Carol and I cruised out to Manitou Springs last night to pick up our friends David Beers and Terry Blair, and we all went downtown to the Pikes Peak Center to take in the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's last concert of the season. On the program were Wagner's Prelude from Die Meistersinger, Mozart's Symphony #40, and Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. It had been way too long since we'd heard live music of any kind, and it was about damned time.
I was familiar with all three pieces, though I doubt I've listened to any least scrap of Die Meistersinger since Dr. Raymond Wilding-White's courses in college. Opera isn't a big thing with me, and Wagner never takes ten minutes when fifty will do. Mozart? What can I say? Reliable and familiar, and great stuff when you want a graceful background for good conversation. But Scheherazade, wow. Conductor Lawrence Leighton Smith gave it all he got, and it was one of the most amazing classical performances I'd ever experienced.
It's a stunning piece to begin with, an interweaving of a dozen or so Russian-ish themes with enormous energy and a loose program following the old tale of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Smith and the orchestra put their backs into it, and I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat in concentration. It was one of the few live performances I can recall which was better than the recordings in my own collection. I know the piece very well, and I found myself waiting anxiously to see how well they would do a particular passage. In every single case, it was well indeed--and by the end of the concert (it was the final item) I was exhausted. The temptation to treat music as background for other activities is strong, but when you're paying thirty bucks for the seat, you pay attention. That may be the biggest single upside to live music heard in concert: It's you and the music, nose to nose. We forget that at our peril.
Scheherazade and I have an interesting history. When I was 7 we got a very early stereo record player, and not long after that, my mother started bringing home a classical LP every month from the local A&P food store in Edison Park. (The remarkably durable independent Happy Foods is in the building now, and has been since the 70s.) I don't precisely recall the deal, but I think they were a dollar if you bought ten dollars' worth of food. My mother played the records a lot, hoping to instill a love of classical music in Gretchen and myself. It worked, at least until the first sparks of the British Invasion (not the Beatles--Chad & Jeremy) drew me to pop music in 1963. However, by that time I had heard six or eight well-known classical pieces dozens of times, including Scheherazade. I assumed at first that Rimsky & Korsakov were a duet of some kind, but hell, I was 8. (I'm not sure I even knew that there were detailed jacket notes inside the cardboard sleeves until I was well into my teens.)
The Colorado Springs Philharmonic concerts begin with an optional half-hour lecture given by the conductor, asssisted by the concertmaster and sometimes other members of the orchestra. Smith is a good presenter, and explained how the Great Russians took simple Russian folk music and made it into orchestral battleships like Scheherezade. He spoke of The Five, and reminded me of something that I've never entirely understood: Why don't we ever heard the music of Cesar Cui and Mily Balakirev? I went through the classical side of my CD case and didn't find a single piece by either composer, peppered as it is by Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and several other famous Russians. Their contribution may have been organizational (Balakirev did a lot to point them in the right direction and keep them all focused) but I'll have to go looking for some of their work.
Hearing Scheherazade, Night on Bald Mountain, the William Tell Overture, and the several other pieces in the grocery store music collection made the back of my 8-year-old head just go wild with images and crazy ideas. It may not be far from the truth that classical music pushed me over the edge into writing fiction. Even today, when I need to crack a plot problem, I stick an upbeat classical CD into the player and crank it up loud. Eight times out of ten, the plot problem is toast, and the story continues. Music is good that way. I need to do more of it.