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Music Mysteries

I sincerely hope you heard the VOCES8 concert Sunday.  Like me, you may have thought about some eight-part mysteries:

1. First and foremost, how do they do that?? 

There are eight vocalists, performing everything from medieval madrigals to jazz and never missing a beat – literally.  Not only maintaining the sometimes intricate rhythms, they managed to do it without so much as a snapped finger or obvious beat-keeping.  The music just flowed, in a manner of speaking.

2. Second, how do they do that, part II?? 

The harmonies and the discords were exquisite with each voice contributing perfectly to the whole.  We’ve all heard a Capella groups, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard one where I there was not one misstep, not one sound of “soprano stretch” nor “basso bumble.”  It’s so unusual to hear eight very distinct voices blending into one glorious sound.

3. Third, how many of them were there? 

It seemed sometimes like I was listening to a full choir; other times, I heard one voice.  This is the tricky part of choral singing, and I know because I am an abject failure at it!  We learned at the post-concert dinner that there is a very extensive winnowing process for applicants to VOCES8.  Each time the word has gone out that the group is interviewing for a particular voice, they receive hundreds of applicants.  After about 14 months of getting down to two or three hopefuls, they choose someone who not only has the right voice and skills (“Can you sing madrigals?”) but whose talents blend into the whole.  The eight people we heard are the absolute best of the best.  You can tell.

4. How do they select their music? 

The variety, the colors of the music performed perfectly suited this group and amply demonstrated their skills.  I can’t imagine how many hours were spent finding everything from the composition of Gibbons (simple, elegant) to the music of Britten (complex, rhythmically complicated and satisfying).  I wonder if, like prospective singers, they sift through hundreds of candidates.

5. What happened to our audience?

I heard not a sound, not a rustle, not a beep or ping during the whole concert.  The audience was more than quiet; they were taken up into this incredible music.  I think “rapt attention” would describe the reaction.

I often eavesdrop on conservations as our patrons leave the Temple, and everything I heard on Sunday was positive.  The only complaint was that the concert seemed too short, and I would agree.  I could listen to this group for hours.

I hope we’ll see you at our last concert of the season.  On April 26th, we will enjoy the artistry of the Parker String Quartet.

– E Doyle

It’s Just Too Much

I’m giving serious thought to finding a cave and becoming a hermit.  I’m suffering from overload, you see.  There’s the Senate hearings, the Super Bowl, corona virus, Iowa Caucus, the NY Times crosswords and a car with its “Check Engine” thingamajig glowing. I see escape as the only option, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe you’re one of the lucky souls who never feel like running away from it all.  Since I really can’t become a hermit – I’d seriously miss my daily crossword puzzle and joys like symphonies and chamber music and cello solos (say that last out loud:  “cello solos.”  It has a lovely sound of sibilance and sonority, don’t you think?  But I digress.)  Can I really hermit-out in this world of ours? Here’s a resounding, “Yes!” and here’s what I contemplate.  When I was a child in a parochial school, there were annual visits from missionary sisters. In retrospect, I suppose they were Mother Theresa Light.  But they were invariably young, earnest, willowy and very convincing about the joy of living in a slum in Nicaragua, teaching, praying, meditating and feeling that their vocation to serve the poor was worth giving up what was referred to as “the world.”  And – as another selling point in their messages – their long habits with their wooden rosary beads and designer head gear were exotic and graceful.  By the eighth grade, I was ready to pack up my meager possessions and sign up. Then high school happened; need I elaborate?

A cloistered order in my home town offered a summer program for girls on the cusp of big decisions, so off I went. 

I didn’t completely lose my fascination, though.  When high school was over with its Friday night angst, I decided to try something different.  A cloistered order in my home town offered a summer program for girls on the cusp of big decisions, so off I went. I packed up my meager possessions, said good-bye to my cats and shared a sad moment with my dog, Murphy, and “got me to the convent.”  The first thing I noticed was how cold the place was, the second thing was how quiet.  When the big door closed on the outside world, the sound was downright scary.  I was ushered to a large room (a “refectory,” I learned) and was soon joined by a few other girls.  Looking around, I thought they all looked a lot more devout and determined that I and there was no doubt that the freckled red-head with the downcast eyes would make a great nun.  Mother Clare materialized from somewhere.  Just a faint clatter of wooden rosary beads, but not so much as a swish of wool serge or the faint tap of sandals on a stone floor announced her presence. Spooky!

