We cannot know his legendary head...
yet his torso is still suffused
with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze,
now turned to low,
gleams in all its power....
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced...
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
--Rainer Maria Rilke,
"Archaic Torso of Apollo"
Went to the second of the season's chamber music concerts the other night at the Clinton Library here in Little Rock. Just to see if it would be any better than the first. It was.
I didn't think I could spare the time on a weeknight -- deadlines loomed -- but time was never better spent. For the music met the test of any true work of art, which is that it send out Rilke's imperative: You must change your life.
The program was Pan-American so the first selection was as unavoidable as it was enchanting: Manuel Ponce's string trio. It let loose a string of visual Visit Mexico in the Spring travel posters, familiar but always ready to be refreshed. If music confines itself to the ear, and doesn't stir the mind's eye as well, it's only a score.
One vision-memory succeeded another:
The beach at Mazatlan under an overcast sky.
The softly crashing waves.
The rustle of worthless pesos back in the '70s, when any American with a few dollars in his pocket was a millionaire courtesy of the exchange rate.
The one ticket in the loteria nacional that would change everything.
Somewhere outside Creel in the Sierra Madre en route to the Copper Canyon, a worker at a rail siding casually tosses a chunk of unrefined gold from a coal car to a tourist on the Chihuahua al Pacifico line. The patina of the years is brushed away by the strings of violin and viola, and the luster of Mexico shines again, brash as mariachi music.
For sophisticated critics, Ponce's music is insufficiently abstract, dense, minimalist, teutonic -- name your favorite curse. Sophisticated: a word akin to sophist. Manuel Ponce is, in a word, too Mexican. Oh, if only he could free himself to compose like a European. All he'd have to do is cut out his heart. This much Mexicans and Americans share: a cultural inferiority complex. Anything foreign must be better because it's foreign.
The third movement of the string trio (Cancion: Andante expressivo) is indeed a song sung slow and expressive, as sad and noble as a long ago time still burning us with its gaze, demanding: You must change your life.