From the Dvorak Festival

Adagio – Allegro molto
Do you remember the first piece of music that made your heart expand? Or the first poem that touched your soul?
For me, that seminal piece of music was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). It’s a beloved symphony, especially here in the United States where Dvorak composed it. Dvorak, himself is especially popular here in Chicago, where several of his compositions were given their premiere.
My only personal claim upon the piece seems entirely random. I was required to take two semesters of Music History for my minor course of study in college. I had always played music – piano, then saxophone – but I had not spent any appreciable amount of time sitting and listening to music. Dutifully, I relinquished my ID card to the attendant in the audiovisual room at the library. (Remember when libraries had AV rooms? Do they still? Or has it all gone digital?)
My assignment that afternoon was to listen to some of the composers we had been studying in class. “Studying” is probably too kind a word – it was a survey class, so entire movements and periods and lists of composers flew past in every half hour of class time. In any event, I settled in with the New World Symphony on my large, rubber library headphones and listened.
And I listened. Twice. I may have played several sections over for a third time. I was in love.
A number of years have passed since that day. I graduated with my Literature/Communications major and my Music minor. I did a short stint in grad school before dropping out and getting a job instead. I got married. Ten years and another job later I got divorced. And a few more years passed.
I make no claim to be “older and wiser,” but a great deal has happened to me since that day in the library. I do not listen with the same ears… or the same heart.
Largo
My first poem? That’s much more difficult to place. I did not study poetry in college. In fact, I took many more courses on the “Comm” side of my program than on the “Lit” side – something I regret strongly. I was exposed to bits of poetry here and there – Blake, Keats, Frost, Shakespeare – however, it was not until well after my prescribed programs of study were complete that I began reading poetry for pleasure.
But if we travel back a little farther – to the day I graduated from my small, rural high school – there was a first poem. I had done well enough in my academic career to earn a speaking part in the graduation ceremony. I was terrified! I had never given a speech to such a large crowd. And although a “large crowd” in Lanark, Illinois, would cause a Chicago Public School student to double over with laughter, these were my school mates and their parents. I felt the pressure.
It was not a long speech – and not incredibly eloquent – but I did quote that favorite of graduation speakers everywhere: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It moved me then, as a young girl make choices about her future, and it still moves me now, albeit in different ways, of course.
Molto vivace
But where is all this talk of “firsts” leading? To a Friday night in Chicago at Symphony Center. To the penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival. To a marvelous program of Dvorak favorites: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto, and the New World Symphony.
I attended a total of four concerts in the festival – the Symphony No. 8 program;  the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 3; the Emerson String Quartet program; and last night’s Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 9. When I purchased the tickets, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Cello Concerto was on two of the programs – a happy accident, as I would not have done that deliberately.
I thoroughly enjoyed the first two concerts and was blown away by Alisa Weilerstein’s performance on the Cello Concerto during Week #2. The Emerson String Quartet was disappointing. I’m sure they were technically flawless, but I remained unmoved by the music. I will have to seek out some additional recordings of Dvorak’s chamber music to discover the source of the problem – me or the artists or the music itself. Although… I do not often attend Sunday afternoon concerts, so perhaps the time of day was working against me.
By the time last night’s concert arrived, I was looking forward to the New World Symphony, but I had no particular expectations. It was not a subscription concert, so I was not sitting in my usual roomy little nook in the first balcony. Scrunched between a group of 20-somethings discussing their music appreciation class and an attractive 40-something couple who seemed very much in love, I thought to myself, “Well, the music will be good and perhaps I’ll buy something chocolate at the intermission.”
Allegro con fuoco
I did not need the chocolate. Listening to the Carnival Overture was like consuming some sort of melt-in-your-mouth candy. Delightful! And Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto was even more enjoyable the second time round. I wanted the musical conversation between cello and flute – i.e., Alisa and Mathieu Dufour – to continue for the rest of the evening. But then, Mathieu has always been my favorite CSO woodwind.
Finally, Symphony No. 9… A special addition for the evening’s performance was Chicago actor Francis Guinan reading selections from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha before the first three movements. Dvorak had been commissioned to compose an opera based upon the poem, but never did so.
I cannot say that The Song of Hiawatha has any special meaning for me. I haven’t even read more than the first few stanzas of it. Guinan’s reading, however, was powerful. And more powerful was the passage of time. As Dvorak’s familiar horn theme gently sounded, I found myself overcome with emotion and catapulted backward in time to that day in the college library. Before my marriage. Before my divorce. Before I had felt and heard and seen the last decade-and-a-half.
“After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs.”
Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
“That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!”
And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
“Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!”
And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
“I will follow you, my husband!”
X. Hiawatha’s Wooing
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It was as if someone had jabbed me in the belly with a sharp stick. As Guinan read the word “husband” to introduce the symphony’s second movement, I began to cry. After an initial blush of embarrassment, I gave up and let the tears roll silently down my cheeks. My life is much, much better now, thank you – and I am not the type who wishes to go back and change things – but sometimes the emotions and the memories sneak up on you.
I cried for all that I know now that I didn’t know then. I cried for the beauty of the music. I cried for the love of Hiawatha and his bride. I cried for the couple next to me, who clasped hands whenever the music swelled to a soul-touching intensity.
Poetry and music are incredibly powerful art forms. We listen to the radio or read some lines of verse while waiting in line at the doctor’s office. That’s pretty, we think. Or that’s interesting. But when we really stop and pay attention, when we let ourselves become intellectually and emotionally involved in the words or the notes, then we remember. Oh, right. That’s why I schlepp to the office five days a week or skip yoga class to work late. If you’ll allow me to quote Robin Williams in the movie “Dead Poets Society”:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Adagio – Allegro molto
188px-Dvorak_estatuaDo you remember the first piece of music that made your heart expand? Or the first poem that touched your soul?

