A Sense of Wonder
Recently I have read a few articles about the link between happiness and maintaining a sense of "wonder" about the world. The basic message is that experiencing life with wonder is a valuable way to promote one's own happiness and satisfaction, reduce stress and calm anxiety. By looking outside ourselves with a sense of appreciation, awe and gratitude at the things in our lives -- small and large -- we can improve ourselves on the inside.
This resonates with me profoundly.
Just contemplating this topic brought to mind a list too long to share. For example, as much as I travel, I still feel a pleasing little rush when my plane lifts off the ground ... there's a sense of wonder that we humans figured out how to launch a big metal tube into the sky and bring it down safely again.
When I'm asked how I keep Sunday Baroque fresh week after week, even after hosting the national version of the program for 20 years (and the original local version of the program for 31 years total) the answer is always some variation on the theme of maintaining a sense of wonder. At the core is my enthusiasm for the music, the performers, and listeners like you. I relish finding new angles to choose and present the music and composers, I marvel at the artistry of the performers, and I'm gratified by the positive feedback from listeners in response to Sunday Baroque. This never gets "old" ... I still have a sense of wonder about how remarkable it is to be sharing music on the radio and connecting with people in such deep and profound ways.
I recently traveled with a group of music lovers through Italy on a Sunday Baroque trip for a public radio station. Those travelers also had a sense of great wonder about the many delights we encountered: private concerts by outstanding young singers, a solo violin recital given on a priceless Stradivarius violin from the 17th century, guided tours of some of Italy's most beautiful and historic cities, extraordinary regional foods, and so much more. We witnessed other visitors also expressing their sense of awe, their sense of wonder, and we felt connected.
There is something humanizing and satisfying about being able to recognize and appreciate something larger than oneself. To look up at Michelangelo's statue of David and be awed. To hear, up close, the human voice producing glorious and pleasing sounds. It's also gratifying to savor and appreciate the small wonders: tasting the tang of different varieties of balsamic vinegar, awakening to the sound of riotous birdsong in the morning, and even possessing the physical ability to get around. I relish these pleasures, large and small, and I unabashedly celebrate my continued sense of wonder about the world around me.
Maybe part of feeling a sense of wonder entails simply making the time to notice, to experience and to relish the things around us. Life goes by so quickly, that the simple act of stepping off the treadmill for a moment can feel like a great gift.
So my wish for you is to explore and celebrate your sense of wonder -- about music, your surroundings, and life -- and to share it with those around you!
On Friday, I attended a Passover Seder with good friends. Some around the table were Jewish, several were from Christian backgrounds, and a few were unaffiliated with any religion.
Today I attended an Easter brunch at the home of another dear friend. Around this table, once again, were people from many different faith backgrounds and observances.
In some places and times, this could be a recipe for disaster. But fortunately for us, these gatherings were convivial, interesting, educational, and joyful.
What I love most is that these diverse gatherings acknowledge and celebrate that we humans have much in common with one another. When we sit down together to talk, laugh, share stories, and learn, we are vividly reminded that no one has a monopoly on values like love, respect, kindness, self reflection and graciousness.
We can practice our beliefs wholeheartedly and authentically, while still respecting, learning about and admiring others who express our shared values in different ways and with different rituals.
I am frequently reminded of these transcendent values when I am programming Sunday Baroque. So much of the music of the baroque era was intended for liturgical purposes, and yet it transcends any particular belief system and becomes a universal language that can be embraced for its intrinsic beauty.
Many years ago a dear friend shared a wonderful story from his childhood. As a young Jewish boy approaching his Bar Mitzvah, he was asked by his mother for a wish list of gifts for his relatives to get him. He was a passionate music lover, and he compiled a long, detailed list of LPs he was eager to own.
At the top of his list of coveted Bar Mitzvah gifts was a recording of George Frideric Handel's oratorio MESSIAH. And yes, dear reader, one of his beloved relatives gave him that special gift!
So at this time of the holiest of holidays, and a time of rejuvenation of the natural world as spring comes into full blossom, I wish you a light heart, and hope you find yourself surrounded by loving friends and family, new experiences, and great music.
Out of the Ashes
Shock waves reverberated virtually everywhere one looked yesterday, as news spread about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is stunning and surreal to see an iconic building that has stood for more than eight centuries being ravaged before our eyes.
