Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Musical Moments

I am nearly finished reading a wonderful book entitled 'A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Search for the Perfect Piano.' I have admired and enjoyed Gould's recordings of J.S. Bach's keyboard works my entire adult life, and though I knew that he was eccentric, I did not understand until now how deeply odd he truly was. That he was a sort of genius is unquestionable, but that he was neurotic almost to the point of social paralysis is also clear. Nonetheless, his piano recordings, especially of the Goldberg Variations and the Inventions, have given me more pleasure for more years than almost any others I possess.

Reading the book has made me realize how many of the most precious memories I have are wrapped up in music. And, indeed, music has been a continual source of pleasure, of inspiration, of consolation and of provocation in my life. I will relate three such moments here, in the hope that you, too, may take some enjoyment from them.

When I was a penniless playwright living in Philadelphia, I found myself drawn to the music students in the city. Now one of the few advantages of growing up and living in Philadelphia is that there is no shortage there of fine music and great musical performances, many of them, I gratefully found, free of charge. And so I spent more and more time among music students, people of my own age who were enrolled either at the world-famous Curtis Institute, or at the rather more humble New School of Music. I got to know many of these young people - all of them classical musicians - and much of my musical education is due to them.

One evening I attended a concert at the old Academy of Music on Broad Street given by the orchestra of the Curtis Institute, at which the soloist was the Institute's director, the great pianist, Rudolph Serkin. They played the Emperor Concerto of Beethoven, one of my favorite pieces, and the youth and exuberance of the orchestra, coupled with the elderly Serkin's famous bravura (in which, as one student remarked, he missed whole handfuls of notes, but who the hell cares) was thrilling to me. I heard things in the concerto I had never heard before, and I learned things about it and from it that I had never known from the recordings of the world's venerable orchestras. But the young musicians brought a freshness and vitality to the work that transformed it in my mind.

After the concert, I went with several members of the orchestra, all students, all in their early twenties, to a local watering hole called The Piano Bar, which was, I recall, a basement restaurant and bar with no piano in sight. It was a Saturday night and the place was crowded to the doors. Nonetheless, the students and I muscled our way to a table, and, as usually happens with young musicians after a big concert, everyone was determined to get drunk. I did not (and still do not) drink liquor, and so I alone remained sober.

About three or four drinks into the evening, the cellist who was sitting next to me, asked me what my favorite cello piece was. Now at that time I was romantically involved with a little work by Faure called 'Apres un Reve' or 'After a Dream,' and I told her so. The cellist, an attractive young woman named Wendy Tomlinson, then reached over, opened her cello case, took out her cello and proceeded to tighten her bow and tune. I had no idea that she intended to play whatever piece I named, and, indeed, all of us at the table were taken by surprise. But Wendy was a fey, spontaneous sort of person, especially after a few drinks, besides being one of the best cello students at Curtis.

She then started to play the Faure piece from memory, the whole time smiling beatifically at me. The result was immediate. Everything stopped, all conversation, all movement, all rattling of glasses and dishes. Everyone was listening as the dreamlike melody filled the congested room. But it was as if she was playing for me alone, and I felt, at first uncomfortable, but, after a few seconds, deeply moved and flattered. She played beautifully, soulfully, with great feeling and love. It may not have been technically perfect, but it was heart-rending. I still recall the mood in that stuffy little bistro, the looks on the patrons' faces, and the fact that the entire kitchen staff came out in their white aprons and tall hats to listen.

For the two or three minutes the piece lasted, the restaurant was transformed into a magical space, in a way that only music can do. When Wendy finished, still smiling, there was a breathless silence, and then everyone broke into applause. And as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, she put her cello back into its case and resumed getting drunk. It is a moment which I shall remember as long as I live; one of the few in which I felt truly special.

The second incident occurred in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. I was in the habit of hitch-hiking to this suburb of Philadelphia to visit the lovely cathedral, which was the headquarters of the Swedenborgian religious cult. The cathedral, a graceful Gothic structure, is surrounded by acres of rolling hillside grounds overlooking the peaceful Montgomery County landscape. I often went there in the warm weather to read or to study, lying on the grass below the church, enjoying the quiet.

One afternoon - I think it was a Saturday - I heard organ music in the cathedral. Now I had long been a lover of J.S. Bach's organ music, and I made a point of attending organ recitals whenever they occurred. So I closed my book and went into the church.

The place was deserted, but someone was playing, rather skillfully if not entirely professionally, up in the loft. I took a seat among the pews and listened. When the organist finished, I applauded. A face appeared over the edge of the choir loft railing. It was a young man, not more than a teenager, rather thin and pale. "I didn't know there was anyone there," he said.

I told him that I had enjoyed his playing, and he demurred, saying that he was merely practicing for the Sunday service. I asked if he intended to play any Bach, and he offered to do so. I thanked him and sat down again, but, to my surprise, he asked if I would like to come up into the loft.

