I Must Change My Life

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 14, 2010 4:26 PM
I Must Change My Life

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"

Dear Diary--

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.

You can hear it all in Ponce's music, Todo el Mexico. The way the campesinos look in the barren flats, silent and sullen, the violence stirring within. The way the businessmen deal and the politicians speak (endlessly), the way families gather around the table and beggars outside the cathedral....

Then comes the Rondo -- scherzoso, and business picks up. You can almost hear the Gershwin-like taxi horns around the Zocalo.

Funny -- funny strange and funny just funny -- how you remember just where you were when you first read a great book. In this case, R.H. Tawney's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism." I can see the typeface of the paperback now as I turned the pages while getting a shoeshine on the edge of the great plaza. I told the bootblack my father had been a zapatero, a shoemaker, and thought it would give us something in common. As soon as I said it, I knew how stupid and condescending it sounded, an impression confirmed by his glance at this gringo with money in his pocket and neglected shoes on his feet. A zapatero would have been a step up from his vantage point. I fled back to my book, hiding my face. How long has that scene been marinating in my memory -- 30, 40 years now? I really must change my life.

Why must they have the musicians at such concerts deliver an always too-long introduction to each composition and composer? What ever happened to Concert Notes? It's the same mistake announcers on some classical music stations make. My, they do go on. But it's worse when musicians do it. When they can play so well, why waste their talent talking?

Interspersed on the program was some work of composers who are Mexican in name only. The pieces could have been written at any up-to-date conservatory. Like so much of modern music, they are more modern than music, more exercises than compositions. There's nothing wrong with exercises; they sound beautiful overheard in the hall of a music school, or listening to a symphony orchestra warm up. But they should not be confused with the kind of art that speaks, and lets you know: You must change your life.

The high point of the evening, since a Pan-American program must include America, too, is the Dvorak quartet. (No. 13 in G, Op. 106) Naturally, the most American number on the program would be by a foreigner. We're a Nation of Immigrants and all that. It's a truism, but at the heart of every truism is a truth.

Antonin Dvorak discovered and discoursed on America in his music -- much as Tocqueville did in his prose. Few things introduce an American to his own country as well as the works of foreigners. They see things with fresh eyes, and listen -- as Dvorak did -- with fresh ears to jazz beats and gospel hymns and the sound of dynamos. Throughout his American pieces there is the undisguisable, inexhaustible, unerasable American sound. It is the sound of hope. Hope ever renewed generation after generation, fulfillment after fulfillment, disappointment after disappointment, lull after storm. Theme, climax and reprise.

Then the players walk away, and the audience disperses into the cold, now music-charged night air. The concert ends. The music doesn't. Neither does its power, its demand, its imperative. I really must change my life.