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Laurie Niles

Celebrate Classical Music

August 10, 2012 at 4:52 AM

Here is one entry from me, to join the others for Celebrate Classical Music. I'll probably write several!

* * *

For a time in high school, I was madly in love with a trumpet player in my youth orchestra.

Certainly, the young man was good-looking. But more than that, he loved classical music. He didn't just tolerate it, he didn't just like it -- he loved it.

Another person, my age, attractive and talented, loved classical music? What a wonderful place is the world! If he loved classical music, I loved him!

To be honest, he probably knew a lot more about it than I did, as his parents were both musicians -- a violinist and a cellist. While this was a whole new wonderful world for me, he seemed already to be a connoisseur, at age 15. We'd get into conversations about favorite pieces and such, which for me were limited to things we'd played in youth orchestra.

"I think my favorite piece is 'Petrouchka,'" he said knowledgeably.

Oh yes, it's my favorite piece too. Smile, nod. Pe-whatschka?

As soon as possible, I visited the record store, where I purchased (please don't laugh, young friends) something called a "cassette tape." It was a recording of "Petrouchka," the ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky in 1911. (I describe the piece in great detail in this 2008 blog about an LA Phil performance). I probably need not say that the Internet was not invented at this time, and so there was no iTunes, and no possibility of buying only the track that I wished to hear. So my recording of "Petrouchka" also included Stravinsky's "Firebird."

I loaded it into my Sony Walkman and sat on the couch to listen. I enthusiastically accepted the jaunty, flute-filled beginning -- but very soon thereafter, things got weird. The meter started doing strange things, and I was hearing odd bits of this and that. I seriously wondered if I could ever understand this music, much less count it among my favorites. It was not exactly as straightforward, as, say, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which we'd played in youth orchestra. It seemed start and stop; pause and then burst forth. The tonal language was on the modern side. The story behind the ballet was completely unknown to me, and the insert in my little cassette did not illuminate me. As I mentioned: no Internet to help me on this front.

My trumpet player (and perhaps every classical trumpet player?) had a beloved excerpt from this piece, which he played as a warm-up during orchestra rehearsal. (You can't really miss the trumpet player warming up.) His little piece of "Petrouchka" sounded straightforward enough when he played it every week, but in the context of Stravinsky's meandering ballet, it might as well have dropped in from Mars. (If you want to see what I mean, try going from about 16:30 to 19:00 in the Youtube example I've posted below.) It didn't make the least bit of sense to me.

And yet, this wonderful person who loved classical music considered this his "favorite piece," what gives? I was determined to figure out why, and so I listened to that cassette relentlessly -- in the car, in the dark before I went to sleep, every chance I could find. I grew to know every single note of both "Petrouchka" and "Firebird," start to finish. I began to see that there were so many characters in the piece, so many personalities. Some were serious, some funny -- all sketched in great detail. It was as fascinating to listen to the tiny touches as it was to listen to the sweep of it.

Have you ever bought a piece of cheap, trendy clothing? The first time you wear it, it looks like the snappy thing you bought at the store. Then you wash it, and the color immediately fades. You discover it wasn't sewn together so well. A button falls off, a seam gives. The garment has shrunk a full size and is in tatters after only three washings. To add insult to injury, it's out of style in less than six months.

But seek out something of high quality -- made of good cloth, designed with intelligence and care to fit the body and wear well, sewn with good craftsmanship -- and it will last and last.

I could listen to those pieces by Stravinsky a million more times, and I'm convinced they will never wear out. They are so well-crafted, so intricate, so full of meaning, they will not fall apart at the seams and grow tiresome.

Life moved on and I grew out of my silly high school crush. But I've never grown out of Stravinsky; that will last a lifetime. This is why I love classical music, why it is so fulfilling for me to play, and why my love for it has endured throughout my life.

"Petrouchka," by Igor Stravinsky. Mariss Jansons conducts the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:

An excerpt from the end of "Firebird" by Igor Stravinsky. Pierre Boulez conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

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