During the Joys and Concerns part of our Sunday service today, one of the “senior statesman” (really not pompous) spoke about both joys and concerns of himself and his wife. She has Parkinson’s disease. He said that their joy is the deepening of their love as they cope with her illness together, and their sorrow is the illness itself. He said that she talks to him about what she can and can’t do and that she’d like to talk to the rest of us, too. After the service, I went to talk with her. She is a truly lovely person. Everyone who knows her agrees about that. I told her that I remember that, when I was nearly killed in a car accident a few years ago, she had been very kind in helping me, and I’d like to help her now. She smiled and said that a lot of people are helping her. She is a professional artist and works mainly in watercolor. She saves unused scraps of her watercolor paintings that “didn’t work” and uses them to raise funds for the church. For a $5 donation, you can choose your own watercolor scrap and another church member, who does calligraphy, will write your name on it, and you have a very distinctive name tag. For my name tag, I chose something with warm colors (pinks, yellows, and oranges) and had the calligrapher write Pauline Lerner with a treble clef between Pauline and Lerner. It’s a great name tag and a great bargain. The fellowship hall of the church doubles as an art gallery with some of her framed watercolors hanging on the walls. They are for sale, and 20% of the price goes to the church as a donation. Recently I told the artist that when I get a job, I’m going to buy one of her watercolors, and it will be a gift to her, me, and the church. Although she is now frail and small, and she tires easily, her spirit is strong. Today I told her that her watercolors are full of warmth, light, and life, so I know that she still has these qualities within herself. I had been feeling like a hermit in a cave, with no car and, sometimes, not enough breath to go out and walk much because of my asthma. I walked around the room and looked at her watercolors. I love them all, but my favorites are paintings of flowers. One painting, in particular, called to me. It shows a vase of flowers just inside a window and the path the sunlight takes into the room. I was looking at this painting while I was talking to another friend, and, suddenly, I stopped talking. The friend asked me whether I was OK, and I told her what had just gone into my mind, like the sunlight into the room in the painting. I told her about the strength of the artist’s spirit and about my feeling of living in a cave. Then, while I was looking at the painting, some lines from a poem had illuminated my mind. “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage” (Richard Lovelace, To Althea in Prison). I must buy that painting and hang it up in my home for its sheer inspiration.
I like the architecture of the building. It is pretty from both the outside and the inside. Inside, all the walls are light colored, and there are huge picture windows. There is an open, light, and airy feeling to the place. The weather was pleasant, and some people went outside and strolled around or sat on park benches. There was a real festival atmosphere, the kind I only expect to experience at outdoor festivals. Even the behavior of the people was remarkable. Even though the place was crowded, the adults didn’t push or shove and the children were all well behaved.
Entertainment was everywhere, including the lobbies. There was a juggler in a clown costume who threw balls to some of the youngest kids at short range. There were crafters, including weavers, spinners, and lace makers. They all explained what they were doing to anyone who was interested, and most of them let the kids try the crafts. There were music and dance performances, including hand dancing and Cambodian traditional dance. The Cambodian dancers were dressed in traditional costumes of brilliant red and blue with gold head dresses. The hand dancers did a demo and then let audience members join in.
There were lots of good things on the stage of the concert hall. First, the lucky people near the start of the line got to go on stage and take a bow while the M.C. announced their names, for example, “Alison and her Mom. Let’s have a big round of applause for Alison and her Mom.” Those of us in the audience gave everyone who made it to the stage a big round of applause. Then came the designated performers. First there were kids from a local Irish exhibition dance school, dressed in traditional costume. The kids often start Irish step dance at age five, and by the time they reach their teens, they are consummate performers. They did some very impressive step dancing. Some of them were so good that they were national champions. They danced to reels, jigs, and hornpipes played by Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle, and he was really, really good. He played many “chestnuts” and crowd pleasers, including Kesh Jig. He did an instrumental break without the dancers, and he really got fancy. He played an O’Carolan tune, Planxty Fannie Powers, through three times, each time more highly ornamented. The third time, his fingers were flying through a lot of fast notes. I’ve played this tune many times, but never like this. After the Irish performers, there were two women who sang children’s songs, and they had the children singing along. They even taught the kids how to sing a little harmony. The last group of performers was a doo-wop singing group, and they sang some great songs. I noticed a lot of oldsters like me in the audience. I don’t think kids have caught onto this genre yet.
