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The Cello-phile

 

I’m a sucker for cellos.  I freely admit to this weakness.  While all stringed instruments are completely magical – and I don’t claim to understand how anyone masters performance on a violin, viola or bass, for that matter – cellos for me belong in a different category.  I’m informed that the cello has the same range as the human voice and that’s why the cello is so appealing.  I’m not buying it.  If I ever came across someone who sounded like a cello, I would never leave his  or her side.

And even as I watch these words appear on my computer screen, I’m listening to a cello.  Not just any cello this: it’s the cello that belonged to Pablo Casals, perhaps the greatest cellist ever.  And it’s a repetition of Casals’ last concert.  His cello is being beautifully played by a friend, Amit Peled, who has performed for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society in two memorable concerts.  He now plays the Casals cello, loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  This isn’t just a magnificent instrument, I do believe it has a soul, and I think Amit Peled is the luckiest cellist alive to be able to call forth the soul of this very special cello.

A cello is never shrill, it doesn’t scream “Listen to me, listen to me!” It’s sometimes content to just play accompaniment to its more feeble siblings, and without the cello, they would sound, well, thin.

So I’m wondering:  what is it about a cello that appeals to me? I would walk across glass to hear  a Yo-Yo Ma performance.  Perhaps there are other “cello-philes” out there and they no doubt have their own reasons for loving cellos.  But for me, a well-played cello can perform the music of a ho-hum composer and transform it into a masterpiece.  A cello is never shrill, it doesn’t scream “Listen to me, listen to me!”  It’s sometimes content to just play accompaniment to its more feeble siblings, and without the cello, they would sound, well, thin.  But a cello in concert, all on its own, played by a master, can simply make me cry.  As I listen to Casals’ cello and the artistry of Peled, I find myself thinking of things like the Sistine Chapel, fresh baked bread, a field of flowers, the perfection of a scarlet wine – I could go on, you know.  But when I listen to the music of Fauré , for example, performed by a cello – this cello, especially —  I listen.  I am absolutely attuned (for want of a better word) to this swirling music that is so perfect for the instrument.  I guess you could say that it strikes a chord.  Or I guess it just makes me happy.

If you haven’t heard it yet, be sure to listen to Amit Peled’s “Casals Homage.” It will make you happy, too.  And for even more happiness (does your cup runneth over?), remember to come hear the Aeolus Quartet next January 22.  There will be a cello, of course!

– E Doyle

The Plastic Brain

Whenever I hear a waltz, be it German, Mexican, 17th Century or modern, I think of my uncle. Remarkably, in his 9th decade – unable to remember how to tie his shoes and ceaselessly folding and unfolding papers (making meaningless origami that perhaps only he understood) – he could hum along when a waltz was played. He and his wife loved to dance and belonged to several dance clubs when they were younger; now, he had great difficulty arising from his favorite restaurant table. But when a waltz was played, he would move his gnarled hands in sweeping rhythm to the music and he would smile. I’m certain that in some corner of his brain, he and my aunt were dancing across a polished floor, perfectly in step and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
That’s why an article I saw on “neuroplasticity” caught my attention.  The word is used to describe the heretofore little understood ability of the brain to change, to move functions around, to in effect shuffle its connections.  The piece reported on the use of music to help restore function to people with neuromuscular disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and to reach people closed in by Alzheimer’s and strokes.  The basic premise is something we’ve always known:  music is powerful.  It elicits emotions, memories, pleasure and sadness.  The question is how, and how can music enrich neural function?
…music is powerful.  It elicits emotions, memories, pleasure and sadness.

Aren’t we all avid readers of  Trends in Cognitive Science?  No?  Not so much?  Well, according to this learned journal, music was studied head-to-head, as it were, in comparison to anti-anxiety medications in people who were about to undergo surgery.  By tracking the amount of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, the researchers were able to conclude that the music group was less stressed (and by their own reports) than the control group who took anti-anxiety medications.  You may have also noticed that some oral surgeons give their patients earphones before they start to work.  They have no doubt learned that a dose of Chopin (in my case, anyway) causes a less anxious patient.

