February 17, 2006

Giving Myself the Gift of Mozart

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:51 pm

If you just flew in on a spaceship, you may not know that 2006 marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since last year, there has been much ado in the global music world about planned celebrations, concerts and extravaganzas in honor of the event.

Since the publicity began, I have wondered about how the world could celebrate Mozart more on his 250th birthday than they do the rest of the time. Here’s a man who has annual festivals and professional ensembles named after him. A radio station like KDFC plays Mozart in the Morning to begin every workday. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to assert than on any given day of any given year, someone is playing Mozart. His life, his work and his genius are well remembered, regarded and perpetuated.

Not that I don’t like Mozart. Mozart in the Morning is the way I start my day. Performing Mozart’s C minor mass in college was one of the high points of my singing career. I love his tempos, his passion and his rhythm. His work should be celebrated every day of every year.

Mozart’s actual birthday, January 27, was an enlightening day for me. It started with one of those coincidences that make you wonder about the existence of a Greater Power. I am fairly certain that my five-year-old son did not wake up that Friday morning aware that it was Mozart’s birthday, but during breakfast, he started humming “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Spooky, huh?

Then, I was driving my son to school and it occurred to me that the wonder of the 250th global birthday party did not stem from the professional musicians who were packing their 2006 repertoire with Mozart, or repackaging tried-and-true favorites to fill seats. The significance of the event was in the number of amateur musicians who were using the occasion to delve into Mozart. Community choirs are tackling his work. Avocational instrumentalists are forming Mozart quintets to experience his music. For the 250th celebration, this composer who is regarded with fear and awe by amateur musicians for his technically challenging rhythms and proclivity for high-density compositions is being viewed as accessible. The end product may be imperfect, but the process of communicating with Mozart across the divide of time and talent is too tantalizing to miss.

Upon this revelation, I realized that although I have sung a number of Mozart’s choral works, I couldn’t remember every playing Mozart in my 10 years of piano lessons. A quick look at my music book collection confirmed that. I was not surprised. My skills and musical interests did not intersect with Mozart’s canon when I was taking lessons.

I had a few hours to myself at home alone with our piano that day and I couldn’t resist giving Mozart a try on his birthday. The Internet allowed me to almost instantaneously have my pick of sheet music and within minutes, I was at the piano. What happened next I mostly want to keep between me, Wolfy and my baby grand. I can tell you it wasn’t disastrous, it wasn’t spectacular, and no concert pianists’ careers were threatened in any way. But it was enjoyable and made me feel like part of a special birthday.

I’m more in my element singing Mozart and on March 19, I’m joining one of those intrepid groups of amateur musicians when the Chancel Choir at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Lafayette performs Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” as part of an evening of Mozart’s music in concert at 7 p.m. There are some masterful professional musicians on the program as well. Come join our heartfelt birthday party for the Master himself.

July 28, 2005

Music as a Metaphor for Life

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 3:02 pm

A funny thing happened on the way to Christmas last year. I became a children’s choir director. My son’s choir director left rather suddenly in November and at a regrouping meeting of the parents, I raised my hand and said I would be willing to help keep the choir going. Next thing I knew, I was in front of the congregation guiding eight kids through “Away in a Manger” at the Christmas concert.

Although I never expected, hoped or sought to be a choir director, the choir and I made it through the rest of season and now I am coming back for more in the Fall. Choir has been a vital part of my life since I was four, the same age my son is now. Whether or not he chooses to pursue choir singing, my husband and I felt strongly that he should be introduced to the activity early. There are a lot of choir geeks on both sides of the family, so he could come by it very naturally.

We are involved in the music program at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church primarily because they have choirs for the youngest choristers. I have spent the summer learning about choir directing and selecting a repertoire for the upcoming season. In the process of communicating with the Our Savior’s Director of Worship, Music and the Arts, Martin Morley, I happened to include a phrase in an email stating “I think of music as a metaphor for life.” Martin emailed me back “I want to hear more from you about ‘music as a metaphor for life’ when you’ve got time!”

