I raise a lot of perilous questions here on my blog, but sometimes my life in classical music seems completely old-fashioned. I talk to people in the music business about music. I might e-mail with a conductor friend, commisserating about the orchestra he’s conducting at a leading European opera house, which turns out to be full of musicians who don’t like Bellini. Or I go to the Glimmerglass Opera, and see Massenet’s little one-act trifle, The Portrait of Manon, and even though the piece is so slight it’s hardly worth performing, I find myself loving the way Massenet writes music. He’s always wonderfully agreeable, and as I grow older, agreeable music seems more important than it used to be. (Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the trenches, gritting my teeth at new pieces, which, truth be told, aren’t always as good as I’d like them to be.)
Or I write music, and never think about what any of it means for the future of classical music. I just write it, concentrating on form and flow, melody and harmony, sound and texture. I play games with myself. Suppose I wrote an opera scene as a palindrome, with an orchestra part that sounds the same played backwards or forwards…(upcoming, in the third act of my opera based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, where already a complete scene from the first act shows up as the accompaniment to a very different scene in the second act — or, rather, two very different scenes, because two sets of characters are carrying on two conversations simultaneously).
And last Sunday I had a wonderful time with live music. My wife and I went to a beer garden in Astoria, Queens to hear an amateur musician friend play with his wind band (eight winds and double bass). The beer garden was worth the trip by itself — it’s an outdoor establishment run by Czechs, with Pilsner Urquell on tap (not too shabby), and a menu of good Czech food. When we got there at 1 PM, there weren’t too many people there, and most of them were Czechs. By 4 PM, the place was happily overrun — hipster New York younger people, families, kids, Czechs, you name it, everybody having a good time, playing cards or Scrabble, eating, drinking, hanging out, listening to the music (or not, if they didn’t feel like it).
The musicians were quite good, and the 18th century music they played seemed perfect for the place. They played at one end of the large outdoor space, on a bandstand. In front of the bandstand was a dance floor. At first kids ventured out on it, mainly to get closer to the music. Some of them danced. But then two adults started dancing, slow-dancing to a graceful slow movement in the music. That was heavenly. I thought of standup comedy. If you’re a comic, you have to make your audience laugh. And nobody can fake that — either people laugh or they don’t. What’s the equivalent reaction to music? Well, maybe dancing. If people dance to your music, you know they’re loving it.
Later one of the musicians’ wives showed up, with his two kids. After a while, one of the kids went up on stage and just sat with the musicians, evidently loving the music (and loving to sit nearby while his father played).
All of this was lovely. I can’t remember many outings (and I’m certainly including bigtime concerts in New York and elsewhere) when I’ve loved music more. By the end of the afternoon, some of the musicians — who’d been sharing pitchers of beer — started saying that we ought to tear down the concert halls. It was easy to sympathize. This was one afternoon when music — gorgeous music — simply took care of itself.