It's a house of Christian worship, of course, and this tragedy struck during one of the holiest times on the Christian calendar. The Cathedral also transcends religion, though, and is meaningful for its historical, architectural and artistic significance to people of all faith orientations.
It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, based on its longevity, resilience, context and beauty. Construction on the building began in 1160 and continued for more than a century, and it stood through some tumultuous times, through the French Revolution in the 18th century and World War II in the 20th century. It's also a busy and popular tourist destination today, in the 21st century -- remaining every bit as relevant and remarkable.
Notre Dame is an icon of Paris. For those of us lucky enough to have visited in person, it's an unforgettable highlight of our time in an overwhelmingly beautiful city, and an aspirational "bucket list" destination for many who have yet to see it in person. It's also MORE than a Parisian icon -- its beauty, symbolism and historical significance speak to people worldwide. So many people FELT connected to it, and to its importance, whether or not they'd ever even been to Paris.
Musicians honor the legacy at the Cathedral, dating back to the so-called Notre Dame school of polyphony in the 12th and 13th centuries, when composers such as Leonin and Perotin worked there. Musicians today still covet the magnificent organ and the rich musical life that has continued there.
Even before the fire was contained, political and business leaders vowed to repair and rebuild, and pledged significant money to do it. The Friends of Notre Dame de Paris also received many small donations and inquiries on how best to help.
Parisians watched the horror unfold together. They wept, shared stories and memories, sang AVE MARIA, and prayed for containment of the blaze. People across the world did the same, as 21st century technology allowed us to witness in realtime what was happening to this 850 year old building. Out of the ashes of this tragedy comes a banding together of people worldwide to acknowledge the shock and sadness and support one another, as well as appreciate, celebrate and recommit to something we took for granted would always be there.
May we always strive to do this, even before tragedy strikes.
Big news in the world of baroque music!
The "big name" composers of the baroque era, including George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, have a recognized body of work that has been thoroughly studied and documented. Thanks to ongoing scholarly research over the centuries since the baroque era ended in 1750, we continue to learn more about these musical giants and their contemporaries, and to deepen our understanding of their influences.
Sometimes musicologists unearth previously unknown works, for example, or find new instances of composers borrowing from one another. Recycling musical material was a common practice for baroque era musicians, who often had to provide music on short notice for ceremonies, church holidays, or commissions from impatient patrons. Handel famously reused a significant amount of musical material throughout his long career, borrowing from his own works, as well as music by other composers.
Sometimes new scholarly discoveries challenge our understanding of the genre and its major players, such as the recently released findings of two musicologists specializing in baroque era sacred vocal music. The Italian scholar Giovanni Barzellatta and his German colleague Johann der Witz analyzed hundreds of manuscripts, diary entries and correspondences, and have presented convincing evidence that substantial sections of George Frideric Handel's beloved oratorio MESSIAH were largely pilfered from an earlier, little-known composition by Antonio Vivaldi. One of the more shocking of their findings is that the famous Hallelujah Chorus from MESSIAH is an almost note-for-note transcription of a Concerto for 5 cellos by Vivaldi recently discovered in the Turin archive. British musicologist and Handel expert Helen Cantrip-Banter has raised questions about the authenticity of some of the source material.
The controversial Barzellatta/Witz report was published in the April 1 edition of the scholarly journal, Diario de la Música Tonta.
Today's program is the annual Sunday Baroque Bach Birthday Bash! As host of Sunday Baroque for 31 1/2 years, I have thrown this musical celebration for Johann Sebastian Bach since the early days of the program. It is both daunting and delightful to craft a representative narrative of Bach's output within the confines of a four-hour radio program, and I hope you enjoy this year's edition.
My appreciation for the composer, his genius and his legacy have continued to grow over time. When I interview musicians, I often ask them about their relationship with and attitude towards Bach. His name comes up with musicians of all genres -- Bach is THAT important. Years ago, I read a Details magazine interview with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. The interviewer asked, "Do you mind if I ask what you're listening to there at home? It sounds like Bach . . ." And Watts replied, "It is."