I climbed the stairs and found him seated at the console. He invited me to sit down. There were no chairs or benches, so I asked him where. He patted the bench beside him. And so I sat down at the organ next to this rather earnest if shy young man, whose name was Kenneth Coy. Though only eighteen, he was the cathedral's organist, and had been playing for years. He asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to hear.

I told him that my favorite Bach piece is the Prelude and Fugue in A minor. He said he had never played it, but he thumbed through the thick book of music on the stand until he found it. He glanced through it, remarked that it was interesting if difficult, and began to sight read it.

As with Wendy's performance, it was a thrilling experience, all the more so since we were the only people in the church and I was sitting next to the performer. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to watch an organist at work, and I was amazed. Playing the organ is monstrously hard work, involving both hands and both feet on the maze of keys, stops and pedals. He threw himself into the piece, literally, moving from side to side, working his arms and hands and legs, playing over the three ranks of keys, opening and closing the stops, and working the pedals with both feet like a dancer.

Because he was unfamiliar with the piece, his playing was tentative, but what I have always valued in that work, especially in the fugue, is the sheer joy which it exudes. It is, in fact, the most joyful and uplifting piece of music I have ever heard, and on more than one occasion it has saved me from depression and despair. And to see it played as well as hear it, and played by such a young spirit, overwhelmed me with joy. I was transported in that deserted cathedral, in which the music swirled and echoed, and I wished that it would never stop.

When Kenneth came at last to the end and lifted his hands and feet from the instrument, the final chords reverberated for many seconds, dying away finally into the Baroque emptiness of the church. I don't remember what if anything I said to him. I am sure that I thanked him, and he assured me that he was glad for the company and the audience.

After that I hitched to Bryn Athyn every Saturday to sit on the bench next to Kenneth while he practiced. I learned a great deal about organ music, as well as having a visceral experience of its performance. I also learned that Kenneth was torn about his future. His parents wanted him to attend the college run by the church and enter the ministry, but he had his heart set on going to music school. I felt I had to say something to him. I told him that he was right, and, hard as it was to contravene his parents, he had to pursue his music. He replied that his parents' argument was that as a minister he could contribute to the community. But I had to reply that, as a musician, he could give much more - he could give the gift of his talent, he could fill the church with music that would uplift and inspire countless people, and bring enlightenment and joy to their lives.

I do not know what happened to Kenneth Coy. I stopped going to Bryn Athyn at summer's end. But I hope that he followed his instinct and studied music, and that somewhere in the world today he is lifting the hearts of strangers, as he did mine on those magical Saturday afternoons.

Like the others, the third moment was entirely unexpected. After graduating from film school in Paris, I went to New York City to try to get into the business. Through a series of accidents, I paired up with two young filmmakers, one Israeli and the other Egyptian, and together we formed a company called Elektric Films. Somehow (I don't remember how) we secured a contract from the U.S. Department of Labor to make a documentary about two sculptors who were designing and building playgrounds for underprivileged kids in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. The filming would take several weeks, and one of my partners managed, through friends, to arrange for us to stay in the guest cottage of a vacation house belonging to the great soprano, Phyllis Curtain, near Great Barrington.

Now it just so happened that I had recently heard Ms. Curtin perform at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, singing songs by the American composer Ned Rorem, with Rorem himself at the piano. She was wonderful, and I looked forward to the chance of meeting her. But my partner informed me that the only reason we were using the cottage was that Ms. Curtin was in New York, and had no plans to come to Great Barrington.

About halfway through the shoot, I was awakened one Sunday morning by a quiet knock at the front door. It was early, I was exhausted, but I dragged myself downstairs and opened it. It was Phyllis Curtin. She explained that she had come up to retrieve something from the house, but that she had forgotten her key and was locked out. She said that the kitchen window was unlocked, and asked if I would be kind enough to climb through and open the door for her. Of course I said yes.

I went with her to the back of the house, opened the window over the sink and climbed up onto the sill. I put my knee down only to find that the sink was full of dirty dish water. The leg of my jeans was soaked. I went to the front door and opened it and found Ms. Curtin waiting on the stoop. She saw at once what had happened and apologized, asking if there was anything she could do. Without really thinking, I said yes, and I asked if she would sing the aria 'I Know That My Redeemer Liveth' from Handel's Messiah. And she did, standing there on the stoop, to an audience of one. Again, it was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.

Just yesterday, I was listening to the Beethoven piano sonata op. 109 in the car on the way to work, and though I don't particularly want to be alive these days, I found myself saying that I do want to remain alive to listen to this music. Music, truly great music, not the distracting nonsense that passes for music in our culture, has the power to transform our lives, to fill them with joy, uplift them, and make them worth the living. This, together with my work and, above all, with my children, is what I live for, what nourishes my spirit, what keeps me alive. And when the work is done, and when my children are grown and gone away, I will still have the music, and, perhaps, more of those magical moments that only it can bring.