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Leonardo the Music Lover

If you look, you can find thought-provoking ideas everywhere.  For example, the May 2019 issue of National Geographic which has a sketch of Leonardo da Vinci on the cover has this little gem in Claudia Kalb’s article on the great master:

“Leonardo ranked music as second only to painting, higher even than sculpture, describing it as ‘figurazione delle cose invisibili,’ the shaping of the invisible.”   Claudia Kalb, National Geographic, May 2019, pg. 92.

This quotation spoke to me.  Isn’t that just what great music does?  Regardless of the genre?  Doesn’t music that speaks to your heart, your mind, your very soul perform its magic by putting something that perhaps you haven’t really formulated into words into melody and harmony?  Don’t those lines of music, that particular harmony go to a place within and find there its corresponding chord?  And that, my friends, is the reason we leave our everyday lives to witness and enjoy that unique pleasure that is music.

Take a minute to join me in a little meditation on how music works on us.   First, perhaps, is association.  There is a song performed by the blind tenor, Andrea Boticelli, that from its opening bars brings to mind a remarkable memory of a dear person who has passed away.  I always associate that song with him and it always goes straight to my heart.  Then there’s memory:  sometimes I hear a passage of music that I can’t quite place until I realize that it’s something I learned to play on the piano when I was a child.  And of course, there’s just pleasure with no apparent connection to our memories.  Sometimes I hear something for the first time and it’s just so pleasurable that I smile and make a mental note to try to find a recording.  Music has the power to conjure, just as Leonardo said.  Conjure what?  Colors, scenes, places, desires, ceremonies; I would love to know what it conjured for Leonardo, wouldn’t you?

Music has the power to conjure, just as Leonardo said.  Conjure what?  Colors, scenes, places, desires, ceremonies; I would love to know what it conjured for Leonardo, wouldn’t you?

Music is also a pathway to understanding.  You might never have thought about or really understood the horror that was Stalin, but when you hear Shostokovich’s Symphony No. 9, you will understand not only the courage of the composer but also the terror he endured.  If you want to understand and even visualize the 18th Century world of Vivaldi, you must listen to his music.  Think about the court of Versailles: the rustle of satin, the scent of pomanders, the elaborate wigs – and the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer who, along with Moliére, created the Comédie ballet.  Too exotic?  How about understanding the 1960’s?  Can’t be done without the music of the Beatles.

I hope this just-ended five-concert SACMS season struck that corresponding chord in you.  And I invite you to join us for our 2019-2020 season which begins October 6th, 2019, with Apollo’s Fire.  Come enrich your musical vocabulary, strike your memory chords, stir your heart.

Happy summer to all our friends!

– E Doyle

Exquisite Balance

I believe that I now understand “balance” as the word applies to musical groups as well as to the music they chose to play.  I heard an exquisite balance of piano, cello and violin and I enjoyed the perfect – if unlikely – balance of three compositions from three centuries and sensibilities.

First, the performers.  David Finckel, an amazing cellist (and, believe me, as a cellophile I know my celloists) provided the warm, rich music that supported the ensemble.  Philip Setzer, master of the violin, gave each composition the soaring songs required by each composer – even Mendelssohn’s notoriously impossible Scherzo movement.  And Wu Han, hair and fingers flying, demonstrated her deep mastery and understanding of the music she performed.   And this trio worked.  They blended, they were precisely contrapuntal and they obviously enjoyed the performance.   Their music laughed and cried, was joyous and profoundly tragic – all in perfect balance.

Their music laughed and cried, was joyous and profoundly tragic – all in perfect balance.

The music performed by these masters should never have been blended into a single program, but again there was such beautiful balance.  Beethoven, Shostakovich, Mendelssohn: three gifted composers from three entirely different sensibilities.  Beethoven writing fashionable court music, earning his always precarious living by pleasing and surprising his audiences with intricacies and novelties; Shostakovich, literally taking his life in his hands by composing music that warily thumbed its nose at Stalin while contributing to the great artistic tradition of Russia; and Mendelssohn, the Romantic, who wove together threads of Judaism and Christianity to produce a golden fabric of pathos and compelling religiosity.  These three great composers should never have appeared on the same program, but they did and the program was perfectly balanced by their respective geniuses.

