Monday, November 24, 2008

Hearing Through Different Ears

Our daughter started studying with a Russian violin teacher this summer. A very Russian violin teacher. The most important thing is that she’s a fantastic violinist, musician, and pedagogue, but there’s also something wonderful about stepping into that Old World tradition - a world in which no one frets about the death of classical music, or questions the way we think about it. I’m not saying questioning is a bad thing – I do it all the time, probably too much. My only point for today is that you can learn a lot by seeing/hearing music from this unskeptical point-of-view.

One could argue that skepticism is the most consistent barrier when it comes to getting people to embrace new kinds of music. I’m more and more convinced that when the mind is conditioned to want to like something, it will generally find a way – and vice versa. Obvious, maybe, but extremely important in understanding the challenges that face us in finding new audiences. Note that the skepticism can come from many different directions. For today, I’ll focus on two opposites: 1) Skepticism of something that is seemingly too simple, too hackneyed, too derivative, and thus boring. 2) Skepticism of something that is too complex, too forbidding, perhaps too elitist, and thus probably not really liked by anyone.

Getting back to Daughter of MMmusing, she was recently assigned the well-worn Accolay Concerto in A Minor. This is one of the most commonly played of student concerti, and I’ve accompanied many an intermediate violinist playing it in the past. I have to admit I was disappointed by the assignment – I’m anxiously awaiting personal favorites such as the Bach A Minor, maybe some Mozart (though, please, no Haydn – his violin concertos are really not “good Haydn”), entertaining chestnuts like Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, etc. The beginning of the Accolay has always sounded to me (and many others) like a pale imitation of the opening of the Bruch; it’s lyrical second theme always sounded to me like something dispensed from the “Lyrical Second Theme” vending machine.

But here’s the thing – I’ve now heard this Russian teacher rave more than once, in her quiet, heavily accented Old World way, that: “This is very beautiful concerto.” [sic] And there’s no question she believes it, more than with many other works she’s assigned so far. If there’d been any doubt, it was erased when she picked up DoMM’s half-size violin and made it sound like a Strad while demonstrating the first two pages. She wasn’t demonstrating “how the notes go” – well, yes, she was, but what she really did was show how much she loves the music. First of all, it’s amazing anyone can make a little violin sound that good, but what struck me is that she played it with such affection – not a highly sentimentalized affection, but with serious attention to everything beautiful that I’d never bothered to notice.

Yeah, this is partly because I’d mostly heard immature players playing it, but I think it’s more because I’d never bothered to give the music a chance – I’d always approached it skeptically. Just another student concerto. However, having been struck by the sincerity of the simple words “this is very beautiful concerto,” I found myself listening through different ears and it was suddenly a different piece. Perhaps this just reflects badly on me – maybe I’m too hard-hearted and skeptical by nature and should stop pre-judging works, but it’s a pretty human thing to do. Anyway, an important factor in all this is that I’d already developed a kind of respect for this teacher’s honesty that made me believe her. If she were to talk this way about every piece, my Accolay moment probably wouldn’t have happened. And, by the way, I’m still not ready to put this piece up there with Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky – but I believe in it much more than I ever expected to.

Skepticism Brand #2 is more common. Just about everyone has the experience of hearing a piece and being bewildered that anyone could really care about what might seem incomprehensible, or too intellectual. My most vivid conversion experience in this respect happened when listening to Leonard Bernstein, that most persuasive of musical evangelists, talk about one of the pieces (#3) from Webern’s Op. 6. Here are the words he speaks to a Young Person’s Concert audience before and after conducting it – all 50ish seconds of it.

I can’t honestly remember if I’d heard the piece before or not. I suspect I had, but given that I trust Bernstein as someone who’s genuinely passionate about what he does, I feel certain that some sort of aesthetic-response switch went off in my brain that turned me from guilty skeptic (“I know that, as an educated musician, I’m supposed to get this, but…”) to curious seeker (“I want to feel what he’s feeling.”). Rather than questioning the ways in which this music goes against what I want music to be, I found myself hearing the fragile bits of beauty he alludes to. It’s become one of my favorite 50ish seconds of music, even though I’m still not a big Webern guy. Maybe I’m weak and just need LB to talk me through the rest of Webern's output (and Haydn's), but the point is that I trust Bernstein's care for audiences and genuine communication enough to believe him when he says something moves him.

I might mention that my daughter's violin teacher and Bernstein could not be more different - she, quiet, humble, even guarded; he, a veritable Pied Piper. Yet what's important is that I respect each of them enough for their basic musical honesty that I want to try to listen through their ears, and suddenly I find myself more open both to Accolay and Webern. Surely one of the greatest strengths of Alex Ross's recent book is that he manages to make the reader believe that he (Ross) really is fascinated by all this wildly divergent music - and he has a way with words that makes the reader want to hear what he hears. More and more, I feel like that's my most important job as a teacher - to make students want to hear what I hear.

Two Quick Postscripts: 1) I wrote a few weeks back about how much I enjoyed Jeremy Denk's performance of Beethoven's forbidding Hammerklavier Sonata. I'd by dishonest if I didn't admit that I was partially inspired by Sarah Palin's mavericky take on the work. Not only did that "interview" make me aware of Denk's upcoming performance; hearing it through Gov. Palin's ears provided a refreshingly unforbidding way of approaching the piece. 2) Not long after I had the little conversion experience with the Webern piece, I played it for a student who made the curious, but quite perceptive comment that it reminded him of some of the stock soundtrack music from The Andy Griffith Show of all things! And, although I hadn't watched TAGS for years, his comment made immediate sense to me - I could quite easily hear the Webern playing as aural backdrop to one of those suspenseful moments when a dangerous criminal is on the loose. It's well-known that atonal music found a home in Hollywood in a variety of ways, but I'd love to investigate further who wrote those unsettling cues for Andy, Barney, Opie, and the gang.

[UPDATE: Further investigation of the Andy Griffith-Webern connection here and here.]

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