Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Best Christmas Party Music Ever

At the end of my last post, I suggested that the appeal of a family-produced, amateur movie is analogous to the appeal of playing chamber music at home. Just to be clear, I wasn't saying that my Christmas Carol movie is on the same artistic level as the Brahms and Dvorak quintets I'd played recently. The intended analogy would be:

DickensBook : MyDickensMovie :: BrahmsQuintet : PlayingBrahmsAtHome

Here's a little more background on the right side of that analogy. My psychiatrist wife, who just happens to be an excellent cellist, was recently invited by a fellow psychiatrist, who happens to be an excellent violist, to spend an evening playing string quartets with a cardiologist and an astrophysicist. (I know, sounds like the beginning of a joke. How about, "Note that all these highly intelligent people chose not to become professional musicians, not for lack of ability but...well, because they're all highly intelligent.") I was a little jealous...not that she was spending the evening with three gentlemen much smarter than I, but that she was getting to play chamber music for sheer pleasure.

However, a week ago we were both invited back and got to spend a delightful evening reading the Dvorak and Brahms piano quintets. These are difficult works and, naturally, not every note landed in the right place, but what a thrill to play them just for thrills - straight through each work (with repeats), with no fussing about how to interpret this ritard or that articulation. Not that such details are unimportant, but as fuss-worthy as this great music is, it's also intended to be played spontaneously. (As I should have said to the astrophysicist, "Hey, it's not rocket science." I'm sure he's never heard that one.)

If the evening accomplished nothing else, it reminded me that the Brahms quintet is one of the all-time great works, maybe even deserving of a place in the MM Top 10. At any rate, I've been listening to it over and over since that night. Of course, I'm glad I have recordings that were rehearsed and edited to be mistake-free, but my interaction with those recordings has a lot to do with having interacted with the actual notes, free of the pressures of performing for a formal audience. I had rehearsed and performed the Brahms years ago in grad school and even coached it with members of the Guarneri Quartet, but it was kind of nice that I didn't remember all the details. The slow movement, especially, has many sublime moments that I'd forgotten about until my fingers ran into them. How ever much I manage to broaden my musical horizons, I suspect this 19th-century chamber music rep will always be the most important to me as a musician.

Last night, the leader of these throwback salon sessions had a big Christmas party to which we, our three children, and the cello were all invited. It was a fantastic party all around, the kids all had a great time (and got presents!), and, after dinner had been served, the instruments came out. I figured there'd be some lighthearted carol-playing, but then I noticed someone pulling out a part for the Schubert C Major Quintet (string quartet + cello). These folks are serious: this is one of the longest, most profound of all chamber music creations - unquestionably part of the MM Top 10. I do play a little cello on the side, but in this event I was on baby-holding duty while my better half spent the better half of the party reading the entire thing - with repeats, of course. Yeah, I was a little jealous, and I had thoughts of jabbing my son in the side so that he'd wake up, need his Mommy, and let me take over, but I'm sure Schubert's glad it worked out the way it did. (The other cellist was terrific, too - I'm guessing she's a neurosurgeon.)

Anyway, it was an unforgettable experience to hear this impromptu Schubert, surrounded by my three children, who all behaved (or slept) miraculously well. Yes, we had a few "are we there yet?" moments along the way (that "heavenly length" thing), but it was a blissful scene. Here's the best part: this morning, my 8-year old was spontaneously humming the so-beautiful-it-hurts 2nd theme from the 1st movement. She may have heard the music before, but definitely not lately; Schubert's heavenly length (and the exposition repeat, no doubt) did the trick. It's so satisfying to know that she was captivated by this theme, which is treated by Schubert in the most unforgettable way, maybe the most beautiful music ever - or so it seems today. In the end, there wasn't time for any carol-singing, but I'll definitely remember this "Christmas" music for a long time. True, I've still got Matthew Guerrieri's Bring Us In Good Ale stuck in my head, but if my children are humming the Schubert cello quintet, that's a great Christmas present.

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