Oh-oh. I didn’t think I was going to have to back up a quick email ditty with actual thought. I hadn’t intended to say anything trite, but I was speaking more from a visceral level than something I can actually articulate. Now Martin, unknowingly, was challenging me to substantiate it.

Initially, I thought of the “music as a soundtrack for life” idea in which we all can recall musical pieces from certain eras of our lives or from specific events that happened personally, nationally or internationally. When we hear these songs, we are immediately taken back to a time and place, whether we want to revisit it or not. We either seek out the appropriate music or the music seeks us out to compile the soundtrack of our lives.

Brides and grooms pick a “theme song” for their first dance at their wedding. This song has meaning for them and is a musical expression of their relationship. Brides and grooms who don’t normally dance will even take dance lessons in order to properly celebrate this song. That is how important this specific musical symbol is in their lives.

We all know people, and maybe you’re one of them, who can quote a song lyric when it is apropos to a conversation we are involved in. Some people sing these lyrics. Some people find that annoying. I wonder how many song lyrics pop into people’s brains at the time of conversation but aren’t shared. It’s as if our brains are constantly Googling lyrical search words and sometimes, we get a direct hit and feel compelled to share it.

Music is constantly with us, whether we seek it or not. We sing to celebrate a birthday. We sing to mourn the passing of a life. Music underscores war, revolution, hardship, discovery, triumph and tradition. Music is a common language between humankind. It would seem music and life are inseparable partners, and I suddenly have to appreciate the profoundness of the sage bumper sticker that reads, “Life without music would be a mistake.”

Coincidentally, it was something Martin himself wrote about the arts in general that helped me come to my final conclusion that music is the audible representation of the spirit of life. He wrote, “Artistic expression through music, visual arts and dance gives us avenues of connection with our Higher Power: the creative and re-creative force which made us, lifts us up, and inspires us to live with both passion and compassion.”

“Inspiration” and “spirit” come from the Latin word “spiritus” meaning “breath.” For me, music is a metaphor for life because music is the breath of life.

October 27, 2004

Music Always Comes Back

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:55 pm

Mike from PG&E came over a couple of weeks ago to give our furnaces their annual tune-up before the cold weather hits. Upon walking in our front door, he did what most everyone does the first time they enter our home. His eyes slowly circled the walls of our entryway, living room and dining room, which are covered with a multitude of framed theater posters. Actually, the correct term is “window cards,” but hardly anyone knows what that means.

After the eyes scan, a comment invariably follows. Many people don’t know what they are. Some think they are movie posters (actually, to see our movie posters you have to turn a sharp right into the kitchen and head straight into our family room.) More than half realize they are window cards from plays. But Mike immediately noticed that of the 70 posters on display, all but 15 represented musicals. At first, he made the insightful comment we have heard before, “You like the musicals, huh?”

As he worked on the furnace, other comments came in periodic intervals.

“Have you seen all these shows?” The answer is “yes,” and hundreds more. These are only the posters from the shows which exploit all merchandising options.

“Did you really go to Broadway to see these shows?” Our collection is divided into two almost equal parts — shows we saw in London, and shows from various domestic productions.

“Do you do shows?” I told him although I love to sing, and did some shows in childhood and high school, I realized early on that I don’t have the temperament to do the same thing over and over again, night after night in rehearsal and performance.

“Are you still singing?” Yes, but rarely show tunes outside the confines of my home.

Mike worked in silence the rest of his visit, and then it came time for me to sign the paperwork. While I was giving him my autograph, Mike sighed and shared that his son used to sing in high school. Mike Jr. even won several vocal awards. But now that he’s in college, he’s not singing at all.

I quoted my father-in-law who says, “Music always comes back.” Mike repeated, “Music always comes back. Can I hold you to that?”

