We took ourselves off in the sweltering heat on Thursday night to Wolf Trap to hear Joshua Bell with Emil de Cou and the National Symphony. 

It was a very nicely put together program called, “Around the World with Joshua Bell and the NSO”.  The first port of call was Cuba and the Cuban Overture that George Gershwin wrote after a two-week vacation in Havana in 1932.  Next came Joshua Bell with Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.  Unlike Mendelssohn, whose Hebrides Overture and Scottish Symphony were the direct result of his personal impressions of Scotland, Max Bruch never visited Scotland.  He wrote the work in Berlin and, just to add to the cosmopolitanism, he dedicated it to the Spanish violinist, Pablo de Sarasate.  The Scottish Fantasy is a curiously uneven work and, even though there are enough gorgeous Scottish tunes and sororities to stir the blood of anyone who can claim any Scottish heritage (my maternal grandmother was half Scottish and so I have the right to wear the McKenzie tartan), it doesn’t really seem to hang together as a piece all that well.  One would surely not hear a better performance than Josh Bell’s, though, and, at 42, he still looks as beautiful as ever.  He was wearing his trademark, loose, black shirt over black pants, and he vigorously tossed his glossy chestnut hair about in what has also become a trademark of his.  I’ve heard it said that he can be a bit of a prima donna at times but I must say I found him charming when I spoke with him. He was in town to play the Brahms Concerto with the symphony and came into the radio station for an interview.  He’s taller than I expected, and was gracious and quite low-key.

In any event, after the intermission, it was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, whom my mother amusingly describes as “a show off”.  She has a point, I guess, when one thinks of some his piano pieces, which are unsubtle to say the least.  In an orchestration, though, some of the brashness is rubbed off.   There are many fanciful ideas about Gypsy music and folk music from Hungary (like Brahms’ Hungarian Dances) but, since Liszt was born in Hungary, this kind of music was in his blood, and his nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies are a good example of the way he tapped into this kind of music authentically.

The program ended with the Roman Festivals by Ottorino Respighi, which is rarely heard live, so that was a real treat.  What an enormous piece! It’s the third in his Roman Trilogy, the others being Fountains of Rome and the best known of the three, Pines of Rome.  Respighi studied orchestration with Rimsky Korsakov (he played principal viola in St. Petersburg for a while) and this is a tour de force in huge orchestration; apart from the full complement of strings, woodwind and brass, there’s just about anything you can beat or slap in the percussion section, as well as piano and even a mandolin.  All very exciting.  Respighi was born in Bologna but moved to Rome in his mid 30’s and spent the rest of his life there.  His Roman Trilogy is by way of a love letter to his adopted city.

While I was listening to the concert, I was thinking some more about how we respond to different nations and cultures and how we are able to make the cross over.  Here we had an American soloist, conductor and orchestra, interpreting the music of Cuba, Scotland, Hungary and Rome.  Not only that, while we did have a Hungarian composing a rhapsody inspired by his native country, and an Italian conjuring up the festivals of Rome, we also had an American writing in the idiom of Havana, and a German composing a fantasy on Scottish themes.  I wondered how successfully a non-native can capture the essence of the music, and not just an impression of it.  Aren’t Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances more authentic than Brahms’s Hungarian Dances?

This applies to the audience as well – and not just in music.  I have begun reading the Pulitzer prize-winning book by Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, and I’ve read twelve of the thirty-four chapters.  I had never read anything of hers but was inspired to do so after reading a review of a recent biography about her, and discovered then that she spent her childhood in China with her missionary parents, that she spoke the language fluently and understood the culture.  The way that she was able to recreate the lives and thoughts of pre-revolutionary Chinese peasants is formidable.  Yet, I find it hard to empathize with the characters and, therefore, to be involved and absorbed in the book, and I’m not sure that I will finish reading it.  I wonder if that is my lack or if it is simply too much of a stretch across the chasm of cultural difference.  If one is an American composer inspired by Cuban rhythms, a German composer recreating Scottish folk music or an American woman writing from the perspective of a Chinese man in the early 20th century – or if one is the audience for those works – is it really possible to internalize that other experience, in a way that feels subjective rather than objective, if it is not something that one has absorbed, almost like osmosis, as part of ones upbringing?  When John Coetzee writes about the Eastern Cape in South Africa in his book, Disgrace, can someone who hasn’t actually experienced it create in their own mind the smell of that earth, the feel of the air or the rhythms of the people in a way that is not a curiosity but truly felt?  I suppose it’s trying to reach into those cultural differences that makes life such an endlessly fascinating exploration.

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