Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the November 21,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Musicians Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, managers

of the holiday are now focusing on details, working out which dishes

to serve and how to present them, devising seating plans, and

arranging

for transportation from the airport. Nevertheless, concentrating on

the immediate in no way takes away from the meaning of the holiday.

While wondering whether to put tequila in the cranberry sauce, one

can simultaneously be grateful for friends and family, for good health

or for good fortune. The specific and the general play off against

each other like mind and body as separate aspects of human life. A

corresponding duple division proves to be common among area musicians

active since September 11.

For which music are you most thankful at this time? was the question

I asked three artists. My interviewees were harpsichordist Janet

Palumbo

of Le Triomphe de l’Amour, the baroque chamber group; Zdenek Macal,

artistic director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO); and

pianist Robert Taub, recently artist-in-residence at the Institute

for Advanced Study, and currently the visiting artist at Princeton

Day School. To varying degrees, they resisted answering the question.

I decided not to pressure them to name particular pieces, but,

instead,

to listen to their experiences since the devastation at the World

Trade Center.

Besides her musical experiences, Janet Palumbo had a brush with the

September 11 aftermath: the anthrax threat. "I took 900 season

brochures to the Hamilton Post Office on the wrong day," she says,

with a laugh. "Taking care of the bulk mailing is one of my

administrative

jobs since we’re just a little arts organization." As she watched

a TV newscast in the evening, she saw a picture of the bulk mail area

and heard that anybody who had been at the place should be taking

Cipro. After her initial disbelief at being part of the national news,

she underwent seven days of Cipro treatment. "The worst

side-effect

is that Cipro can make you feel hypoglycemic within hours," she

says. "I ate a lot of pretzels for a week. I would alternately

feel shaky, eat something, and then feel sleepy. Luckily it was not

the week I was preparing for a concert."

The concert for which Palumbo would prepare was the first of

Triomphe’s

five-concert season. The group opened its 11th season on November

10 with a program of four baroque German masterworks. By performance

time, Palumbo was ready. The role of the harpsichordist in music of

this genre is unrelenting; the instrument is almost constantly active,

providing an elaborated version of the underlying harmonies.

"One of the other kinds of music that I play," says Palumbo,

"is for an English country dance group, Upton Inn." The group

decided to go ahead with their dance scheduled for the week after

September 11. "It was probably the first time I sat down to play

music after September 11," Palumbo says. "It was one of those

times when you sit down and play and everything comes together. It

was like one mind playing the music. That’s the reason people play

chamber music. It was not complicated music. When it came together

like that, I almost cried. It was the first joy that entered my heart

since September 11."

"So I’m thankful for the music that I get to play with other

people,"

Palumbo concludes, "thankful for the act of playing with others,

and reaching that shared consciousness with others. It’s true for

the professional musicians in Triomphe, the amateurs in Upton Inn,

and accompanying my kids for their music lessons."

For Zdenek Macal, the first concert of the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra

on September 13 brought a heightened sense of shared experience among

musicians and audience. Macal scrapped the upbeat program he had

originally

scheduled, one that had brought him much anticipatory joy until the

World Trade Center disaster. Until September 11, he basked in the

pleasure of having recruited 18 trumpets for a program called

"Trumpet

Madness," and having persuaded his old friend Doc Severinsen to

master the E-flat trumpet and learn the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. But

Macal quickly changed course.

"Fanfares and celebration are not appropriate in these times,"

he says. "I refused to conduct the original program. We played

Beethoven’s Third Symphony, `Eroica,’ because of its Funeral March

movement and because of the last movement, with its hope for the

future."

The recast program also included Bach’s "Air on the G String"

and Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man."

But Macal still had a problem. He was uneasy at the

prospect of opening with the national anthem. "My idea of the

`Star Spangled Banner’ is celebratory," he says. "And I didn’t

want to play it. In the night, I couldn’t sleep, and I was thinking

of the `Star Spangled Banner.’ I imagined it with only strings, soft

and sweet.

