Monday, March 5, 2007

So far, so good . . . and my hair's not on fire

After a week and a half, I've found it surprisingly easy to give up sports for Lent. I think it says something about how our minds work (OK, how my mind works) that something can seem so important until we get a little distance from it. To be honest, I always find sports stories from spring training to be a chore to read; basically, it's a mix of canned stories about hope springing eternal for a variety of marginal players mixed with some attempts by the media to stir up as much controversy as possible so that there's something to talk about. I haven't read or heard a single word about the Red Sox camp, but I'm sure there have been many trees felled already trying to figure out Manny Ramirez alone. I also can't find much reason to get excited about the NBA this time of year since well more than all the best teams will certainly be in the playoffs which take long enough to be considered an entire season. I'm sure I'll get caught up.

As I wrote before, one advantage of listening to sports talk radio is that it requires so little mental effort. In its absence, I've been listening almost exclusively to music in the car (about an hour a day) and almost all of that has been music of my own choosing. (I did have a delightful re-encounter with the Dvorak Romance for violin & orchestra the other day courtesy of WCRB. That's not a piece for my all-time list, but it is hauntingly beautiful and I've returned to it several times since.)

So, although I'm now listening mostly to music, I still find myself defaulting to music I know well since that takes less mental energy than listening to the unknown. There's a lot that can be said about the struggle of classical music to remain relevant, and Greg Sandow is saying a lot on his blog, but surely one of the biggest issues is just that it takes a lot of time and attention to take in something new. I mention in my profile here that, as Jerry once said to George, "I could read the sports section if my hair was on fire." Well, the same is true for me with a lot of well-known musical works.

For example, I could pretty definitely listen to the 3rd and 4th movements of the Shostakovich 1st violin concerto if my hair was on fire. I know less than nothing about heavy metal music, but I can't believe there's anything from that world more visceral than those two movements. Shostakovich pulls me along so irresistibly in the 3rd movement chaconne that I find concentrating to be the only option; it's entirely possible that the 4th movement could set my hair on fire. In other words, yesterday's commute spent listening to Viktoria Mullova sear her way through Shostakovich #1 and Prokofiev #2 was about as challenging mentally as watching Sportscenter. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) I don't mean that the music is easy, but familiarity makes it easy to listen to.

So, to set the stakes a bit higher, I've started trying to mix in music that's new to me and, indeed, the problem is that more concentration is required. (Watch out, potholes and people in crosswalks.) To challenge myself and get more up-to-date, I decided to invest in the Peter Lieberson Neruda Songs that have been getting so much attention. The attention is partially due to the heartbreaking fact that they were recorded by his wife, the incomparable mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, not long before she died. I bought the CD yesterday and have listened to it a couple of times. There's certainly a lot of beautiful music there, and it probably doesn't hurt the popularity of this music that none of it sounds like it couldn't have been written fifty years ago. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

I don't know if these songs will ever win a coveted spot on my list of musical favorites, but I'm just reminded that it's rare that a work makes its full impression on first hearing, especially if the first hearing isn't a live performance. So much of the joy of listening to music, at least for me, is the anticipation of familiar moments, so different than the experience of watching a thriller in which one wants to be surprised. In the 3rd movement of that Shostakovich concerto, the tension that builds until the violin finally states the chaconne theme is almost unbearable, even though I know exactly what's coming. In other words, it's going to take awhile with the Lieberson songs to get a full sense of how they intersect with me. (Actually, the 5th and last, easily the most accessible, is playing right now and it's worth the price of the CD.)

There's a small and lazy part of me that is annoyed that these songs by an American are in Spanish. Since I chose not to follow the translations while driving, that obviously impairs my appreciation to some degree. I can't help but notice that Lieberson's other well-known cycle is of Rilke poetry. I know English isn't the most lyrical language, but come on. It reminds me of the tendency of American orchestras to want to hire foreign conductors because of the instant prestige that seems to lend. However, it's pretty evident that Lieberson and his wife had a genuine connection with this poetry so I'll just have to take the time to get to know it. Like I said, I'm lazy.

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