For me, that seminal piece of music was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (from the New World). It’s a beloved symphony, especially here in the United States where Dvorak composed it. Dvorak, himself, is especially popular here in Chicago, where several of his compositions were given their premiere.

My only personal claim upon the piece seems entirely random. I was required to take two semesters of music history for my minor course of study in college. I had always played music – piano, then saxophone – but I had not spent any appreciable amount of time sitting and listening to music. Dutifully, I relinquished my ID card to the attendant in the audiovisual room at the library. (Remember when libraries had AV rooms? Do they still? Or has it all gone digital?)

My assignment that afternoon was to listen to some of the composers we had been studying in class. “Studying” is probably too kind a word – it was a survey class, so entire movements and periods and lists of composers flew past in every half hour of class time. In any event, I settled in with the New World Symphony on my large, rubber library headphones and listened.

And I listened. Twice. I may have played several sections over for a third time. I was in love.

A number of years have passed since that day. I graduated with my literature/communications major and my music minor. I did a short stint in grad school before dropping out and getting a job. I got married. Ten years and another job later I got divorced. And a few more years passed.

I make no claim to be “older and wiser,” but a great deal has happened to me since that day in the library. I do not listen with the same ears … or the same heart.

Largo
My first poem? That’s much more difficult to place. I did not study poetry in college. In fact, I took many more courses on the “Comm” side of my program than on the “Lit” side – something I regret strongly. I was exposed to bits of poetry here and there – Blake, Keats, Frost, Shakespeare – however, it was not until well after my prescribed programs of study were complete that I began reading poetry for pleasure.

But if we travel back a little farther – to the day I graduated from my small, rural high school – there was a first poem. I had done well enough in my academic career to earn a speaking part in the graduation ceremony. I was terrified! I had never given a speech to such a large crowd. And although a “large crowd” in Lanark, Illinois, would cause a Chicago Public School student to double over with laughter, these were my school mates and their parents. I was feeling the pressure.

It was not a long speech – and not incredibly eloquent – but I did quote that favorite of graduation speakers everywhere: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It moved me then, as a young girl making choices about her future, and it still moves me now, albeit in different ways, of course.