"At the concert there were speeches and a priest prayed. I went

out and didn’t take a bow. I conducted the `Star Spangled Banner’

in a slow pianissimo, very free, with much rubato." As Macal sings

into the telephone softly, slowly, and with rubato, I experience a

chill. "The audience sang along pianissimo. I had 2,000 people

in my hand. At the end I signaled no applause and went directly to

the Bach. After the Bach, I signaled no applause, and left the stage

because I was crying. My heart was crying. I just tried to find a

way off the stage. Many of the musicians were crying. They said, `We

understand what you wanted.’ Music is comforting, your heart shows

the way you should go."

Macal willingly singles out Gustav Mahler as a composer particularly

suited for difficult times, though he does not name any particular

works. He recalls that in his own life, his esteem for Mahler came

on the heels of his enthusiasm for Richard Strauss. "As a very

young man I had a strong response to Richard Strauss," he says.

"His opera, symphonic music, and songs spoke to me very directly

because of their complexity of sound and their sheer beauty. When

I looked at Strauss scores, I got wild because of their complexity.

It was so different from Mozart and Haydn." The music of Richard

Strauss is the focus of the NJSO’s three-week festival, coming up

in January, 2002.

"Strauss is good when you’re a teenager; then you grow up,"

Macal continues. "Then comes Mahler. You cannot say anything more.

Just pray or listen to Mahler."

"Mahler is a composer who will stay forever. Other composers are

small peaks against this Mount Everest. His work can give pleasure,

excitement, sadness, comfort, and hope. It has so much emotion,

suffering,

and desperation. You can find everything in his music. His `Four Last

Songs’ fits in any time. Mahler will survive through the 21st and

22nd centuries. He lived on the brink of the 20th century, but his

music was not understood till today. He’s important before and after

September 11. Even more after."

For Robert Taub three performances since September 11 stand out.

Before

the end of September, Taub inaugurated a new Steinway concert grand

and a new concert series at Emory and Henry College, in Emory,

Virginia.

In early October, he played an all-Beethoven program in London,

England.

In late October he participated in an all-Stravinsky program at Weill

Recital Hall with Metropolitan Opera’s James Levine conducting and

principal singers from the Met. "They were three completely

different

programs in two different countries," Taub says. And yet they

evoked similar reactions from him. In Princeton, he led an evening

of music and conversation at the Princeton Day School on November

16, playing works by Beethoven and Chopin.

"Since September 11," Taub says, "I am most thankful for

my family, my wife and children." He is the father of three.

"When

I play, I feel that the audience becomes an extended family. We all

go through a spiritual experience together, regardless of location

and repertoire."

"There are other things that I’m thankful for," Taub says,

"like that this is a beautiful day. I’m thankful that I can travel

to all the corners of the world with this music inside of me. I only

need a piano and I can wiggle my fingers, and out it comes. I’m

thankful

that I’m able to share."

Like Palumbo and Macal, Taub vividly remembers the first

concert he gave after September 11, the Emory, Virginia performance.

"All the events were very fresh in everyone’s mind," he says.

"I decided against saying anything, and for letting the music

speak for itself. After the set program, I decided that it was

appropriate

for an encore. I preferred several moments of introspection to

performing

a virtuoso work."

"I never plan my encores," Taub says. "There’s a group

of pieces that I play as encores. They’re in my fingers. Sometimes

I decide which encore to play while I’m sitting down at the piano.

That’s part of the fun." On this occasion, Taub played his own

transcription of the Adagio from Bach’s "Toccata, Adagio and

Fugue"

in C major for organ, which he calls "a small intimate work by

Bach that reflects the mood and quality of introspection."

"When I finished, there was a long, moment of silence, simply

because applause was not appropriate and nobody wanted to break the

silence. Eventually, applause started. It was not directed toward

me or the music, but was a reaffirmation that we’re all in this

together.

We really became as one."

"Audiences are always attentive," Taub says, "but there’s

something special now. Arts are a way of feeling different kinds of

emotion. It’s a way of feeling things different from our daily life.

This recognition has been renewed. It just radiates. When I’m

performing

now, I feel that I’m putting myself across beyond the stage. I sense

attentiveness and appreciation coming back. When people come back

stage after a concert and speak, that’s when I realize that audiences

are renewing the idea that a musical evening or afternoon is really

special. Now the simple things mean more than usual."

— Elaine Strauss


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