Mike is not the first parent I have spoken with who is lamenting a child’s apparent abandonment of a favored artform when he or she goes to college. I know the age group well enough to guess that most artistic coeds fit into one of four categories. There is the percentage who sang/painted/danced/drew/acted in high school and can’t wait to try out their talents in a bigger pond. Then there are those who spent a lot of time in high school developing their art, perhaps partially because they thought it would be an aspect of their college application that would give them an edge in a competitive admissions pool, and now that they are in college, they need to take a break to separate the art from the ulterior motive. There are those who felt like they had been put in a box labeled “Mike the Singer,” “Sarah the Painter,” “Morgan the Dancer,” and in college they are desperate to highlight other areas of their personalities. And then there are those who think the fast track to Med School/Biz School/Law School does not go through an art studio or rehearsal hall.

The artistic soul does not go away, though. It may lie dormant for a while, or it may torment the body in which it is housed until it is once again allowed to soar. But it does always come back. The rest of us just need to be patient while the artists find their own paths.

September 11, 2003

The Plays of Eugene O’Neill Could Be Music to My Ears

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:44 pm

One of my favorite magical moments in the theater happened 10 years ago in London during a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It was a good production of a good play where both the comedy and the love triangle were working well until a scene where Cyrano and his pals surprisingly and effortlessly transitioned from their dialogue into an a cappella barroom song about friendship. The camaraderie underscored by that song was heartfelt and inspiring. The number stopped the show. It was the only music in the play, and suddenly, the production went from good to fabulous for me.

I’m an auditory person. I can read a sentence a dozen times and not be able to tell you what it says, but speak it to me once and I’ll remember it forever. Most artforms don’t touch me at an emotional level unless they incorporate sound or music in some way. When the Gold Coast Chamber Players put a piece of artwork on stage that “illustrates” their music, that works for me. Cal Shakes has made a conscientious effort the last few seasons to use music in the plays as Shakespeare originally intended. He was a playwright who knew the way to an audience’s heart is often through their ears, but far too many Shakespeare companies drop the music from their productions.

But music’s power over me is about to be tested by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House. A musical revue written and directed by Moraga resident and Saint Mary’s College professor Dan Cawthon will feature the songs that influenced O’Neill’s plays. “O’Neill: The Rhythms of His Soul” is at the Village Theatre in Danville as part of the Eugene O’Neill Festival 2003.

I didn’t know that O’Neill was a devotee of pop songs from the early twentieth century and that he used musical phrases to underscore scenes, set the mood or establish a character. O’Neill didn’t write the music himself, but he obviously understood that we all have a soundtrack for our lives, even the characters in a play. Cawthon notes that almost all the music to which O’Neill alludes in his 50 plays was written before 1914, the year he wrote his first play. Cawthon says O’Neill wasn’t drawing from the culture around him for inspiration, but rather calling forth “the music that shaped his soul.”

Suddenly, I find myself interested in a playwright who, up until now, I associated with extremely depressing plays and mandatory term paper assignments. Sure, I appreciate the Nobel prize and four Pulitzers he won. I understand the historical impact he made by elevating the status of American dramas to a respected place on the world stage. In search of connecting with the lauded playwright, I’ve written two stories over the years about the high school artistic talents who spend time studying at Tao House, O’Neill’s Danville home. I thought by shadowing others walking in his footsteps, I too might come to feel his greatness. Nope. I can’t seem to connect with his material on an emotional level, and for me, that makes for an unsatisfying theatrical experience.

Now I learn that O’Neill loved the tunes of composer George M. Cohan, and one of his favorite songs was “Shenandoah.” Well, old Eugene and I finally have something to talk about over a beer.

Cawthon has based his revue on an O’Neill songbook compiled by UC Berkeley professor Travis Bogard. Four vocalists explore themes whose titles alone evoke the mood of O’Neill’s work — the American Dream, the Sea, the Barroom, Romance, Ireland, the South, Songs for the Misbegotten, and a collection of hymns entitled “Behind Life.”

An evening of music from O’Neill’s point of view may be just what I need to be re-introduced to an American treasure and begin our relationship anew on common ground. Or it could just be a great night of music.