One of the special things about this music center is that it is also a teaching center. One of the major local children’s music schools is affiliated with the music center and has a whole suite of rooms there. The School had an instrument “petting zoo” there that day, and kids could drop in and try playing each of several different instruments. One of my current students, a delightful seven year old girl, came to me for violin lessons after going to a summer camp with an instrument petting zoo type of program. She knew, from her own hands-on experience, that she wanted to play the violin. I thought that it would be good for me to learn about this type of zoo, so I went. Kids were standing in three lines to get the chance to play one of several small size violins, and there weren’t enough teachers there to help them. I couldn’t help myself from jumping in and helping the kids. I don’t know who had more fun, them or me. I could sense that magic that happens when someone connects with a violin. It’s like falling in love. The kid who learned the most the fastest, by far, was fifteen years old. (Almost all the other kids were under the age of nine.) After just a few minutes with him, I had to tell him, ”I’m sorry, but there isn’t any more that I can teach you now. You would need to take lessons.” He and his mother, who was listening, were both very excited about the possibility. Some of the younger ones were equally excited when they found that they could make a pretty sound on the open strings. I showed some of them how to put their fingers down on a string to make notes of different pitches, with the help of tape on the fingerboard. Only one little girl looked like she just didn’t get it. The problem was that she was too small for even the smallest violin there. I told her that it would be more fun if she had a smaller violin to play, but she wasn’t impressed. She would have had to try it herself to know.
I decided that it would not be ethical for me to try to recruit students for myself there, since I’m not affiliated with the School. However, a few parents asked me whether I could give them my business card, and I was happy to oblige. Amidst the rush, one of the teachers from the School said to me, “Be sure to speak to me before you leave,” so I did. She said, “You have such a way with kids!” I was really pleased because I have no formal training as a teacher and I’m not even a mother. She asked me whether I could help out at some of their other instrument petting zoos, and she said that she would pay me. Oh, boy! This is like being paid to eat. Afterwards, I thought, again, about one of the things that Laurie has written about several times: It’s really important to educate kids about music, particularly classical music. I decided to find some way to do this in local schools while I’m unemployed and have the time available. I’ve just started making inquiries.
My last stop at the festival was at a dance class for the very young, also put on by the School. It was great to watch. Most of the kids were so young that they didn’t know right from left or how to count. Some of them were carried in their mother’s arms. The young woman who was the dance teacher led the kids in different activities designed to let them move their bodies in a deliberate and fun way. She told them to tiptoe and sh-h-h-h. She did it and they followed her as if she were the Pied Piper. She had them do other movements with her, like skipping and “melting.” I had a lot of fun watching them.
All this in just one weekend at the new concert hall near my home! I can see that I am in for some good times ahead.
Saturday night I heard Hilary Hahn with the Baltimore Symphony. She played the Prokofiev Concerto, which I wasn’t familiar with, and she did it beautifully. Her first few notes were so sweet that I felt like I was melting away. There were other emotions in the music, and she expressed them well. Even in the most “warlike” or “gutsy” sound passages, she retained something of that initial sweetness. Parts of the concerto were highly technical, but she made it all look and sound so easy. I asked someone what he thought of the performance, and he said, “Subdued.” I could see what he meant. There some passages that were very difficult technically, and she played them smoothly, but without pyrotechnics or showing off. This music is Prokofiev, not Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaik. Even the orchestra played in a subdued way. When I got home, I listened to some recordings of her playing the Mendelssohn and Brahms concerti, and I felt that her sweet sound fit these pieces especially well.
On my way to Peasants’ Heaven, I saw a sign saying that CD signing would take place during the intermission. Of course, I bought a few CDs and had her sign them. They will make good gifts for friends. In addition to all her classical CDs, they had one with alternate rock music. Hilary looks like her photos but prettier, without the heavy make up and dramatic poses. She looks young, pretty, sweet, and wholesome. She looks just like the kind of person I feel I know from reading her blog. For the performance she wore a long skirt with a short sleeved ballet top, but when she was signing CDs, she put a sweater on. I thought of the thread that was on this website recently concerning what you like to wear when you practice, but I didn’t say anything to her about it.
