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Oops!

Don’t you just love it when a dignified, serious person makes a blunder?  Com’on.  Admit it.  I mean as long as it’s not your surgeon who is doing some local-anesthesia work on your person.  “Oops,” is the last word – possibly literally – you’ll want to hear.  But nothing so dramatic here.  I’m talking about dignified, professional, serious musicians.   I collect these anecdotes and imagine others, so allow me to open my treasure chest of oops moments.

First, there’s the trumpet player.  He’s doing wonderful things, finding tones, hitting every note with clarity and verve and then – wait for it – his mute gets away from him and goes rolling gleefully across the stage for all the world to see.  Yes, there’ll be a few titters and giggles from the audience, but the musician, like the true professional he is, simply walks over and picks the damn thing up and carries on.  Now that’s class.

And there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.  Of course, if it’s one of the bass strings and goes ka-blooey, it can remove his glasses, scratch his face and cause a really awful moment.  He can’t just carry on.  He’ll just have to sit there or try to play on three strings or just forget the whole thing and walk off to find a replacement string.

…there’s not a cellist alive who hasn’t had a string break in the middle of a concert.

But here’s my own recurring nightmare:  I’m a timpanist in a big, important orchestra with a grand and renowned conductor.  Not permitted to thump the kettle drums or even rat-a-tat the snare, I am given the lowly triangle and told, sternly, to follow the music very carefully.  This I diligently do.  So there I am, standing up with my triangle shining elegantly in my left hand and my little wand in my right, counting carefully for my big moment.  And I’m off by one beat.  I’m off by one beat.  It can’t be.  I’m off by ONE lousy beat.  And everybody, I mean everybody knows.  The grand and renowned conductor shoots me a look that would knock a pigeon off an electric line and the timpanist standing next to me gently removes the elegant triangle from my hand so that I can do no further damage and I sit down and try to make myself as small as possible.   It could have been worse, I guess:  I could have dropped the triangle right into the horn in front of me.  It could have been worse.  It could have happened, and I’m just the person it would have happened to.

Of course, I am not a timpanist and I’ve never even been close to a triangle, but I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.  I was a member of a folk group – remember those?  I know I’m dating myself, but really, it was a lot of fun.  I was also working at a local television station, writing what is called “continuity.”  That’s all the stuff that’s thrown in so that there is no dreaded “dead air.”  Anyway, the lady who was host of the daytime show invited me to sing on her show, demonstrating the desperation daytime hosts feel when trying to fill a time slot.  So, with my trusty Nuevo Laredo guitar in hand, I sat before the camera and launched into a piece I had done a million times.  You may remember it, if you’re old enough:  “In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”  Well, the lyrics were pretty simple, the melody straightforward and I was on cruise control.  Until I got to the end and the song (and Peter, Paul and Mary, if memory serves), launch into “Wee-mo-way, wee-mo-way.”  So I launched into “Wee-mo-way,” but I couldn’t get un-launched.   Panic set in.  How am I going to end this?  What comes next?  So I tried to just kind of let my wobbly voice drift off into the void and bowed my head.  It was a brief career, but brilliant.

I was sufficiently musically embarrassed in my misspent youth to convince myself that I should find a career other than music performance.

I have a friend who’s a clarinetist and had a reed break in the middle of Cole Porter.  Of course, he had another reed, but there in front of the whole world had to extract it from his pocket, run it through his mouth a time or two and then install it in the clarinet.  Maybe no one noticed, but I’ll bet they did.

I don’t think there’s a musician alive who hasn’t had an “oops” moment, and maybe they can laugh about them, but I’m certain that – just like my wee-mo-way moment – they’ve never forgotten them.

And speaking of forgetting things and oops moments, don’t forget to get your tickets for the stellar season of 2018-19.  You don’t want to find yourself on October 7, when the Brentano String Quartet performs with world renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw, slapping yourself on the forehead and saying, “Oops!”

