EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Two things inspired tonight's post: 1) the final episode of American Idol , which Taylor Hicks won (congratulations, Taylor); and, most importantly, 2) the event I ushered at the State Theatre tonight, which was a classical music performance by conductor Christoph von Dohnányi and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of works by Bartók, Haydn, and Tchaikovsky.
Other than American Idol, I haven't really written much about music so far in my blog. I guess that could just be because I don't quite consider music as huge a part of my life these days as, say, movies are. It's been months since I've listened to a new album, or gave a listen to a popular new artist. When it comes to current music, I'm just a little out of touch.
This wasn't always the case. Music used to be a major part of my life. Upon my second year in East Brunswick after I moved here from Queens---my original hometown---in fall 1991, I started taking piano lessons. A few years later, I picked up the violin. And during those early years, I was a voracious consumer of classical music. From Mozart and Beethoven to Ravel and Stravinsky, I didn't really care for much else. In fact, it took me quite a while before I actually started taking other kinds of music with almost as much seriousness. Sure, I'd occasionally listen superficially to the soft rock coming out of my parents' car stereo (courtesy of local station Magic 98.3 FM), but it would be years before I actually started getting into relatively more recent music: from jazz (Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington) to classic rock (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, and others) to contemporary stuff (Radiohead, Coldplay, and others).
But I suppose I will always have a nostalgic affection for classical music: it's the music I grew up with. I still listen to it, sure---these days, my obsessions are the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler---but not with quite the same passion that I used to have when I was much younger. These days, I usually just listen to familiar works as background music as I do something else; it brings me comfort, in a way, even though that comfort might have nothing to do with the work itself, which may be tempestuous in nature (as most Mahler is).
The passion went out of my piano and violin studies too. After a while, I suppose the thrill of playing those two instruments just disappeared. When I realized I actually had to work in order to master these instruments---practice a lot, and practice in a meticulous, intense manner---it just stopped being fun for me, I guess. And I definitely had no mature idea about what it took to be a good artist: as a younger lad, I must have thought that all playing the piano or violin was was getting the notes right and following the dynamic markings. Sadly, I only realized what interpretation really meant until after I had given up on both instruments. (I may still take up at least one of them---I supposedly have my whole life ahead of me---but I'm not holding my breath that it'll be soon.)
Besides, it just got wearying, going to see my violin teacher every week just to have him tell me "your arm is too tight. You have too loosen up." Thanks, Mr. Mao, but how? That's something I guess I never got. Maybe I'm just a tight-ass by nature. Someone who's always as worried about things as I am could never really step outside of myself and just play the damn instrument. And did I ever really master the technical aspects of playing my instruments? Even towards the unofficial end of my violin-playing days, I knew, deep down, that my violin vibrato just sounded constricted. How is one expected to be able to play with depth of feeling if he hasn't even got the technique down pat?
Combine that with a mother who kept criticizing my playing without ever having done much musical stuff herself (although she tells me she used to sing a lot), and after a while, I just decided to let it go. Nothing will come of it; you're too busy with other stuff anyhow. You're not going to become the next Itzhak Perlman, so why bother?
(Side note: for newbie readers, expect a future post explaining the ever-complicated relationship between me and my mother. At the very least, it'll reveal sides of me you might never have guessed from my first few posts on this blog.)
So these days, I'm content to simply give an occasional ear to music and focus more on my writing and my filmwatching---even though there are times when I wish I was more knowledgeable about all the music that's out there. Besides, the classical music scene just seems so drab and lifeless these days; these orchestras just seem to keep playing the same works all the time, and, with rare exceptions like John Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls---his fascinating, eloquent response to 9/11---new works have a lot of trouble catching on in the mainstream. Most people---and, admittedly, I am not above this tendency on occasion---prefer listening to the umpteenth performance of Beethoven's way-overplayed 5th rather than challenging themselves by going to a concert with, say, Oliver Messiaen's gloriously nutty Turangalila Symphony---if an orchestra is even enterprising enough to program that piece. So orchestra committees, understandably aiming to get more people to their concerts, feel compelled to give the people what they want. No matter if it makes classical music concerts feel like museum displays sometimes; edgy modern classical music---including defiantly atonal works by early twentieth-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg---doesn't seem to be the people's choice.
Now, I might rightly be called a hypocrite for complaining about this perception of what most classical music fans prefer, because I can't say I've kept up with all that's new in the classical music world. Still, I think I can honestly say that modern music is often more interesting to listen to than is yet another rendition of a late Mozart symphony. Tonight, von Dohnányi and the Pittsburgh orchestra's first offering was Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra, and I couldn't help but be fascinated throughout by its atonal harmonies and sprung rhythms, and yet marvel at how expressive the piece was. (Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is another great example of his singular brand of modern lyricism.) I didn't feel that quite the fascination in hearing the band perform Haydn's 88th Symphony or Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, two more obviously tonal works. (Maybe it's just because I've heard both works many times before.)
Fresh new sounds: as far as music goes, that's what I crave---at least when I actually get around to listening to music. These days---especially now, as my summer job search drags on---those opportunities seem few and far between.