And this is exactly what the San Antonio Chamber Music Society aims to do and has done for 76 years now.  We strive always to provide a balanced season of international performers and superb music.  We hope you have enjoyed the season and, with us, you look forward to the 77th season of artistry and our special brand of Sunday afternoon escapism. Our next star-studded season will begin October 6, 2019, with Apollo’s Firea Grammy-winning Baroque ensemble you don’t want to miss. The season continues November 10 with the dynamic Ariel String Quart with Ilya Shterenberg, who just happens to be the Principal Clarinet of our very own San Antonio Symphony. Then, on January 26, 2020, we will present the incomparable Akropolis Reed Quintetdescribed as “pure gold” by the San Francisco Chronicle. On March 1, 2020, the impeccable and wildly popular British vocal ensemble VOCES8 will cross the pond to inspire us with their eight beautifully integrated voices. Our 77th Season will end on April 26, 2020, with the exceptional Parker String Quartet, another Grammy award winner which the New York Times called “something extraordinary”.  As you can see, there will be something for everyone, all fabulous performances to be enjoyed – do come share this enjoyment with us! 

– E Doyle

Experiential Music

The audience at the Eighth Blackbird concert last Sunday were promised a novel and exciting experience; they got it.  If you were expecting four or five string musicians in their somber black suits and dresses performing the usual chamber music fare (16th, 17th and 18th Century composers with maybe a little 19th and 20th century thrown in for good measure), you were definitely surprised.  Rather than the usual, San Antonio Chamber Music Society presented the unusual: six very talented musicians performing very modern music on roughly a dozen instruments.

This was “experiential music” as opposed to “expected music.”  To explain: think about a painting by Georges Seurat, say “A Sunday Afternoon at the Island of the Grande Jatte,” a prime example of pointillism.  The reason it fascinates is a bit of a trick it plays on the brain:  you are deceived into believing you are looking at an ordinary Impressionist painting, but it is actually an impression of impressionism: thousands of tiny dots of paint, leading the brain to the experience of summer light and enjoyment.  The genre-bending compositions performed by Eighth Blackbird accomplished a similar feat.  They weren’t thematic in the usual sense – they were compositions by young composers and their fresh visions of classical music defy being shoved into a box.  Just as in the Seurat painting, it would be useless to try to pick apart each tiny color.  You simply have to take in the whole and just enjoy.  (I did wonder if others in the audience felt as chilled as I did during “The Clarity of Cold Air” or experienced the rocks and water tumbling in “Eroding.”)  The compositions crossed one genre line after another from jazz to blues to where-did-that-come-from to harmony to discord, from noise to barely perceptible whispers, from expected to totally amazing.  These talented musicians also managed to express humor and pathos with their varied instruments; it was apparent they richly enjoyed what they were creating. 

The compositions crossed one genre line after another from jazz to blues to where-did-that-come-from to harmony to discord, from noise to barely perceptible whispers, from expected to totally amazing.

You may have observed there was very little in the way of sheet music in front of these guys and only after hours and hours of practice and trust in one another can a group improvise in the way they did.  Not that everything they performed was improvisation – far from it – but there were definite areas of pure “winging.”  I guess that’s the blackbird in this group. Returning to the expected (but, of course, also performed with the expected perfection), the last concert of our season is the Finckel/Han/Setzer Trio, a true standard-bearer for classical trios.  Come hear this beautiful performance April 28 at Temple Beth-El, 3:15 p.m.  Remember, students and active duty military are admitted free. – E Doyle

Connections

It was all about connections, this Cavatina concert.  Only two instruments, both relatively simple but with a storied history:  an acoustic guitar and a golden flute – what could be simpler?  But what melodies and historical connections they produced! 