She welcomed us (I wondered when was the last time she had spoken) and explained how we would be living.  In silence.  With chores.  In meditation.  Kneeling.  Arising at the appointed hours of worship, one of which was at 3 a.m., for pete’s sake.  This was, perhaps, going to be a little more of a challenge than I had bargained for.  We were shown to our room – singular: room.  There was a row of cots, each with a small pillow, a white waffled bedspread and a suspicious sag in the middle.  There was a tiny cupboard beside each bed, but no lights.  Next came the clothes we would wear:  a brown smock thing with white apron, black cotton stockings and the sandals.  There were showers at the end of the hall with the scent of good old Ivory soap and a few white towels on a stool in front of each.  Where’s the toilet?  I suddenly felt an urgent need.  “Just there,” said our guide, pointing at a door next to the showers. One door would apparently suffice.

            We would be permitted a visitor on Sunday afternoon for ½ hour.  And there would be a half hour during the week when we could speak.  Mostly, we didn’t.  There was no TV or radio, and the music was provided by the other-worldly voices of the sisters, singing Gregorian chant.  Sometimes, there would be a sound from outside the walls:  a loud motorcycle, a car horn.  But these intrusions into an utterly quiet world were rare and unwelcome.  One of the girls, unaccustomed to sandals, stubbed her toe on a rock in the garden and came very close to an un-nun-worthy expletive, but only got as far as “Sh…”

You might think this is an ideal escape, but it’s not.  The problem is you will find yourself inside your own mind, and that can be a very difficult place to be. 

You might think this is an ideal escape, but it’s not.  The problem is you will find yourself inside your own mind, and that can be a very difficult place to be.  You can learn to meditate, of course, but only the most adept are able to shut out all intrusions. There has to be a conscious effort to close the door on something, and bang! There goes the meditation. Now, where was I?  It just doesn’t work that way. Silence is not too difficult to learn (even for me) and what is called the “habit of prayer” really does become a prayer, helping the prayer novice to close herself off from worldly intrusions.

So I guess I’ll just create my own hermitage. I would never make it as a cloistered nun. Those women are stronger in every way than I could ever be.  Besides, I learned the hard way, being in a cloister is no escape; it is a reality on a different plane and only those with extraordinary willpower and self- control survive the experience.  What I can do, though, is what I learned in the cloister:  I can ignore what I can’t control and do my best to control those few things that I can. And I can absolutely richly enjoy those gifts I’m given, from the bright red blooms on the Christmas cactus to the achingly gorgeous sound of nuns singing Gregorian chant, not to mention the angelic voices of VOCES8, the incomparable British a capella ensemble which will be here on March 1, 2020, at Temple Beth-El.

– E Doyle

Vibrant & Mellow

Vibrant:  full of energy and enthusiasm, bright and striking

So says Google, and the definition certainly applies to this young quintet.  Okay, I admit to confusion, even bafflement when the five musicians launched into “Splinter,” but by the time they got to the fourth movement, “Cherry,” understanding was starting to seep into my brain.  I could admire the precision with which they played and their connections both to the score and to one another was remarkable.  I admired the difficulty of performing dissonance in perfect meter – selections such as theirs, very modern, sometimes atonal and often bouncing among the instruments seemingly without rhyme or reason – elicits admiration (even among the most diehard Brahms/Beethoven set).

Did you notice that the second selection ended with a movement titled,  “A Field of Reeds?”  Would that be clarinets and bassoons, was that a serendipitous selection, or was it just a reference to the Egyptian concept of paradise as a field of reeds (saxophones and oboes)?  The music certainly brought to mind the beautiful reeds bending in the wind (aided by the subtle sound effects produced by the bass clarinet).

