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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Music Project

Listening to music is one of the restrictions of avelut (mourning). There are several different approaches toward this issue. There are those who go the entire year without intentionally listening to music, no matter the type and whether or not live or recorded. As one source explains, an avel (mourner) does not listen to music "because music brings about simcha (joy), which is one of the things an avel doesn't do during the aveilus (mourning) year."

A more lenient position holds that the issue is not music itself, but dancing. Thus, music is permitted so long as it is not associated with dancing, which is a "mark of gaiety." Based on this distinction, some authorities would permit listening to, or even attending a live performance of, an opera or classical music. The general custom, however, and the one I have chosen to follow, is not to attend any concert or performance of any type of music.

My connection to music is complex and integrally bound up with my relationship to my father, may his memory live on. He had a passionate, almost mystical, connection with classical music. He grew up listening to classical music on the radio. Even as a teen, he began attending concerts at Carnegie Hall. I know this because, while going through his things, I discovered a binder in which he kept programs of concerts he attended. He wouldn't just attend concerts; he had the chutzpa to go backstage and collect the autographs of the performers.

Program of 1945 concert signed by conductor Fritz Reiner.

My mother, z'l, the story goes, fell in love with him at a Brahms concert to which he took her. His passion for the music was so great that, to attend Carnegie Hall concerts after shabbat without violating the prohibition of carrying tickets on shabbat, he would buy and then hide them somewhere near the theatre--I'm sorry I never asked him exactly where--begin walking toward the concert hall from the Lower East Side on Shabbat afternoon, and then retrieve the tickets after shabbat had ended. Once, when he visited me at my college dorm, he noticed a poster of Carnegie Hall on the wall; he paid my roommate for it and had it framed. It hung over his desk for many years.

Carnegie Hall poster. The poster was included in the 1970 Live from Carnegie Hall album of the band Chicago
He even wrote letters and received responses from noted musicians, including the cellist Pablo Casals.
Letter written by Pablo Casals to my father which my father framed
Drafted into the army in 1951, my father was stationed in Germany for two years. He took advantage of his time abroad to see as many concerts as he could, including attending the Karlsruhe festival and the Salzburg festival in Vienna. There he saw the great European conductors of the era such as Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan, and Otto Klemperer.

Ticket and programs my father saved while attending concerts in Germany during his army days.
But his true love was Arturo Toscanini. He loved Toscanini's precise and driving tempos. He attended numerous concerts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toscanini.
Programs collected by my father of concerts conducted by Toscanini from 1945 (above) and 1953 (below)

He appreciated Toscanini not only as a conductor, but as an anti-fascist and supporter of Zionism. In 1936, Toscanini traveled to Palestine to "train the orchestra, and conduct the first concerts of what later became known as the Israel Philharmonic, composed of refugee Jewish musicians who had escaped persecution. Toscanini refused to accept a fee or reimbursement for his travel expenses." I remember him telling me how he listened on the radio to Toscanini's performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which he conducted to mark the day of the Nazi surrender. Toscanini returned to Italy shortly after the war's end and, before his first post-war concert, held at the famous La Scala Opera House, he insisted that Jewish musicians who had been dismissed from the orchestra (and survived the war), be reinstated. The last book my father read before he died was Harvey Sachs' most recent biography of Toscanini.

Toscanini died in January, 1957. A year later my brother was born. My parents gave him the middle name Arturo in his honor. (I can only imagine what my frum (religious) grandparents thought of this. They probably never found out.)

Most of my father's friends were fellow classical music lovers. He created his own "Berlioz Society," in appreciation of the 19th Century French composer Hector Berlioz. They would gather on Sunday evenings at our Lower East Side apartment to listen to their latest classical music finds, sitting together in silence to listen and critique. He amassed an immense collection of classical recordings, which I recall consisted mainly of multi-record albums encased in black covers.

Despite his best efforts, and to his great disappointment, my musical tastes were shaped by the music of the baby boom generation: the Beatles and their many imitators. When I was eight, he brought home a piano for me to learn to play classical music, but, after a couple of frustrating years, I quit. I routinely failed his quizzes to identify the composer of a piece of music; my standard response, "Brahms? Haydn?", must have been painful for him. An indelible memory of my childhood was when I accidentally broke his stylus while listening to Hard Day's Night, which I had received as a birthday present. In revenge for messing up his turntable, he smashed the record to pieces.

In the summer of 1965, he was offered a post-doc at Stanford University and we made the fateful move from the Lower East Side to Palo Alto, California. There I discovered KFRC and KYA, the two pop music stations which played the soundtrack of my youth.