– E Doyle

…And Beethoven smiled

You’ve seen the drawings of Beethoven:  unsmiling, looking somewhat suspicious of the world, hair that looks as though it has endured many years of mismanagement and finger-combing.  He doesn’t really look like a happy man.  His visage is just short of a scowl.  This is the familiar Beethoven, but last Sunday (April 15, 2018) at the Orion String Quartet concert, there was a different Beethoven.  I caught a glimpse of him, perched on the organ bench – and he was – wait for it – smiling.  He was pleased at what he heard; he liked what the gentlemen of Orion had done with his String Quartet No. 14.  Okay, he didn’t actually slap his knee, but he did tap his foot.  Really.

So what did Orion do that made the master smile?  Simple.  They played the composition as it was intended to be played:  with emotion, with soul-felt love for each beautiful note, with enthusiasm and joy for the complexities of the composition.  (I’m reasonably certain that Sebastian Currier and Anton Dvořák were also enjoying this concert, perhaps perched on the crossbeams of this beautiful old church.)

I’m reasonably certain that Sebastian Currier and Anton Dvořák were also enjoying this concert, perhaps perched on the crossbeams of this beautiful old church.

Why is it that some groups do a perfectly workmanlike job of playing these wonderful musical compositions and others bring a special quality that goes beyond mere artistry to a profound understanding of the work and the ability to express the composer’s notes allowing the audience to rejoice with them?   Well, that’s Orion.  Thirty years together this group, so they communicate with one another on the level of performance DNA.

They take their name from Greek mythology.  Orion the Hunter, Orion the Warrior, Orion which can be seen from almost any point on earth.  The Quartet is cutting-edge in its interpretation of contemporary works (therefore, the sword) and muscular in its interpretation of the classics.  The four gentlemen of Orion have been visible and praised in every corner of the world and their reputation gleams and glitters in the musical firmament.  Besides performers, they are also teachers, generously passing their skills to a new generation of violinists, violists, cellists and string quartets.

We of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society are thankful that their light shone on us for one memorable Sunday afternoon and I am perfectly certain that Beethoven, Currier and Dvořák enjoyed the music, too!

And while we’re talking enjoying music, have a look at next season, the 76th.  You will find music to enjoy, but only if you subscribe.  The cost is the same, students and active duty military are still admitted free and I am certain that you will find some smile-worthy Sunday entertainment.

– E Doyle

Review: The Brass Masters

You could have spent last Sunday glued to the television and watching the Oscar hoopla – or you could have enjoyed some real talent at the American Brass Quintet concert.  You could have paid homage to the little gold-plated statue at the Oscars – or you could have enjoyed some real, honest-to-goodness brass, learned something about canons (no, not the kind that fire cannon balls) and listened to music and poetry that go right to the heart.  You could have.

Just in case someone stole your pickup truck with your favorite hound in it, or Aunt Mattie over in Floresville was stuck in a tree, or your flu had come back so bad you couldn’t raise your head from the pillow – just in case, you poor soul, you missed this concert, I’ll be kind and tell you what you missed:

First there’s just the sound, the Temple-filling, soul-filling sound of five brass instruments.  Think about this:  can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.  The tones and the harmonies blended and then flowed separately, then blended again.  You would have heard centuries’ worth of songs, music that would have been familiar to Queen Elizabeth I or King James I; music that would have been heard in old St. Petersburg; music that celebrates the common man and the joy of the everyday in the 20th century.

Can you imagine what honey or molten gold would sound like if they could sound?  Well, that’s what these five instruments in concert sounded like.

And there was a special treat:  music composed around a breathtakingly poignant poem by Carmen Tafolla, San Antonio’s own poet laureate.  The poem spoke ever so simply and ever so eloquently of the river, our river and, as recited by the author, it would have just broken your heart.  The music, composed by James Balentine, was equally simple and eloquent.  Performed as it was by this particular group, the music spun out the story of the poem in a universal language of pure beauty.  By the way, it was also a world premiere of the work and was commissioned for San Antonio’s 300th birthday. Take that, Hollywood!