It's not only musicians who appreciate Bach's genius. Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter considers Bach to be his favorite composer. And the late humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was also an organist whose reverence for Bach inspired him to write a comprehensive 2-volume book about the composer. Bach's music, and Bach's reputation as a genius, are well represented in popular culture, too. For example, the title of this post ... Ahhh, Bach! ... is a reference to an episode of the M*A*S*H television series. In it, the character Radar O'Reilly wants to impress a potential love interest with "highbrow" interests, and is coached to utter, "Ahhh, Bach ..." with a serene and knowing expression. (p.s. -- the tactic backfires spectacularly when she replies, "Ahh, Bach? What does that mean?" and he has no followup except to keep repeating the empty phrase, "Ahh, Bach.")
As a flutist, I long considered Bach's music to be somewhat intimidating. In recent years I've tried to overcome my ambivalence and play his music more regularly with a variety of collaborators. What we've observed is that Bach's music seems to have a limitless quality for exploration and interpretation. Every time we play it, new expressive possibilities and nuances reveal themselves. I suppose that's why cellist Yo-Yo Ma recently released his third recording of Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites -- even a masterful musician like Ma continues to find more and different ways to approach Bach.
What about you? Whether you're a musician yourself, or a music-loving non-musician (knowledgeable or novice), what is it about Bach's music that moves you? How did you find your way to listening to Bach? What are your favorite compositions by the composer, and why do you love those pieces so much? Please help celebrate the Bach Birthday Bash by sharing YOUR impressions of his music!
Why Does Music Matter?
I recently attended a piano recital given by an extraordinarily talented friend. His program included a solo piano version of the first part of Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking ballet, THE RITE OF SPRING. It was the second time I'd heard my friend play this challenging work, and for the second time I was blown away. The transcription captured the powerful essence of the orchestral work, and the performer -- whose technical abilities are otherworldly -- conveyed nuances and instrumental timbres that one would think impossible. How can one piano sound like a lone bassoon, a brass section, or a woodwind section? And yet, he did it convincingly, and it was transforming to me in emotional, psychological and even physical ways.
When I attend a particularly moving or impressive musical performance, I find myself with an urgent need to play my flute. It's like the kid who looks out the window and sees friends playing in the street and feels compelled to drop everything and join them. It's an itch that must be scratched. So I went home and tackled some music I'm preparing for upcoming performances, and I felt transformed again.
As music lovers, we know and take for granted that music can be such a powerful force, affecting one's emotions in so many ways. But why? How? What's that all about?
Speaking recently with some outstanding teenage musicians who'd won a local orchestra's concerto competition, I asked each of them: Why does music matter? They ranged in age from 13-17, and every one of these wise young people said some version of this: it's the best way to connect with emotions and express feelings. One told me it's better than words and that, even though he aspires to a career as a surgeon, he will never give up his music. Another told me that music matters -- all genres of music -- because it affects people's lives and makes people happy. One young musician said that after a long day, music provides a means to shed stress and go to "another world." She passionately explained that music is a "universal language that connects everyone." They spoke as performers and as listeners, and they referred to not just classical, but jazz, pop, and other genres. The common thread was MUSIC.
So now it's your turn: Why does music matter to YOU? Why does music matter in general? What unique experience do you get from music, whether it's from listening or playing music yourself?
Earworms and Air Conducting
Have you ever heard the word "earworm"? It's a melody that gets into your brain and won't go away -- a tune you keep humming over and over until you eventually find a way to dislodge it, or it mercifully evaporates on its own. "Air conducting" is the reflexive waving of arms that happens when you hear music that is so compelling it engages your invisible conductor's baton to keep time.
I was thinking about earworms and air conducting recently when I heard the Fanfare from THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (most familiar from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) by Richard Strauss. This particular music has the power to generate an earworm, inspire air conducting AND cause spontaneous air-timpani-playing, too! (At least it did for me!) It brought to mind other music with especially strong magnetic powers: George Frideric Handel's HALLELUJAH CHORUS from his oratorio MESSIAH, for example. Handel had a particular gift for writing catchy tunes that draw listeners in and make us want to sing along. I have been on road trips during which everyone in the car joined in to sing along with that one. If you have ever attended a performance of MESSIAH, you probably experienced the audience spontaneously standing up when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. That's because, according to legend, when King George attended a performance of MESSIAH he stood when the HALLELUJAH CHORUS began. Since protocol dictated that when the King stands, everyone stands, everyone in attendance rose to their feet. Was Handel's music so compelling to the King, so mesmerizing, so dramatic, that he couldn't help himself? Or did the King just need a stretch break during the long oratorio, which lasts around 2 1/2 hours? We'll probably never know for sure, but either scenario is plausible.
