Saturday, January 31, 2009

There are two kinds of music. Good music and the other kind.
-Duke Ellington

I first heard Shostakovich about 5 years ago when I went to hear Christopher O’Riley perform. O’Riley, of course, is the classical pianist turned Radiohead enthusiast who recorded two albums of their songs for piano. O’Riley was enamored with Radiohead, and in interviews used the word “obsession.” Rumor has it he even met his wife on the message boards of a Radiohead fan site. He played Shostakovich’s Piano Preludes and Fugues; this music blew me away more than the Radiohead covers I’d gone to hear. It was a surprising evening, not only for the Shostakovich discovery, but because here was a classically trained pianist playing songs by Radiohead and another beloved musician, Elliott Smith (whom O’Riley called “the greatest American songwriter since Cole Porter.”) The natural blue hairs in the audience appeared to enjoy this contemporary stuff, while the blue-haired hipsters appeared to really dig the classical stuff.

I’d always thought myself quite an open-minded music lover, but it wasn’t until I came to Baltimore that I realized what a genre devotee (AKA snob) I truly was. I liked my type of music, and was pretty dismissive of everything else. (To be fair, much of today’s music really DOES suck.) Didn’t like country, didn’t like rap (except for old school political stuff like PE), didn’t like anything on the radio, certainly didn’t enjoy classical. But lucky for me, three factors converged which transformed my relationship to music. Firstly, I moved to a great neighborhood within walking distance of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Secondly, the BSO had just received a sizable grant and all tickets for season subscribers would be $25 a show. And lastly, but most importantly, I made a great friend in my colleague, Adrianna (writer, photographer, and musician herself), who introduced me to the world of classical music.

It was when I first heard Juanjo Mena’s conducting of Ravel (Bolero) and Danielpour (a great anti-war piece whose name escapes me) that I first made the connection between classical music and rock ‘n roll. I had a friend (he loved death metal) who insisted that Slayer had more in common with classical music than any other genre. Interesting theory, but I never thought much about it. And while Ravel thankfully isn’t Slayer, the comparison to most of the contemporary music I like is undeniable. I felt exhausted, like I’d just returned from standing neck and neck for hours waiting and listening to a favorite band playing in some smoky club. It was my musical epiphany. Music is music. It doesn’t matter if the composers are alive or dead, or if the musicians are wearing only tube socks or wearing tails. It doesn’t matter what instruments are being played, or if they’re “real” instruments at all. It doesn’t matter if it’s melodic or dissonant or soulful or twangy. All that matters is that it moves you in some way.

That opinion of music has been reinforced time and time again by BSO concerts I’ve attended over the past few years, from Tan Dun and Philip Glass to Copland and John Adams, from Vivaldi and Piazzolla to Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. It’s been reinforced by the music I’ve heard all around Baltimore, whether it be the coolest klezmer band in the world I heard at the Creative Alliance, or the intense but strangely melodic sounds from the High Zero fest, or the even more intense Messiaen organ compositions I heard in a gothic cathedral. The Economist (of all places) had an article a few months back about the evolutionary utility of music. Human evolution and music | Why music? | The Economist Theories focus on the relationship between music and sex, social bonding, and a lovely accident--the interplay between biology and culture. But it only touches briefly on the emotional impact of music. Whether we’re hard wired for it or not, music DOES something to us. Perhaps that’s why after a breakup a few years back I totally avoided music. Completely. For months. Music makes you feel- whether it’s joy, anger, or pain. Music is transportive, taking you out of yourself.

I heard Shostakovich again this week. The BSO played with an intense boy-conductor, the phenomenal Vasily Petrenko, and pianist Stephen Hough. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was amazing, and Mr. Hough was stellar, but nothing on the evening’s program was as powerful as Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony. I told my friend who plays with the orchestra that it was bra throwing music. Although he was pleased and amused with that sentiment, I almost regretted it, feeling that it belittled or trivialized this most remarkable of performances. The music was pure fire. I actually had finger prints on my wrist from holding my arm so tightly for the entire 60-minute piece. As I stood and shouted “WOOHOO” at the show’s conclusion (‘Bravo’ would’ve been too much of an understatement), I marveled at the erstwhile incongruity of it all: me, standing there surrounded by blue hairs in long furs coats, acting like I was at a rock show.


  1. Welcome to Baltimore (no matter how long you've been here).

  2. You're awesome Bridget. I love that you're documenting all the gigs you attend. Keep it up! And remind me to tell you about Shostakovich Man (a library "regular").