Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Something Old, New, Timeless, and True

Something Old, New, Timeless, and True
By Tom Wachunas

My parents had six children, and I remember that at least three of them took piano lessons in their youth. I also remember the not-so-veiled look of disappointment in my parents’ eyes on the day I told them I would not be following in my siblings’ finger exercises, as it were. I said I would much rather become a clarinet player like Pete Fontaine or Benny Goodman, and that was that. As it turned out, I became a consummately mediocre clarinet player. This was largely the result my stalwart resistance to mastering the pesky business of practicing, summer remedial lessons notwithstanding.

Years later I would plant the same banner of mediocrity firmly into my guitar playing, as countless others of the Flower Power Generation did. A self-taught wannabe star guitarist/singer/songwriter, I nonetheless nurtured a passionate interest in all kinds of music, despite the homemade ‘Disco Sucks’ t-shirt I wore around during my first summer living in Brooklyn, New York. An ill-advised fashion decision, to be sure, and I was lucky to escape many ugly street confrontations unscathed. I would soon learn it was far safer to print my negative opinions about some kinds of music in newspaper reviews rather than on my sleeve. After all, disco fans were too busy dancing to read the arts and entertainment sections of local weeklies. Let them eat…Chopin?

Indeed, it was hearing my mother play an etude by Chopin on our in-home baby grand piano that fueled what had been a smoldering cinder of interest into a full-fledged fire in my soul for classical music. Sometime around fifth grade I had developed the habit of listening to classical music on the radio at bedtime. Sitting upright in my bed, I was a virtual Leonard Bernstein, flailing my arms and contorting my face in imagined leadership of world-class orchestras as they poured forth their lush, sweet lullabies into my dreams. In that same year my parents had become marginally aware of this fantasy life, and for Christmas gave me a Hollywood Bowl Orchestra album of Chopin music. I immediately put it on the turntable and cranked up the volume for the benefit of our neighbors. Upon hearing one of the more enchantingly simple and short etudes, my mother casually mentioned that she had learned to play the same piece when she was very young. We coaxed her over to the piano bench, pleading with her to play it amid her mild protests.

And she remembered. Transported to some distant time in a long forgotten recital hall, she remembered. Her head tilted just so, as if receiving the music through the air, with her fingers recalling their perfect placement, and her eyes fixed on a place none of us could see, she remembered.

When the heartrending solo was finished, she, like the rest of us, wiped away a few tears, and said meekly, “Merry Christmas.” I had never heard my mother play piano, much less a live classical piece rendered so…elegantly. It was a moment that became, in the words of one of my Latin teachers, “etched on the fleshy tablets of my heart.”

It would not be until many years later (1989, to be exact), in Brooklyn, that I would have occasion to earnestly dust off those tablets and read what was written there. I was at a concert in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, there to write my first review of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra for a weekly paper that had hired me to be arts critic at large. And just like that kid on Christmas morning, I felt the magic all over again, the ineffable rush of delicious elation that comes with hearing live music by the old masters. I remembered.

Fast forward 20 years. For the second year in a row I am enjoying the distinct privilege of writing program notes for the Canton Symphony Orchestra. In looking over the upcoming season I am astonished at its variety and depth while still remembering the wonders from last year, and the year before and the year before that. And so it goes. Seventy-five consummate professionals consistently pouring out the stuff of dreams, all under the masterful baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman.

Come. Tilt your head just so. Fix your eyes – and ears - on places only they can take you.

Photo: Maestro Gerhardt Zimmerman conducting, courtesy cantonsymphony.org

For concert information call the ticket office at (330) 452 – 2094
Online, go to www.cantonsymphony.org/tickets

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