Paul Greenberg

Contrasts can clash, like pink and chartreuse. Or they can please, like red and green. Much depends on the strength of the different elements, and if they add up to something greater than the sum of their distinct parts. Like blue and green on a cool, overcast day at the beginning of an Arkansas spring. You can almost taste the intoxicating air, and every winding street seems a bouquet of dogwood, magnolia, wisteria, camellias, azaleasŠ.

On this near-perfect spring evening, the Great Hall of the Clinton Library in Little Rock is a near-perfect place to hear chamber music. Mainly because it isn't a great hall but a chamber that seats only a few hundred, and so has the feel of an intimate gathering of old friends. Its high ceiling lets the music resonate, and the sight of the regulars in the audience, and onstage, reassures. At least some things don't change, any more than spring does.

There's also the view: An expanse of glass, bisected by burnished steel beams, frames the stage and, beyond it, the Little Rock skyline as the sun sets and the lights in the office buildings grow bright. Neon signs here and there provide accents. You could almost be looking at some sharply drawn, noir comic strip from the 1930s. Perhaps a view of Gotham City in an old Batman comic book. You start looking for the Bat signal high in the sky.

The modernesque setting offers a pleasing contrast with the classical music to be played; the clear glass and burnished metal complement the polished wooden sheen of the viola and violin.

An evening of chamber music should begin with all the slow-paced rituals of anticipation. At the Clinton Library, a civilized air sets in once you clear the metal detector, the last sign of the brutal present before you step onto the escalator for the slow rise to a statelier past. Time begins to slow after the day's jangling preoccupations.

Perspective and proportion set in even before you hear the players tuning up. Time's usually fixed boundaries grow lax, then disappear. Past, present and future meld. You think of a garden wedding you once attended, the formally dressed chamber group performing on the grass as friends and family gathered on a summer's dayŠ.

Chamber music is to music as still lifes are to painting-simple yet infinitely challenging. Its elegance stills the mind while sending it soaring. The best and subtlest things can be the simplest, not just in music but in any art that demands concentration more than volume, focus more than ballyhoo.

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.