Furthermore, says Daniel Levitin, a neuropsychologist at McGill University, listening to or participating in the production of music increases immunoglobin A which is linked to higher immunity to bacteria and other nasties.  “I think there’s enough evidence to say that musical experience, musical exposure, musical training, all of those things change your brain,” says Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of otolaryngology and head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins University. “It allows you to think in a way that you used to not think, and it also trains a lot of other cognitive facilities that have nothing to do with music.”  Dr. Limb is also hopeful about the prospect of musical engagement as a way to prevent, or at least delay, dementia. (This from a CNN report by Elizabeth Landau, 2/16.)

Some years ago, researchers studying brains and their circuitry began using a tool known as functional MRI – or fMRI to the cognoscenti. fMRI allows the actual tracking of, among other things, verbal and non-verbal communication. And here’s the really cool part of what’s been learned: brain areas that “light up” in response to music are also affected by language, memory, attention, motor control and executive function. Apparently, music can stimulate interactions among these functions. (This is a very abbreviated discussion of what I learned from the DANA foundation about the work of Drs. Michael Thaut and Gerald McGregor on music and the injured brain.)

Brain areas that “light up” in response to music are also affected by language, memory, attention, motor control and executive function.

Bottom line:  listening to or performing music has cross-over effects on many other brain functions. One example that comes to mind is the “Haydn Effect.”  I’m stopping-and-going (more the former than the latter) along Wurzbach Parkway – and you know why they named it Park-way, right? I am not at all happy about time and gas wasted when my friends at KPAC choose to air the Adagio of Haydn’s Symphony no. 94 in G major.  So I turn up the radio and just listen to the gorgeous music.  I am no longer exerting a death grip on the steering wheel and the grimace on my face relaxes into a calm acceptance of the fact that since I’m not going anywhere fast, I may as well enjoy Haydn.

So I would like you to think of your attendance at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society’s season concerts not just as a pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but as brain therapy.  As you enjoy the Brasil Guitar Duo (Nov. 20) or the Aeolus Quartet (Jan. 22), turn inward and see if you can catch your brain in the act of being plastic!

– E Doyle

Driven to Distraction

Has this happened to you? You’re cruising along on your way to work – or whatever – and you’re listening to some KPAC music while trying to drive the speed limit so that the cop that hangs out in the hidden driveway at the bottom of the hill doesn’t snag you (again!) and present you with a ticket to the Texas Drivers’ Safety Course ( which is probably the most boring six hours you’ll ever spend) and a summons to the JP Court where you’ll pay a big, fat fine; well has this happened to you?

...turn up the volume on your radio and let the calming music soothe your jangled nerves.

As in the aforementioned, you’re just cruising along when all of a sudden the fool in the left lane who’s driving some monstrous SUV suddenly pulls in front of you, hits his big fat brakes and turns right. Now why couldn’t he just have pulled in behind you since he knew he was going to turn right? No. He’s just got to pull in front of you and you have nowhere to go but over the curb or up in the air. (Where’s that cop now?!) Now you could make some very uncivil hand gesture (which the fool in the SUV won’t see because he’s already a mile down the side street, but maybe you’ll feel better) or you could just turn up the volume on your radio and let the calming music soothe your jangled nerves.

Such is the power of music.

Or try this one on for size. You’re at the grocery store, trying without success to find the chocolate-covered onion stuffed olives you just must have for that recipe. How many aisles have you been up and down? How many squats have you done – only to be disappointed again? How many clerks have given you the idiot treatment or, alternately, sent you off on a wild goose chase down Aisle #87?

...turn on the radio and there it is: beautiful, beautiful music and you’re ready to take on the next challenge.

Having finally resigned yourself to the idea of going to the expensive specialty store, you’re headed for check-out with your meager purchases. Oh, look, a “limit 15 items” checkout line! The day’s not a total waste. You push your wobble-wheeled cart over – only to find that the woman who’s slipped in front of you has probably got 96 items in her cart and by then, someone’s pulled in behind you and you’re stuck. Finally through the line, you wobble out to the door – only to have your foot creamed by the idiot careening through the lane in a motorized cart. Why oh why oh why me? It’s okay, though. You get in your car, start the engine, turn on the radio and there it is: beautiful, beautiful music and you’re ready to take on the next challenge.

