A tribute to the music teacher
Most of us have had kind and generous teachers that left a lasting impression.
I recently re-watched Satyanjit Ray’s masterpiece Apu Sansar (“The World of Apu” - 1959) and was astonished at how much new stuff I noticed. Nuances of the story, of course, but also what was happening in the corners of the frame, camera angles, lingering shots, backgrounds, expressions, and the music (god, the music! - Ravi Shankar’s first gig). In one pivotal scene, a husband and wife speak awkwardly on their wedding night facing away from each other and on opposite edges of the frame. The husband paces, worried his poverty will be too much of a burden on his young wife. By the end of the scene they are facing one another and situated adjacent within the frame and you realize that these two might just make it. I didn’t pick up this movement on first viewing but it is electrifying to become aware of how the placement of the characters reinforces the dialogue. Watching a second (or third time) time, already knowing what is going to happen allows one the space to look around a bit.
The last few years I’ve started programming pieces multiple times. Practically speaking, we have lots of concerts with minimal time to rehearse; repeating repertoire allows us to play fewer pieces, reducing (somewhat) that “how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-learn-all-this” feeling. But the dirty secret is that I love multiple performances. The more you hear a piece of music, the deeper it enters the bloodstream. Maybe this is a definition of great art: there is no expiration date - it gets better the more you are exposed to it.
While each time you listen to a piece of music is an opportunity to hear new things you didn’t catch earlier, my favorite part is actually the opposite: it is the anticipation of knowing what’s coming that might be classical music’s most sublime pleasure. I love it when the hairs on the back of my neck go up a split second before I hear a familiar passage. One’s wonder increases the better you know a piece: like some kind of perpetual motion machine, a great work of art creates its own energy.
Sometimes you have to work to get to that point and there are pieces I can’t get enough of now that I didn’t like at first. I understand that after a long day sometimes you want your music to just be familiar and comforting. But remember that the definition of “comforting” can change. Just as I found gorgonzola revolting as a teenager, my adult self now understands this cheese is so good it should be illegal. Persistence pays off as new frontiers of emotional expression open up. When they do, it can be glorious.
I’ve now re-watched “The World of Apu” three times and there are parts where I’ve cried every viewing. Why subject myself to this if it makes me so sad? (Note – while there are some very sad parts, it is not a depressing film.) In movies, we live vicariously through these characters; experiencing intense feelings makes us feel more alive. So it is with classical music. A Beethoven quartet can take us on a journey to the edge of despair and then leave us bursting with joy.
You can live a lifetime in a single concert.
David Yang, Artistic Director
On Tuesday, I had the privilege to discuss the composer Arnold Schoenberg with his son, Larry.