(As you'll note from yesterday's entry, a good part of this is an attempt to rewrite what I lost in a posting error. Of course, it does little to match the brilliance of the original writing!)
As I've said many times in these virtual pages, I don't have much of an ear for music. Not that I don't enjoy listening to a concert or music on the iPod or radio when Ellie has it on, it's just not that important in my life. I would rarely choose to switch to a music station on the car radio when I'm driving; I listen to news or talk shows. I suppose it's in part because words are my trade. I have always loved words and language, and "understand" them in a natural, instinctive way, while music feels quite foreign to me. I don't pride myself on being such a musical philistine, but it's the simple truth.
So I was in for a great surprise Sunday afternoon. It was Ellie's birthday yesterday and as a part of our usual celebrations she had suggested a Sunday afternoon concert at the fabulous Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall. It's always a pleasure to go there, simply to sit in that marvelous space and enjoy the ritual of an orchestral concert, so I had gone along with her suggestion and we had booked tickets. Glancing at the program--I had until that moment no idea what we were going to hear--I noticed that the first half was a contemporary work, The Tears of Nature," by the Chinese composer Tan Dun.
Well of course I had no idea who the composer was or what to expect, except that the program notes made mention of the solo percussion performer, Martin Grubinger. My initial reaction was to rather grumpily imagine something artsy, esoteric and boring.
Was I ever wrong! So much for snap judgments! From the first moment of this thrilling, half-hour piece I was on the edge of my seat. It was, by turns, spectacularly theatrical and sweetly lyrical, a joyful celebration of the sheer beauty of nature and an elegiac reminder of its vulnerability to human greed and exploitation. Based largely on percussive sound, it played with mournful little tunes and lilting melodies in the orchestral background to the percussion--you see how inept I am in my attempts to describe the music!--and, contrary to the usual effort I must make at a concert to keep my mind from wandering, I found myself utterly engaged from beginning to end.
If the music astonished me, the performer was absolutely astounding. What to say about Martin Grubinger, an Austrian percussionist whose virtuosity was like something I have never seen before? A musician, yes, of course, but also an acrobat, an athlete, a performance artist, occasionally a clown... His instruments ranged from glockenspiel to bamboo chimes, from "Chinese small crash cymbals" to simple stones and woodblocks and a vibraphone whose immense, full range he exploited with the use of multiple mallets. His agility and speed as he leapt from instrument to instrument were as precisely choreographed as a dancer, his timing exquisite, his performance commanding...
I suppose that musical purists might complain that Grubinger's athleticism detracted from the music. I say no, that it was a part of what the music was about--the manic activity of the human species that currently wreaks such havoc on the planet. And yet it was done with such absolute presence, without a moment of distraction on the part of the performer. He was fully there, from the first moment to the last. He played, it seemed to my uneducated eye and ear, with a totally engaged heart and mind, an absence of intellectual interference in the process; in short, a passion that he communicated to his audience. That audience, like myself, was thrilled with his performance and, with its applause, demanded his return for a gracious encore--this time a whimsical show of virtuosity on a single drum.
After which, an intermission, a chance to breathe, and a debate with Ellie about whether the second half of the program--a Tchaikovsky symphony--would prove an anti-climax to this thrilling start. I myself was reluctant to stay on. But I did...