and I was so taken by Gordon MacRae's voice, I ran and got my Radio Shack reel-to-reel tape recorder and recorded the songs he sang. He is such a phenomenal singer and actor. He doesn't just sing technically correct, he connects with his gut and you feel his story, what the heck is going on, what he wants, what he really means. You hear it in his voice, see it in his face, and feel it in your gut.

I played that tape over and over, and sang and sang and sang along with Mr. MacRae. They're going to hate me for saying this, and I know they were just being lovingly hateful, the way siblings can be, but I remember my brother and sister telling me I couldn't sing, and shouldn't. And so I didn't. For a very long time. Songs would come on the radio in the car and while everyone else joined in, I remained silent. "I can't sing" I would remind myself. And I didn't really sing again until I was in college. In my freshman year, the theatre department produced the musical version of "Peter Pan", and I was hell bent to be Peter, but I was going to have to sing. So I showed up to those auditions and I sang. I didn't get cast in the role of Peter (that's a whole other story), but ultimately it didn't matter. I was singing, and nothing was going to stop me. There's nothing I like better than opening my mouth, letting go of my gut and singing my damned fool head off. Some of the most memorable and significant moments in my life were times when I was singing. That is the truth. Over the years I have sung in shows and in choirs, but for a while now I've not really been singing. Oh, maybe I'll sing while I'm out fiddling in the yard, or driving somewhere alone, but I've not really given myself the space in my day to sing. Really sing. Until lately.

We've started going to the little church next door. It used to be a member of the United Church of Christ, but it isn't a member of anything at the moment. It is, without a doubt, a little country church preachin' that ol' time religion. It's good enough for me. And I've joined the choir. So far, the most we've had in the choir loft on a Sunday morning is eight, which isn't bad. One of these days I'm going to get my hands on that little choir and we're going to tear that place apart. The church choir apparently had quite a hey day back some number of years ago, but there's been some political nonsense going on for a while, as can happen in churches, and attendance has dwindled to a paltry few. But we show up and sing our little hearts out. I joined the choir just in time to sing for the Christmas Eve service. Upon hearing me sing, one of the tenors whispered to the other "I think we have our quartet back". The former and long time choir director had written arrangements for four of the men in the choir, but with all that has happened there at the church, the quartet has been a non-entity for quite some time. But we're up and running now and we meet by ourselves on Thursdays and you know, we sound pretty good, if I do say so myself. We sang for the first time this past Sunday. We're not perfect. Yet. But after we finished "It Is Well With My Soul", I was so emotional I couldn't sing the congregational hymn. (Be patient, it may take a while to load.)

So the music ball has started to roll. When I lived in Kansas City, I used to listen to the classical music station, KXTR, all the time, mostly because I had it on in the car. Hearing it there kept me in the music mood, so when I was out of the car, I often had it playing on the stereo. I used to drag the speakers outside on Saturday evenings while I worked in the yard and listened to the live broadcast of the Boston Symphony. You know what? It just dawned as me as I was writing this, but what I was listening to was the Boston Symphony live from Tanglewood. TANGLEWOOD! Here in the Berkshires! My home! Destiny. Anyway, I would crank it up and the neighbors would sit out on their steps or side porches and listen right along with me. But when I moved to NYC, oddly enough, the music stopped. I didn't listen to the radio because I was never in a car and I never sat still in my apartment long enough to have the radio on. And even now, I don't listen to the radio because the only station around here that plays classical music is NPR and all that's ever on NPR when I'm in the car is some inane dialogue about how contra rebels are having nervous breakdowns because their mothers didn't breast feed them when they were infants. I mean, really. NPR can make me NUTS. I don't see the fascination with it. However, I am listening to my music in the car, taking the advantage of the cd player and my collection of cds.

