Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…

images-38

I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.

But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately,  there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years. 

Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.

First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power,  and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.

This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.

I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.

The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.

According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above.  When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden 

“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.” 

Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”

Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt. 

The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)

As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.

I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.

But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)

I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, 

“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”

Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”

Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”

So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience. 

Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school. 

There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.

He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.

Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”

While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.

“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”

In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”

Unknown-15
The Beatles, holding up very well!

Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.

Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.

Unknown-19
Duke Ellington: Composer, musician, bandleader

“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.

For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm. 

images-36
Ludwig van Beethoven

The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.

He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.

“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”

No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)

I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.

Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?

I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.

Annie