Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Of Mendelssohn flashbacks and Charles Ives dreams

Every now and then, as one is wont to do, I think of past concerts in which I played or rehearsals I've sat through. It seems so long ago that I last picked up my cello for productive practice that wasn't just for my own edification. Truth be told, I really miss the communal music making experience and bonding with section mates over how awkward Handel's bass lines are, or wondering why Mahler's editor allowed him to use double sharps or flats.

This evening I pulled a recording of Mendelssohn's second symphony out of a crate of my roommate's vinyl collection. The symphony was the very first in which I performed with a real symphony orchestra. I was in my first year of university in a business programme (I'd not yet made the switch to music) and joined the group trepidatiously not knowing if I could keep up with the ensemble. One of the enticements for joining was that it was conducted by a cellist, Xtoph, with whom I studied and attended masterclassses in my mid-teens. Admittedly I was an extremely lazy student and we came to agreement that I would likely never be a celebrated concert cellist, but could become a competent chambre or orchestral musician. Matriculating in a business programme straight out of high school more or less made that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Through a series of decisions, whose catalyst I don't recall, I temporarily left the business programme and went away to music school to study in Xtoph's studio. The small liberal arts college was only a short distance from Halifax, yet it was in an entirely other world. My classes were interesting, challenging, monotonous, but I loved it. It was my lessons that I found so unnerving mostly because Xtoph's North German accent never betrayed his anger or satisfaction. When he criticized my lack of preparation ("Jah, Anthony, it is obvious zat you haf not prepare for zis lesson. Please go back to your practice room und when you are ready you can come back.") he dispensed with praise in an equally spine chilling deadpan ("Jah, Anthony, zis is gut verk. Now I add two more Bach suites for lesson next veek.")

It wasn't only in my lessons that I ran across Xtoph. He taught the twentieth-century music history elective and conducted every class not as a lecture, but as an experience with small scale performances and massive listening lists and score study. This course dovetailed handily with the school's annual new music concert called "Soundlab" that he also organized. A clearly intelligent man, he was, but the austerity was terribly intimidating.

It wasn't until later in my first year that I caught a glimpse of Xtoph's human element. Because our music department was so small I had to commute into the city every thursday night with him to play in the symphony for my ensemble credit. The drive was an hour each way which left us plenty of time to talk or sit in silence; the former happened when we had a good rehearsal, the latter when we did not. However, on the good nights, we shared ideas, opinions, and thoughts on the orchestra's repertoire; engaged in critical discourse on new music of various (a)tonalities, styles, and technical agendas; philosophy; and about family life. He was a relatively young academic then with a new family and struggled, as academics do, maintaining the work/life balance. Sometimes his candor caught me off guard and I was at a loss for words. Seeing as i had only recently fled the familial nest, I was not a font of any sort of wisdom.

I met Xtoph 17 years ago, I started music school 11 years ago, and I finished my music undergrad 8 years ago. We've not been in touch in over five years, yet his sage words still have resonance when I listen to new music, look at my long-neglected cello in the corner, or sit and contemplate the verities.

As I write this tonight, the orchestra on the worn vinyl plunders through to the closing chords of Mendelssohn's symphony and I vaguely recall the fatigue of having sat through a three-hour evening rehearsal and final run through of the same symphony. The faint praise from the podium, was dry and understated, "Jah, zat vas gut, but ve vill do better next time." It has since become somewhat of a modus operandi and the cautious optimism, née realism, has served me well.

From my perch above the dissertation starting line I contemplate Xtoph's words and wonder if and how they might reassure or motivate me. I sometimes wonder what he would make of my even being in a Ph.D. programme and getting ever closer to being Dr. Anthony. On some level, I believe this to be a desire for validation that my academic pursuit was not in vain, and that I can be an academic worthy of regard as an equal or colleague. On another level, I just think it would be neat to share ideas and confer as colleagues--apart from the student/teacher dynamic.

"Jah, gut. Now ve make ze musik."

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