Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Classical Enthusiasm

Interesting sighting of classical music in pop culture in the most recent episode (Season 7: #5) of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Entirely coincidental - I think - that my last post concerned Seinfeld. This recent Curb episode, by the way, was chock full of Seinfeld homages, even as the season-long story arc about a Seinfeld reunion show was kept in the background.) I haven't seen all the episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I've seen enough to know that Larry David has an obvious, Woody Allen-esque affection for classical music. The funniest Curb moment I've ever seen was the moment when Larry exacts revenge on a rude neighbor (and his trick-or-treating daughter) by conducting (with hilarious abandon) a live orchestra in a performance of the overture to Die Meistersinger on the neighbor's lawn. Enjoy this clip while it's still on YouTube.

Anyway, Sunday night's episode opens with Larry sitting in a cafe, whistling to himself while listening to something through headphones. We first assume he will end up offending someone with his whistling (in fact, it may be the only moment of the entire episode when he's not offending someone), but to our surprise, his whistling attracts the sympathetic attention of an attractive woman who asks what he's listening to. His curious reply is, "Chee-Yun." I'll get to why that's curious in a moment, but it turns out the woman is also a Chee-Yun fan and a half-hour's worth of sophisticatedly crude comedy has been set in motion, all of which will come to a climax at a private Chee-Yun recital.

Now, I and many other classical music types know that Chee-Yun is a very successful Korean violinist, thought hardly the biggest name of her generation; but I would guess a fairly low percentage of Curb viewers would have known this, and there's very little help for those viewers until the end of the episode. Not that there's anything wrong with that - the "Chee-Yun" situation is intentionally established as a sort of exclusive something-or-other, so I'm guessing the director was happy to leave this vague.

However, I was dying to know just what Larry David was whistling along to in that opening scene - at the end of the episode, we briefly hear Chee-Yun playing the slow movement of the Mendelssohn concerto (scandalously, with no accompaniment*), but I didn't think that's what I'd heard. I ended up having to re-watch the opening several times before I could pick out the tune. You can try it yourself here (until it gets taken down - UPDATE: no longer available), although it doesn't help that Larry's first few whistled pitches were cut:


Oh, here it is:

So, after several OnDemand rewinds, I finally recognized the beautiful theme from the 2nd movement of Schubert's B-flat trio (see p.94; hear here) - the whistling isn't that bad, but the scene starts from the middle of the tune and Larry's rhythm could use a little work. Still, there's no question this is what we're hearing. Which begs the question: who, listening to a chamber work such as this, would respond to a "what are you listening to" question by naming the violinist as opposed to the composer?

Of course, some people would, especially anyone who happens to be a particular fan of the violinist, but it's still an odd choice for the whistling, when they could have chosen from so many violin-specific pieces (like the Mendelssohn she's later heard playing). I haven't found any recordings of Chee-Yun playing the Schubert, though I see she performed it at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston last year. Maybe Mr. David was there and made his own bootleg recording, but I'm guessing he just really likes that tune - it IS one of the most perfect of melodies, although I always think of it as a cello tune, since the cellist gets it first.

[By the way, we in the classical music world tend to underemphasize the appeal of a good tune, which is why extraordinary tunesmiths such as Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Poulenc are too often underrated. If you can get your hands on Bernstein's The Joy of Music, take a look at this great conversation, "Why Don't You Run Upstairs and Write a Nice Gershwin Tune?" I love that Larry David's classical fandom manifests itself in whistling a little Schubert here, or whistling Wagner's Siegfried Idyl in the "trick-or-treat" episode that ends up with him maniacally conducting Die Meistersinger. The all-out intensity with which he wails away at his little orchestra is the kind of visceral thrill we want all of our audiences to experience.]

As much as anything, I suppose the little coffeehouse scene illustrates a fundamental difference in how classical music types think vs. the rest of the more pop-oriented world. We're used to thinking in a composer-based way, they're used to thinking in a performer-based way. Neither is right or wrong, but even though the Curb folks were happy to reference a fairly vague classical soloist without clarifying who she is, they still have the characters talk about her from the performer-based point-of-view - even when she's collaborating in some of the most sublimely non-showy chamber music imaginable. [Or, more likely, Larry David was just idly whistling a tune, and no one suspected anyone would actually care to think this much about it.]

* I mean, seriously, they have Chee-Yun giving a recital at a gorgeous, enormous mansion, which obviously would've housed a nice piano, and the producers couldn't be bothered to hire a pianist to play along? So unfair.

P.S. On this very day that I've been thinking about music fans idly whistling great tunes, I was walking across campus and heard a student (someone I didn't recognize, so pretty definitely not a music major) loudly whistling the theme to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, complete with wide, theremin-like vibrato and portamenti. It was quite the unexpected scene.

UPDATE: I've noticed on yet another viewing that the woman actually asks of Larry, "Who are you listening to?" Still begs the question, has she then already recognized the Schubert tune from Larry's whistling? If so, is she expecting to hear only a violinist's name, or, more likely, to hear the name of a trio? It's presented almost as if she's expecting him to say "Chee-Yun," since she's very excited by his response and declares herself to be a big fan - not of Schubert, but of Chee-Yun. Some enterprising musicology major needs to investigate this...

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