Monday Musings: How just a few notes can create lasting magic

Like so many artsy types, I spend a good deal of most Sunday mornings poring through the New York Times. It's what one does, after all.

After going through Sunday Review and getting all worked up again about one political issue or another (speaking of Sunday Review, will Gail Collins please, please finish writing her damn book and get back to penning those marvelous op-eds?), I turned to the A&L section.

Zachary Woolfe, whose work has impressed me a good deal since he joined the Times stable of music writers last season, had an interesting column on the nature of charisma -- why some classical musical artists have it, some don't; why "you simply can't look away from" the charismatic ones, how their gift can elevate "even the most unassuming musical passage."

(Nice to see an essay on such a subject given prominent play on the front page of the section. That wouldn't -- couldn't -- happen at a lot of papers in this country.)

Reading Woolfe's article made me start to think about ...

the charisma-filled performers I have been lucky enough to experience live. I thought about it so long that it was suddenly the next day, and thus perfectly suited to my Monday Musings feature-ette.

One of the things I admire most about certain classical artists -- instrumentalists, singers, conductors -- is their ability to change the whole equation, if you will, in the midst of a performance merely by the way they approach one small detail, perhaps an "unassuming musical passage," as Woolfe put it.

Yuri Temirkanov has charisma to spare. It can be awfully subtle, especially since he is loathe to smile until the end of a concert, but he sure has it, even in his bearing as he walks to the podium. He has it, too, in the distinctive way he conducts. Many people don't use batons these days, but no one uses his hands with quite the mesmerizing flow that Temirkanov has, the almost balletic motion.

The example I have been rerunning in my head since contemplating the charisma issue is Temirkanov's interpretation of Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. When I first him lead the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in that work, I was blown away by a very small thing he did at the start of the lilting third movement.

There is no indication from Dvorak for a gently drawn out start to that movement. You can Czech out dozens of recordings of the symphony and hear dozens of conductors begin the movement in tempo. That's how it goes. But not to Temirkanov.

The way he stretched out the first notes, as if from a nostalgic dream, was so magical, so OMG, that I was a changed man. The entire symphony seemed more meaningful and involving, somehow, because of that tiny gesture in a single measure.

It was as masterful a touch of charismatic conducting as any I have ever heard. Much to my surprise, the other reviewer I saw of that particular interpretation said nary a word about this unusual feature (in addition to Baltimore performances, Temirkanov led the BSO in the Dvorak 8th at Carnegie Hall). I guess charismatic interpretations aren't always universally felt.

If I were a contestant on a variant of the old game show "Name That Tune," perhaps called something along the lines of "Name the Fewest Notes in a Performance That Totally Blew You Away," I could start with two.

Picture it: Charleston, S.C. The Spoleto Festival U.S.A. A production of "Der Rosenkavalier," starring Renata Scotto as the Marschallin. (I couldn't find a picture of her in this role, so one from her performance of Klytemnestra in "Elektra" with the Baltimore Opera will have to do -- that was pretty darn charismatic, too.)

There's a moment after the sublime, spine-tingling Trio in the last act, when the Marschallin, who has lost her young lover Octavian to the equally young Sophie, sees the two ecstatically in love. Sophie's father remarks to the Marschallin, "That's how it is with kids today" (or words to that effect). The Marschallin replies simple: "Ja, ja" ("Yes, yes").

I think the way a soprano gets her ja-ja's out can make all the difference in a long night of "Rosenkavalier." The inflection can make you feel all the heartbreak inside the character of a woman afraid of loneliness and the advance of time.

What Scotto did with those two words, those two notes ripped my heart out that day in Charleston. There was the slightest catch in her throat as she sang them. Nothing melodramatic, just real and honest and naked and devastating. Talk about your charisma.

Even the way Scotto then left the stage, hesitating just for a second in the doorway, was special; she communicated more with her back to the audience than many a performer can head-on. Man, that was great acting.

You never know when a charismatic jolt will hit you in a concert hall or opera house, which is one reason why it's worth going to live performances as much as possible.

I will never forget great moments I've witnessed, including Birgit Nilsson in "Elektra" in Vienna, earning 45 minutes of applause (almost half as long as the whole opera); Leontyne Price singing "This Little Light of Mine" with a radiance that could light Baltimore for a year; Carlos Kleiber conducting "Rosenkavalier"; Evgeny Kissin's Carnegie Hall debut; etc.

When music is made with the genuine, unforced spark of personality -- charismatic personality -- and when it speaks deeply to you, your life is changed somehow, not just in that moment, but ever after.

I'd love to hear from you about some life-changers you've experienced.


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