Music's communicative power — "such sweet compulsion," Milton called it — has been known to change lives. Hearing the right piece at the right time can make a person start to think and feel differently, maybe start down a new path.
In a thoroughly unscientific sampling, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and other classical musicians who perform regularly in the area were asked to talk about the first works that caught their ears and hearts and have continued to inspire them.
Some surprises turned up in the responses, along with compositions that have long been very popular. The common thread in these recollections is the sense of being deeply connected and affected to the music, experiencing a process George Gershwin described this way:
"Music sets up a certain vibration [that] unquestionably results in a physical reaction," the composer of "Rhapsody in Blue" said. "Eventually, the proper vibration for every person will be found and utilized."
Here are the stories of how some local musicians discovered those proper vibrations.
"My parents used to play classical music in our house," says Jane Marvine, the BSO's principal English horn player. One work in particular made a deep impression on her growing up.
"[Stravinsky's] 'Rite of Spring' was it for me," Marvine says. "I remember sitting and listening to that record as a kid and getting all these mental images of what was happening in that music. It was so spooky and visceral."
Another piece caused an even more visceral reaction later.
"I was in my middle school orchestra and we were playing an arrangement of the last movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 1," Marvine says. "[In the coda] I got the strangest feeling, a feeling I had never had before. I was getting such a chill it kind of scared me. Every time we played it, I would get this emotional reaction during the coda. It was almost like taking a drug."
The Chicago-born Marvine, who gives her age as "the new 40s," says Brahms' First still strikes a chord. "I can't help but be moved," she says.
A native of Washington, D.C. who lives in Baltimore, Bryan Young is principal bassoonist of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra and member of the Poulenc Trio. He started on violin around the age of 6, but "bassoon classes were right next door, and that seemed much cooler," he says.
"I had two cassette tapes that my parents happened to have lying around the house — Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10 and Mozart's Greatest Hits," Young, 40, says. "They absolutely captivated me as a kid."
When he was a sophomore in high school, the bassoonist got a deeper experience with the Shostakovich Tenth as a member of the D.C. Youth Orchestra.
"What pushed me over the edge into music was when the youth orchestra did a tour of Russia right before the fall of the Soviet Union and I got to play that symphony there," Young says. "Anytime I hear it today brings it all back. It really does."
BSO principal timpanist James Wyman had his first drum set before the age of 10 in his hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio. In his teens, he began to feel a serious pull toward classical music.
"I got my first car in high school, a $900 Ford with a crappy cassette player," Wyman, 30, says. "The only cassette I had was Beethoven's Fifth [Symphony]. I played it until the tape broke. When I hear that symphony now, the same scene comes to mind — it's late at night, and I'm getting goose bumps when the horns come in [during] the third movement."
After he entered college to continue percussion studies, Wyman had a second major musical encounter.
"The first score I got was [Rimsky-Korsakov's] 'Scheherazade.' That kick-started the whole thing," he says. "Every time I hear 'Scheherazade,' I'm back in the dorm room, freshman year, listening along with the score, the music rushing through me the whole time."
Ah Young Hong
Soprano Ah Young Hong, who has been a soloist with many musical organizations in Baltimore and beyond, was first drawn to the piano growing up in Seoul, South Korea. Her mother was a classical pianist.
"I was really tickled when she played [Weber's] 'Invitation to the Dance.' I loved the slow introduction and the way it burst into dance," Hong, 42, says. "I would imagine a whole scene, with dancers taking bows at the end."
Hong started piano lessons at 3, but stopped at 17 ("My hands are insanely small, and I couldn't get enough sound") and went to the University of Virginia to study medicine. There, she saw an audition notice posted by a student chorus.
"Getting into the choir was what changed my perception," Hong says. "My first solo was the 'Pie Jesu' in Faure's Requiem. I remember thinking how incredible it was that, instead of a piano, my instrument was inside me. It is a beautiful memory."
South Dakota-born Gabrielle Finck, associate principal horn in the BSO, heard her share of young people-friendly classical music as a child, but wasn't impressed.