There were two musicians, connected by their countries’ surprisingly interwoven histories and cultures.  Eugenia Molinar, flutist extraordinaire, explained to us that her husband’s Slavic aunt spoke archaic Spanish and that her own Spanish grandmother lit a Shabat candle every Friday evening; she didn’t even realize the significance of the candle but, like the music her own granddaughter now performs, the candle was engrained in her cultural memory from centuries past.  The richness of this program (which included music from the Seventeenth Century to modern music) kept the audience captive in its mastery and, more importantly, its warmth.  The Temple was the perfect venue for exploring heritage.

Denis Azabagic, despite his self-deprecating humor about his status as second fiddle to his wife’s golden flute, is quite obviously a master of the kind of quiet, lyrical and utterly magical guitar music this audience greatly appreciated.  The two musicians together were able to spin a mystical web of swirling cadenzas, irresistible tangos and superb sound.

The two musicians together were able to spin a mystical web of swirling cadenzas, irresistible tangos and superb sound.

This concert was unique in that it presented the premiere of a work by Matthew Dunne.  The connection between Mr. Dunne and the Cavatina is a close one and the duo had the pleasure of meeting the person in honor of whom Mr. Dunne composed his Three Artisans, flutist Tal Perkes.  Matthew Dunne is also a well-known guitarist and has composed music for some of the best guitarists now performing; but this composition came straight from the heart.  His good friend, Tal (a flutist with the San Antonio Symphony), was posthumously honored as artist, architect and flutist and his tribute was flawlessly performed by the Cavatina Duo.

This was a different chamber music concert: only two musicians filling Temple with amazing technique and connecting with the audience in a particularly heartfelt way.  I noted as well one more connection:  when the Cavatina performed Isabel, by Joseph Williams, a piece inspired by Sephardic Jews who were driven from Ms. Molinar’s homeland of Spain in the Sixteenth Century, I remembered I had heard that this date, January 27th, marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  And just as the ugliness of the death of Isabel, this young Jewish woman in Spain, the beauty of the music endures.  Just as the sorrow for the death of a good friend and fellow artist saddens, he is immortalized in music.

– E Doyle

An Experiential Concert

Sunday’s SACMS concert, LYRIC IN TIME OF WAR, was not for the faint-hearted.  Utilizing a format unfamiliar to many concert-goers, the American String Quartet wrapped their exquisite music around poetry by Tom Sleigh and Phil Klay’s narrative.  A tribute to Veterans’ Day, the result was far from the “Don’t  Sleep  Under the Apple Tree” genre of music, miles away from the flag-waving parades and jolly speeches and continents away from familiar tributes to “the boys.”  This concert was alternately beautiful, gut-wrenching, shocking and magnificent.  How to do all that in an hour and a half? 

It’s like a puzzle and it took some getting used to.   Beginning with the Bach Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier and moving forward to Tom Sleigh’s poetry, the music was interwoven with the lyric narrative and the free verse,  and the whole portrayed war with all its effects.  Assembled finally at the last strand of Beethoven’s Quartet in F Minor, the pieces came together like shrapnel speeding backwards into the grenade.  This was an experience of war as understood by composers, musicians and two writers, and the tone of profound sorrow and awe was conveyed to the audience.

This was an experience of war as understood by composers, musicians and two writers, and the tone of profound sorrow and awe was conveyed to the audience.

We’ve all been to concerts filled with beautiful, soulful music, but usually the experience evaporates after a while and two days later, we’d be hard-pressed to remember most of the selections performed.  Not so with this concert.  I for one did not drive home humming to the car radio, thinking ahead to dinner.  I left this concert with the shadow of ordnance shells overhead, lives lost, the sounds of war, the pain of grief.  The music so expertly performed by the American String Quartet so perfectly meshed with the poetry and narrative that it could have been composed for this very purpose.  Was Bach or Bartok thinking of war when they heard this music in their minds?  Perhaps not – but their music carries the emotional load expressed in the writing.  And Shostakovich, in the unfamiliar Quartet No. 8 in C minor, was most certainly expressing the horrors rained down on Russia by Stalin. There was no mistaking the fear and anger he wove into his composition.  Some of the music allowed pauses for contemplation – just as in war, there are silences during re-loading, I suppose – but the overwhelming purpose of the concert was to express what veterans experience and to help all of us appreciate their courage and the utter senselessness of war.

