Encores & Curtain Calls: A highbrow hit kick off 2013
“I write the old-fashioned way. I’ve got an old-time Steinway in a little composing studio in the Hollywood Hills and I go up there. I have no other considerations when I write, except for the following: I want to write music that satisfies me, that will attempt to satisfy both head and heart, that will be gracious for the performer, and will communicate with the listener. “
— Morten Lauridsen
Let me tell you about my piano:
It’s a glossy black Yamaha upright, still looking brand-new after some 30 years, and still a presence that sends a quiet thrill through me every time I behold it — a beloved musical companion which has, through the decades, willingly put up with endless hours of creative experiment and chaos without the least complaint.
But it is not about the piano that I wish to tell you right now, but rather of what sits atop it. Being an upright, there is precious little space compared to the vast surface of a grand, but I must say I’ve made admirable use of the narrow alleyway it does offer for fingertip-ready access to cherished music.
For, on this slender rectangle — perhaps 10 square feet all told — are stacks ranging from the medieval to the modern, from Bach’s “The Well-tempered Clavier” to the 2-inch thick hardbound orchestral score to “”West Side Story,” from Puccini’s “La Boheme” (vocal and orchestral versions) to Leroy Anderson’s pop hits, and from classic and recent — not to mention impossible-to-obtain — film scores like the 1956 “Moby Dick” and 1941’s “The Wolf Man.”
The stacks range from several inches to more than a foot high, so that, working at the piano in one of my white-hot passions, I would be able to lay finger on literally hundreds of works from the orchestral choral and chamber concert repertoire almost instantly.
“And what,” you may ask, “determines just which scores get to occupy the prize catbird-seat atop your Yamaha while hundreds of others languish in relative obscurity in their dutiful places on your bookshelves?”
Good question. In the end, only one criterion determines which of the world’s voluminous library of masterworks gets privilege of position at any given time in one of the Leaning Tower of Pisa-like stacks looming above the keyboard: and that is that the moment I lay eyes upon them, I feel an electro-shock of delight and excitement run through my being by virtue of the creative voltage they contain: Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady”; Samuel Barber’s Pulitzer prize-winning Piano Concerto of 1962; Gian-Carlo Menotti’s magical Christmas opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors”; Maurice Ravel’s sublime string quartet, the mystical “Mother Goose Suite,” and his scintillating piano suite, “LetTombeau de Couperin”; and George Kleinsinger’s adorable orchestral musical fable “Tubby the Tuba” to delight the heart of my inner child.
Ask me what I would rather have, goblets of gold cascading over the piano, urns of silver, diamond-filled casks or priceless objets d’art or my motley music pillars. I will tell you truly, “No, friend, alluring as they may be, these all fall shy of the shores of my soul; rather do the treasures that I seek lie readily available just within the dog-eared covers of these well-thumbed volumes, in the form of the secret code called music notation, which, once learned, allows free entry into kingdom after kingdom of glorious, rapturous inspiration throughout the centuries, the likes of which the world has never heard before or since.
Well, I could go on waxing ecstatic about the unsuspected universes of sound lying upon my piano lid and how, by spending deep hours, days, months and years within their pages, the secrets of creation become transparent to the beholder, but I shall spare my overstressed readers, with a promise of more to come another day.
For today, it’s enough to know that one of the long-standing revered residents of that Grand Central Station of a lid is a work that has in its short span come to occupy the status of a hit single in the world of classical choral music.
I came to know of it perhaps a dozen years ago during one of my weekly visits to an audiophile friend, an ultra perfectionist psychotherapist and music lover whose passion for the ultimate listening experience caused him to spend perhaps more upon his sound system than upon his elegant home and required that he paint the core of each of his many hundreds of CDs with a special solution that purported to guaranteed their longevity. Indeed, even his speaker wire had a loftier pedigree than all others we commoners have subsisted upon.
That said, he knew I was a stickler for music of substance — and not merely effect — and that my Muses demanded that each note have its raison d’être or be mercilessly annihilated on the spot, and that good or great music must never rely upon arcane analytical notes or arcane construction blueprints, but that the proof should be audible in the pudding of listening.
In other words, he knew that I was virtually impossible to please where the pretentious grandstanding of many contemporary composers was concerned, most of whose output wound up, for me, in the “Sound-and-fury-and-Signifying-Nothing” cubicle.
And finally, to make matters worse, he was well aware that I thought the abiding absence of melody — compelling and beautiful melody — was an unforgivable sin, for any second-year conservatory upstart can fill a page with notes without saying a shred of anything worth hearing.
So, with tongue-in-cheek, he sat me down and launched the CD of a new find — “Lux Aeterna” for chorus and orchestra, by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. And, lo and behold, welcome and attractive sounds began to emerge, followed by even more beguiling sounds and currents of genuine lyricism — with surges of identifiable melody, what’s more — embedded in refreshing and handsome harmonies that hearkened both backward and forward in time simultaneously.
Beyond this, one sensed an indescribable humility in the composer’s soul that absolutely assured one that he was not out to impress — neither his listeners nor his colleagues — but that the source and substance of the music was ever uppermost in his mind.
And happily, the music was both deep and chaste at one AND the same time, both dissonant and ravishing, bleeding and ecstatic, human and transcendent; it wallowed nowhere, but continued gloriously evolving and metamorphosing — just like the human soul — from start to finish, with never a moment’s falsity or artifice.
How much more can we ask?
In the relatively few years since its birth, the honesty and depth of “Lux Aeterna” has claimed the hearts of many across the world, and shows no signs of ceasing to do so.
The Brattleboro Concert Choir, directed by Susan Dedell, will perform the Lauridsen work along with English composer Bob Chilcott’s 2010 Requiem — described by the Oxford Times as “gorgeous and uplifting” — Saturday, Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 13, 3 p.m. at the First Baptist Church, 190 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.
Tickets: $15 general, $10 students, Brattleboro Music Center, 802-257-4523 or at bmcvt.org .
What a wonderfully luminous way to ring in the New Year!
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.