I hate heroin. But I can empathize with the addicts, who always want more, stronger, purer, better–because I’m a live music junkie, drama doper and general art addict. Loving art creates a real problem that no one has any sympathy with: ever-spiralling higher standards. In school they called it “connoisseurship.” As you learn to distinguish more carefully and refine your taste, you learn to want only the best and become impatient with the rest.
But sometimes you get the best, and it carries you on the crest of a wave and the world is fine and beautiful for some hours or days. This week I got two thriller doses: Zakir Hussain and the Masters of Percussion (read my review on CVNC here), and then last night, a very different kind of greatness, as The Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields, with violinist Joshua Bell, played UNC’s Memorial Hall in a Carolina Performing Arts Program. Their silken precision, their pouncing attack, the purity of their sound whether softly ethereal or boldly blazing, were an aesthete’s dream and are only going to make me more demanding.
The program was beautifully designed, beginning with the merry order of J.S.Bach’s Concerto no.2 in E major (BWV 1042) then swooping into Beethoven’s Symphony no 1 in C major (op. 21). It is so wonderful to watch musicians playing with the same joy with which you are listening. After intermission, the tone darkened with Camille Saint-Saens’ foreboding-streaked “Introduction” and the whirlwind “Rondo Capriccioso” (op. 28). Then the piece one rarely hears–wants to hear, but can barely withstand–Schubert’s dread-infused String Quartet in D minor (D. 810) “Death and the Maiden,”‘ in the Gustav Mahler arrangement for string orchestra.
In it, I see Spring (and as we know, “Spring can really tear you up the most,” especially in D minor) witnessed by a company of ghosts, endless ranks of them. I hear Death’s cantering horseman–that’s how I think of the motif that builds throughout the movements, increasing in speed and number of repetitions until he sweeps by leaving sonic emptiness. I remember being seriously frightened by this music, but I have a better acquaintance with Death and his steed now. He’s not coming for me yet, but he may come at any moment. The best thing I know about immortal music is that it can reconcile one’s precious self to mortality’s inevitability.