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Program notes, Or: Lutoslawski in Little Rock

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- First comes the talk. It can't be helped, much like the announcers' chitchat on KLRE, the classical music station here in the middle of Arkansas. It's a small station, but there are those who love it. Putting up with the chatter is the tax you pay for getting to hear the music that is the station's reason for being. Think of it as verbal static. It may be annoying between compositions, but the wait is worth it.

On occasion the exasperated listener, wondering how much longer he'll have to wait for his Bach or Mozart, may be tempted to shout: Less talk, more music! It helps at such times to remember, gratefully, that Little Rock is blessed in having not one but two public radio stations. Many places have only one, or none at all. We've got one for talk and one for music, and the talk station steps up to jazz at night. Big improvement.

But now all the talk has started to follow the listener right into the concert hall. For it's become customary to introduce the program, sometimes at unfortunate length and in folksy tones. As a conservative, I should be the last to object to custom, that wisest of counselors. Besides, if patience is a virtue, and it is, the opportunity to practice it should be welcomed.

This evening the ever-patient patrons of the local chamber-music series get a short but still much too long introduction, beginning with the most memorable (unfortunately) selection of the evening:

Lutoslawski's String Quartet, a mix of notes and chance in the best/worst modern tradition. As is explained by one of the musicians, "none of us is supposed to play together." For the most part, they succeed.

The talented musicians do their best to slouch toward anarchy but never quite get there. That's the thing about order; it has this way of emerging on its own, as in time and nature and geometry, imposing itself despite our best efforts to upset it. Much like the laws of random selection, which are anything but random.

The musicians wear funereal black, fitting for a work that's not supposed to have a pulse. Are they beginning now, or only tuning up? It isn't clear, a sure indication they're following the composer's instructions.

It's all pretty dreadful but there's a fascination to it. Where'll they go next? Do they know? Does it matter? Just as long as it ends, please God.

No, it's not the sort of thing you might like to hear first thing in the morning on your classical music station. Or anytime. But here in the gleaming Great Hall of the Clinton Library, the lights of downtown Little Rock counter-gleaming through the great glass panes behind the musicians, sitting there with friends and a glass of cabernet in hand, the bright chandeliers high above reflected in the clear windows, you could get used to it. Despite the composer's intention that you not.

Witold Lutoslowski sounds like an artist/mathematician who wanted to be the Beethoven of his chaotic time, complete with that composer's grandiose, bombastic effect, but happily failed. In tonight's performance, he comes across as almost homey, like a child determined to scare the grown-ups but who only amuses us, bless his heart.

We're told the piece is supposed to be unpredictable, dramatic, ad hoc ... but, like so many things intended to shock, or at least surprise, it doesn't. It's almost comfortable, conversational, congenial. This noted modernist composer, who's supposed to be so formidable, winds up instead sounding like a nice chap -- someone you'd down a vodka with. But not two.

The musicians do their best to work themselves into a frenzy as instructed but, heck, it's the South, and the lady and gentlemen of the quartet wind up charming instead of alarming us. It can't be helped. Locale is all. Sometimes a composer fails despite the worst of intentions. It's hard to be uncomfortable in such surroundings. But I'm glad I heard the piece. Once.

Much can be forgiven a composer born in Warsaw in 1913 just in time for all the horrors of the 20th century, including a world war in two extended acts, the second even more terrible than the first, exile external and internal, occupations by opposite but equally murderous ideologies ... the whole bloody, torturous catastrophe.

Having seen it all, Witold Lutoslawski would die in Warsaw in 1994 just after the Soviet Union finally did. It's a wonder his music isn't any more disjointed than it is.

Tedium doesn't set in till almost the end, when at one point the music seems to fall into a swoon, like a P-38 after an unfortunate encounter with a Zero. Indeed, the piece doesn't so much end as it is put out of its misery. You can almost hear, you do hear, the audience sigh with relief. The silence comes like music.

. .

The rest of the program erases the pain, beginning with Grandjany's "Rhapsodie pour la Harpe, Op. 10." After tumult, order. After war, peace. After raving, quiet. After the long night, matins. After slaying his tens of thousands, David plays his harp. After the crusades have raged, the monks pray. There is balance in the world after all, harmony and comfort.

Then comes Torke's "Chalk," a musical equivalent of a pointillist painting in all its pastel shades. The listener may have to stand back before all the dots form a picture. In this case it's pink and rose and gray -- a kind of blended nougat of sound. Delicious. But maybe too rich. Even for someone with a sweet tooth. A wedge of lemon on the salad, please, a dash of salt on the watermelon. Something to cut the sweetness.

The best is saved for the end: Beethoven's String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, "Serioso." Once again words just get in the way, prejudicing the listener. Like a talkative tour guide who is forever pointing instead of letting us discover the wonder on our own and so own it for ourselves.

Serioso? Why not Elegante? That adjective would fit as well. Why any description at all? It just gets in the way.

Stately, swaying, the piece resolves not just chords but the evening. Give 'em a happy ending every time.

For that feeling of elation and elevation great music affords, a Beethoven string quarter is the perfect prescription. As a doctor once told me, exercise may not have all the advertised benefits for the heart, but it does provide a feeling of aliveness and wellness. No small things. This string quartet does the same.

Beethoven may be best when confined to four instruments. None of the drama and braggadocio and thunderous familiarity of his symphonies here, just a little night music, night flight, night flutter. To filter Beethoven down to a string quartet is to civilize him, much like civilizing a gifted child. You don't want to break his spirit, never, but recognize it, give it safe rein, like a wild river not tamed but directed, its power and freedom undiminished and allowed to flow unhindered to the sea. Which is just what this well-played string quartet does tonight.

Then comes the encore: driving home safely, humming.

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