Such is the power of music.

Life’s little wrinkles seem to smooth out to the sound of music. Have you noticed? And if you have some wrinkles that need smoothing, may I recommend the glorious music in store for you at the 74th season of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society? Trust me: nothing will bother you after the Sunday afternoon concerts you’ll spend at Temple Beth-El with the Danish String Quartet, the Brasil Guitar Duo, the Aeolus Quartet, Les Amies Trio and the Calmus Ensemble.

Life’s little wrinkles seem to smooth out to the sound of music. Have you noticed?

You’ll be so tranquil and laid back that not even a monster SUV or motorized grocery cart will ruffle your feathers. You really should get your season tickets now to avoid the rush. Just go back to the web site where you found me, sacms.org, and check it out. I really look forward to seeing you there. (I’ll be the utterly tranquil one….)

– E Doyle

Old Houses

Do you ever look at old houses and wonder…. They may just be empty shells now: shingles falling off the roofs, gardens gone to weed, paint (what’s left) peeling, but there was a day when a family moved into this very house and pronounced it the “home of their dreams.” They planted roses in the front yard, there was a swing on the front porch, the paint was fresh and, as dusk gathered, there were lights in the windows. Now it’s as if the house has died. It is the occasional dwelling of vagrants, leftover people in a leftover house.

Music  can be like an old house, posing questions about which I can only speculate.  Why was this composition written?  Why isn’t it performed more often?  Has it been forgotten?  What was the composer thinking about when it came to him?

But as you look at it, you wonder. Who lived here? What was their life like? Why did they leave this old house to rot?

Music can be like an old house, posing questions about which I can only speculate.  Why was this composition written?  Why isn’t it performed more often?  Has it been forgotten?  What was the composer thinking about when it came to him?  Did he intend to delight a particular person or audience – or to make someone sad?  When written, did this music have a life beyond the notes and movements?  Was it painted brightly and did it invite visitors to come and sit for a while and listen?  And what does the composer want me to understand?  Did he hope that we, the audience, would enjoy and appreciate his music, or did he fear that we would just walk away and forget about it, leave the roses to die and the paint to peel?

Just like the houses that are forgotten and falling down, the music that has been lost or that the composer never completed or put aside as unworthy could still be played by someone who cared to resurrect it and provide a fresh coat of paint.

I suspect that the music we enjoy today is just a small portion of the music that’s been written over the centuries.  Just like the houses that are forgotten and falling down, the music that has been lost or that the composer never completed or put aside as unworthy could still be played by someone who cared to resurrect it and provide a fresh coat of paint.  Just as I would love to see a new family move into that old dilapidated house, giving it life and a second chance to be part of a vibrant neighborhood, I would love to hear some long-forgotten or overlooked composition that will once again inspire the thoughts and emotions the composer intended.

Consider:  when you listen to a musical composition (or see a painting, for that matter, or walk into a house), it is new again because you bring your thoughts and taste and appreciation to it.  The music will never be old or outdated or shabby to you – even though you’ve heard it a dozen times or more. It will always be new, eliciting new understanding and images and calling up memories.

Old houses quietly keep their secrets. Music calls out to us, “Come in, listen, enjoy.”

– E Doyle

Politics

Hey! It’s an election year! Aren’t you just all aquiver with excitement??! Just imagine: months of our elected and wanna-be elected officials blathering on about issues they actually understand but little, nevertheless expounding wonderful (awesome?) solutions to every problem the nation faces. Just imagine!

But if you prefer not to imagine, I have some escape suggestions. To begin with, surely your TV has a “mute” button on it somewhere; use it! When it’s announced that so-and-so is giving an exclusive interview on a major channel, check out what’s on the Food Network. A little vicarious dessert will not expand your waistline nor affect your cardiac function and might even help you retain any vestige of sanity you may have left.