Our 76th season resumes January 27, 2019, with the exciting Cavatina Duo along with the world premiere of a composition by San Antonio’s own Matthew Dunne.  Here’s a promise of more stellar music!

– E Doyle

Moving Day

I am presently surrounded by all of my worldly possessions: everything from a grade school picture to my mother-in-law’s best crystal candleholders; every possible-sized pot and dishes from at least 3 sets; hair brushes of unknown provenance, pots full of defunct ballpoint pens, 4 oriental rugs of varying sizes, and one forlorn dwarf bamboo in a moldering pot.  And that’s only what I can presently see!  As I relocate from my home of 25 years to an apartment (which I thought was spacious), I have learned some valuable lessons which I will impart to you.

Lesson 1:

The three most dreaded words in the English language are, “Have you seen…” followed closely by “Where is the…” and “It’s here somewhere.”

Lesson 2:

You know you’re getting old when you need more space for your medicine collection than for your makeup (and note that all your makeup, which has been hidden away for years, begins with some variant of “anti-aging”).

Lesson 3:

If you say to yourself, “Where did this ever come from?” or “Is this mine?” toss it!  If you haven’t seen/used it in memory, you don’t need it.

Lesson 4:

If you and your significant other are still on speaking terms after a couple of weeks of this, you’re good for all eternity – or at least until one or the other of you walks out in disgust.

Lesson 5:

Keys.  If you have any idea of what all these keys you’ve accumulated over the years unlock, you’re a better person than I.  Corollary:  put tags on all keys while you still have some idea, albeit vague, of what they go to.  Another corollary: do you know how hard it is to throw away a key?  What if…?

Lesson 6:

Carefully label all boxes as they are packed.  That way, you’ll have a perfectly good reason to burst into tears when, unpacking, you find your good silverware at the bottom of a box of coat hangers.

Lesson 7:

When you just can’t take the sight of clutter as far as the eye can see, when your beautiful, light-filled apartment is pitch black because there are boxes stacked against the windows, when you find one more piece of something you know goes with something else but you can’t remember what and you don’t dare throw it away because you know that sooner or later you’ll find what it goes to, when it’s all just too much – well, it’s time to find a wine glass and a bottle of good wine, put the classical guitar music on and just try not to think about it for a while.  It will still be there when you’ve finished the wine, but you just won’t care.

I feel like a coral reef without the pretty fish!  Layers upon layers of boxes, paintings, pitchers and pictures, lamps and lamp shades, international things that I’m sure caught my eye in Bolivia or Beijing, Egypt or Copenhagen – what is it and why do I have it?  Or does it have me?

How did all this stuff accrete to me?  I feel like a coral reef without the pretty fish!  Layers upon layers of boxes, paintings, pitchers and pictures, lamps and lamp shades, international things that I’m sure caught my eye in Bolivia or Beijing, Egypt or Copenhagen – what is it and why do I have it?  Or does it have me?  I look enviously at refugees, carrying all their worldly possessions in bundles and, while I don’t wish to be in their number, I respect their ability to put all of their really important possessions in a sheet or serape, bring the corners together in a knot and sling everything over their shoulders.

I did miss one very important lesson:  if you can find some clean clothes somewhere, put them on and come to a concert.  November 11th, the American String Quartet along with Tom Sleigh and Phil Klay will be performing at our regular venue, Temple Beth-El, at our regular time 3:15.  You can come inside, shut off the clutter and confusion for a couple of hours and just relax, re-lax.  It will all be there when you get back, but I am a believer in escape, no matter how transitory.  And if you see someone with a serape full of possessions over her shoulder, well that will be yours truly.

– E Doyle

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