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A Night in the Great Hall

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

LITTLE ROCK -- It's a beautiful sunset, as always, when seen from the Great Hall of the Clinton Library with a glass of wine in your hand and the chamber music about to begin. The anticipation is palpable. Good things are imminent. You can feel it.

Old friends are here and there in the crowd, new friends about to be made. Everything seems suspended in that moment before the first note. We need only find the right key, and all else will follow. Chord after chord. Beauty awaits. We know it.

Silver-haired ladies, lovers of music all, can be seen scattered like sentinels on guard. So long as they're here, there is still continuity, there is still civilization.

This is the last concert of the season. Is it my always pessimistic imagination, or aren't there as many grandes dames as usual in attendance? What will happen when they are gone? A brief shiver runs through me.

The sun is blinding at this time of day through all the glass, a whole wall of it, in the Great Hall, but it will soon set and the music will go on. Sight is a nice complement to sound, just as this chamber is to chamber music. But the visual isn't essential, as comforting and familiar as the sight of Little Rock's snaggle-toothed skyline is outside. It is the music that counts, that changes everything: the day, daily thoughts, daily assumptions.

Music, like style, isn't something that's just applied later, an Extra Added Attraction. It is central. It permeates. It transforms. It changes everything. Wallace Stevens's lines from "The Man With The Blue Guitar" come back:

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied,
"Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

Tonight's first piece, according to the program, is "Corner in Manhattan" by Michael Torke. We're told it comes complete with taxicab horns. In homage to Gershwin's "An American in Paris." In short, it's been done. I wince. This is going to be awful.

As happens with embarrassing regularity, I am mistaken. The first movement, "Sixth Ave. in the Afternoon," is energetic, engaging, enchanting. Delightful, delicious, de-lovely, as Cole Porter would say. And did.

There's a rhythmic theme to the whole piece, like the Mozartian accompaniment to all those stagecoach rides in Milos Forman's "Amadeus." You don't just hear the hoof beats but feel them. Now you're in Little Rock., Ark., but you're on Sixth Avenue in New York, too.

The impulse behind the music may be derivative, a term now used dismissively. But there is derivative and there is derivative. The difference depends on what a work of art is derived from, and how well. Derive a work from something fine, and it, too, may be fine, even a new and elegant edition of fine. Originality is much overrated in art as in politics, continuation underestimated. As this piece reminds.

. .

Darius Milhaud is next, a composer who wasn't afraid of melody, or even of being popular. He deserves to be. Tonight it's his "Suite for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. Op. 157b," which isn't anywhere as formidable as its title. Like its overture, it's vif et gai, lively and gay. The way Paris once was.

What a pity nothing can be described as gay any more without a momentary pause, a hesitant moment of self-consciousness. It was a useful, even irreplaceable word, gay. Now it's not the same. The new definition of the word has overwhelmed, distorted, obscured the old. I hate it when that happens; the language has been impoverished, a gap created where there was charm.

Dangerous practice, pinning words on music. But this music remains ... gay. In the original, much-missed sense. Street scenes in Paris unfold in the mind. Women in scarves with string bags. Greengrocers' shops and flower stalls late in the afternoon as everyone hurries home. All is seen as if from high in a bus on its way into town from Orly airport in the mid-1950s, just arrived, when everything is still fresh.

Somewhere an accordion is playing and Maurice Chevalier, eternal boulevardier, is strolling down the Champs Elysee in a straw boater, whistling a tune and forever twirling his cane....

. .

Now it's time for what most of us came for. Schubert's "String Quartet in C Major," which is not just a musical but a spiritual masterpiece. Written just before his death, it would wait long afterward to win a just admiration. Now it has come into its towering own.

Words just get in the way now. Things are no longer as they were. On the cellist's features there is written every impulse of this powerful, profound music. The cellist, transported, transports us. Schubert lives. In the music, in us. Nothing great is ever lost.

Thank you, Quapaw Quartet. Well played. We go home exhilarated. Maybe a little exhausted, too, but elevated. The after-concert coffee is sweet, foamy, rich, delicious. But it cannot match the music. Nothing could.

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