"I hated [Prokofiev's] 'Peter and the Wolf' because of what happens to the animals in the story," Finck, 35, says.
Although she began playing horn in fifth grade ("I sounded terrible"), Finck wasn't hooked on it for a long time.
"I didn't fall in love with the horn until college," she says. "During my freshman year, I heard Mahler's Fifth [Symphony]. I thought the horn solo was really awesome. I love that it has all the gymnastic, technical stuff, but also a full, lyrical side. It's so powerful."
Israeli-born Netanel Draiblate, concertmaster for the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and Lancaster Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania, started playing violin at 6. About four years later, he heard some music that left a big mark.
"I went to a concert by the orchestra in Israel my father played in," Draiblate says. "They played Beethoven's First Symphony. I really liked the last movement. That spoke to me the best. At home, I found a vinyl recording of it and learned the groove where the fourth movement was. I would play it again and again."
He did the same later when he found a CD of violinist Itzhak Perlman performing Sarasate's gypsy-flavored showpiece "Zigeunerweisen."
"I really got into it," Draiblate says. "I still find it a very exciting piece."
When Rui Du was 6 years old, growing up in Hefei, China, he received from his mother a violin and another treat.
"She took me to my first classical concert," he says. "They played Beethoven's Fifth. I thought 'Wow!' I was shocked. To think something could be so simple — just four notes [the famous dah-dah-dad-DAH theme] — and be such a tremendously exciting experience. And I was so amazed by that great sound of the orchestra. I wanted to hear more classical music."
Rui Du, 31, who joined the BSO in 2012, has not lost his enthusiasm for the piece that first hooked him.
"Every time I play Beethoven's Fifth, I find it more interesting," he says.
As a little girl in Chicago, Sandy Boyd says she "would sing for anyone at the drop of a hat." The soprano, now in her 60s and a Baltimore resident for three decades, is a member of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.
Her interest in choral singing started when she heard her high school's a cappella choir sing Tomas Luis de Victoria's "O magnum mysterium" and Randall Thompson's "Alleluia."
"Those two things really moved me," Boyd says. "I auditioned for that choir and didn't make it, but I have sung both works with Choral Arts, so it's like going full-circle. Those pieces are so melodic and so ethereal. They take me away. I still get chills performing both of them."
Growing up in Malvern, Pa., Nathaniel Hepler started on the piano at 5, then switched to percussion before settling on the trumpet when he was 9. Now in his early 30s, Hepler is a member of the BSO's trumpet section.
"In the sixth grade, the first time I got to play in a youth orchestra as a sub, we did [Gershwin's] 'American in Paris.' That was the most amazing thing I had ever done," Hepler says. "All those cool sounds that were so descriptive. At the end of the concert, I got a check for $50, so that made it even cooler."
Later on, as a member of his high school orchestra, he had another peak moment playing a concert featuring Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.
"The last movement made me feel super-excited," he says, "and made me think it would be awesome to do this for a living."
Karin Brown, assistant principal violist in the BSO, hails from Santa Cruz, Calif., where she figured out early on who her favorite composer was.
"I've always had a love affair with Stravinsky," says Brown, 38. "I was listening to 'Petrushka' at 3. I still remember the scary record cover. I would hide under the table while listening — the music was kind of scary, too."
Another Stravinsky piece loomed even larger for the violist.
"I was obsessed with 'Rite of Spring' in high school," Brown says, "the rhythms, the textures and colors. Every time I get to play it, it brings me back. It never gets old."
Michael Sheppard, founding member of the Monument Piano Trio and frequent guest artist on concert series around town, started playing piano by ear at 2 and took his first lessons at 7, but classical music wasn't a passion.
"I remember listening to '80s pop," the Philadelphia-born Sheppard, 37, says. "Michael Jackson was my thing, and Billy Joel. But when I was 8 or 9, while coming back from the beach, the car radio was on and I remember being frozen by the sound. I yelled, 'Don't change the station.' It was the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto."
That experience changed everything for Sheppard.
"It was a visceral reaction," he says. "It seemed like a pivotal moment. Before, my attitude about playing was, 'I love doing this,' and now it was, 'I need to do this.'"
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