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The Moment

Everyone who has ever attended a symphony performance has experienced it:  that crystal moment that quivers in the air right after the house lights dim and just before the conductor walks on stage.  It’s a moment of anticipation, it is delicious.  A few people are still chattering, but for the most part, everyone is quiet, focused on the stage and the musicians.  The musicians may be running the first bars of the music through their minds, thinking about the sounds they are about to produce.  Do you know the first selection to be performed?  If so, you too may be running the melody through your mind in glorious anticipation of what you are about to hear; if not, you may feel the expectation that you will hear music that will open your mind and create an emotional response.  The maestro arrives, picks up his baton; instruments come to shoulders, chins, lips and there is a collective response from the audience.  Some sit forward, straining to see; some relax back into their seats, awaiting that first wonderful measure.   Every performance is the same.  Every performance is unique.

And then there is the moment just before a performance of chamber music – so different from an orchestral performance.  Three or four or five musicians walk onto the stage, arrange their music stands, perhaps tune their instruments to one another – and then it happens:  the moment of anticipation, of the sure confidence that you are about to hear magic.  Symphonic musicians read a score; chamber musicians read one another’s mind.  You know that from this small group you are about to hear sounds that will evoke a smile as a familiar sonata is performed or that will astonish you with the fresh air of new music.

Symphonic musicians read a score; chamber musicians read one another’s mind.

We often talk about conversations among musicians as they perform.  For orchestral musicians, the conversation occurs between sections – the violins pick up the cellos’ theme, the horns echo the strings.  For chamber musicians, each one is precisely attuned to the other.  You could call it a “neat trick,” but actually it represents hours and hours of practice, of listening to one another and adding just the right color with his instrument, be it voice, viola, piano or clarinet.  Chamber musicians must develop an intuitive knowledge of musical emotions and then be able to express this knowledge at the right moment.

It has been our great pleasure to enchant you with remarkable music this season.  We have been performing magic for 74 years, but the musicians and music we present are fresh, memorable and thoroughly enjoyable.  As for me, I love that wonderful moment of anticipation just before a concert begins.  It is a privilege to bring you these great performances, to enhance the cultural life of our city and to provide our audiences with those special moments.

Now, just wait until you hear the 75th season:

Pacifica Quartet with Sharon Isbin, guitar – October 15, 2017
Rebel Baroque with Matthias Maute, flute – November 12, 2017
Chanticleer – January 21, 2018
American Brass Quintet – March 4, 2018
Orion String Quartet – April 15, 2018

– E Doyle

Coffee Houses

This all started with the search for a good summer read, and then one thing led to another.  The book I found was a novel about the coffee trade in Holland in the 15th-16th centuries (The Coffee Trader, by David Liss).  Coffee had recently been introduced to Europe, and everyone, for reasons that are totally incomprehensible, took to the dark, bitter liquid made from the coffee bean like Gen Xers to Starbucks.  Go figure.

From this fascinating historical novel, I began thinking about the effect of coffee – and specifically, coffee houses – on the culture of Europe and subsequently, America.  And that (plus Google) led me to Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus in Leipzig .  No ancestor of Starbuck’s here;  no strangely named, expensive concoctions with little resemblance to actual coffee and consumed by individuals lost in their phones and tablets.  This grand institution was founded in 1702 by Gottfried Zimmermann in Leipzig at 14 Kathrinenstrasse – the  most elegant street in all of Leipzig, and the place where Bach and his buddies hung out (in a manner of speaking).

So I checked out  the Coffee Cantata by Bach, and things just went all over the place from there.  I soon discovered that one cannot talk about Bach and his concerts at Zimmermann’s without learning about perhaps the most famous (certainly the most prolific) composer and musician of his age, Georg Phillip Tellemann. Sit back, read and prepare to be amazed.  (You may want a cuppa to enjoy while I enlighten you….)