After the intermission, the orchestra played Brahms Third Symphony. The first thing I noticed when they started was the “big” sound, very different from the subdued sound of the Prokofiev. The Brahms just picked me up and carried me away. I’ve had so many troubles and so many things on my mind lately, but this music took me out of myself and swept me along. The conductor was a woman named Marin Alsop, the first woman conductor I’ve seen in concert. I’m sure that some of the credit for the orchestra’s great performance belongs to her.
Sunday I heard Itzhak Perlman with a piano accompanist named Rohan DeSilva. His first piece was Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 21 in E minor, K.304. I was surprised that it didn’t move me much. The second piece was the familiar Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven. That was fantastic. Next was Zwilich’s Episodes for Violin and Piano. I was prepared to not like it because it was written in the twentieth century, but I was surprised again. It just blew me away. The last piece on the program was Smetana’s From the Homeland. There was only one thing that I found troubling about the sound from my vantage point in Peasants’ Heaven. The piano sounded too loud relative to the violin. Perhaps the acoustic “shields” need to be adjusted a bit. I watched Perlman through my opera glasses. At first I saw nothing unusual to comment on. His technique appeared textbook perfect. After a while, though, I noticed one quirk. Frequently, at the end of an upbow, his index finger lifted just a bit off the stick of the bow. I have no idea whether this was of any consequence, since his sound was fantastic. Perlman proceeded to play five encores. He told the audience what they were and told some anecdotes about them. Unfortunately, I could not hear his spoken words too clearly. I asked the people sitting near me, but they didn’t hear any more than I did. I later found out that the acoustics of music and speech are quite different; a concert hall has to be designed differently from a lecture hall. Anyway, I’ll identify what he played as well as I can, and if anyone who reads this knows or can infer something else, please let me know. First were two virtuoso showpieces by Kreisler, and he played them like a true virtuoso. The next piece, he told us, was a modern piece. He help up a sheaf of music and added, “It was modern when such things cost only sixty cents. Here’s the price.” Then he read from the description on the paper, which said that this music is very difficult to play and should only be attempted by outstanding violinists. Everyone laughed. The he played it and – wow! It would take a violinist to appreciate how difficult it really was. It was full of rapid bowings, double stops, spiccato, and right hand pizz mixed in. I was glad that I had my opera glasses with me. His left hand movements were equally awesome. He played passages at the very end of the fingerboard. In other passages, he made lightning quick shifts from the first position to the very upward regions of the fingerboard and back again. This was virtuoso pyrotechnics and showing off. The best thing about it, though, was that it was really sparkling, pretty music. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him say the name of the piece. The next piece was by Gluck. It sounded so familiar, but I couldn’t hear and didn’t remember the name. It is a popular encore piece. The last piece was a transcription by Wieniawski for piano and violin of something originally written for two violins (not Bach). All in all, Perlman covered such a range of emotions and techniques, and all of them were stunning and beautiful. I’m so glad I was there.
When I saw Perlman through my opera glasses, he looked older than he does in many photos I’ve seen. In some ways, that’s not unusual, since we all age. However, some things gave me concern. He looked more tired, and his shoulders were more hunched over, than a few years ago. I wonder whether his physical handicap has exacerbated the effects of aging. I remembered reading in Carla Leurs’s blog that he was teaching her to keep the muscles near her armpits relaxed by having her play her violin while leaning forward. He must be familiar with the problem from his personal experience. How wonderful that he can start with a handicap, learn how to play beautifully by working around it, and then, best of all, pass on what he has learned to his able bodied students. I am not a religious person, but I remember something from the Bible that says, more or less, “Out of your weakness shall come your strength.”
I thought that the magic of live music had ended for the three day weekend, but there was more on Monday. More later…
I learned some more about the “shields” above the stage which reflect sound. They are called an “acoustic cloud,” which is comprised of 43 clear acrylic panels. The panels can be moved up and down, right and left, and at any angle. I’m not the only one who thought that the piano sounded louder than the violin. The music critic who writes for the Washington Post agreed with me. I hope that the panels are positioned better in the future.
