Of music and the meaning of living

Jackie and I just came back from the best concert I have ever been to, hands down. I was supposed to go straight to bed after returning but I just can’t let the evening go without jotting down my feelings on this concert. It would be a crime to leave these thoughts until the morning, especially since we’re painting in class tomorrow at 8 and that would probably take over my mind for a while afterward.

I’m just going to write, no editing (but proofreading ok).

Okay so:
“American Originals” at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Leonard Slatkin. An all-American concert for September 11. Jackie came over early and we spent the afternoon snacking and playing Scattergories with Jason. Then we headed over to the Bowl and got there with plenty of time to spare.

At the Bowl:
Flags flying at half-mast. Slatkin came out to applause and we all stood for the National Anthem, which they play before every concert but which seemed appropriate to me for the first time on this particular night. Listening to the heartfelt singing of those around me I got an inkling of what patriotism might mean for me — unbreakable love for my fellow people, comrades if you will, and unquenchable desire for us all to to enjoy the freedom to pursue our lives as we wish — though the trouble is I don’t feel it for my mere country, but for all humanity.

Nevertheless. I looked to my right and saw Jackie had her hand over her heart, like they taught us in school. The Star-Spangled Banner felt right tonight.

We sat and Maestro Slatkin spoke, introducing the pieces and telling us how much he felt Copland’s Appalachian Spring was the perfect piece for September 11. He conducted the piece with a stately gravitas, too sluggish for a normal day but just right for a solemn anniversary. The (bespectacled-skinny-Jewish-guy) American spirit of Aaron Copland shone out through every respectfully enunciated note, and the finale (the Shaker “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple”) soared as it ought to do. Our American concert was off to a smashing start.

It’s a smart idea to begin a concert with a well-loved classic, but harder to follow that classic up with anything equally worthy. However: from the moment Edgar Meyer began his Double Bass Concerto No. 1 with a deep, earth-uprooting pull that only a bass can produce, I knew this piece would be something different. It captivated us all. The program said it had “bluesy swagger” and “lyric grace” but that doesn’t even begin to describe it. It sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and yet the way Meyer played his own composition, it was as though music was never meant to sound like anything else.

[The concerto doesn’t seem to be available online, but this gives you exactly the idea:]

Another way of putting it that might convey more: we brought food, and we forgot to eat it. THE CONCERTO WAS THAT GOOD.

I think the bass is my new favorite instrument, though of course not everyone understands it like Meyer clearly does. An encore, then intermission. I called Erik and raved. If the other Bowl concerts had been this good he would never have skipped this one to go to work in San Jose. If the LA Phil always sounded like this, heck, I would never move away from LA, ever. I would stop spending money on anything else besides the basics, if I could hear music like this once a week or more.

The lights went down again, and Slatkin spoke again. He told us Dominican pianist Michel Camilo would bring “something different” to Gershwin’s famous Rhapsody in Blue, and that Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee is one of the most underrated American pieces.

Schuller’s Studies jump off of seven separate paintings by Klee, and the Bowl people were intelligent enough to project those images during the performance. Schuller’s abstract tones reverberated pleasantly, though our favorites were the pieces inspired by these paintings: The Little Blue Devil (below) and The Arab Village.

These were more concrete, both in painting and in music. “Little Blue Devil” was pure delightful jazz of the era, cool and swingy.

“Arab Village” was a lovely midcentury take on what Middle Eastern music sounds like, with a sinuous flute solo and some great close work between violin, harp, and oboe (if I have those instruments right — could have been viola or clarinet instead).

The more I listen to Schuller — I’m listening right now to the Amazon.com samples [link broken] — the more I like his cool 1950s sound, though at the time I felt the piece just didn’t have the majesty of Appalachian Spring nor the verve of Meyer’s Concerto. I think I got distracted by trying to think about the paintings and the music at the same time.

Now we come to the piece that brought nearly the entire audience to its feet: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, as interpreted by Michel Camilo and the LA Phil (including a faaa-aa-a-bu-lous rendition of what the program rightly calls “that incomparable, flamboyant” clarinet introduction). Why has it never occurred to anyone that Rhapsody needs to be played by a jazz pianist? Because it does. I’ve heard the piece many many times, on recording and live (sometimes at very close quarters), played by some very talented artists, and it’s never sung like this before. Classical pianists make the solo too glossy, too polished; Camilo, who has a rapid-fire technique the like of which I have never seen, knew just how to handle the piece’s swaying syncopation and its driving energy. As my octaves used to be pretty slick too, I’m not easily impressed by “oh my gawd, he’s playing so fast his fingers are blurred!” style, but Camilo has got it. I’ve never seen anyone so fast manage to keep such accuracy and clarity, and he played with so much flair you could almost absorb his skill just from watching his gestures. He and the orchestra fed off each other until an end so rousing we all jumped to our feet (I leapt up even faster than I’d done for Meyer) and applauded until our arms wore out and Camilo played an encore that had me dancing — not just bopping — in my seat. Some people left before or even during the encore, in their hurry to get to their cars. Jackie and I looked at each other and told each other they were crazy. This was the concert of the year and they were thinking about traffic. Psychos.

We didn’t want to leave. The concert had been almost three hours but we hadn’t even felt the time. I bought CDs of Meyer’s and Camilo’s on my way out. Jackie bought a program to remember the evening; others had had the same idea, because they’d sold out in that area and we had to wait a long time for them to bring out more programs.

On our way out to the shuttles we couldn’t stop saying what an incredible concert it had been. When something is that good you just can’t shut up about it; it would be a disservice to the art! A garrulous old man who’d also been buying a program chatted with us until we reached the buses, echoing our thoughts exactly, even down to the mediocre quality of some of the other Bowl concerts this summer and wondering whether maybe he was just feeling more welcoming tonight — could it really be as good as we thought? But it surely was. I would go gladly to a hundred boring recitals if I could have one evening as unforgettable as this one… and come to think of it, that probably is about how the ratio plays out. I’ve been to other concerts before that have reached sublimeness, but this is the first one that I loved all the way through, right down to our seats and the company I kept.

We listened to Meyer in the car on the way home. Jackie said, “It’s just so rare to find these events that make your eyes shine.” I knew what she meant. There are some moments in my life when without thinking, without needing to wish for it to happen, life just makes sense to me and the music of the universe is my song as well. At these times I often think that if I died in that moment it wouldn’t matter, except in moments like that death never even seems like an issue. The closest I can come to describing it is to say that in the face of such irrefutable life, such beauty and joy, there doesn’t need to be anything else, any time or mortality or questioning or anything. It’s like what a yogi told me several years ago is the very essence of yoga: everything just is, all of us and the world and everything around and above and below and in between, and this existence is fine and enough.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]