Ray Charles said some interesting things about himself. When he wrote music, he didn’t need to write it down or play it on a keyboard as he composed it because he could hear it perfectly in his head. He attributed this ability to his experience reading and writing music in Braille, but other reasons are possible. After all, Beethoven heard the music he wrote when he was completely deaf. Ray Charles also said that he was born with music in him and it just had to come out. He said that it was just as much a part of him as his blood.
A reflection of Ray Charles’s greatness as a musician is his wide appeal. Just after I read about his passing, I had to talk about it, so I went to talk to a young woman who works in my office to support herself while she attends college as a music major. She is a young African American woman who is studying opera. When I broke the news to her, she was so upset. We talked with another woman, who plays French horn, about our favorite Ray Charles songs and how wonderful he was. I downloaded and printed a picture of Ray Charles playing and singing “America the Beautiful” in the rain, with a large American flag behind him, at the opening of a World Series game. The game was rained out, but he certainly wasn’t. Before going home, I taped the picture to the door of my office and annotated it with the names of some of my favorites among his songs. When I went home that night, I spoke to my students about him. One of them, a young Japanese woman who came to the U.S. to pursue her career in biomedical research, told me that she had heard him perform in Japan. I was so impressed! She had loved him as I did. I told her that music, like science, is an international language. At work the next day, I spoke with a scientist who emigrated to this country from India. He, too, loved Ray Charles, and glowed as we spoke about him. I told him, too, that music and science are international languages, and he agreed warmly.
My mother used to tell a story which, like many good stories, was probably apocryphal. She grew up in a tenement in New York City. She said that there was an old black peddler with blue eyes who roamed the streets of that neighborhood singing, “Am I Blue?”
It was ironic that former President Reagan had died a few days earlier and was being widely honored and eulogized, while Ray Charles’s passing had much less publicity. In my mind, the reverse should have been true. Reagan did so much harm to so many people for so long, and Ray Charles did so much good for so many of us.
It Had To Be You….Am I Blue….I Can’t Stop Loving You…Hit the Road Jack…
Before the concert, our conductor gave us one of his eloquent pep talks, which I can only paraphrase inadequately here. He reminded us that there are many things which pull people apart, but music brings us together. He said that the music we play is a mirror of ourselves. Even if the music was conceived long ago, far away, and in an environment very different from ours, we see ourselves in it and put ourselves into it, too. He told us not to worry if we made a few mistakes and to have fun.
Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony in g minor is one of my very favorite pieces of music, and we did it justice. It is an extraordinarily rich work, almost Romantic in character, and very fertile ground for creative expression. It can sound so different when played by different people. Everyone makes it their own. I recently bought a recording of this wonderful symphony because I could not find the one I know I have somewhere. I went to a Barnes and Noble where I can listen to a CD before deciding whether to purchase it or not. I tried a recording by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, knowing that it had to be good. When I started listening to it, though, I didn’t like it. I thought, “This isn’t the way I remember it. This sounds positively martial.” I tried a recording by Bernstein and I loved it. It was so Romantic, almost lush. During one of our rehearsals, our conductor had talked of the tension in the music, but I had never heard it that way before. After playing and listening to it for a while, though, I did hear it that way. Our performance of it was very much ours, and I’m so happy about it.
Next was Faure’s Pavanne, another very beautiful piece of music. We played it not quite as smoothly as the Mozart because we had had less time to rehearse it, but it was wonderful nevertheless. Our conductor said afterwards that he was teary eyed while conducting it.
During intermission, we exchanged hurried words about the acoustics of the hall and how well we had played. We agreed that we were doing better than we had at dress rehearsal.
Next came Ivanov-Ippolitov’s “Caucasian Sketches.” It had taken me a while to learn to like the piece but I eventually did, the second violin part notwithstanding. It really is a series of sketches, not much of a melody piece. I-I, like other Russian Romantics, really knew how to make full use of the multitude of sounds of the orchestra. I especially like the viola/English horn duet. These instruments play in the same pitch range and sound remarkably good together. The part where the viola and English horn take turns playing solo, with some overlap as one ends and the other starts a solo, was quite dramatic. The principal violist played the cadenza beautifully. I suppose she especially enjoyed it because the viola so rarely gets to play a cadenza with an orchestra.
The Russian Sailor’s Dance from Gliere’s Red Poppy was loud, fast, and fun. It was quite a crowd pleaser. Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz, which we played as an encore, was such an antithesis to the Gliere, so smooth and elegant. I could see, in my mind’s eye, women in sweeping ballroom gowns and men in tuxedos gliding gracefully across a polished wooden floor. We sent the audience out with that image and feeling.
There was a reception afterwards, with the musicians, their friends and families, and lots of chocolate. I talked with some Russian friends who had attended the concert. They were excited about the Russian Sailor’s Dance, which they assured me was authentic. In the hallway outside the reception room, they sang and danced the piece for me. They told me that the dance is usually performed onstage while the orchestra plays, and I invited them to perform it with us next time.
I talked with our conductor again about the “Zen” nature of playing music, the feeling of being one with so many other people in other places and times. It’s like a religion for me. Indeed, music has been termed a peak experience by people in many cultures.
A successful concert was such a great way to end the performing season. I will be in withdrawal until we meet to rehearse again.
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