The Rip Post




OF EARS. . .

(Dec. 17, day after Beethoven's birthday, 2003)

       I know every note of Beethoven's 6th symphony, the "Pastoral." Nothing in the Pastoral gets past me. It's Pastoral history. I have a 6th sense about it.
       I've heard it conducted by Mehtas (Zubin and Mehli), Ormandy and Szell, Bernstein and Steinberg, Rattle and Rodinksy, and more baton wavers than you can shake a stick at. I'm sorry to say that I've watched Disney desecrate it in "Fantasia" a good dozen times, and as a result, I can't keep cherubs with rosy hindquarters out of my head during certain passages.
       In other words, the impact of the music is muted. This symphony is spent. The Pastoral's charm is past tense. Familiarity has bred insensitivity. I'm almost sick of the 6th.
        Or so I thought.
        I've always held this symphony to be especially hallowed. The conductor Simon Rattle seems of similar mind, as a BBC Magazine reviewer wrote of his popular new recording, "Rattle takes an unusually expansive view of the Pastoral -- a work that he regards as being perhaps the most spiritual Beethoven ever wrote." Agreed. This unimaginably tormented man's adoration of nature bordered on religion. If anyone has derived more comfort from Pan's posies, I can't guess who it might be (Mahler included.) 
        So I have naively, perhaps neurotically, tried to budget my exposure to this work, in an effort to keep the experience as fresh as possible. This, of course, is like avoiding sidewalk cracks. Aside from shopping Muzak and "Natural Beethoven" New Age CDs that add real tweeting birds and babbling brooks to the composer's fanciful ones, classical radio stations left on all day (and, as is my lifelong habit, all night) become a kind of musical stream-of-consciousness, an unending madcap parade of BeethovenSchubertMahler MozartBach RavelVerdi et. al, marching endlessly into one ear, and out the other.
        Subliminally or otherwise, it all eventually becomes as familiar as morning.
Mid-life crisis and breakdown, surrounded by strangers. Couldn't it have happened when I was home alone, eating a candy bar? Next stop: Paxil, Prozac.
       Thus did the "Pastoral" long ago shed its freshness, its wonder, even some of its beauty. The half-dozen or so performances I've attended through the years--- earnest and good as they were---could not reinstill revelation. The piece is always nice enough, whether live or Memorex---and I enjoy the academic game of comparing interpretations of various conductors---but the thrill is gone.
        And yet. . .
        A couple of months back, I wandered into a free noontime concert of the symphony at the International House in Berkeley, performed by the U.C. Berkeley orchestra under conductor David Milnes. I was expecting to be moved as much as I was expecting to remain 49 this year. This was a student band, after all, not the Berlin Philharmonic. The one certainty was that there would be uncertainty in the playing, which I don't mind, but the emphasis here would be on accuracy, not poetry. Right?
        Besides, this wasn't a real concert---this was a senior citizen thing to do. The concertgoing equivalent of the blue-plate special. The early bird symphony. Fun for people who go to bed by 9. There I was, in the company of a whole lot of hair dye, lining up an hour early. Shouldn't a person of my um, youth, have been engaged in something more vital? Shouldn't I have been on a tennis court, convincing myself that I still "have it," despite encroaching sciatica? Or perhaps, I gloomily concluded, this was the shape of things to come, and all too soon.
        Sighing, I took my seat inside the auditorium among the wrinkles and canes. My longtime listening partner, Annie, had suggested the concert, so hell, I'd go along with the gag. At least it was vicarious fun watching the kids---er, musicians---arrive. Up the street they came, wheeling basses, toting violin cases, striding purposefully with flute, oboe, bassoon. Fresh-faced, amazingly untried, intent, a little mussed. Dutifully clad in  black suits and black dresses---and yes, the occasional black tube top and black jeans---rushing from morning classes, late sleeps, no sleeps, too much studying, not enough studying, last-minute musical cramming.
        We sat in the back until we realized that this was not a graduated concert hall, but a flat-floored auditorium, and you couldn't see the orchestra beyond row three or four. So we moved up to row two, close enough to read the grace notes in the first violin section, if I could read grace notes. Close enough to watch the young fellow in the back violin row stare wistfully at a beautiful girl in the audience. . .
       I explained to Annie my paltry understanding of Beethoven's intent. His subtitles for the various movements, "Impressions upon arriving in the country," "Beside the Brook," "Storm and village dance," "Shepherd's song," were not intended to evoke the images of these things---but rather, the feelings they might evoke in all of us. "In a sense," I said, affecting a scholarly air, "Beethoven invented the tone poem."
        How little I had understood my own words before that performance.
       The first notes entranced; the music surged with a passion I had forgotten was its very foundation. Not mere pretty melody, this. Crescendos seemed bold, revolutionary; anything but prosaic, mechanical. Strings inhaled angst, exhaled exhiliration. This was not mere musical logic of design; this was inspired, even ecstatic, purpose. There was reverance, yet also exuberance, in the so-familiar principal theme, beatific calm and nostalgic reflection in the development. One note had so long led irrevocably to another that I had forgotten the miraculous lyricism and logic of it all. How had a mind conceived of such music?
        "Look!" Beethoven seemed to be saying. "Listen! Breathe! Pay attention! Have you forgotten where you live? Have you forgotten life? Don't! Don't forget!"
       The second movement, when the proceedings pause for the landmark nightingale/cuckoo song replicated by flute and clarinet, left me stunned. It was as if the composer were saying, "I cannot tell you anything more than this. I cannot tell you any more than the birds can. Listen!"
        I lost it. My eyes filled with tears. Mid-life crisis and breakdown, surrounded by strangers. Couldn't it have happened when I was home alone, eating a candy bar? Next stop: Paxil, Prozac. Then I glanced peripherally at Annie, and saw. . .tears. Was cracking catching? No, other eyes were moist, too. There was something---or perhaps someone---else in the room with us all.
        I won't go on effusing about things that I can't adequately or correctly describe. I will say that I was startled by the wild harmonies and sheer dissonance of the "storm" sequence, realizing where Wagner took some of his cues, that the young femme timpanist beat the hell out of the guy in the L.A. Phil for power and punch, and that the benedictive conclusion of the work left me unable to speak about the music, or anything else, without choking up again, for a good half-hour afterward.
        What was it? That double-espresso Latte I'd had that morning? Milnes' selfless, sensitive, expansive interpretation, which allowed the music to breathe?  Close proximity to the players? Or just one of those serendipitous moments, when elements of man and nature collude for epiphany?
        I'm not sure, but here's a guess: my ears are no longer 18, but the ears of the musicians were---and 19, 20, 21, 22. These were unjaded ears, ears that have not been overburdened by the ugly noise of human acrimony, dulled by the daily cacaphony of cruelty, hatred, mendacity. These are ears---and hearts---that are still open to discovering beauty, and reveling in it; that are not conditioned to suspect guile, that are unrestrained in their joyousness and love.
       These are the same kind of ears, I believe, that Beethoven, though stone-deaf, somehow kept all his life.
       And that at least for one afternoon in Berkeley, ears that returned to a long unhearing listener.

Happy Beethoven's Birthday, folks.


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