If you find yourself at a gathering, be it Sunday school, a cocktail party or a dinner, and someone says something like, “Can you believe that [fill in the blank}?!  [He/She] said that….”  Well, you get the picture.  After you’ve politely said, “How interesting,” you say, “And did you see that column by Martha Stewart on drying flowers?  Such a talented person.”  At that point your companion’s eyes should begin to glaze and you can continue to a more reasonable topic or just quietly slip away.

Things are a little trickier if The Other happens to be your spouse – but still not impossible.  There’s always the time-honored and always useful, “Huh?  Did you say something?”  And if there’s persistence (as there often is when couples have been together for more than two years), you might try, “Were you talking about the dishwasher?  It is making a funny noise, and I wish you’d have a look at it.  I guess we could just call the appliance repairman.”  I can almost guarantee that statement will change the conversation.

And last but not least, there are those really tricky situations when you find yourself trapped in an elevator or a carpool or across a bridge table, and there’s just no getting away from the venom.  That’s when, with tremendous self-restraint, you just nod your head – just like you’re hanging on every bead and drop – and send your mind off to some other more pleasant place.  With luck, the speaker will be so frothed about his/her subject, he/she won’t ask, “Don’t you agree?”

…we were all taught never, never, never to discuss religion or politics, right?  But some folks just can’t help themselves…

Of course, we were all taught never, never, never to discuss religion or politics, right?  But some folks just can’t help themselves and I hope the foregoing will help you avoid the pitfalls.  If not, and you find yourself unable to extricate yourself gracefully, try this:

“By the way, I’ve got a couple of extra tickets to the next San Antonio Chamber Music Concert.  Wouldn’t you like to hear beautiful music for a change?” Might work. Try it.

– E Doyle

Mercí

My old car, Slick, was a real prince! Faithful, handsome, plenty of power – but Slick was getting a bit long in the odometer, so the time came to find another car, and I was fortunate enough to find Mercy. She’s a sleek, dark silver beauty with many great car features. Each time I happened on one – such as the blue interior running lights or the sound of the Romero Brothers filling the car – I found myself saying, “Mercy!” So my new car became Mercy. One of the exclamation-worthy features of my new car is the trunk that can be opened by a kick under the back bumper at just the right spot. Voila! The trunk springs open to receive the armloads of whatever.

One of the exclamation-worthy features of my new car is the trunk that can be opened by a kick under the back bumper at just the right spot. Voila!

Well, not always. I was returning to my bright new car one exceptionally cold and windy day, my arms filled with the week’s provisions, and I thought, “Boy! This is the kind of situation this trunk opener was designed for!” I positioned myself at the rear of the car and commenced kicking. Nothing. I kicked again. Still nothing. Trying desperately to hang onto my composure as a competent person, kicking for all I was worth, I noticed someone approaching. He had a puzzled look on his face which undoubtedly had something to with the spectacle of the person kicking away at the underside of a car. Some new form of line dancing, perhaps?

And then reality dawned: I was kicking the wrong car – probably this guy’s car! I scurried away (at least as best I could, with my arms loaded with bags and my face to the ground) all the while trying desperately to remember where I had parked my beautiful new car with the kick opener. I thought about going down the row of cars and trying to kick each one that looked even vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think my arms would hold up – not to mention my self-respect. Finally I realized that I was one row over from where I had parked. I made my way, as inconspicuously as possible, between the cars to the correct row, and there was my beautiful new car! I marched right up to the rear bumper, my head held high, and confidently kicked. Mercy! It opened.

I know some people are clever enough to take a picture of where they’ve parked, but I’ve never quite understood what they took a picture of – I know what the car looks like, the cars around it may move and there aren’t enough markers in the lot to be of much help. Maybe I should just take a picture of the bumper; at least I know where to start kicking.

I thought about going down the row of cars and trying to kick each one that looked even vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think my arms would hold up – not to mention my self-respect.

I just want you to know if you happen to see someone after a SACMS concert wandering through the parking lot of Temple Beth-El, kicking under car bumpers and calling, “Mercy,” don’t be alarmed. It’s just me, looking for my new car and taking the opportunity to thank all of you for coming to the San Antonio Chamber Music Society’s 2015-16 season.

– E Doyle

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