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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

Going Up!

It occurred to me the other day that I’m spending an awful lot of time in elevators.  This is, of course, a factor of age, occupation, age, social life, age…  Well, you may get my drift.  Gone are the days when I thought nothing of running up or down several flights of stairs.  Nowadays, it’s push the button and wait for my usual mode of ascent or descent.  I live in a high rise (that’s one elevator trip); I volunteer in a high rise (trip #2); I often go to a social club which is in a high rise (trip #3); and then there are the occasional trips to friends (trips #4, 5, and 6).  My two man-made knees and my creaky back appreciate elevators, but I’ve also learned some interesting life lessons while hanging out in elevators.

My two man-made knees and my creaky back appreciate elevators, but I’ve also learned some interesting life lessons while hanging out in elevators.

In the first place, I never get to hear all of the story.  That’s frustrating.  “So Albert and Mrs. G are having a little fling, and you know what?”  (Door opens.  Arggh!!)  “Well, I’ve pretty well decided that this job is just not worth it.  Next week I’m going to” (Door opens.  Rats!)   (Enter as door opens): “…and she said that if he doesn’t do something about this situation and do it now, I’ll do something.” “How are you going to do that?”  (Door opens.  I’ll never know, but I’ll be reading the paper.)  I have often thought I could take some of these overheard bits and pieces and write a novel – or at least a short story!

Another commonality for us Riders In the Sky is our profound ambivalence to the sounds around us.  Of course, there’s the famous elevator music.  Kenny G must make a fortune from all that sound that comes from his side-mouth clarinet.  Couldn’t the building afford the Boston Pops, music from great ballets or even Mariachi?  Maybe the decision-makers are afraid we’ll break into dance and disrupt the cables.  I don’t know.

Then there’s perfume.   Some folks, both men and women, must splash on large quantities of really pungent perfume or after-shave just before boarding the elevator.  You could die from the fumes.  And even after the offender has left, the melody lingers on.  I used to live in a high rise in Montreal, and I could always tell if the woman who lived three floors up had been in the elevator; she wore a fake fur that was drenched in Armani.  To this day, I hate the smell!

And, of course, there’s the ever-present cell phone attached to a fellow rider’s face.  I always thought there was no internet service in the confines of an elevator; not so.  Being in the elevator may just require that one speaks louder and repeats often.  But I only hear one side of a conversation and I’m left to wonder what the other person was saying.  It has occurred to me, however, that people on cell phones while in an elevator have found a way to avoid talking to anyone who is also on the elevator.  It’s all a fake, people!  You gaze at the floor lights with rapt attention, I talk on my cell phone.  Mission accomplished:  I don’t have to talk to you or even admit your presence.

Another thing that’s odd about elevator travel:  if you’ve ever been on an elevator with a man whose religion forbids he look at other women, he must, perforce, turn to the wall.  In the small confines of an elevator car, this is disconcerting to say the least.  Why doesn’t he just get a cell phone and stare at the floor numbers as they appear?

Finally, for the truly faint-hearted, there are the scary sounds some elevators make (I don’t mean Kenny G).  I’m going along, up or down as the case may be, when out of nowhere comes this groaning sound and I start to wonder if this is my trip to the Great Beyond instead of to the 20th floor.  Furtively, I glance around at my fellow passengers and no one seems to be alarmed or grasping the side rails, so I decide that they are all used to this particular elevator and its song.  Nothing to worry about, right?  And have you ever checked the weight allowance posted in the elevator?  Why is that posted inside the elevator instead of in big letters outside where all those people who are trying to crowd on are?  We’re all going to die….

And have you ever checked the weight allowance posted in the elevator?  Why is that posted inside the elevator instead of in big letters outside where all those people who are trying to crowd on are?

I’m glad to announce (in case you haven’t noticed) that you needn’t take an elevator to enter the beautiful Temple Beth-El  in order to enjoy a superb musical experience.  So relax:  a few steps, a ramp and you’re all set to hear something that will make you forget all about elevator music.   In fact, our next (and the season’s last) concert is on the horizon:  The fabulous Finckel/Han/Setzer Trio will make your Sunday afternoon, April 28th, a joy.  Come join us at 3:15pm and forget all about elevators!  By the way, the 2019-2020 season will also be unveiled and subscription tickets will be available for sale. We will also be distributing a very brief questionnaire to learn your favorites.  See you there!

– E Doyle

Rest In Peace

I went to a funeral yesterday.  No, you didn’t know the man who had died and it’s likely you didn’t know his family.  Even I had only a brief acquaintance with him and his family, but it happened that a member of my family had married this man’s daughter and I’m glad I bestirred myself to attend the man’s departure ceremony.  Patience.  I’ll tell you why.

To begin with, the two families that were united by the marriage of (let’s call him) John and his wife and her daughter and my cousin are from different ethnic cultures and different races.  The funeral chapel was filled to capacity with every color of human, every manner of grieving for this ordinary, remarkable man.  The music performed ranged from “Time To Say Goodbye” through Country-Western to opera.  There was also music representing John’s ancestors’ culture.  The minister spoke of the glories of the afterlife, the rewards of a life well-lived, etc., etc., and it was clear he didn’t know John or his wonderfully variegated family.

The impressive part of this memorial, though, was not the music or the minister or the message; it was the spoken reminisces of his friends and family.  John was a man who loved others; he was a good friend, a helper, a facilitator, an accepter of differences.  For many years, he had a business which put him in contact with all manner of people and he was known as a “soft touch.”  He would try to help anyone he could, his generosity sometimes putting his own finances at risk, according to his friends.  He had a mischievous sense of humor, a dry intellectual wit and a sense of fun that remained in the fond memories of his family and his neighbors. His nieces remembered John taking them to concerts, all kinds of concerts, and how they enjoyed those special times with their uncle.  His neighbors told of the fabulous desserts he’d make to share with all.  As one by one, his friends and family spoke of John and recounted stories of his deeds and his joy, I wished I had known him better. 

The impressive part of this memorial, though, was not the music or the minister or the message; it was the spoken reminisces of his friends and family. 

If you’re lucky, once in a while you will come across someone like John – an unforgettable person who even at his last rites brings smiles and happiness to those he touched.  People like John are to be treasured, as John was and will forever be in the memories of his friends and family.  I know they will tell stories of him for years to come and they will laugh and cry for missing him and laugh for remembering him.

Driving home, I pondered (as one does) what would be said about me when I could no longer come up with a smart riposte or a lame excuse.  I measured out the joys of my life and hoped that I had shared them, as John did, in such a way as to bring joy to others.  I, too, would like to be remembered as one who joins together cultures and ethnicities and races, but John has set a very high bar.

I hope that you will share some joy with me at our April 28th concert presentation, the Finckle/Han/Setzer Trio. You will find beauty to share as you listen to this remarkable trio, known for their exquisite mastery of the piano trio genre.  We’ll be at Temple Beth-El and students and active duty military will be admitted free.  Come enjoy!

– 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

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