Where music takes us

Posted: Apr 06, 2007 12:01 AM
Where music takes us

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.

Then it is time to begin with, of all things, a touch of ragtime-the Graceful Ghost Rag, which lives up to its name. Think of player-piano music elevated to the classical-softened, heightened, inviting the mind to take a stroll. Š But modernity arrives with a crash, clash, bam and slash. Its name is Schoenberg, and it's about as welcome as a hangover.

Schoenberg is less a feature of a chamber music concert than an interruption, a great jagged ruin encountered in the midst of a graceful boulevard. Not a ruin from a time-softened, moss-covered past, but a ruin from a disjointed future still under construction.

Tonight's construction project for this quartet is Schoenberg's Phantasy for Violin and Piano. It should be scored for jackhammer and pile driver. It doesn't so much end as shudder to a halt. Like some city planner's vision of a discordant future that is already rusty.

Come the 22nd century, perhaps some future species with six eyes and no ears will hear Schoenberg's amelodic works through its tangled tentacles and feel the same joy Mozart gives us now. After all, Haydn in his time struck at least one royal critic as being just noise. Yes, Franz Josef Haydn, Papa Haydn himself! Tastes do change. Anything can happen in the future. But this evening I'd prefer to live in the past.

Ahead lies more than relief: the high point of the evening, a seldom played Tchaikovsky, the String Quartet in E-flat minor. It soars and rounds and sweeps and weeps. A ghostly Russian Orthodox choir floats above it, like figures in a Chagall mural.

It would be hard to describe some of the passages played by violinist Joanna Whang this mild spring evening without using the word sublime. It is enough to say of her performance that she did Tchaikovsky justice. Surely there is no higher praise for a violinist. Then it is over. And the listeners, like the ghosts, float away, elevated.