May 10, 2003

Haunted by Images of a Discarded Drum

Filed under: Art and About Music — admin @ 2:46 pm

It is a tale almost too terrible to tell, but I will recount it for you. It was the morning of Pleasant Hill Bayshore’s special garbage pick-up day in my neighborhood. The sun glistened off the car hood as the family drove Daddy down to the BART station. I have been known to find treasures in other people’s trash, so I glanced at the piles of unwanted items stacked on the sides of the road as we drove by. We rounded a corner and there it was, a bass drum disrespectfully propped up against the blue garbage can. It looked like it was in perfectly good condition.

I gasped. My mind starting racing. I could hear the garbage truck only a half a block away. What should I do? It took everything in me not to pull over right then, but we had to get my husband to his train. We were only a minute from BART, but it felt like an eternity. I pulled up at the curb, said a hasty goodbye, and waited impatiently while my toddler tried to talk his Dad into staying home. Finally, the farewells were complete and my heart raced as we exited the station and went on our rescue mission.

As we neared the house with the drum, I became distracted by the proximity of the garbage truck and overshot the driveway. Desperately, I looked for a suitable place to turn around. As I was turning, the truck was pulling up in front of the drum. Just as I finished the maneuver, only about two doors down from my target, the garbage man leaped out of his truck and started to do his job. By now, the owner of the drum had come out to her driveway to make sure all her so-called trash was picked up.

The drum was the first to go. As if in slow motion, the garbage guy unceremoniously heaved it into the truck. I had a chance to inspect all sides of the instrument as it fell from the sky and it really did seem like it would still be able to produce a satisfying boom-boom-boom. I sat paralyzed in my car. I was self-conscious about retrieving the drum in front of the garbage crew and the homeowner. I also didn’t want to leave young children alone in the car on the side of a rather busy road. I decided to stay put, and watched with a heavy heart as the truck pulled away, the drum perched defiantly on top of the rest of the rubbish as if to shout, “Remember me.”

I do remember that drum. I have fantasized about how it came to live with that family, and why the decision was made to abandon it. Maybe a son played that drum in high school, a son who moved out years ago and never reclaimed his instrument. Maybe it was purchased as a cheering accessory for some big football game. Maybe the homeowner and her husband were college sweethearts who got married the day after graduation and the drum was one of those possessions that got thrown into the car as they moved from the dorms into their first apartment. It has probably occupied the corner of one attic after another.

I am not so naïve as to believe that this drum had a future in an orchestra or a band. My interest in it was for my son, who loves to explore his natural impulses in rhythm, tempo and dynamics by banging on anything that crosses his path. He has percussion instruments aplenty, but nothing as booming as a bass drum. In fact, my husband and I have endured raised eyebrows over the past two Christmases when we have told friends and family that we gave our toddler percussion instruments as a gift. They seem to be in the “If thine enemy offend thee, give his child a drum” camp when it comes to giving children a potential noisemaker. As my husband puts it, this is the kind of attitude that causes problems for early music adoption in our culture. If you expect it to be noisy, to you it will be noisy. But if you think of it as music, you might discover that the next John Philip Sousa lives under your very own roof. Our son, for instance, enjoys adding a backbeat to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.”

Salvaging instruments for play and experimentation by younger folks was not my idea. I’ve borrowed it from Sandro and Mary Sandri of Lafayette, who were kind enough to let my son tag along on an interview last year. To keep Tyrian entertained, Sandro pulled out a $10 guitar he had purchased at a flea market for his grandkids to play with. It was fascinating to watch Tyrian explore the potential of that guitar. I came right home and asked my mom if she would dig out her old guitar, which is now a part of Tyrian’s private music studio.

I wonder if the former owner of the discarded drum has any grandchildren, or hopes to have some one day. I wonder if she knows anyone with young children, or if she might have had a minute to spare to call local preschools or daycare facilities to ask if they would be interested in providing a loving home for her drum. It is too late for her drum, but it is up to the rest of us to ensure this instrument did not die in vain.