Mellow:  pleasantly smooth or soft, free from harshness, pleasing

Sorry Google, this was not my impression of “mellow” in the context of the concert performed by Akropolis.  Their version of “mellow” is the sonorous sounds of reed instruments:  totally unexpected, surprising even.   When they performed the Nina Simone, “For All We Know,” I thought of her mellow voice singing the words.  The next time I hear it, I will think of the sounds of reeds scaling the heights and exploring the valleys of that mellow sonority.

“Sprocket,” for all its devil-may-care ‘tude, was a masterpiece of timing.  The audience enjoyed the antics (as they were meant to), but I thought that, just like really good comedy, the secret of success is timing – and they never missed a beat.  I would love to hear it performed as it was written (for bicycle, of all things).  The final selection, “Homage to Paradise Valley,” had some passages of aching loss and remembrance.  We all have a paradise valley in our lives, and we miss its vibrancy and the memories it spawned.  The quintet captured this memory of a unique place in their home town.

Finally, members of the quintet did a great job of explaining what they were about.  Since the music was unfamiliar, their introductions were helpful and appreciated by the audience.

Bravo, Akropolis!  You are golden.

– E Doyle

Pul-Leeze!

‘Tis The Season For Giving

Be generous to your favorite non-profits – and we hope we are on your list! Help us keep the world-class music coming!

Tell me it’s not the Holiday Season again. Tell me the calendar’s wrong and a whole month has been omitted. Tell me that, if I just close my eyes and click my heels together, it will be March or April. Does someone expect ME to bring toys, casseroles, pies or whatever to a gathering? Me? Have you ever tasted my home-cooked meals? And decorations: I have to haul everything down from the attic and try to figure out how to put it all together again. As for gifts, I know I’ll spend a fortune on stupid, useless things that no one really wants.

Do I sound like the Grinch? Well, I’m sorry, but it is what it is. I’ll bet some of you agree, although you might not admit it. 

Do I sound like the Grinch?  Well, I’m sorry, but it is what it is. I’ll bet some of you agree, although you might not admit it. Are you still caught up in the idea of carolers trekking through the snow in their Victorian apparel to sing at your front door in glorious harmony? C’mon! It doesn’t snow in San Antonio, and if you see someone walking down Houston Street in top hats and satin dresses, they probably just recovered from a Halloween party.

And the little kids with their rosy cheeks and wide eyes? Sorry. They’re busy with their electronics and can’t be bothered with toy trains and dolls. Are you actually roasting a turkey this year? Well, I tried that, and, believe me, it goes a lot better if you remember to take the plastic bag full of gizzards out of the turkey first… As for pies, I can give you the name of some really good bakeries.

Before you go absolutely around the bend, please put a CD in your player. Not Christmas music, pul-eeze:  there’s enough of that in elevators! No, something like the Ariel String Quartet playing Mozart. 

So there.  I’ve said all I can about the wonders of the holiday season – except for one small item.  Before you go absolutely around the bend, please put a CD in your player.  Not Christmas music, pul-eeze:  there’s enough of that in elevators!  No, something like the Ariel String Quartet playing Mozart.  Find a comfortable spot, close your eyes and just enjoy. You’ll feel so much calmer, I guarantee. Oh, and when the music ends and you’re ready to face the over-cooked turkey, the lumpy potatoes, the pie that fell apart and that string of lights that only lit every other one – before you’re ready to do the Happy Holidays Shuffle again, remember:  someone appreciates and needs you.  Yes, you.

We, the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, we appreciate your faithful attendance at our concerts, we love your generosity that keeps those concerts coming each season for all these years and we look forward to seeing you (or whatever’s left) at our January 26th concert.  By then, you should be sufficiently recovered from the holidays to enjoy the Akropolis Reed Quintet, right?  Help us keep the Sunday afternoon concerts coming and – oh, yes: Happy Holidays!

– E Doyle

The Making of a Musician

If you have read the posting by Allyson Dawkins, our Outreach and Education Chair, you already know we sponsor Monday concerts and classes at local schools; I know she has written about our last venture which was very successful, but I’d like to tell you my impression of the magic that happened in the school gym.

