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Karen Allendoerfer

Celebrate Classical Music: Timelessness in the Moment

August 23, 2012 at 10:24 PM

One of the reasons I know that fall is coming is that the ArlPO yahoo group, the email list for the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, where I play violin, is getting active again. And one of our long-time members posted this: "The Mountains and Music committee of AMC's Boston Chapter sponsors three weekends each year that combine music-making and outdoor activities." There is one of these weekends coming up in October, and they are playing Beethoven's Eroica and Schubert's Rosamunde overture. I check my calendar, I'm free that weekend, I could register. But hmm, Eroica again? I just played that last December here in Belmont, with an orchestra so good that they were doing a favor by opening participation up to the likes of me . . . And then I catch myself: am I really thinking that ("again")? About *this* piece?

The first time I played Beethoven's 3rd was about 30 years ago, with the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra. It was a bright spot in an otherwise rather difficult year, musically. It was a stretch for me technically, and to be frank, a stretch for most of the orchestra at that time. I don't think our tempos were very fast, and we didn't have any trouble endowing the second movement with appropriate dirge-like qualities. But to this day, I don't think that--the imperfect struggles of an ambitious youth orchestra that may have bitten off a little more than it could chew--was what I was hearing when I played it.

I had a cassette tape (yes, I remember those) that I had made of a recording that I begged or borrowed from someone, or maybe got from the library. I have no idea now which orchestra it was. I listened to it all the time when I wasn't in school or practicing. I listened to it while I was getting dressed in the morning. This doesn't sound at all remarkable now--and I think in fact if I'd had my current teacher back then, she would have recommended against it. She says to listen to 3 recordings and not to let any one interpretation have too much influence. My adult, iPod-owning, iTunes-and-YouTube-using self, awash in recordings and interpretations galore, agrees with her and thinks this is good advice.

But it's hard to emphasize enough how different it was for me back then. My family didn't listen to music at home, except for pop radio in the car. We didn't go to concerts, either. Most of my days were spent in quiet, and the only classical music I heard was when I practiced or rehearsed, or when my teacher played for me. I had only recently acquired a radio/turntable/tape player with a decent stereo sound. And so this recording, imperfect and unknown though it was, *was* the Eroica. If I had to answer to my current teacher, I'd tell her that I wasn't listening for "interpretation." That would come later. I was listening for much more basic things: rhythm, pitch, tempo, when to rest and when to come in. I was just learning what the piece was *about*.

Nevertheless, when the concert came around, I knew what I was doing. At one of the later rehearsals, the conductor, frustrated with how the orchestra was playing generally, singled me out for public praise, saying there were a few players, like me, who "were getting every note." I was a little embarrassed, but I was also gratified that he could see me all the way back there. At the break, my stand partner looked at me too, with large eyes. "Wow," she said. And added something like "you've been practicing a lot, haven't you?" I don't know for sure, but I assume that the people up in the front of the section--those who were headed to conservatories and music majors--always played like that, always knew when to come in, generally "got every note". That level of playing was apparently remarkable coming from me, and for the first time, I began to understand why. This time I knew the music better than I ever had before. I had spent a lot of time with it, day in and day out. I even thought about it when I wasn't practicing. I heard echoes of Boromir blowing his "great horn" in the Fellowship of the Ring, which I was reading at that time. This wasn't what I usually did for orchestra music.

After that, I didn't play the piece again for 30 years. I heard it in concert several times, played by good pro orchestras, I bought recordings. I enjoyed all these performances, but it wasn't the same as playing it. And then last winter, over Christmas, I got the chance again. I blogged about it a little bit here: it was a 4-day festival with an orchestra consisting primarily of high-level student musicians who'd known each other in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra (I got in by virtue of being a town resident and member of the local community orchestra). Three long, consecutive rehearsals and then bang, the concert.

I've thought about which performance I liked better. It's hard to say. The 1982 version had its charms, but the 2011 version was musically and technically superior, and a privilege to be playing with such accomplished musicians. And even though the last time I'd played the piece was before most of the other players were born, and the tempos were brisker, the muscle memory came back. I didn't get "every note," but I kept up, I didn't embarrass myself. What I think tips the scale in favor of the 1982 version for me, however, is the timing. Back then, you had months, rather than days, to prepare for a performance. You could do what I had to: sit with the music, spend some quality time with it, get to know it. There was time to let it become part of you. Even now, I prefer the community orchestra schedule, which allows for a concert about every 3 months. When concerts are more frequent, and the program changes from week to week and even day to day, I start to forget what they are about and why I am there. I lose interest. The music goes, literally, "in one ear and out the other." There is no way I could have played Eroica the way I did either time, from scratch in 4 days.

I have a natural tendency towards the traditional and the deliberate. I like recordings, I like to reminisce. And, especially, I like to take my time, anticipate, experience in depth, and savor afterwards. It has always been upsetting to me, after an entire month of Advent, to see Christmas trees kicked to the curb before the New Year. Sure, I like closure and all that, but I don't like being pushed to "move on" before something is really over. And I especially dislike aspects of our disposable culture, and the inordinate value placed on experiences and trends being "new." So in that way, studying classical music has been a natural fit for me.

But as I've gone further in music and the world has speeded up, I've also been introduced to a concept that I'm still getting used to: being "in the moment." And, the idea that some things, like art and music, are more beautiful because they are fleeting and cannot be captured and recorded. People say this in particular about live performances. The 2011 live performance of the Eroica was made all the more lovely by the 19-year-old conductor's pre-concert comments. He talked of the composer as Prometheus unbound; he asked us to play for the audience short excerpts that illustrated new and daring musical innovations that Beethoven had introduced with this symphony. He was discovering and conducting the symphony for himself for the first time--and made it new again for all of us. If I play it again in October, will I be able to capture some of that fleeting magic too? Maybe, with these two performances under my belt, freer of having to think so much about the logistics of bowings, fingerings, and intonation, I'll be able to interpret more, and to connect.

Classical music is so rewarding for me because it is timeless, because it doesn't have to belong to a particular era, because it is not disposable, because it doesn't matter if it's new. Because once a piece of classical music becomes part of you, 30 years between performances makes so little, and so much, difference.


From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 24, 2012 at 12:34 PM
Karen - what a wonderful blog. I think you have captured at least one way in which I find classical music so compelling. Each time you perform/hear a piece, it is different and, in a sense, new. In that way, it is a bit like theater, my other great love. There is always something to learn from a performance. Keep on playing and listening to the Eroica. In September we are visiting a friend who lives in Vienna, Austria, and lives right around the corner from the apartment where Beethoven composed the Eroica. I will think of you when we are there.
From Christina C.
Posted on August 24, 2012 at 4:04 PM
I know a few of the folks involved in organizing the AMC weekend... I also see quite a few of my Boston friends in the photos at their website. They've been trying to get me to go for years but I haven't made it yet, but if you like group music (orchestral & chamber)and the great outdoors, you should try it! The emphasis is on playing, not performing & I don't think anyone's expected to prepare anything. It's all just for fun so you'll be miles ahead of other folks on Eroica. It would also be an opportunity to connect with the other Boston amateur chamber music folks for more playing on the homefront.
From Royce Faina
Posted on August 26, 2012 at 1:00 PM
Nice Blog!!!! :o)

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