Many people who love classical music came to it through one piece they heard early in their lives. For The Fabulous Wife it was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. For me it was Scheherazade, the 1888 orchestral masterpiece by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
I grew up on rock and roll. Although I preferred softer folk-rock, I didn’t mind the head-banging stuff. To this day I enjoy an occasional listen to Neil Young’s Weld, and I’ve got something like 40 Green Day songs on my ancient (2009, which in tech years was five centuries ago) iPod.
I don’t remember what motivated me to climb into the attic of my mom’s South Jersey house my freshman year of college and go through my dad’s old records. He’d died a couple of years earlier, and I wasn’t interested in any of his other stuff. He was an audiophile, welcoming innovations like quadrophonic sound, and his stereo system was still hooked up in mom’s den. I would listen to rock and roll albums on it — wearing headphones so as not to disturb mom, of course. But I never cared for dad’s music, which tended toward pablum like Frank Chacksfield arrangements of jazz and rock and roll standards.
Nonetheless, I sat in that stuffy attic and flipped through his collection. A few disks caught my eye, one of them being a Phase 4 Stereo recording of Scheherazade by Leopold Stokowski and the London Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps dad really liked the piece. Perhaps he was drawn by the advanced (for its time) recording technique. Or perhaps he was sold by the Stokowski legend. Legend, you ask? Why, yes, and I can summarize the proof in two words: Bugs Bunny.
I teed up the disk on the turntable, clamped the headphones over my ears — and saw colors. It’s called synesthesia, and for a brief spell in my late teens and early twenties, I had it; intense aural experiences sometimes caused me to see colors with my eyes closed.
Gateway pieces are personal, so I’m not going to push you to hear mine. But if you’re interested, use the best audio equipment you have for this YouTube reproduction of the Stokowski/London Symphony/Phase 4 recording. And if you’re hoping to see deep blue with your eyes closed, skip to 21:50 and wait for the incredibly Russian chord at 22:47.
Last night The Fabulous Wife and I went to the San Francisco Symphony to hear a couple of pieces by Ravel along with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The conductor was the Australian Simone Young, making her local debut. She dedicated the first Ravel piece, Pavane for a Dead Princess, to Paris’s “undead princess,” Notre Dame, which seemed apt. Then she and Louis Lortie deftly handled Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. After intermission came Scheherazade.
It’s a challenge for me to hear Scheherazade live because I so totally imprinted on the Stokowski recording. Instead of thinking “that’s not right!” I have to set the Stokowski aside as best I can and try to hear the conductor and orchestra on their own terms.
Young and the SFS made that easy. A lot of classical music snobs disdain the nineteenth century Russians because their compositions are unabashedly melodic, rhythmic, and fun — in contrast to the sterner, more high-minded stuff coming out of Germany. (Mahler, another favorite of mine, was derided for the same reasons.) Young and the players embraced Rimsky-Korsakov’s “vulgarity” and played with genuine passion. By the end of the final movement I had tears running down my cheeks, which I’m pretty sure I successfully hid from The Fabulous Wife (until now).
And I wasn’t alone. There was a brief beat after the final note, then a lone male voice from the balcony stage right exclaimed “wow!” and the audience erupted. The response to Young’s conducting was so positive that I leaned over to The Fabulous Wife and said “I’m starting to wonder whether they should have hired her instead of Esa-Pekka Salonen to replace Michael Tilson-Thomas!” She agreed.
I left Davies Hall euphoric. And I can’t think of a more fitting way to memorialize my dad, whose birthday is this week. He never would have guessed that of all his possessions, that one vinyl record (which I still have) would have the profoundest impact on his son’s life.