Monday, July 18, 2011

Enliven and Vitalize

July 18, 2011

I felt a blog post coming on yesterday.  You may want to watch this video before reading further (I write, knowing most of you will skip right over the video when you notice that I have requested nine and a half minutes of your time, plus whatever few ticks of the clock it will take you to read my mighty exposition of it), and be forewarned that there may be more than the usual meandering before I get to my ultimate point. 

This story starts yesterday, but goes back many years.  Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture was the first actual piece of music I purchased with my own shekels.  I had listened to my parents records and had even talked them into buying me some 45s:  The Beatles "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and Three Dog Night "Joy to the World" come to mind.  I didn't own my own "stereo" until high school, and since record albums cost about three times my hourly wage and I was pretty stingy, I satisfied my listening urges by listening to KRBE (for pop music) and later KLOL (for my more sophisticated "album rock" tastes) and by pirating cuts off the radio onto cassettes. 

So what led me to buy Tchaikovsky:  1812 Overture (Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta with Orignal Civil War cannon, bells and carillon by Maas-Row Carillons--I know this is exactly right because I am holding the original on my lap as I type)?  I thought it was the most delicious and blood pumping fifteen minutes of music I had ever heard!

It didn't even matter that I had a somewhat embarrassing history with that piece of music (skip the next five paragraphs if you tend to leave the room when Beaver is about to make a decision that will get him sent to his room to wait "until his father gets home" or if awkward middle school moments give you the hives).

Awkward Middle School Moment

A few eighth grade band kids (the usual suspects--suck ups and goody-two shoes) got chosen/selected/anointed to sell programs at all the home high school football games as a fund raiser.  Our reward was to go with the high school band when they performed at a University of Houston game, alongside the Cougar Marching Band (under the direction of Dr. Bill Moffitt!!!) and also alongside at least a couple of dozen other local high school bands invited to the exclusive halftime presentation (I can only imagine the innovative minds needed to build a crowd for U of H to fill the Astrodome in the early 1970s).

There I was, dressed in my junior high band uniform (no, they didn't find real uniforms for the eight of us little kids to wear), consisting of a pair of black pants, a white turtleneck, and a black jacket with orange piping.  No big, furry hat with the bill drawn two fingers above the slope of my nose.  No big brass buttons to catch the glint of the lights in the Astrodome.  Just a plain black apprentice waiter outfit, duly marked with bright caution tape on the seams to avoid mistaking me for the real thing.  

As luck would have it, we were the band staged to the immediate left of the college band (I think we were organized alphabetically and Alvin trumped Angleton) between two yard markers near the center of the field.  They also decided to put the middle school kids at the front of our group (I guess to keep uniformity) and because we were short.  They also put me on the very first rank so I wouldn't jab anyone with my trombone slide--though that wasn't too likely, since they didn't issue the eighth graders any music.  

So, there we were at the pre-game practice playing (you guessed it) the 1812 Overture.  The drum majors had climbed tall ladders so everyone could see them, the tom toms, the timbali, and the bass drums in every band were banging out the finale, the scantily clad, but oh-so-beautiful twirlers were tossing their batons impossibly high, and the strains of the very familiar tune were echoing around the domed stadium.  I cheated.  I listened to the music and figured out my part (at least in places), and when the final minute or two of the piece reached its crescendoing thunder, I was playing along!  And feeling quite excellent!  Until I pushed my slide out to distant sixth position

Somewhere between HERE:


And then accidentally, I let go of my slide and it continued on its forward trajectory and landed at the foot of a twirler, eyes to the heavens awaiting the return of her high-flung baton while whirling round like a dervish with a toothy smile showing between her impossibly (and unnaturally) red lips.  The whole left side of the Fightin' Cougar Band took their instruments from their lips/mouths and stared, just like you do when you think you're about to witness a car crash, leaving the high school bands to soldier through alone to the end of the piece.