The main theme of Franz Schubert's UNFINISHED SYMPHONY is another composition that tends to lodge in my brain. (Forever edified, for better or worse, by the words superimposed to help generations of people remember it: "This is the Symphony that Schubert wrote and never finished ...") It can feel fun and cathartic to sing along or air conduct with a snippet from a monumental piece of music! The downside of earworms, though, is that they are not always generated by great works like Handel's HALLELUJAH CHORUS or Schubert's UNFINISHED SYMPHONY -- sometimes they are commercial jingles or other insipid tunes.
What music typically gives you an earworm? Are there particular compositions that draw you in, or is there a "type" of music that does it? Do you have any tried and true methods of dislodging earworms? Do you ever find yourself air conducting and, if so, what kinds of music creates that impulse? Have you ever been "caught" playing air timpani (or guitar, or violin) when you didn't realize you were doing it? Please share your experiences!
Sources of Inspiration
One of the many enjoyable aspects of my work is getting to interview interesting people. Often these are musicians, and I love asking them how they got interested in music and what inspired them. Recently, a violinist I interviewed told me he saw Itzhak Perlman on Sesame Street, and all these years later he still vividly remembers the excitement and wonder he felt when he saw the legendary musician on the children's show. I recall that, as a very little girl, I listened over and over (and over) to my parents' LP of pianist Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin's two piano concertos. The American pianist had just won the Chopin International Piano Competition, and I was completely consumed with that music. It sparked something in me, and helped shape the path of my life and career. Decades later, I had the chance to meet Garrick Ohlsson in the green room after an orchestra concert for which he was the soloist, and those memories of listening to his Chopin LP came flooding back to me. It reminded me of how deeply and profoundly inspiring great music can be, and of the many and varied sources of inspiration there are.
What inspired you to love classical music? Whether it was Sesame Street, a family LP, cartoons, or a chance encounter with a radio program as you scanned the dial ... how did you start and cultivate your love of music? Please share your story!
I recently attended a memorial service for the mother of a friend and musical colleague. She was a woman in her late 80s -- an accomplished and beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, neighbor, and philanthropist. For about an hour, people shared stories of her sense of fun, generosity, hospitality, directness and kindness. I knew this lovely lady primarily from her consistent spot in the front row at my performances with her son. She and her late husband were enthusiastic fixtures at every concert, no matter the weather or their schedules, and even as their health declined in their later years.
One speaker at the memorial summed up her life in a way that truly resonates with me. She said that she would often seek her grandmother's advice about how to proceed with something in her life. "Grandma, should I [fill in the blank]?" And Grandma's reply was usually an enthusiastic, "Why not??"
So as this new year begins, I hope you will consider this wise and beloved woman's advice. If you're thinking about learning something new (a musical instrument, a language, a job skill), trying something different (a food, exercise routine, home, concert), or pursuing some dream on your wish list ... ask yourself, "WHY NOT??" Take a first step, and see how it goes!
Happy New Year!
Over the past few weeks I have been busy ... how about you? My days have been joyfully filled with baking, entertaining, playing holiday concerts, and listening to special music to program on Sunday Baroque for the holidays. Many people have favorite family treats that are synonymous with the holidays; maybe you're like me and you both serve them at your holiday parties, as well as give them to friends as gifts. Perhaps your holiday traditions include decorating your home and yard, listening to certain beloved holiday music, or watching favorite films. Although the whole idea of traditions is to pass down important or endearing activities, items or foods -- to replicate them generation after generation , it's inevitable that traditions morph as the years go by. Our holidays have been delightfully energized and broadened by the addition to our family of a 16-year-old exchange student! We are loving the opportunity to help her enjoy some of her beloved holiday traditions while living so far from home, as well as to introduce her to our family traditions. (Let's just say she is quite pleased by all the baked goods being produced in my kitchen!) We look forward to seeing this time of year anew, as we see it through her eyes. How are you spending these weeks? What are some of your holiday traditions? How have you blended your traditions with other, newer traditions? What music are you listening to? What special, meaningful things do you look forward to at this time of year? Let's start a new tradition of sharing what is most important and satisfying to each of us at holiday time.