Monday, November 19, 2012

My Musical Moments

Arthur Rubenstein
Arts critic Anthony Tomassini (he of the infamous list of greatest composers) has begun a new series in the New York Times, found here.  In it he discusses (in print and with a continuing video) those musical moments forever etched in his mind and heart.  His first example is a brief phrase in Chopin's G-minor Ballade (as performed on LP by Arthur Rubenstein):

"The ballade opened with a forceful line that began in the low register of the piano and rose up the keyboard in octaves, as if making some grim declaration. At the peak of the ascent the line twisted into a soft plaintive turn, delivered in two halting phrases.

Then something stunning happened, just for a moment: a short gesture, a softly sighing three-note melodic fragment landing on a dissonant-seeming chord that at first sounded as if it were wrong. Yet the harmony lingered, and the pungency of the clashing notes was strangely beautiful, almost comforting. This led into what seemed the saddest melody I had ever heard. The main business of the ballade had started.

I remember how powerfully I reacted to that moment with the sighing phrase. I still get shivers when I hear it or play it."

Tomassini goes on to state (and I completely agree) that these moments do not have to be viscerally thrilling or climactic.  In fact, it might very well be the absence of these factors that more completely imprints in our psyche.

For me, I can never forget the first time I ever heard Guiseppe Giordani's Caro Mio Ben.  Of course, it had yet to become a kind of classical "top 40" hit then.  I remember the performance as if it was yesterday, sung in our old choir room at Grand Ledge High School.  I fell in love with that singer that day.  I never told her of it, even though we did date for a little while our junior year.  I acted like an idiot; she found another and they're still very happily married today.

But from my own conducting experiences I can recount at least two moments that, for me, are monumental musical moments.

Gustav Holst's E-flat Suite (Op. 28a) is one of the cornerstones of the band literature.  There remains a fair amount of debate in the wind world about which of his two suites is better.  I believe that the E-flat is, due in no small part to the composer's manipulation of a tiny motive in structuring the themes in each of the three movements.  In the third movement, the opening theme of the march and the tune of the trio come together in astounding counterpoint.  At measure 130, I conduct the passage differently than almost any other performance I've heard, allowing the "Land of Hope and Glory" tune to shine through without a break in the phrase.  I've led the work dozens of times (at least) but this moment gives me shivers--and sometimes before the fact.

My other "moment" (at least for today) is from Richard Strauss's Serenade, Op. 7.  At m. 71, he writes an awe-inspiring climactic phrase to begin to close off the work's exposition.  The kicker is that he employs only seven of his thirteen instruments:  four horns, two bassoons, and contrabassoon.  The combination of sounds cannot be described....

Perhaps I will write as Tomassini has and make this a continuing series.