Sunday, April 6, 2008

Excellence



Friday night I had the chance to see (and hear!) Emmanuel Ax perform Chopin's Piano Concerto #2 (he's playing a snatch of Mozart in the above clip).

Whenever I go to the symphony, I am so amazed that each of the musical instruments was even invented, that sound exists in such variety, complexity, and beauty, and that there exist people who dedicate their lives to training their bodies to the subtle and refined movements of fingers, lips, and feet that are required to bring this music to birth.

And once, recently, as I watched the conductor's expressive dance, and heard how the music's emotion swelled and constricted in response to the way his weight shifted, I realized that I was witnessing a metaphor for the religious life. Each sheet of printed music is a vocation, but it is not enough for us to each sit alone and play it -- we must all focus our attention on God, who conducts us -- he has the whole piece in his head, and when he directs, then we can play together and the music makes sense. The more we look to him, give our full attention to him, the more beautiful the whole sound is.

Here is an excerpt from Emmanuel Ax's blog:

When to Applaud

All of us love applause, and so we should -- it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be "allowed", or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed. Mozart often wrote to his family that certain variations or sections of pieces were so successful that they had to be encored immediately, even without waiting for the entire piece to end.

I really hope we can go back to the feeling that applause should be an emotional response to the music, rather than a regulated social duty. I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction. On the other hand, sometimes I wish that applause would come just a bit later, when a piece like the Brahms 3rd Symphony comes to an end -- it is so beautifully hushed that I feel like holding my breath in the silence of the end. I think that if there were no "rules" about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time, and if we feel like expressing approval, we should be allowed to, ANYTIME! Just one favor -- even if you don't like a concert of mine, please PLEASE applaud at the end anyway.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."