When I left the interview I felt completely wrung out. My feet led me to a Border's and, the next day, to a Barnes and Noble. At Border's, I parted with some of my money and got really good coffee, chocolate, and CDs. At B&N I just got some really good CDs. Right now I'm listening to one of them, with Heifetz playing the Brahms Concerto and Heifetz with Piatigorsky playing the Brahms Double. This is a fantastic recording! More wonders await me on the other CDs. I figure that the CDs are my reward for having survived the job interview.
This weekend will be really good for me musically. A new concert hall opened near my home, and it is the site of upcoming concerts by both the National Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I have tickets to performances by Hilary Hahn on Saturday and Itzhak Perlman on Sunday. Wow! The Perlman concert is the opening concert for the NSO at this venue. I received an invitation to celebrate with the NSO at a special dinner. Tickets are only $500 apiece, but I declined. I don't have that much money, and, if I did, I'd rather spend it on more concert tickets or CDs. I'm afraid that after hearing Hahn and Perlman, I may buy some more CDs.
Someone read my blog entry about my community symphony orchestra and sent me a very interesting and helpful email. I am copying it here, with his permission.
Pauline--some thoughts about your blog.
I'm involved in a community orchestra that sounds amazingly like yours, complete with the situation of some self-appointed guardians who aren't satisfied with the current situation and want to change the character of the whole group just to suit a few who think the group isn't good enough for them.
"I have studied the scriptures, I have dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't', I have gotten degrees and studied with the great masters. I and I alone know the correct interpretation, and because of this, I have this gift that makes me superior to everyone else and gives me the privilege of overruling everyone else." Sound familiar? Replace a couple of words with musical terms, and I bet that describes these people to a "t".
There's a word for this--"fundamentalism", and it exists in far more places than religion. I've observed it in music for many years, and the same things that drive religious fundamentalists drive their artistic counterparts.
Pauline, here's the dirty secret--people who have to act like this--intimidating others, forcing their will on others, telling them that they are inferior--don't have big egos. They have SMALL ones. The only way they can make themselves bigger is through self-aggrandizement.
It is a very sad, shallow way to look at the world.
The other morning I was changing my 3-year old and she broke into "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and started making up her own words that included "really big bubbles" and sang about all sorts of things that had happened over the last couple of days. You want to know the reality? There was more pure, honest, and true MUSIC in her two minute song than in a full recital by one of these self-righteous fundamentalists.
These people need to get lives. Over the course of my life, the greatest artists I have known are equally wonderful human beings. It's not that their art makes them great people--it's the other way around. I've long heard the wisdom that a true judge of a person's character is how he treats people who are below his status.
Someone who truly accepts himself can accept others, regardless of their native abilities. He or she will be willing to teach, to share, to help other people grow. He or she will not want to show his or her superiority by putting others down, but instead give and serve others and raise them up to his level.
If I were you, I wouldn't worry. I'd put your trust in your music director and in the strength generated by the whole group. From what I've read, there is good will in enough quantity as to be unstoppable if everyone will just let it.
And, don't be afraid of them. They are selling you shadows in the dark. What you are searching for is the bright sunshine of a clear day. You already have a lot more of it than you think. Pauline, YOU have true music within you. Don't worry about what anyone else says, because if they begin to motivate you with fear and have you looking over your shoulder, that means they are getting what they want.You will only affirm their sad quest.
Our conductor believes that the highest role of music is not to isolate people, but to bring them together.
Please note that in this I'm not talking about the vast majority of musicians (or religious people for that matter). I'm also not talking about TRUE professionals. Most people do music for the right reasons. Most people worship for the right reasons.
At least in my group, the conductor tries to treat people the way Gandhi would. If I were one of the people trying to create disharmony, though, I would be concerned because I think if he's pushed, he's more than capable of behaving a little like Tony Soprano. . .
I like the comparison of music and religion. I am a scientist and I can see similar things going on in science. I used to work at NIH, a kind of biomedical Mecca. Some of the people who work there are quite snobby and elitist. The Nobel Laureates I met when I was there, however, were down to earth and approachable. They didn't need to prove themselves any more. I'm also reminded of a previous blog entry by Carla Leurs, in which we described the behavior of some of the students she met at Juilliard and concluided that their behavior problems were rooted in insecurity and weak egos.
