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Terez Mertes

Saint Saens at 35,000 Feet

January 29, 2008 at 6:59 PM

I fell in love somewhere near the North Pole one afternoon while kicking back at 35,000 feet. It was sudden, a veritable thunderclap. My breath caught, then quickened. My knees trembled. My husband, engrossed in a paperback, never noticed. I, meanwhile, knew right then that my life had been irrevocably altered.

But let me back up. A few months earlier, I’d read a wonderful essay in the San Francisco Chronicle by music critic Joshua Kosman about masterpieces that live on in the heart, aptly titled “Masterpieces That Live On in the Heart.” For him, he tells the reader, it’s the first encounter with a piece of music that delivers the greatest impression. A “love at first sound” kind of guy. Not me. I can listen to a piece several times, months, even, before its impact settles in. And then it knocks me right over.

The piece in question: the second movement of the Saint Saens Violin Concerto #3. (My favorite: Cho-Liang Lin performing under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.) The moment: flying from Paris to San Francisco last November. The French are so civilized, they understand that people in economy class deserve the thrill of drinking champagne while traversing the globe. So there I was, two hours into the eleven hour flight, champagne in hand, iPod hooked up, anticipating a good lunch. Then I heard the piece, the same one I’d been listening to for months, and suddenly it became a Perfect Moment. I was there, high above the world, arctic landscape below me, hazy blue sky above, this wonderful music permeating my brain. Even though it was midday, the sun was low on the horizon, producing a high-latitude winter kind of lighting: peach-toned, the backdrop of dreams. No clouds obscured my view. The frozen white ground, so very far below, was clearly defined. White, as far as the eye could see. White and peach. It felt like some sort of afterworld.

This, then, was the pinnacle. This second movement of the Saint Saens—how could I have played this recording so glibly without fully comprehending its beauty, its celestial nature? How could I have been so blind? (Well… deaf.) There on the plane, I played the movement over and over, trying to analyze its sudden perfection. No pyrotechnics, no racing passages or showy cadenza. Its genius, I realized, lay in its subtlety, its spaciousness. Cho-Liang Lin’s playing is so sublime, his tone so sweet, it made tears spring to my eyes. Harmonics at the end of the movement, the violin’s voice paralleled by a lone clarinet in a lower register, produce a warm, pure sound like nothing I’ve ever heard in a Romantic concerto before. I sat there, spellbound, moving only to peer outside and then take another sip of the champagne, a teeny one, trying to savor the experience, stretch out the perfection as long as possible.

The magic of that event has seared an imprint in my mind. Now, two months later, life is back to its more typical litany of ups and downs and problems, most of which are small but annoying and relentlessly grinding. But I’ve still got the Saint Saens. And I haven’t lost that loving feeling, not one bit. I’ll play the movement it in the middle of my harried day and poof—the bad stuff recedes. I’m back. Eight minutes and forty-nine seconds of safety, of pure serenity, pure aural awareness. Like being back on that flight, looking at the ghostly white purity below, the blue purity above, and there I am, with nothing but music on my mind and in my heart.

Joshua Kosman’s “love at first sound” seems like a great thing, but I must say I prefer my way. I love that life hands you these pearls that have been under your nose the whole time. This means that somewhere now, amid the chaos and muck of daily life, lies another soon-to-be-discovered favorite piece of music. Isn’t that great? Like the spiritual equivalent of recycling. But Mr. Kosman and I agree on one thing: that these pieces that so affect us will always be there for us. Always. Life can take away job, home, partner, treasure, perspective, but not these music masterpieces. And that’s a very comforting feeling.

Check out Joshua Kosman’s article HERE and then help me build a list of favorite “transporting” pieces. I’ll start.

*Dvorák’s “Klid” (“Silent Wood”)
*Beethoven Violin Concerto, second movement.
*“Children’s Prayer” from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”
*R. Schumann Violin Concerto, second movement
*Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, “Garden Scene” (check out a sublime recording from member Jiafeng Chen HERE)
*Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” (sung)
*Bruch’s Serenade for Violin and Orchestra, third movement

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 7:29 PM
Beethoven - Archduke Trio
From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 7:31 PM
Gee, when I absolutely must fly, I always go "steerage". Bleh. The various destinations are usually worth it though...

Also, I started working on the Schumann concerto this month, and the 2nd movement is indeed sublime.

But my first Violin Concerto Love was the Tchaikovsky concerto. I heard it for the first time, live, when I was 12. That was it: All Over, Finished. I still love it. Big smiley faces all around for everybody!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 7:49 PM
Oh, cool - I've never heard of this Beethoven. Thanks!

Anne - it was hard not to go on and on for that little list of mine, as there are so many wonderful pieces that have made my heart leap, and yup, the Tchaikovsky VC, that first movement theme the orchestra keeps going back to - boy, that was one of my first loves. I think that's the reason it didn't make this list, tho, b/c it's a love of a few decades. The rush has softened. But interesting to note that just last winter, I developed such an appreciation for the 2nd movement, in a way I never had before. It's like I heard something completely different, a "story beneath the story," if you will. It was so unbearably poignant. Maybe because I'd read that Tchaikovsky was pining for one of his students, or wait - it was the violinist he'd dedicated the concerto to, or written it for. Once I'd heard that story, boy, it became a litany of longing.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 7:54 PM
>I started working on the Schumann concerto this month...

