Sunday, November 21, 2010

Perfect Sunday

This day couldn't have been better. I had no students until tonight due to rescheduling. Full moon can be seen through a thin cloud cover. Flakes of snow have been falling; not sticking to the ground yet as it is a couple degrees above freezing, but enough to change one's mood. Whereas cold rain can be depressing, the sight of fluffy snow is an upper. Today is also our daughter's first wedding anniversary and it brings me tremendous joy to know she's very happy. Online we saw pictures from Bellingham, an hour and half north from here, where our youngest is enjoying early winter scenery. An incredibly deep eighteen-year-old, she naturally goes through both highs and lows with her emotions, but in these pictures she radiates happiness among close friends at her college. At that age I could have written a manual about loneliness, having been sent to study in distant countries where I knew no one and barely spoke the language. I'm grateful that she hasn't had to go through the same. Quite the opposite: she is best friends with her roommate, and from her dorm window she can see the building where her big sister works on campus. In spite of a five-year age difference, the siblings have the kind of loving closeness most families can only dream about. Those two are living proof that we have done well in what really matters in life.

I have often questioned the wisdom of having become a violinist. In my youth, it seemed like an exciting new field, an available option for the first time as a serious profession. Performing from early on in countless recitals and as a soloist with orchestra, I could never have pictured myself sitting in an orchestra for a career. Teaching was always fun and rewarding; an occasional job in an orchestra was interesting at best. After ending up back in this country I realized that life in music would never be the same as it had been. Playing in the Hollywood studios was strange, although decades ago there still were a number of great instrumentalists who were doing the same work as I in their retirement. Perhaps I should have remained in sunny California, although I really felt like an alien with the smoggy climate and millions of cars always on the move. At least the Pacific Northwest reminded me of home and it was a good place to raise a second family.

Fritz Kreisler with his terrier
Having the extra time this morning, I listened to old recordings of Fritz Kreisler. I always felt closeness to his playing and his compositions and arrangements. Piece after piece, or song after song as today's younger generation would say, the masterful artistry brought tears to my eyes and reminded me why I had chosen this path. This was music at its best: nothing Kreisler did followed exactly what he had written on the page. As I see it, string players in an orchestra may think of themselves as artists, but the job they are doing is often as mindless and emotionless as working at an assembly line. It leaves very little room for individuality. Initial excitement about a new job wears thin rapidly. Likewise, the person overseeing the conveyor belt is seldom an artist, but rather the workers' foreman. To me, present day's full-time professional orchestra represents a music factory where a product is manufactured in a hurry.

Dear old Fritz didn't care about dots and dashes. The length of an individual note varied from one performance or recording to another; a held note could well be shortened from two measures to a quarter and a rest taken. Yet everything was done to perfection. Not one measure was played mechanically or even together with the accompanying pianist or orchestra: meet you at the bar line was the name of the game. Every portamento and glissando had a purpose and was executed to perfection, as if adding little spice to a dish. What a far cry from a conductor screaming "more slides" to the poor violin section! The master's silken seductive tone and endlessly varying vibrato would melt even the most frozen of hearts. I finished the emotional session by listening to two interviews of Kreisler, one on his 80th birthdays, the other close to the end of his long life. The former is available through YouTube for everyone to enjoy, the other not. Kreisler's speech with its accent and intonation reminded me of Ben Rosen, a colorful sheet music dealer in Los Angeles, whom I had
written about in this blog quite a long time ago. In the later interview the maestro had trouble finding English words and often reverted to French or German.

This afternoon I am in love with music again, as if I had celebrated my golden wedding anniversary with the violin. I am as removed from the blasting orchestral music as I was in my youth. The life and art I miss probably doesn't exist any longer, at least in this society. The dwindling number of people still attending classical music concerts is not likely to ask for old-fashioned recital but expect fast and loud orchestral music, just as the moviegoers demand to see special effects and chase scenes, with a sound track ready to burst one's ear drums. Yet Casablanca and other great films from the past will survive in spite of being shot in somewhat grainy black and white, with a monaural, at times scratchy sound track, but with beautifully composed musical scores. They will outlive most movies made for the masses today. Likewise, I believe the good old times with music will return. It certainly would make more economic sense to support recitals and chamber music concerts than to sink millions after millions into mediocre orchestras.

Of course orchestra music needs to be performed, too, but since groups have grown in size, it is not economical for them to perform great masterworks that call for a classical or chamber orchestra only. Bigger is not better: a small but beautiful painting is often far more enjoyable than a gigantic canvas displayed in a museum, depicting a battle scene. A beautiful recital could be taken to people anywhere, even in a small town. In fact it is out of its element if presented in a mega-barn. Intimacy needs to return. We are entitled to our tasty hors d'Ĺ“uvres and bonbons.

It is no wonder classical music is having a tough time today. Of all the beautiful music composed, only a tiny fraction can be heard in concerts. The most sublime works are heard only on recordings, some as old as the ones I listened to this morning. There is a whole world out there to be rediscovered. Put Bruckner, Wagner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and the likes to rest for change. And cancel all world premieres unless the composer has something meaningful to say. A beautiful theme is a lot sweeter to listen to than crazed banging by the percussion.

Art that pleases one's senses – what a revolutionary idea.