I've thought a lot about what Greg said about emphasizing the positive and the goodwill and cooperation of most of the people in the orchestra. I had a conversation with one of my 7 year old students that addressed similar issues. She came in very unhappy, face down, and silent. I asked what the problem was, and her mother said that one of her toys had been broken by another kid at school, but it can be fixed. After the mother left, I talked to the girl about it. I thought her response was amazingly mature. According to her, the real problem was not that the toy had been broken, but that the kid who broke it was mean to her. Furthermore, the kid had done mean things to her in the past, although my student had not been mean to the other kid. I told her that, unfortunately, some people are like that. Choking back the tears, she told me that the toy was special because her teacher had given it to her. I told her that her teacher had been very nice to her and suggested that she focus on this. By our students we are taught. I should take my own advice.
I’m personally opposed to elitism in music and elsewhere. Of course, some people and some groups play better than others, but that’s not the point. The point is that there is, or should be, a place for all of us to contribute our best. An orchestra can be a microcosm for life. It is a place where we all need to listen to each other, cooperate with each other, and put the achievement of the orchestra over our own individual achievements.
There are a few Elitists with big Egos who are jockeying for control in our orchestra. I can’t help but think of the analogy of alpha male dogs. Mr. EE is one of them. He is a perfectionist and a high achiever, and he has been frustrated with our community orchestra for a long time because the quality isn’t up to his standards. There are other community orchestras in this area where the level of expertise is higher and closer to his own, and he plays in one of them. He has announced that he and the other EEs are setting an example of high standards for the rest of us to follow. He believes that most of the players don’t really care about their playing. This is such an insult! I couldn’t disagree more. Most of us love playing music, want to sound as good as we can, are quite willing to work at it, and take great pleasure in improving our performance. I suggested having sectional rehearsals and getting guidance from first chair players on bowing, fingering, intonation, dynamics, and more. He dismissed my suggestion out of hand. He seems to favor allowing only EEs to play in our orchestra.
He has said that paid professionals are better than people who play because they love it. I suppose that he hasn’t noticed that he is not a paid professional musician. He wants to recruit paid leaders and change the character of the orchestra entirely. We have discussed this issue many times at meetings and informally. Our conductor has said that if the job paid, he wouldn’t want it. The orchestra would become money driven. We would have to audition all the players, charge substantially for admission to performances, and perform music which would sell to a broad audience. We would have to get serious about getting grants to keep the orchestra running. We would lose our tax exempt status and be required to keep financial records which would pass audit. The whole orchestra would become more exclusive and less fun.
The ego conflicts are becoming more apparent. Mr. EE has made some power plays. He has said and done some things that really did not need to be said or done for substance. He is making the point, “I’m in charge.” The conflicts are terrible for morale.
I’m feeling sick as I write this. There is antiphony and cacophony where harmony should reign. I love my orchestra, my friends who play in it, our conductor, and the whole experience of learning and playing together. I look forward to every rehearsal. Even if I’m having a hard time elsewhere in my life, I know that I’ll feel much better during and after the rehearsal. There are others in the orchestra who feel the way I do. I would feel absolutely terrible if I lose the wonderful experience I have.
I listen to music practically every waking minute. One of my favorite sources is public radio. In a sense, I’m coming home by listening. I remember my mother carrying her portable radio with her around the house and listening to classical music all the time. This was back in the 50s, when transistor radios were still new and quite big and bulky. Up until a few years ago, I could listen to classical music on any of four local radio stations, three of them public radio. One changed its format, and I stopped listening to the commercial radio station because it played more commercials than music. One of the two remaining public radio stations which carry classical music is soon to undergo a radical change in programming. They have a new manager who knows nothing about classical music and plans to convert the format to all talk. He believes that they’ll get more money that way. That will leave only one public radio station with classical music in this area, and it is in Baltimore. No public radio station with classical music broadcasting from the nation’s capital! We’re outdone by Baltimore and good ol’ West Virginia, which has an excellent public radio music station. Of course, there is classical music on radio stations on the Internet, but that’s not too practical. I don’t have broadband and, besides, what if I want to listen in the car? The wave of the future may be satellite radio, which carries “niche” stations for non-mainstream music. Still, you have to pay for this service. I’m so disappointed that public radio stations in the capital of the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world don’t see fit to cater to the taste of a small but very devoted audience of classical music lovers, some of them with plenty of money.