Taking Music to New Heights

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

When I was six years old, I wanted to be an elevator operator when I grew up. Living in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, I was always thrilled when my mother took me across the Hudson river to the big city where we would end up taking the elevator to the 30th floor, the 66th floor, or even the 83rd floor of one of those gigantic skyscrapers.

This was before the days when elevators were almost all automated. There were still elderly, uniformed men, and an occasional woman, who sat on little stools attached to the side of the cabin, operating the large, crescent-shaped controls which brought the passengers to the floors they requested, and picked them up again when they were ready to return to the street.

My older brother always warned me to be careful what I wished, because my wish might come true. I didn't understand what he meant at the time, but I now realize I was fortunate not to have become an elevator operator. Had my childhood wish come true, I would have long since been out of work, and, at best, I would have grown up on Muzak instead of music in my ears.

When I was nine I started writing and "publishing" a family newspaper called The Big News, and I changed professional ambitions. I decided I wanted to be a writer. That wish is just now becoming true. Although I started out as a journalist and returned to writing a few years ago, I spent a quarter-century in between as a public radio and television executive.

I grew to love classical music as a teenager. But, as much as I enjoy symphonies, concertos and chamber music, I have always hated reading about them. I found classical record program notes and magazine reviews tedious and boring, seemingly written by musicologists for musicologists with one aim in mind: to put each other to sleep.

I never wanted to write about music myself for fear that it was simply too difficult to do in an interesting way. Music, I felt, was its own language -- one which spoke directly to the emotions without need of words, though lyrics were sometimes added.

I still think it is a challenge to write well about music. I'm still turned off by liner notes which give a cold musical analysis of a composition. But three years ago I decided to try to write about music because of another wish I have: to share the musical beauty I discover with others who I'm sure would love this music as much as I do if they gave it a chance.

I am not a musicologist. I am not a professional musician. And I think it usually (though certainly not always) takes one or the other of these to draw subtle distinctions between performances of the same composition. There are, for example, some 29 interpretations of Richard Wagner's "Prelude & Liebestod" ("Prelude & Love-Death") from Tristan und Isolde listed in a recent CD catalog. I have not heard all 29 CDs, and I'm not going to.

What is most important is that this piece might well be the one I would select if I had to go off to the proverbial desert island with only one CD and a solar-operated stereo system. That's how beautiful and lasting I think it is.

The interpretations I happen to have (Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG and Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on Telarc) would do fine, but so, probably, would most of the others. I judge what CDs I add to my collection more by what else is on the disc, its cost and its sound quality than by the nuances of interpretation -- at least in most cases.

There used to be an advertisement in the New York subways that said "you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Jewish rye." Well you don't have to be an opera fan to love Wagner, even though that is what he is most famous for. I am more interested in his music, myself, than in his words, and find most opera plots ridiculous and uninteresting. Wagner's operas are much too long for me, too heavy, too theatrical, too unrealistic, too musically repetitious, and the words too guttural.

But if you enjoy Wagner's complete operas, grossbuestige Frauen and all, so much the better for you. That's one more pleasure you get out of life than I do.

On the other hand, if you aren't into opera at all, or appreciate Italian and French opera but not the German variety, or are new to classical music and want to know where to start with Wagner, I have one strong recommendation: look into the magnificent, short, soaring romantic orchestral music he wrote as preludes and overtures for his operas.

My favorites, in addition to the spine-tingling prelude and love-death music from Tristan und Isolde, are the hyper-exciting "Prelude to Act III" from Lohengrin (which I have with Riccardo Chailly conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on London and with James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on DGG), the Overture to Tannhauser (which is on all of the recordings mentioned above), the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg (which is also on all of the above CDs), and, of course, the ever popular "Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walkure (on the London CD with Chailly).

This ain't elevator music, I promise you, but it will carry you to new heights.

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