Second Thoughts

Second Thoughts
By Henry C. Mayer

Sometimes, those who would promote classical music shoot themselves in the foot. Locally, that seems to happen from time to time in the obscure program notes and, infrequently, the post-concert reviews. That difficulty was recently compounded when a contemporary composer simply says, as Ezra Laderman did, at the Louisville Orchestra's 1989-90 finale, "I hope you like my music." It is hard to applaud and/or like what one doesn't understand.

I realize one does not -- and cannot -- translate music as one would another language. There is something to be said for the response which the late Robert Whitney made to a question from this writer. Whitney smiled and said, "Don't try to understand; just enjoy!" But as it is simply human to know and to savor knowing, his reply does not say it all.

Music, however, is for everyone. And because that is so -- because music is a universal language, capable of communicating something of the greatness of human feelings -- it should be required of conductors that they insert some preliminary comments about their concert choices in the program instead of the high falutin' verbiage one finds there.

Who better than a conductor, unless it be a composer, can remind us that music is a demanding art? How else explain that the Schumann Cello Concerto, performed with dazzling skill by the 19-year-old Matt Heimovitz so never fully satisfied its composer that he died before hearing it? Yet music's demands can take an artist -- or listener -- to the heights. How else could a Beethoven recognizing the trauma of approaching total deafness compose the 2nd Symphony we heard and then go on to unique heights of composition?

As I get older (I am now 62), Beethoven means ever more to me. His symphonies, in particular, in a human way, remind me ot these lines from Genesis: "And God looked on what He had made and saw it was very good." Beethoven can give us some idea of what it can mean for something to be very good. And he never stopped exploring what it meant to be creative. One biographer wrote of his Solemn Mass: "It is a searcher's act of Faith!"

By contrast, we were also presented with that exquisite yet mournful piece, "Nanie," by the enigmatic Johannes Brahms. I say enigmatic, because Brahms remains something of a puzzlement. Why, after some 18 centuries of Christianity and many more eons of the Jewish Faith, does a composer from these living traditions which many people consider inspired express grief and the meaning of death in apparently a pagan idiom? Yet Brahms' art is exquisite and he makes great demands of himself; a careful hearing will tell you that. Yet, by contrast, Beethoven is the messenger of hope emerging from the crucible of doubt, but what is Brahms? So I use the word enigmatic with a touch of melancholy. I recall reading a biography of Brahms feeling a little confused and sensing, "Here is a very lonely man." One has to marvel his generosity in opening doors in Vienna for the Composer Dvorak. Poor Brahms -- he seemed to find living so strenuous that he apparently could not -- or would not -- bring himself to propose to Robert Schumann's widow, Clara, or his daughter. It was if happiness eluded him, and one senses that somewhat in this choral number.

I simply want to say that classical music's great contribution is in the thousand and one ways it reflects life itself. That is why I want program notes to be lucid and eye-opening -- why I want those who write them to help us enter and savor that world to which they are privy. The conductor's role, in the words of one of the greatest maestros I have ever heard and/or met, Erich Leinsdorf, should be "the composer's advocate." But no one who fails to fully communicate can be an effective advocate.