I'm not one of these people who buy every cd of every Beethoven symphony, or every Puccini opera. I only buy the cds of those pieces of music that really turn me on. Or, at least I try to. I could do a little paring down of my collection and not miss anything. Anyway. I have this boxed set of Howard Hanson's symphonies. I know that most of you, if not all, are asking yourself "who the hell is Howard Hanson." Well, I don't know a lot about him, but I know this. When I was in orchestra at Emporia State, Maestro Hanson died. My orchestra conductor, Howard Halgedahl, decided we would do an entire concert of Hanson pieces. The only piece from that concert that has stayed with me is Hanson's Symphony No. 2, the "Romantic." Maestro Hanson had been one of Mr. Halgedahl's professors at Eastman School of Music, and apparently not just a professor, but a real mentor, like Mr. Halgedahl was to me. I can count on one hand the teachers I view as my mentors, and Mr. Halgedahl is one of them. He really stood up for me and watched out for me. Listening to Mr. Halgedahl's stories about Hanson during our rehearsals of the symphony, I knew that Howard Hanson meant the same to Mr. Halgedahl as Mr. Halgedahl meant to me. We recorded the concert so that Mr. Halgedahl could give the recording to Maestro Hanson's widow. It was an emotion charged evening.

As I said, years ago, in order to get a recording of the 2nd Symphony, I had to buy the Howard Hanson boxed set, and I must confess I've barely listened to his other symphonies. But Symphony No. 2 is momentous. I am now listening to it over and over in my car these days. I've listened to it at least a 1,000 times, if not a million. I just can't get over it, or enough of it. I just don't get it. I don't understand how it's possible for a human being to write a bunch of notes down on a lot of pieces of paper for a motley crew of weird contraptions that are sawn, blown, plucked and pounded and still be responsible for a sound being produced that can grab your gut and move you to tears. I don't get it.

Have you ever really thought about an orchestra and all the instruments in it? It all really doesn't make any sense. That these instruments exist singly, and as an integral part of an assemblage we call an orchestra, is a simple and profound expression of the Divine. It all couldn't happen otherwise. It couldn't. Not without the Divine. I mean, you take a cigar box, stick a pole on one end, string four different strings on it tightly, stick it under your chin, drag a stick tied with horse hair - HORSE HAIR - across it with your right hand while your left hand is sliding around and if you're good, people like the way it sounds. What? Who came up with this? You take a black tube with a bunch of holes in it, stick a splinter of a reed on one end and blow throw it and make more sounds people like. How? What planet did this come from? A French Horn? You wind twelve feet of brass tubing around and around and around itself, blow through it and Mozart writes a fantastic piece of music for it. It's all wacky, and so wonderful.

I digress, as I am want to do. Where was I? Howard Hanson. The Romantic Symphony. I can't get how it's possible for someone to write a piece of music that can bring you to tears. But this symphony surely does it. Now, I like Beethoven's symphonies, but ain't none of 'em ever brought me to tears. But you have to listen to the all three movements. I mean, to really be affected by the piece, you can't just listen to one movement because Hanson introduces themes in the first movement that he develops and then revisits in the second and third movements. He tells a story, in my mind, of love and passion and fighting and reconciliation, and his melodic themes recur throughout the varied stories, and in so doing, the story is told, layer upon layer, so that by the time you get back to the main theme toward the end of the third movement you're completely undone. I'm telling you, I've almost had to pull over and gather myself. Out of the turmoil and passion swells a theme of great love, and it's made ever more palpable by the pounding heartbeat portrayed by the timpani. The violins sing, swell and soar, taking you higher and higher, the passion burning till it can't burn any longer. Doesn't need to any longer. Simply, a few strings quietly express the truth, even more profoundly than before. And in its simplicity it is grand. And then we're home. God is in his heavens and all is right with the world, and the brass majestically let you know this. Oh, I just can't take it. Just talking about it tears me up. The recording I listen to is of the Seattle Symphony conducted Gerard Schwartz. I think it's really great. Get it and treat yourself to all three movements. Get rid of all your other distractions. Put on the cd, sit back and let the music wash over you. Let your imagination and the music come together and tell you a story. I used to turn off all the lights and listen to my music good and loud in the darkness because there I could more clearly see what my ears were hearing. Do that. Treat yourself. Here's just the third movement.

Anyway. What does all this mean? I have no idea. I hadn't posted in a good while; the kitchen isn't done enough for me to show it off, and this blog isn't just about the danged house. I've been so wound up about the music I'm enjoying here lately, I just wanted to share.