Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why I Love Classical Music

Lately, the world has been an awful place, and frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves. I could list all the events and people that have made the world such an awful place, but I think you already know the contents of that list.

What are the things that make this time bearable? Sleep.  I've been far more fatigued lately than usual. Sleep and dreaming. Sunshine. Birdsong. Cats. And actually at the top of my list is classical music. Perhaps some of you would include Rock or Jazz or popular music or even specific performing artists who help to make your world bearable right now. For me, it's classical music. Why?

Please allow me to use a recent example.  A month ago, I attended a Minnesota Orchestra concert in Orchestra Hall, downtown Minneapolis. I've written about this orchestra before, its artistic excellence and some of the sublime music that it makes under the baton of its Music Director Osmo Vanska. I love that the Twin Cities has this orchestra, and a superb chamber orchestra across the river in St. Paul: the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. For large symphonic music, I go to Orchestra Hall to be transported to another realm and to be transformed by the Minnesota Orchestra.

A month ago, the program began with the ultimate in sublime: the Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G major. There were 3 soloists -- a violinist and 2 flutists (instead of the usual 2 recorders) -- and the orchestra was a small one with harpsichord. The joy in this music comes from the melodic order and the comforting sound of this combination of musical instruments. My body relaxed, but my mind was right there with the musical notes dancing through the air.  The musicians must have complete concentration as well. Like the example below, they played without a conductor.


Modern music begins with J. S. Bach with his robust clarity, passionate logic, and sublime orderliness. I remember studying his music as a music student, and all the rules that applied to his music. Hearing his music in concert both calms and energizes. (It was Bach's keyboard preludes and fugues that taught me how to think in layers.)

When we think of the British, it's usually their stoicism in the face of adversity that comes to mind, not passion, romanticism, or whimsy. And certainly Edward Elgar, the composer of any number of Pomp and Circumstance marches, does not immediately pop into mind for passionate music. But he was quite capable of writing music of the most profound emotion, and his Cello Concerto in E minor traverses the human heart and soul with its sound of loss and acceptance.


This concerto was the second piece on the program with cello soloist Alban Gerhardt who made the cello sing in a white heat of emotion in sound. He and the orchestra musicians were so in sync that it was like they were breathing the music together. Elgar begins with a bold statement from the cello before introducing the elegiac theme in the orchestra. This theme will haunt the rest of the concerto. But there were moments of whimsy also, even playfulness, in exchanges between orchestra and soloist. This is music one feels in one's body, in the pulse of blood, and in the vibrations of cells. I felt that for the first time, I'd truly heard this concerto and what it had to say to me.

In contrast, Gerhardt played an encore from a J. S. Bach unaccompanied suite for cello. I'm not certain from which suite, or which movement from that suite, only that it was Bach's voice, orderly, soothing, compassionate, and bold. It was a lovely echo of the Bach that opened the concert.


After the intermission in this concert, Osmo Vanska conducted the orchestra in Franz Schubert's Symphony in C major, "The Great." Schubert's music tends to be much lighter than Elgar, singing more like the human voice than any other musical instrument, and at times with a joyful dancing quality. His C major symphony, however, tends to be a bit darker and heavier, and Vanska seemed to emphasize this by employing a full complement of strings rather than scaling down those sections. Schubert's musical voice always makes me think of a time when people lived without technology, but with the same human concerns we have now. I think of Schubert as loving life, loving Vienna, and loving to make music, and that's what I hear in his music.

Music is the sound of human emotion. It connects people in ways that simple conversation cannot, and certainly also affects the human body. I've had the experience of listening to music and my blood pressure lowering, my pulse rate slowing, and my whole body relaxing. Music gives me joy and it gives me hope in people and life.  If we are still playing and listening to music, the world cannot be such a terrible place.


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