Paul Greenberg

Introduction with anticipation. You could scarcely find a parking spot at the Clinton Library this temperate Tuesday night in November. You'd think it was a Johnny Cash concert instead of an evening of chamber music. Then comes all the jangling business of making it past the metal detector. But it's all up from there. Literally. Soon you're on the elegant escalator and moving smoothly up to the Great Hall. The performance was sold out at 1 o'clock that afternoon, and they'll have to bring in more chairs before the Shostakovich for the people now standing around the walls.

Polite applause breaks the spell as David Itkin, conductor of the Arkansas Symphony, mounts the podium to introduce the quartets, who will come gliding down an escalator in the background like angels descending.

Theme and Variations for Flute and String Quartet, op. 80, by Amy Beach. 19th Century Amer. romantic ... Flute and strings, just the right combination. The ethereal and the flesh-and-blood, the cool abstraction and warm emotion, the ice cream and wafer, the smooth and chewy - like both kinds of peanut butter. ...

It's a very American sound: so hopeful, so blessed, so full of health, so regularly caught unawares. Tonight's sample of her work is a kind of naivete put to music in the most sophisticated way. On a whim she weaves an Oriental strand into her New England shawl, but it is carefully controlled, Then it is gone with the high-pitched wind. Like Amy Beach's music itself.

String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110, by Dmitri Shostakovich. A very Russian piece of music, it opens on a funereal note and then grows more somber. Also ominous, fierce, desperate. Like an old heart racing out of control, its pacemaker about to snap. You'd be somber, too, if you had to watch every step, or rather note, wondering if the next would get you a free trip to Siberia.

Shostakovich's music was regularly monitored for any sign of bourgeois decadence, and was banned during various purges. He himself was always waiting for the three knocks on the door that meant the KGB had finally come for him. You can hear them now, staccato, like a tear in the canvas.

Can you imagine music for a string quartet being banned in this country? It's the ultimate tribute. No American government would ever take classical music that seriously.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.