And then the canons of the 16th century.  Imagine the great castle halls and the cathedrals with this glorious music resounding in the vast spaces.  Imagine the pleasure of following the musical lines through their twists and turns, counterpoints and harmonies, understanding the inherent structure where there seems to be none.  How do they do that?  I think it’s magic, pure and simple.  Finally, the composition by American composer Eric Ewazen, a work dedicated to the American Brass Quintet on the occasion of their 30th anniversary, demonstrated the artistry and complete versatility of these five musicians.  In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous.  Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

Michael Powell, the ABQ trombonist, described brass players as “plumbers,” since their artistry depends on pipes and tubes and conduits, but I assure you that if the ABQ are plumbers, then I am in line for a Pulitzer.  Just sayin’. No, these gentlemen, all teachers of the next generation of premiere artists, are truly brass masters.  Don’t say I didn’t tell you…

In three movements, the music went from languid to playful to joyous to sonorous. Pick your adverb; it was all of that and more.

And don’t forget the last concert of this exceptional, sparkling season:  the Orion String Quartet, a group that has become the standard of excellence in the world of chamber music, will perform April 15th at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, 227 W. Woodlawn (corner Belknap).  Buy Aunt Mattie a ladder and be there!

– E Doyle

 

Trees

Bear with me, please:  I’m off on yet another tangent and I ask your kind indulgence.  The subject is trees.  My dad loved his trees and I suppose, therefore, that there is something genetic about the love of trees because I love my trees, too.

Let’s talk about oak trees, those friendly stalwarts of the South Texas landscape.  They live to an incredible old age and faithfully tolerate tire swings hung from limbs, small children climbing where their mother’s expressly forbade (as in, “Don’t you dare climb up that tree and if you do, I’ll kill you!”), the pure beauty of Christmas lights and piñatas and the indignity of generations of cats, squirrels, raccoons and dogs with a death wish clawing their way up the trunk.  Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.  How many storms has it weathered, how many droughts have sent its roots ever deeper into the earth?  How many generations of birds have called it home? This and more:  have you ever noticed areas of worn bark about 4 feet up on oak trees?  If the tree is very old, that comes from cows and horses rubbing against the tree, scratching what itches and smoothing the bark in the process.

Standing close to an oak tree, you can’t help wonder how many people how long ago have enjoyed the beauty of this very tree.

I grew up with oak trees and experienced their welcoming shade and shelter.  There was no better place to be when one needed to ponder the deeply serious problems of adolescence than at the base of an oak tree.  Being of Irish heritage, I was also pretty sure that “my oak trees” housed leprechauns in their roots.   I remember that, during droughts, my dad would carry buckets of water from the barn to the trees to help them survive.  In return, the oak trees gave my family never-failing beauty.  Now I live in a neighborhood that was once an oak grove; this land was once on the banks of a creek and, historians say, was part of the ranch that was home to the vaqueros of the missions and their herds.  There are huge oak trees lining our streets and gracing our yards and, yes, I’ve found the tell-tale signs of cattle and horses rubbing their imprints into the bark.

Developers tend to take down these wonderful, old trees and replace them with fast-growing intruders that can’t survive our climate for more than a few years.  It will take much patience and probably many generations of homeowners to see the results of a new oak tree.  That phrase doesn’t even look right; “new oak tree”?  What’s that?

But I’m not done, you’ll be so very happy to know.  Let’s talk laurels.  We call them “mountain laurels” in these parts, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with mountains.  Our treasured little laurel trees (aka, Sophora secundiflora) love our limestone-enriched soil and, with their wonderful flowers and scent, give us the hope of spring.  My experience with laurels goes back a few generations (it’s the old DNA thing again).  My grandmother planted laurels from seeds and nurtured them so that when I was a child, I knew them as a part of our home landscape.  As an adult, I decided to buy a house on the basis of a 30-foot tall laurel growing in the front yard with a grove of her children nestled around her.  (Did I mention that laurel trees are female?)  I wasn’t as concerned about the stability of the home’s foundation or the beauty of its design, but it was love at first sight for that laurel tree.  Years later, when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive.  It did and I did.