It is so pretty, and it seems to me that it just doesn't get performed very much. Is it because it's not considered fiery or high-tech (so to speak) enough? Glad to hear you're working on it.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 9:54 PM
You captured the gist of my happy moments, only it's champagne powder, and I'm standing on top of the mountains instead of flying over them. But the music plays in my mind, and suddenly the colors, textures, and themes make perfect sense. I may as well be soaring.
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 10:13 PM
Elgar - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, second movement and, of course, the ending cadenza

Vaughan Williams - The Lark Ascending

Elgar - Symphony No. 1, Third movement

Goldmark - Violin Concerto, second movement

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 11:10 PM
Two others:

The point in Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata where the second movement gives way to the third movement is possibly the most breathtakingly beautiful moment in all of music (IMHO).

Beethoven Cello Sonata #3 in A major - first movement

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 11:09 PM
Possible reasons no one plays Schumann:

-Rich Old Ladies only want to hear Sibelkovsky or Beethovelssohn. And money talks...

-The edition is really awful. The piano reduction has the urtext, but the violin solo part is just ruined by the WORST editing. Worse than the Henle Beethoven sonatas, if that is even possible. The Scott Schumann is S*&$. End of rant.

-This concerto has the typical, mythical, bad orchestration reputation. Lies, all lies, I say, perpetuated by lazy conductors.

-Conductors are too lazy, or incompetant, to learn something new.

-In terms of mechanical difficulty, it is "pianistic" the way the Beethoven is, but not as hard.

Nifty piece though. 2nd movement is great. Smile!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 29, 2008 at 11:19 PM
One of my cherished moments was travelling to Japan in 1982 to take a new job. My wife and I with our infant son took off from San Francisco. As we started up the coast on a beautiful day the music system on the jet was playing the slow movement of the Saint-Saens organ symphony. My wife and I still treasure the moment.
From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 7:01 AM
> And I haven’t lost that loving feeling <

Great! Now instead of Bolero I have the Everly Brothers stuck in my head! I don't know which is worse!

LOL! Try to stay high and dry Terez!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 1:03 PM
Corwin, ooh, YES! I get such thrills flying out of SFO on a clear day. The first 5 minutes are just blowaway scenic.

Samuel - have you seen the Hilary Hahn documentary? Excerpts from "Lark Ascending" are used sooooo beautifully in it.

These are all such great replies - please do keep them coming!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 1:06 PM
>Rich Old Ladies only want to hear Sibelkovsky or Beethovelssohn.

Ha ha ha!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 1:46 PM
Well, 'tis true. How many Rich Old Ladies want to hear the Schoenberg concerto? (Insert smiley face here).
From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 4:22 PM
It's not just rich old ladies. During the Nazi period in Germany prior to 1940, the Jewish Kulturbund orchestras were limited in their repertoire because they could not play the major German composers. They could, however, play Schoenberg, at their concerts because he was Jewish. The problem was that they could not attract an audience to concerts featuring Schoenberg.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 5:37 PM
Tom, wow, how interesting! Could they play Mendelssohn?
From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 5:46 PM
Yes. They could play any composers who were Jewish under the racial laws (in particular, Mendelsohn, Mahler and Schoenberg) and foreign, non-German composers. The rules changed and became more restrictive, but basically, what I have stated pretty much sums it up. At their last concert, they played Nielsen's Inextinguishable Symphony. You might be interested in reading Martin Goldsmith's book about his parents called "The Inextinguishable Symphony" and Michael Kater's history of the period "The Twisted Muse."
From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 6:13 PM
Nothing more to add, except I second Holzman's reading list, and I have had the 1st movement of the "Archduke" stuck in my head since yesterday...(smiles).
From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 7:26 PM
>You might be interested in reading Martin Goldsmith's book about his parents called "The Inextinguishable Symphony"

Tom, were you the one who brought this book up another time? I've got it here right in front of me now - it was to be research for a peripheral angle for my novel #3, which I had to put aside for 12 months while I revised #2, and ta da! Today I officially recommenced #3 and voila, here is The Inextinguishable Symphony for me to read (along with an enormous, now-dusty stack of related books). Thanks for reminding me about it. (I also have the Alma Rosé book, which has been mentioned here. That's sure to be a bittersweet read.)

From Tom Holzman
Posted on January 30, 2008 at 7:35 PM
Terez - I think I brought it up some time ago in response to your blog entry looking for good music-related books or whatever. Enjoy it!
From Theresa Martin
Posted on January 31, 2008 at 3:59 PM
My brain is curiously blank if the face of your question, despite all these great responses (head cold), but I absolutely loved your description!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 1, 2008 at 12:35 AM
Theresa - that's always my reaction when someone asks me what my favorite book is. Or movie. Mind goes blank. But thanks for your nice comments on the descrip!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on February 1, 2008 at 12:42 AM
A few more that have played in my head since then:

Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, “Solveig’s Song.”
Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Intermezzo”
Bizet’s Carmen Suite no. 1, “Intermezzo”

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