End of Awkward Middle School Moment

Yet, even that moment, seared in my memory forever, did not diminish my love for that song.  
I heard it yesterday on the way to church.  As soon as I recognized it I cranked up the volume.  By the time I made it to Finfeather, the familiar last two minutes boomed around me.  I did my best Zubin Mehta, Leonard Berstein, Seiji Ozawa conducting the orchestra---great big arms, hitting the downbeat especially hard, and singing the trombone countermelody.  And smiling!  Smiling bigger than a dog with her head out the window on the highway.  

And of course, this makes no sense.  Offically called The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, Op. 49, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed it in 1880 to commemorate Russia's defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing Grande Armée at the Battle of Borodino in 1812.  I am not a guns and battle kind of girl.  You know I don't love wars, generals, or much of that martial stuff at all, but there I was having a viceral experience and absolutely loving it.

When I got home after back to back to back meetings, I went to my computer to listen again.  And again.    Sometimes to the whole thing and sometimes to the last two minutes or even the last minute.  Sometimes with recorded cannon.  Sometimes with live 105 mm cannon.

Every time I listened, I thought, why do so many rousing songs celebrate battle?  And then, instead of getting mad at the waste of a really good song (or several, if you think about it), I started thinking anew.

Why doesn't some (or many) great (or near great) composer write songs that enliven and vitalize in this heart-pounding, visceral, I-have-to-wave-my-arms-around-and-direct for another equally heroic cause:  childhood cancer?

Think of a rip-roaring song that makes you feel proud, bold, ready to act, urgent, defiant of odds.  You kind of get sucked into the music and the way it makes you feel, before you know what it is really all about.  Your senses engage, then your brain engages.

Last year, a local congregation commissioned a composer to write an anthem in Erin's memory.  We were honored.  We visited with the sponsor.  We showed them what Erin was, what she stood for, how she lived.   We got a lovely chorale piece, but not a stirring one.  A pity because it was an opportunity missed.  

What I want is a celebration and call to action for all the children.  I want a song that makes me feel like this one does.  Here's another version that is edited down to the final minute, in case you skipped the longer version up top.  

Anyone willing to give it a try?


  1. I grew up exposed to many types of music. My parents took me to hear many and varied types of music - Robert Merrill, The Red Army Chorus, Hello Dolly with Carol Channing are just a sampling. In addition, my dad sang in church choir, the community chorale, and accompanied a quartet with guy as funny as they were accomplished. For me, the piece that played over and over again on my record player was Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. Even though I have probably listened to it hundreds of times, I am always caught up in the drama that builds and builds in tempo and volume until the about 1:40 of this version. As a kid, this part would have me leaping and jumping around my room. It still gives me chills even though I know how it turns out.

  2. You gotta take this suggestion to a university music department. Or college. I wouldn't just ship it around to the obvious - places like Juliard.. my first college - Brevard College - is well known for it's music program. There is likely to be some aspiring student who could hear the music in their ears as you described Erin. It would give them a great service line on their CV as well as composing line too. Oh, btw, what happened when the baton twirler realized what had happened? You hit the top of the crescendo, but you never took us back down..

  3. PS. Listen to this: --> it may be up your alley. It was written by James Sochinski: .. I was in band and we performed it in 1990, 91? It's a pretty amazing piece of music. In fact, I'd contact him about exactly what you are talking about. I don't know him, but he created this. I wish I were in touch with my ex-stepfather, a colleague of his, because then I could inquire with him about whether he thought there would be interest in your proposed project.

    Oh, btw. One reason I like this piece with the image of what you have in mind is that I can hear someone's life in the piece.. the quiet solo moments, the big huge loud ones..

  4. I have many that get me going, but this one came to mind today. Makes me wish I hadn't permanently loaned my baton to my son. However a wooden spoon also work nicely.

  5. So beautiful twirlers were tossing their batons ...

  6. Just realized I referred to a baton in my post. But it wasn't the twirling kind. (Although I did learn to twirl when I was a kid.) It was the conducting kind...

  7. Cool! that was really amazing twirler tossing batons.=D