…when I was terribly ill, I used to think that as long as that laurel tree was there to keep an eye on things, I would survive. It did and I did.

There’s another feature of laurel trees that, if you didn’t grow up here, you may not know:  laurel trees produce these beautiful bright red berries.  They’re not edible – in fact, they’re poison – but if you are a mischievous child bent on revenge, you could take the berry, rub it vigorously on concrete (think sidewalk) and then apply it smartly to the arm of your big brother who had been bullying you.  It burns like fury when properly prepared.

I haven’t even started on mesquite trees, pecans and chinaberries.  Perhaps a later walk through the woods?  But aren’t trees really incredible?  Just think about it:  shelter, beauty, sound, scent and a symbol of continuity and strength.  Poems, music and art have all praised trees and with good reason:  just like poems, music and art, trees are gifts to be treasured.

And speaking of treasures, there’s that music – you knew I’d get there, didn’t you?  There are two glorious concerts remaining in this our 75th season:  the American Brass Quintet (March 4th) and the Orion String Quartet (April 15th: at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church, don’t forget).  We are not quite as old as my favorite oak trees, but with your continued support and attendance at these delightful concerts, we may just endure.

– E Doyle

WOW10th!

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the fabulous Chanticleer.  It is simply hard to believe that 12 men can produce the music, sounds, sheer entertainment that this group so ably can.  I sincerely hope you were at the San Antonio Chamber Music Society’s January 21st presentation of Chanticleer.  Only 500+ music lovers filled Temple Beth-El for this alternately moving, sentimental, humorous concert – and everyone left humming the encore presentation, “Bei mir bist du Schön.”

The true art of Chanticleer is the production of a musical fabric, in this case “Heart of a Soldier.”  The first songs dated from the 14th Century to the 20th, and covered battle-connected poetry and songs created through all those ages.  Chanticleer wove these into a fabric with voices blending and moving through scales of harmonies.  As I listened, I realized that what Chanticleer was weaving was a tapestry:  each thread with a voice, each voice with a color.  The whole cloth told stories of praise, of fear, of reliance on a greater power and of comradery.

Chanticleer was weaving was a tapestry:  each thread with a voice, each voice with a color.

Still keeping with their theme of soldiers’ hearts, the second half of the program moved into the 20th century with wartime popular music that (for some of us elders in the audience) brought back visions of the Andrews Sisters as well as of Peter, Paul and Mary.  Their rendition of “My Buddy” tugged at my own memories of military funerals, red poppies in lapels and the solemn white markers at Arlington.  “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was a Vietnam-era song, so poignant in its simplicity and so meaningful to all the young men and young women who faced tragedy in those years.  Chanticleer made a hymn to peace out of Pete Seeger’s pop song.

As we all knew, this was a concert that would be special – and indeed it was.  It elicited a range of emotions just as the voices of these remarkable musicians created a range of harmonies.  The fact that they were also performing in several languages simply attests to their skill.  I hope you were there to enjoy this most remarkable vocal concert.

And don’t forget another concert that promises a wonderful afternoon of musical bliss:  the American Brass Quintet performs for our 75th season March 4th at Temple Beth-El.  Having experienced the magic of 12 incredible voices, you won’t want to miss the magic of these wizards of brass!  Remember, you can use any ticket from this season’s concerts or bonus tickets for either the American Brass or Orion String Quartet on April 15th at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church.  Hope to see you there!

– E Doyle

The Kings and I

I was enjoying myself in France the other day and while in the Loire Valley happened on some of the most gorgeous chateaus in all the world.  They had been the property, in the XIV Century, of two remarkable regents, their queens, their favorite ladies and an assortment of friends, progeny and others to whom was owed vast sums of money. The chateaus are filled with crystal chandeliers, tapestries and precious furnishings – and cold.  Really, it’s no wonder that progeny were so numerous:  everyone was just trying to stay warm!