Tellemann was born in 1681 in Magdeburg, the son of a Lutheran deacon who had the poor foresight to die when his son (and his other three children) were still quite young.  Early on, young Georg showed a talent for music, but when his widowed mother sought the advice of the Lutheran higherups, she was told, reportedly, that if he followed a career in music, he would be “….no better than a clown, a tightrope walker or a marmot trainer.”  (How does one train a marmot?  I’ll Google that next!)  But the boy won over his mother at last and received some musical education at the Old City School.  No Julliard, apparently, OCS left Georg to pretty well teach himself, and teach he did; he played flute, violin, viola da gamba, oboe, trombone, double bass and a variety of keyboard instruments.  Eat your hear out, Elton John.  Oh, and he also commposed his first opera at age 12.
At 20, Georg set out for Leipzig to study law, apparently thinking that the practice of law might be more profitable than training marmots.  In Leipzig, he met another Georg, that being Georg Friedrich Handel, then 16 years old, and before long, Tellemann was back to composing cantatas for the churches of Leipzig, producing a new one every week!  By 1722, he was the Director of the Leipzig Opera and turned out 4 operas in 3 years. Just weep, Frank Lloyd Weber.

After a long and incredibly productive life, Tellemann died in 1767 at the age of 86 – oh, an in his spare time, he had published his own music.

Now, the road leads back to Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus.  In 1702, Tellemann founded the Collegium Musicum which was hosted – at no charge – by Gottfried Zimmerman.  Admittance was also free, and herr Zimmermann was able to profit by the patrons’ proclivities for beautiful music and really good coffee.  One of the habituees was none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, who took over the Collegium Musicum in 1729 and directed its productions of recitals and chamber music (see? You knew I’d get to chamber music eventually!) until 1739.  The music essentially died with Zimmermann in 1741, but the building existed on Kathrinenstrasse until the bombing of Leipzing during World War II. It was, sadly, reduced at last to rubble.

All of the above at long last brings up the Coffee Cantata by Bach – see the connection?  Think about the ladies – yes, ladies were allowed to attend the musical events at Zimmermann’s – and gentlemen in their satins and lace thoroughly enjoying their coffee and some of the most remarkable, enduring music the world has ever known.

By the way, you too will enjoy some of the most remarkable, enduring music in the world (sans coffee)  at San Antonio Chamber Music Society concerts.   This season will conclude at Temple Beth-El with “Calmus” – an a cappella vocal quintet from Germany, singing music inspired by Shakespeare. You are going to love it!

– E Doyle

A learning experience

Some things I’ve learned from a knee replacement surgery:

Don’t ever sit in a chair with wheels (unless you want to go to the next room or possibly outside very quickly).

The walker is your friend.  Yes, it’s ugly, scares the cat half to death and is incredibly clumsy, but use it you must unless you feel an urgent need to return to the hospital.

Under no circumstances, turn on the TV during the day.  Unless your selection is far broader than mine, you will “enjoy” incredibly old series such as all the various SVUs and CSIs and be treated to topical comedy shows from the Bush I years.

Radio – remember radio?  The music on KPAC is always there for you and something wonderful by Mozart may even help you forget how much your new knee hurts.  There’s also that collection of CDs awaiting you; never mind about the Christmas ones – it’s too depressing to think about all those people having fun in the snow when you can’t even get out of the house.  Go for the strings:  guitars, violins, violas, cellos (always cellos!).  They soothe.  Brass is just too – well – brassy and winds just make me wish for spring.  Strings are the way to go.

Go for the strings: guitars, violins, violas, cellos (always cellos!). They soothe. Brass is just too – well – brassy and winds just make me wish for spring. Strings are the way to go.

The surgeon is dedicated to the strange notion that hacking into your leg will not have painful after- effects, therefore he has enriched your pharmacy with prescriptions for virtually every pain killer known.  Now, I’m not saying you should eschew chemical assistance in your recovery, just beware.  You have to remember that if you’re taking any of this stuff you cannot drink any, and I mean any alcohol.  Everyone toasting the New Year?  Put water in a champagne glass and pretend.  Furthermore, even if you haven’t had even a teensy-weensy sip of wine, you will most assuredly stagger around like a drunken sailor.  These pharmaceuticals will, I guarantee, cloud your thinking (just try to do a NY Times Crossword puzzle!) and seriously impede judgement (as in, “I don’t think I need the walker anymore”).  So you want to go back to the hospital with a broken hip?

Grin and bear it.  People will send you cards and flowers and chocolates.   You’ll receive charming e-mails.  Don’t mess with the Oxycontin: pain builds character.  Turn on your favorite music, sip some water and aim to be able to make it to the next San Antonio Chamber Music Society concert on April 23.  You can do it!

– E Doyle

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

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