One day in the summer of 1967, while I listened in the car, the Procol Harum song Whiter Shade of Pale came over the airways. Its melody, played on an organ, is based on, or at least alludes to, the chord progression in Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, BWV 1068. (The song is one of the most played songs in Rock history, and Rolling Stone named it the 57th best rock song ever.)

Not only did my father like it, but he realized that rock musicians were indeed serious musicians. And he found himself, living in Palo Alto, in the midst of one of the greatest explosions of musical talent in American history. Out of this modest beginning grew a full-fledged love affair with the San Francisco rock scene. He attended the many free rock concerts held in Palo Alto and environs. He and my mother went to the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore West to see the greats in their heyday: the Grateful Dead--his personal favorite--Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, with and without Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, Cream, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison. His built a rock music album collection which, while never rivaling the classical music collection, was nevertheless quite impressive. I've inherited it, and it represents a near perfect representation of the most important rock albums released from 1967-1971.

My brother and I were the beneficiaries of his new musical awakening. Though I was but 12, and my brother two years younger, he bought tickets and then dropped us off to attend our first concert, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, just south of San Francisco. The show was advertised in a short notice in the San Francisco Chronicle:

We saw the Everly Brothers, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and, one of the greatest bands in rock history, The Who. Then still relatively unheralded, The Who were known mostly for their crazy stage antics which included smashing their instruments at the end of each show--which we witnessed in stunned fashion as the smoke and noise rose from the stage. They were not even the headliners; that honor went to The Association, a briefly popular soft rock band with a bunch of pop hits: Along Comes Mary, Windy, Cherish, and Never My Love.

That was only the beginning of my concert-going experiences, all of which my father enabled. The day after my Bar Mitzvah, he took my brother and I to a rock festival at the nearby Santa Clara County Fairgrounds.

Advertisement poster for my first rock festival concert
The full day of music featured The Youngbloods, Country Joe and the Fish, The Electric Flag (with Buddy Miles and Mike Bloomfield), Taj Mahal, and, in an unforgettable and electrifying closing act, The Doors, featuring the manic and pulsating presence of their legendary singer, Jim Morrison.
Poster featuring Jim Morrison that my father bought at the rock concert
More musical experiences followed. In August, 1969, we saw the short-lived band Blind Faith--the famous Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker collaboration--in one of its only performances. Two months later, my father took me to my first Grateful Dead show at the San Jose Civic Center. Being only 14, I was overwhelmed by the psychedelic sounds and swirling lights; while the band played its improvisational jams, a Japanese monster movie--Mothra versus Godzilla I believe--was projected in the background. I rooted for Mothra because I liked the twin fairies that accompanied him.

A month later, December 6, 1969, our family set out on a Saturday morning (we were no longer sabbath observant) to attend the infamous Altamont Festival, in what was supposed to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock. It didn't turn out about peace and love--there were many overdoses and four deaths, including one killed right in front of the stage--but we were far away from the chaos, and the music itself, particularly Santana and the Rolling Stones, was tremendous. The next year he took us to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Oakland Coliseum; Young had just composed his song Ohio in response to the killings at Kent State two months earlier, and the crowd roared its approval at its message.

My father saw his last Grateful Dead concert on July 17, 1976, at the Orpheum Theatre, and I remember  the glow on his face the following morning. The previous night I attended my first Grateful Dead concert as a young adult, the beginning of a lifelong journey as a Deadhead.

Not only did my father appreciate rock music, he also had an excellent eye for the art that grew out of the San Francisco music scene. He bought posters of concerts he attended, now valuable collectors items. When he moved to New York a few years ago, he had some of them framed and hung them around his office, reminders of good times gone by.

Rock posters that my father bought, framed, and hung on his office wall.  
During my father's "hippie phase," he remained attached to classical music. Undoubtedly, he was one of few attending a Grateful Dead concert one night and an opera the next. As the years passed, he and the music changed, and he again devoted most of his listening pleasure to classical music. I too became less connected to popular music (other than my ongoing love of the Grateful Dead) and began listening to more classical music. Gradually I could distinguish between Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern and Post-modern pieces. (He could, upon listening, tell whether an orchestra was European or American and could identify conductors and even soloists.) Eventually I could hold intelligent conversations with him about classical music and, after my mother died, he and I attended a number of concerts together.