Molto vivace
424px-Dvorak_1868But where is all this talk of “firsts” leading? To a Friday night in Chicago at Symphony Center. To the penultimate concert of the Chicago Symphony’s Dvorak Festival. To a marvelous program of Dvorak favorites: the Carnival Overture, the Cello Concerto, and the New World Symphony.

I attended a total of four concerts in the festival – the Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7 program;  the Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 8; the Emerson String Quartet program; and last night’s Cello Concerto and Symphony No. 9. When I purchased the tickets, I somehow overlooked the fact that the Cello Concerto was on two of the programs – a happy accident.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two concerts and was blown away by Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto during Week #2. The Emerson String Quartet was disappointing. I’m sure they were technically flawless, but I remained unmoved by the music. I will have to seek out some additional recordings of Dvorak’s chamber music to discover the source of the problem – me or the artists or the music itself. Although … I do not often attend Sunday afternoon concerts, so perhaps the time of day was working against me.

By the time last night’s concert arrived, I was looking forward to the New World Symphony, but I had no particular expectations. It was not a subscription concert, so I was not sitting in my usual roomy little nook in the first balcony. Scrunched between a group of 20-somethings discussing their music appreciation class and an attractive 40-something couple who seemed very much in love, I thought to myself, “Well, the music will be good and perhaps I’ll buy something chocolate at the intermission.”

Allegro con fuoco
I did not need the chocolate. Listening to the Carnival Overture was like consuming some sort of melt-in-your-mouth candy. Delightful! And Alisa Weilerstein’s performance of the Cello Concerto was even more enjoyable the second time round. I wanted the musical conversation between cello and flute – i.e., Alisa and Mathieu Dufour – to continue for the rest of the evening.

A special addition for the evening’s performance was Chicago actor Francis Guinan reading selections from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha before the first three movements of Symphony No. 9. Apparently, Dvorak had been commissioned to compose an opera based upon the poem. Although he never did so, it is thought that some of those musical ideas made their way into the New World Symphony.

I cannot say that The Song of Hiawatha has any special meaning for me. I haven’t read more than the first few stanzas of it. Guinan’s reading, however, was powerful. And more powerful was the passage of time. As Dvorak’s familiar horn theme gently sounded, I found myself overcome with emotion and catapulted backward to that day in the college library. Before my marriage. Before my divorce. Before I had felt and heard and seen the last decade-and-a-half.

HiawathaDeparture

“After many years of warfare,
Many years of strife and bloodshed,
There is peace between the Ojibways
And the tribe of the Dacotahs.”

Thus continued Hiawatha,
And then added, speaking slowly,
“That this peace may last forever,
And our hands be clasped more closely,
And our hearts be more united,
Give me as my wife this maiden,
Minnehaha, Laughing Water,
Loveliest of Dacotah women!”

And the ancient Arrow-maker
Paused a moment ere he answered,
Smoked a little while in silence,
Looked at Hiawatha proudly,
Fondly looked at Laughing Water,
And made answer very gravely:
“Yes, if Minnehaha wishes;
Let your heart speak, Minnehaha!”

And the lovely Laughing Water
Seemed more lovely as she stood there,
Neither willing nor reluctant,
As she went to Hiawatha,
Softly took the seat beside him,
While she said, and blushed to say it,
“I will follow you, my husband!”

Hiawatha’s Wooing, The Song of Hiawatha
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was as if someone had jabbed me in the belly with a sharp stick. As Guinan read the word ‘husband,’ I began to cry. After an initial blush of embarrassment, I gave up and let the tears roll silently down my cheeks. My life is much, much better now, thank you – and I am not the type who wishes to go back and change things – but sometimes the emotions and the memories sneak up on you.

I cried for all that I know now that I didn’t know then. I cried for the beauty of the music. I cried for the love of Hiawatha and his bride. I cried for the couple next to me, who clasped hands whenever the music swelled to soul-touching intensity.

I think we forget that poetry and music are such incredibly powerful art forms. We listen to the radio or read some lines of verse while waiting in line at the doctor’s office. That’s pretty, we think. Or that’s interesting. But when we really stop and pay attention, when we let ourselves become intellectually and emotionally involved in the words or the notes, then we remember.

