wet earth

Vive la radio classique!

I’m in the thick of rehearsals for some upcoming house concerts and have not had time to write an Arts Alive post this week; in the interim, I invite you to discover a fantastic online classical music resource: Radio Classique, a French radio station.  They play more interesting selections than most American classical stations I know, and there’s the added benefit for us Francophiles of hearing radio announcers in French.  Happy listening, or should I say, Bonne écoute!

On a Street in Paris

Not long ago I paused under a vaulting stone arch to listen to a young woman play the violin.  It was a sunny September day in Paris, the air generous with warmth and alive with the humming sense of possibility and promise one feels in large and beautiful cities.  The music was beautiful—Bach.  The woman was beautiful, too.  She was slender, in her early thirties, perhaps, with dark hair pulled back into a small bun.  Her face seemed finely made, an elegant nose, high forehead, her lips neither tense nor smiling but rather held in an expression of intent focus.  Cars drove by, people passed by.  The day ticked on, moment by moment.  I stood still and leaned against a stone wall.

Her tone was warm and assured; she was likely conservatory-trained.  She wore a simple outfit, black pants and a white shirt.  She looked a bit like Uma Thurman.

When I stepped forward to put some euros into her open violin case, she turned her eyes to me, still playing Bach, and gave me a quick smile.  There was not a lot of money in her case, and I wondered how often she played on the sidewalk for cash.  She was good enough to be in an orchestra, or to give lessons, but instead she was here, playing music written three centuries ago to a mostly indifferent city.  I decided to stay longer and returned to the stone wall and listened.

More people walked by.  A small number lingered, threw some coins into her case, then moved on.  I wondered what she would do with the money she earned that day.  Was she saving for something, or would she spent these coins later that day at the supermarket, the laundromat?

Locally, especially in Santa Cruz, I see people, usually men, who better fit the image conjured up by the phrase “street musician.”  Facial hair, a whiff of tobacco and body stink, the guitar or saxophone or voice sometimes conveying a undertone of melancholy, or anger, or need.  I think that for some of these men, playing their music on a sidewalk is a way for them to cry in public.

The woman in Paris was not crying, she was making art, though I heard in the depth of her playing a familiarity with suffering.  When I put the money in her case, her quick smile was marked by the same self-confidence I heard in her music.  She was past the age of the conservatory.  Perhaps she had a dull job in some anonymous suburb outside of Paris, and playing Bach on La Rue Béarn next to La Place des Vosges was how she remained connected to her lifelong passion.

I ended up staying a good while—she was as good as performers I have paid large sums to see and hear, and the setting, it must be said, was unmatched.  To hear such beautiful music in one of the most beautiful places in Paris!  I want to remember this woman for what she showed me about art and perseverance, and being unafraid, and being willing to share, through her music, her private self to a population of strangers that, for the most part, does not stop to listen.

Poulenc Trio in Carmel

The first time I heard the music of Francis Poulenc, whose magical trio for bassoon, oboe and piano will be perfomed in Carmel this Saturday, what I heard was more than music.  I heard another way of being.  I was in my early 20s, attending graduate school in Santa Barbara, my schedule heavy with teaching and books and studying.  It was summer, and whenever I managed to find the time I would ride my bike to the Music Academy of the West, in Montecito, for their summer series of free recitals.  One afternoon, I sat in the small, elegant auditorium, tucked into the leafy campus next to the Pacific, and listened to unfamiliar sounds that were fresh and witty and above all free.  I’d never heard anything like it before.

I grew up in a house where classical music was our religion, and the three Bs—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—were its gods.  These composers and their music are etched deep into my very being, and I’m grateful for my childhood steeped in music.  But what I heard in the music of Poulenc was an absence of certain qualities I associate with the Germanic—the rigid mindset, the obsession with discipline, the almost overwhelming element of drama.

In contrast, the music of Poulenc feels essentially spontaneous, unplanned, characterized by a deep vein of joy.  His compositional style is harmonically inventive, with original colors achieved through bold chromaticism that never overtakes the melody.  If the heavier German music of my childhood evoked furrowed brows and stormy emotions, here was music that described how I might aspire to live.

Even in the slower, more melancholy sections of his music, there is a rueful, philosophical quality of acceptance.  To my ears, the music says that yes, things don’t always work out, and that’s how it is sometimes.  Let’s go for a walk, have a glass of wine.  Life goes on.

Later, I learned that Poulenc, who was born in 1899, was not only gay but openly so.  In his thirties, after the death of several close friends, he turned more to the Catholic faith in which he’d been raised, but this did not conflict with his essential nature.  I am as sincere in my faith as I am in my sexuality, he once remarked.  In 1950, a critic described him as “a lover of life, mischievous, bon enfant, tender and impertinent, melancholy and serenely mystical.”  Poulenc once compared his music to a scene he’d observed which delighted him: a group of monks on a field, playing soccer.

I love the idea that we can be serious, and spiritual, and have all our emotions, and that we also get to cut loose and play.  Each time I hear Poulenc’s music, it is as if I discover afresh what I heard that first time in Santa Barbara, something true about my own essential nature, that of a boy who wants to put down his books and his worries and go outside and play.

Poulenc Trio, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Saturday, December 1, at 8:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel.  The program also features works by Beethoven, Glinka, Shostakovich, and Previn.  Call (831) 625-2212 for tickets or information.

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