All this is a way of saying that music means too much to me--and meant too much to him--to shun it completely during the year of mourning. But I wanted to listen to music in a manner that befit the memory of one for whom music was so deeply implanted. So, even before he died, I began conceiving of a project to connect with him and honor his memory: to listen to his music. He eventually gave away his classical music albums, but over the years, he had augmented it with several hundred CDs. (He always maintained he preferred the sound of vinyl to digital.) A friend of his burned them and sent me the files on a couple of flash drives. I resolved, in alphabetical order, to listen to them all.

A portion of my father's classical music CD collection
The original idea was to complete the music project before his first yahrzeit. That is not going to happen. Less than two months of mourning remain and I am only on the Es. There were, to be sure, a lot of As and Bs: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms as well as performers (iTunes lists them by first name) whose names start with A, B or D: the pianists Alfred Brendel, Alicia de Larrocha, Alexandre Tharaud, Andras Schiff, Artur Schnabel, Arthur Benedetti Michelangeli, Daniel Barenboim, and Dinu Lipatti as well as the violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and David Oistrakh. Then there are the Amadeus and Emerson String Quartets--he was very partial to chamber music. And, of course, many many recordings of Arturo Toscanini. At this rate it will take a couple of years to listen to everything, but, just as I have committed to saying kaddish for him every day, I will in time (bli neder) listen to every piece of music he purchased.

I'm not only listening, but also, as a later day Berlioz Society member, reacting to each piece. I've created a spreadsheet of everything I listen to and recording my reaction (one to five stars, as well as a few words of evaluation). Column 1 lists the composer, 2: Name of Piece, 3: Conductor/performer and 4: rating and reaction:

Here are two small samples:

Small selection of my spreadsheet recording each piece of music I've listened to
This is not the kind of music you can rush through. Certain pieces are complex, evanescent, and so more difficult to evaluate on a single listen: I'm thinking of the Shostakovich string quartets I recently listened to. And so I listen to these pieces more than once. Others are so good they stay on a permanent playlist to get repeat playing. And I don't have lots of time to listen; mostly when I'm doing errands, and particularly when I begin my walk to and from shul to say kaddish in his memory, as if my prayers begin and end from the time I leave home until the time I return.

I wish I could discuss my reactions with him. I have imaginary talks with him why I liked or didn't like a piece of music or what I thought of a particular performance. I'm familiar with some of the standard classical repertoire, but I've discovered many musical gems that I'd never heard before. Here, in alphabetical order, are some of them:
  • Bach Concerto for solo organ No. 5 in D minor
  • Bach Partita for solo violin no. 2 in D minor
  • Beethoven String Quartets Nos. 14 and 15 (Opus 131 and 132)
  • Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major (Hammerklavier) and, his last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor
  • Brahms Violin Concerto in D major
  • Elgar Enigma Variations
  • Hyden Trumpet Concerto in E Flat
  • Mahler Symphonies No. 2 and 4 and Anageitto (slow movement of Symphony No. 5 (I wasn't crazy about the other movements)
  • Mozart Piano Sonatas No. 4 in E Flat Major (K. 282) and No. 8 in A minor (K. 310)
  • Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor
  • Schubert Piano Trio in E flat major
  • Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in A minor (Op. 110a)
  • Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major
(To listen to these pieces, go to the playlist)

Sometimes the music is so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes, and I remember how how looked when he was listening to music, as if carried away by some transcendental force. With each piece I listen to, I feel more a part of the world that gave him so much pleasure. Listening to his classical music collection has been one of the central features of my mourning, carrying as much meaning for me as attending synagogue and reciting kaddish.

At first, I resolved not to listen to any other music other than his this year. My cousin in Israel bought tickets to a concert by Yehuda Poliker--my favorite Israeli musician--while I was in Israel, but I declined, so she sold them. A friend of mine tried to convince me to go to a Phil Lesh (the Grateful Dead bassist) concert under the guise of reporting on the effect of music on mourning. I thought about how the music might have a cathartic element, but again declined. But one opportunity to hear Grateful Dead music did present itself: the summer annual meet-up, a movie featuring a complete Grateful Dead concert. This year's movie featured the concert from June 17, 1991 at Giants Stadium, a show I attended.

Although not strictly in line with the laws of mourning, I went. I wanted to. The movie had both its joyous and bittersweet elements; it was the band's last truly great performance I ever saw. And it captured Jerry Garcia on the cusp of his health decline, which would diminish his talents and lead to his death just four years later. It was cathartic. I did shed a tear. I'm sure my father would have appreciated it.

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