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.
Behind every note of Shostakovich stands Stalin's shadow. A requiem written in the ruins of bombed-out Dresden, this piece is no musical comedy. It's more nursery rhyme: Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head. ... It doesn't end so much as crash. The sounds reverberate crystal-clear in the big room; its acoustics enhance even the silence between notes. It takes a stunned moment for the audience to come up for air after the last note and realize it is over. Stalin is dead. The thaw can begin, life return.
Flute Quartet No. 1 in D Major. K. 285, by W. A. Mozart. The light returns. Every note comes in its foreordained place, like the stars and planets moving through the heavens. It's the music of the spheres. The spirit is restored, the soul comforted, the out-of-control will reined in. The theologian Karl Barth once speculated that the angels might sing Bach when they appear before the Lord God, but when they gather en famille, they play Mozart. You can almost feel the clouds lift, the roof open, the starry sky come into view once more. Here is proof that sanity can occur even in a genius.
The grit and grime of the day, the talk of war and rumors of war, all are washed away and in their place comes this music blessedly free of any message. How describe it? Charming would do for a start. But only if the word could be restored to its original luster, as if it had never been used before. Now we know: There is such a thing as civilization. Mozart is the proof.
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, op. 95 ('Serioso'), by Ludwig von Beethoven. The jagged world is back. In Mozart, there is no reflection of the troubled world in which he lived and died en route to a shared grave, but only pure light. Even his dark Requiem shines. Hear my prayer, to You all flesh will come. Grant them eternal rest, Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.
In Beethoven no black cloud goes unseen, no fatal stab unrecorded, no dramatic twist unemployed, no burst of joy restrained. All has broken loose. God help us, the artist as revolutionary has emerged. Strangely enough, some intend that description as a compliment. The classical order of Haydn and Mozart crumbles, the music of the spheres can no longer be heard in all the blare. We are still thankfully far from the beery flavors of Wagner, but modernity has dawned. Like a hangover. The last movement is played alagretto agitato, which means its end comes as a relief. And with it, the end of the concert.
Our revels now are ended, as old Prospero would say, and all the cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces created in our minds must now melt into air, thin air, and this insubstantial pageant fade. But not quite yet. The listeners file out reluctant to leave, carrying a rare peace with them. Thank you, Mrs. Beach. Thank you, Comrade Shostakovich, Messrs. Mozart and Beethoven.
In the slowly emptying parking lot, cars graciously yield the right-of-way to one another, as in a motorized minuet. The peace of the evening comes away with us. I figure it'll last. For about 15 minutes. Till the news comes on.