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City Desk

Distant Harmonies

by Richard Brookhiser

The concert hall at the museum is folded into its Egyptian wing. To reach it you must pass huge stone cats and bas-reliefs of peasants harvesting and fishing. Maimed statues of gods and pharaohs sit at attention with their heads split off; the faces of ordinary Egyptians still look, dark-eyed, from the painted wooden placards that once lay on their graves. It is disorienting to pass by such a welcoming committee to attend a concert of Bach, Chopin, and Schumann, but is it any less strange than the way we hear such music performed?

The venue. At least half of the classical repertoire was written to be played in churches, theaters, or the salons of private homes. Now we hear it in concert halls. I know this stage well; I have spoken from it (I have many hidden talents). It is clean and functional, designed to showcase the performers and project the sound — the ideal dramatic and acoustic setting. Yet one unlooked-for consequence of making music the center of attention is that any remaining distractions become even more prominent. In the old days our wandering gaze would have wandered to a saint, comedy and tragedy masks, or pieces of family furniture. Now it wanders to light fixtures. If they are recessed, it tries to ferret them out.

The instrument. The Steinway concert grand is one big piece of furniture — nine feet long and five feet wide, the size of a Smart car. Small for a car, big for a music-maker (compare an iPod). It is sleek, almost sumptuous; the black lacquered wood gleams, the copper-wound bass strings reflected on the undersurface of the lid glow. It is a fetish — and an increasingly strange one, as more and more of its humble cousins, the middle-class uprights, are displaced by electronic keyboards, or supplanted by video games and boredom. If pianos ever go the way of the typewriter in the real world, they will still reign in lonely majesty on the stages of concert halls. But they will then be like the dirks and doublets of old-fashioned Shakespeare productions: props.

The performer. To play the music we love we have created a race of samurai. Tonight’s performer was a young bear of a man, sad-seeming but sweet. He had an endearingly old-fashioned bow, right from the waist, with an arm across his torso. His list of gigs and recordings in the program was a mile long. In any era only a few thousand people have such skills. In our era, do only the blessed thousands have any skills at all? H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore newspaper columnist, used to get together with a dozen cronies once a week to hack through the symphonic literature. Does that kind of thing still go on? If it doesn’t — and I don’t know any people who do it — what then is our kinship to the athletically fingering man at the Smart car?

The audience. Lots and lots of gray heads (including mine). As in Orthodox churches under the Soviet Union, there will never be a shortage of us old ones. Like that audience, ours is driven by a faith in the importance of what we are doing. All our collected years bring a particular tone to the listening experience. The bathrooms are well attended, before the show and during the break. In the second half of tonight’s program, one man’s neck lost tension and his head lolled back in the unmistakable posture of slumber. It happened during the Schumann, so I understood. One benefit of an older crowd is that few cell phones ring out, and there is no texting. But we are up to date in another respect: slobification. I saw several pairs of sneakers, and one T-shirt worn as outerwear.

Timeliness. The composers on tonight’s program died in 1750, 1849, and 1856 respectively. They flourished during the tenures of George II, Old Hickory, and Henry Clay. Another way to think of it is that their music in 2011 is far older than any music they would have heard performed in their lifetimes. When Mendelssohn revived Bach in 1829, he was making a statement so retro that it was avant-garde — and then Bach was only as old-fashioned as Stravinsky is now. Theater is even more traditionalist than music: Shakespeare died before Bach did, and he still sells out. The fact remains that a big chunk of the classical repertoire has gone from being news to being museum pieces.

Chopin. We cling to this music because we love and need it. The star of the show was Chopin’s F-minor nocturne. The composer was two things that don’t always go together: a gentleman, and a poet. This nocturne is both a gracious little piece, and a bout of anguish made worse by the false dawns of hope that occasionally rise in it. It is an opera in five minutes, without plot or singers, the downfalls of the genre.

But we never quite hear it the way Chopin intended. Here is how one contemporary described his playing:

Imagine a delicate man of extreme refinement of mien and manner, sitting at the piano and playing with no sway of the body and scarcely any movement of the arms, depending entirely upon his narrow feminine hands and slender fingers. . . . His delicate pianissimo, the ever-changing modifications of tone and time . . . were of indescribable effect. Even in energetic passages he scarcely ever exceeded an ordinary mezzoforte. His playing as a whole was unique in its kind, and no traditions of it can remain, for there is no school of Chopin the pianist, for the obvious reason that he could never be regarded as a public player, and his best pupils were nearly all amateurs.

Since he did not live long enough to record in Keith Richards’s mansion outside Nice, his music is, strictly speaking, gone.

So we do what we can. If that requires odd conditions and special accoutrements, so be it.

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