Shattering the Isolating Glass Box of Classical Music
Music is dying, and this country is a war for classical musicians. Even many of the acclaimed ones, who through high connections and good fortune become the most beloved of the majority of critics possessing the power of the final word, harken to the demise of their own ancient medium. Indeed, the most celebrated in America may very well be film composer Danny Elfman, for how many weird-and-unique melodies he can hand over to his myriads of ghost-orchestrators, Joshua Bell for how many interesting faces he makes while he plays his Stradivarius violin, and the movie-star Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for being a common reference for those who don't know much else; after all, American Idol still comes out on top. Enter, the appropriate phrase passed to humans by two French robots: "television rules the nation."
Again, music is dying in America, but it withers within a glass menagerie held high in gleaming display, adored by the neon glow of television screens. And as the majority of those with the inherent power to revive it, the youth, flock in high numbers to help Kanye West graduate, classical concerts have become the primarily nostalgic rituals for the old, the wealthy and the leisurely.
Barely a naturally colored hair was in attendance at the final concert of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's "Westside Connections" series at Santa Monica College's Broad Stage last Thursday evening, and the room wreaked of rose water perfume and English Leather cologne. The performance featured a variety of poetry read by Carol Muske-Dukes, English professor and official Poet Laureate of the State of California, as well as performances by LACO in collaboration with baritone Christòpheren Nomura of pieces by composers Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber and Claude Debussy.
Britten's "Phantasy in F minor", a quartet for oboe and strings, opened the concert with a hesitant cello solo before thickening into a strong string foundation with the penetrating oboe part rising and swelling above it, eventually carrying the piece back to the same single line of the cello. This arclike, single-movement work was written by the British composer in 1932 for the British "Cobbett Phantasy Competition", when he was only 19.
But the most valuable episode of the entire performance came shortly after; Barber's musical interpretation of the famous, 1867 poem "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold, performed by members of the LACO with Nomura lifting the words with substantial, operatic clarity to every ear in the vicinity, gave an inherently beautiful poem another world of life. The American composer's "Dover Beach," written in 1931, made tangible Norwegian author Knut Hamsun's advice to wordsmiths: "The writer must be able to revel and roll in the abundance of words; he must know not only the direct but also the secret power of a word. There are overtones and undertones to a word, and lateral echoes, too." Indeed, Barber and the musicians on stage both seemed to understand these "undertones" of every line, word, mark, and pause written so long ago on paper. The metric variations of poetry, or the basic rhythmic structure of a verse, often mirror the meaning and the tone of the words which they carry. This was emphasized by Nomura's voice, which would swell on the most important accented words and drift into a lament when the tone of the poem did the same. The operatic baritone simultaneously proved itself to be the only substantial medium of music to portray such old literature, since any other genre would take away some vitality from a poem which harkens to the same "eternal note of sadness" heard by Sophocles, the 5th century Greek playwright, and alludes to the ancient Peloponnesian War. After all, classical music by definition points back to archaic times, as it often requires the same instruments, techniques and orchestration used hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, this rich art has become, in Barber's words, "nothing but the after-dinner mint of society," and appears to be intimidating to a young or working-class audience.
After Muske-Dukes read "Last Robot Song" by Robert Pinsky as well as William Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, two violinists, a violist and a cellist lastly performed Debussy's String Quartet in G minor. Debussy, whose music virtually defines the transition from late-Romanticism to 20th century modernist music, also exemplified "symbolist" French art movement of the time when he based many of his works on themes from literature. The third movement of this piece is particularly strong, melodic and nostalgia-inducing, and any person who has not yet heard it must make an urgent visit to YouTube.
These performances, which presented a lush harmony of music and words, were the product of the life-long labors of the musicians, and of the hours of verbal communication and rehearsal between the chamber group members before they could then appear on stage and have a conversation solely with music. "If I didn't practice and blow hot air through my instrument for hours I wouldn't be peaceful," says oboist Allan Vogel, "because I know that when I don't discipline myself, then I lose my center...it's not really a question of balance. You do the preparation of thinking about the music and trying to understand it, and bring it into focus." In fact, of this process of bringing a piece into focus, violinist Margaret Batjer says that "you're thinking technically, but you're also thinking musically and emotionally." And Nomura, the baritone vocalist, certainly has the experience of reading these emotions embedded within the pieces; he spoke extensively about his studies with a German opera singer who used to be a soldier and used his experience to teach Nomura about the passion behind Britten's War Requiem as well as Barber's Dover Beach. "Both Britten and Barber are juxtaposed as composers of tremendous value. For me to feel the power of poetry, the power of text and also, of course, the message that Barber and Britten have brought to these pieces, is incredible," he said.
However, though the music performed Thursday evening was provided by the talented, they are merely the tools through which the composers give the music to the world. In other words, regardless of the whole new world of meaning that a viewer's technical knowledge of music can apply to a concert, artists ultimately make work for those who cannot. It is a shame that at times this music, and the worldly education that comes with just listening, often literally falls on near-deaf ears.
Los Angeles youth, for the sake of the survival of one of the most significant types of music, should take advantage of the rich learning opportunities in this city by educating themselves on upcoming classical performances, namely by the LACO (www.laco.org/performances). Hopefully, classical music will then break out of its isolating glass box, if not for many, then at least for a few at a time.