In France, you could start in the 13th Century with Louis IX and work your way slowly (and painfully) through all the Phillipes, the Charles, the Louises and the Henris, but it is très confusing!  So for clarity’s sake, let’s begin with François1ierAn imposing person, he stood a smidge over six feet tall – and remember, s’il vous plait, this was the Fifteenth Century, when you were considered “tall” if you measured about five feet six.  How do I know this?  Well, about the fourth time I banged my head on a castle lintel, I figured it out:  either people walked around all bent over or very bruised; in fact, one of the French kings smacked himself on a lintel and died of brain injury.

 

Anyway, back to Francis I.  He was born two years after Columbus touched the shores of what would become the New World.  He married Claude of Brittany, his cousin, when he was 20 and upon the death of his uncle,  Louis XII, her father, became King of France.  Now ponder this:  here’s a very young man with very limited knowledge of his world and his times, not even raised to be a ruler, and suddenly, he’s one of the most powerful people in Europe and, arguably, much of the rest of the known world.  Furthermore, he may have been one of the first true “Renaissance Men.”  As he matured – and fathered seven children – his interests ranged across a wide spectrum:  art, architecture, poetry, foreign relations, philosophy and letters.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

His dearest friend was none other than Leonardo da Vinci who accepted Francis’ invitation to come to Amboise, bringing with him a few paintings he had dashed off:   the Mona Lisa, Saint John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.  Leonardo received 1,000 gold crowns each year, but his true worth during those years at Blois was the counsel and friendship he provided to Francis.  Leonardo may have been the mastermind behind one of Francis’ most extravagant projects, the magnificent Chateau de Chambord. He died at Amboise in 1519, leaving us to wonder what other marvels were percolating in his fruitful brain.

Francis died at the age of 52, and again one can only wonder what this most interesting man could have accomplished had he been given a few more years.

But on  (or, a continuer, as we say in France) with my new friends, the Kings of France.  Francis’ son, Henri II, succeeded Francis in 1547 – and here was another most interesting person.  As a child, Henri and his older brother were held hostage in Spain for four years in exchange for their father who had had the misfortune to lose a battle to Charles V.  His older brother, the Dauphin, purportedly died after a game of tennis (I’d love to know who he was playing, wouldn’t you?) and so Henri was crowned in 1547.  He was already married to Catherine of Medici – yes, one of those Medicis.  He spent a great deal of his reign in wars, intrigues and your basic 15th Century turmoil, but still found time to initiate a patent law to protect inventions, produce 10 children with Catherine plus three children with three mistresses.  But his long-time and most famous favorite was the beautiful (if a touch greedy) Diane de Poitiers, 15 years his senior, to whom he gave the Castle at Chenonceau, among other properties.  He also raised the future Mary Queen of Scots at his court:  at 15, she was married to Henri’s son, Francis Duke of Anjou.  So, you see how all of these fabulous people lived intertwined lives and politics and wars, marriages and liaisons make our own era seem a little anemic?

But I digress.  Excusez- moi.  Henri II also experienced an interesting leave-taking from this earth.  He was to joust with a Scottish knight and, in a show of disrespect for the Grim Reaper, he decided to do so without using the armor that covered his face.  Score one for the Reaper:  the knight’s lance went into his eye and a few days later, Henri II was no more.  And furthermore, Catherine de Medici extracted her revenge on Diane de Poitiers, turning her out of Chenonceau, but “awarding” her Chaumont, an estate heavily in debt.

Walking through these fairy-tale castles in the Loire Valley, I thought I caught a whiff of very old wood smoke every now and then.  It was probably my imagination, but there was also a very faint sound of viola de gamba and footsteps on the stairs.  As the chandeliers glistened and danced in an unfelt breeze, it occurred to me that these great homes are haunted – I certainly hope so!

On January 21st, as I enjoy the ethereal sound of Chanticleer, I am going to think of my kings and their lavish homes, their incredible lives that have resounded through the centuries and enriched imaginations for 500 years.  I think Chanticleer’s voices echoing through the Temple will fit right in, don’t you?

– E Doyle

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