This elementary school accepts children who may require some help in addition to the regular standard curriculum. The Ariel String Quartet members (two violinists, a violist and a cellist) had performed a magnificent concert the day before, and they were ready, willing and most able to take on an audience that ranged in age from 7 to 10.  It was quite a cold morning, this Veterans’ Day, and the children were bundled up as they filed in from the playground where there had been a special commemoration to mark the day.  They were arranged by their teachers in rows, seated on the floor, and there was a hush of anticipation as the musicians tuned their instruments.

As they began to play, I surveyed the audience – fully expecting to see someone pinching a neighbor or whispering secrets, but they were quiet.  Then I noticed a young man in the first row.  His elbow rested on his knee and his chin rested on his hand as he leaned slightly forward.  He never moved.  I’m not sure he even blinked his eyes.  He was, to me, the Norman Rockwell personification of a boy who was completely caught in the gold and silver threads of the music.  I thought, as I watched him, so rapt, so attentive, “This is how musicians are made.”

I thought, as I watched him, so rapt, so attentive,
“This is how musicians are made.”

There were another two grades of young children who were ushered in by their teachers, and this group included a little bespectacled boy who sat by the door and commenced a Classic Meltdown.  He wept, he hollered, he banged his heels on the floor.  As the musicians began their concert, he became quiet and, after a while, I noticed he had crept closer to the main group, moving stealthily on hands and knees until he reached a few feet from the last row of children.  There he sat and, was he listening?  I couldn’t say for sure, but his head moved back and forth in time to the rhythm of the music.  Something had gotten through to this little fellow and I wished his parents could see the transformation that the music, classical music, had wrought.

I think we all know the magic of music:  how it makes us forget the every day, how it can ease worries and smooth the brows.  And how it can affect even rambunctious little boys, at least for a little while.  These two may never pick up a violin or write a score, but they may be future members of our audiences.  Like you and me.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all, and be sure to mark January 26 on your new 2020 calendar.  That’s the date of our next concert, the Akropolis Reed Quintet.

– E Doyle

A Musical Conversation

We often speak of chamber music as being a conversation among musicians.  In order to carry on an interesting conversation there is respect one for the other, contributions from one or another that carry the conversation forward and a sense of commonality, community and harmony.  So when you are privileged to hear such a conversation rendered in music, it’s easy to imagine that this is precisely what the composer had in mind.  Such was the musical conversation we heard last Sunday, the 10th of November.  The Ariel String Quartet, augmented but never overpowered by the artistry of San Antonio Symphony Principal Clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg, performed not just intensely, but interestingly.

 The Quartet led off with Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8.  The Program Notes said that in July, 1960, he was supposed to write the score of a film about the horrible firebombing of Dresden; instead, he composed the achingly sad Quartet No. 8 which he dedicated to victims of war.   Somewhere at the depth of this performance, I reflected on the nationalities of the artists – not something that usually draws my attention.  But the fact that they represented cultures that had been scarred by war made the music all the more poignant.  The two Largo movements, performed with so much soul (for want of a better word) were simply heart-breaking.

For the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and for the Weber Clarinet Quintet, Ariel was joined by a master of the clarinet, Ilya Shterenberg.

For the Mozart Clarinet Quintet and for the Weber Clarinet Quintet, Ariel was joined by a master of the clarinet, Ilya Shterenberg.  To the great good fortune of San Antonio, Mr. Shterenberg is a major artist in our own Symphony Orchestra and it was a pleasure to experience his magic at such close range. He has performed with the Ariel previously and knows each musician and this friendship was evident in the blending and joyful conversations among the quartet and the virtuoso.

Finally, the Ariel Quartet performed a very familiar composition, Schubert’s Quartet in D minor (“Death and the Maiden”).  They didn’t just dust if off and launch into the well-known movements; they made it their own, interpreting Schubert’s lyricism and bringing this beautiful composition to life.  The saddest aspect of this music was not the death of the young girl but the death of the composer, at age 31, shortly after this complex and masterful expression of genius was written.

Continuing this stellar season of the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, we invite you to join us for the Akropolis Reed Quintet Sunday, January 26, 2020, at 3:15 p.m.  The prize-winning Akropolis is an ensemble of five young and energetic performers whose performance has been described as “pure gold.”  You may just change your mind about the versatility and artistry of reed instruments!

– E Doyle

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