Oh, yeah. That’s why I schlepp to the office five days a week or skip yoga class to work late or spend three days trapped in a windowless room to learn some new piece of software. I think Robin Williams said it best in the movie Dead Poets Society:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Now go listen to something beautiful.

Reify this

Oh, if I ever use the word “reify,”
please revoke my poetry license,
slap my knuckles with a sonnet,
and search my home for literary criticism.

Throw them out; add them
to the lists of banned books.
Sit me in a plain, wooden chair,
brew me a cup of bitter tea,
and hand me a book of Bukowski.

Charles knew a poem was a metaphor –
a lover and a savior and a thief.
Reify? He’d reify your brain with a bottle.

The poetry reading is canceled

I’ve rushed across town for these moments of culture,
but Bidart is injured; there will be no reading.
I descend instead into subterranean quiet,
the American galleries, far from the crowded Impressionists,
to visit with Sargent and Eakins and Ms. Elizabeth
Sparhawk-Jones (1885-1968).
Her women shoeshopping in oils could be any women
today: feet and skirts lifted, cast-off slippers
littering the floor, unspoken judgments, a glance or a nod,
deciding the merits of this pump or that, only
their flowered hats and bustled dresses
betray the year, 1911. I gaze at Ms. Jones’s homage
to a new temple of commerce, the Department Store,
and remember another contemporary poet, Robert Pinsky,
who wrote of “shopping malls and prisons,” farms and
downtowns, the poet’s “figured wheel” rolling over the land,
painting his own picture of America.

He understands himself to be a “post-language” poet

Don’t understand
that poetry
that wants to be so clever
only a few PhDs can comprehend:
insular and safe, protected
from the public,
talking amongst themselves,
talking to the like-minded.

Put on their cap and gown
and transform into professor poet…
Pack my verses tightly
in little Russian dolls
and speak an obscure dialect…

Or be the one they sneer at:
popular, accessible. Accept,
gladly, such dirty words and
be transparent to the average Jane,
who just want to know
someone understands.

Con fuoco

Black and white rows gently curve,
Cupping the conductor, who motions
Arrogantly with his left hand to the
Timpani. I do not like him, this
Emotionless drone, leading my
Favorite flautist and the striking
Piccolo and the always red-faced
About-to-burst trombone and the
New snare drummer and all the rest –
Cellos and violins and bassoons.
He does not seem to feel the allegro;
He does not even look alive. Music
Pours from veins and lungs and
Tendons. It vibrates in the birth
Canal and thrusts with the penis.
Cerebral though the score may be,
Unless the notes pulse through
The blood to the rest of the body,
They will not survive beyond this
Moment – when the conductor sets
Down his baton, steps offstage,
And disappears.

Un bon film francais

I love a good French film: subtitles, no soundtrack to speak of,
scenes ending suddenly in the middle of conversation.
It feels like a glimpse into real life, rather than a story staged,
captured with a lens. There will be odd shots of nature – a flower
or the sky – and random narration over a black screen, and
if there is nudity, you will have an equal chance of seeing his penis,
not just her breasts, which of course is only fair,
because women’s breasts seem to pop up for no good reason
in most movies. A good French film lingers in the mind –
I have questions, I have opinions – unlike so many movies
which roll with the credits off the screen and disappear forever.
A good French film ends before I am completely satisfied,
wanting more.

Lady Chatterly at the Siskel

The first movie I saw
   after having sex with him
Was Lady Chatterly
   in French.
I surprised myself
   by crying
When Constance holds
   a baby chick
And realizes she may
   never have a baby.
I also wept suddenly
   when her lover
Confesses that he is
   in love with her.
The tears did not stop
   until the film ended,
Abruptly, like most
   foreign films.
Afterward, I realized
   I had not watched
All the sex scenes
   with my usual bitterness
But instead had
   held my breath
Waiting for the lovers
   to climax.
Funny, how the world
   does not change.
Go to Canada with him,
   I wanted to shout.
Take your chance for
   happiness, but women
Did not just leave their
   husbands then,
And despite what the numbers
    say, women do not
Always leave them now.