Saturday, May 17, 2008

Death and the Maiden

My quartet performed last night in a small recital at my friend Joan's house.  We played Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' string quartet, a piece he wrote near the end of his life, at a time that he probably knew that he was dying yet was still composing at a phenomenal rate, creating possibly the most beautiful and moving music of entire career.  It is a dark, turbulent piece, with short interludes of serene joy popping up here and there amidst the ongoing existential arguments of death and beauty.  It was a favorite of mine as a teenager, and I was greatly attracted to its melodramatic metaphors and almost gothic storytelling.  Later on, some of that sensibility tired on my ears, possibly through overfamiliarity, and it lost some of its attraction, but I fell in love with it again through working on it these past months.  As usual, working on a piece from the inside out gave newer, older, and deeper perspectives on this wonderful and one-of-a-kind piece of music. 

 I felt that we really gave the piece a good run for its money, in particular the frenzied last movement, in which we seemed to get caught in the cascading, out-of-control momentum perfectly, balancing just on the edge of falling apart in just the right way.  It was exhilarating.  Playing music like this, in this intimate, telepathic kind of arrangement with a small group of musicians and friends, provides...I don't know.  Something unique, important; I was going to say the greatest high of my life, but that's not quite right, and a little trite.  There's certainly nothing else quite like it, and it provides one of the few avenues to some kind of transcendent state of mind that I truly don't understand.

Unfortunately,  I have a something of a love/hate relationship with performing, and every time I get through a performance like this I wish it was more of a love/love relationship, but it's not.  Leading up to a performance, especially one of chamber music like this, difficult and exposed, I worry and fret and suffer large bouts of anxiety, yet also excitement and a visceral, unpredictable anticipation.  My stomach grumbles (shades of Charlie Brown) and I don't eat.  At performance time, my left hand shakes and my vibrato goes wild, my right hand shakes and my bow bounces, skittering across the strings of my violin.  Nonetheless, at the moment of performing, my heart leaps even as I continue to fret about my technical reaches, and I find myself giving more of myself to the music than I ever had during practice, almost effortlessly, yet with enormous expenditure of energy.  It's a strange state to be in.  And each piece, in its own different way, finds you a different zone to drift, swim, struggle and fall apart in.  Today, the day after, I was happy and relieved, still exhilarated yet tired, and sad that it was over and anticipating next season's music-making, projecting greater diligence than I showed this year (and probably more than I indeed will show next year).  

I love my quartet, and I think that the way we approach our repertoire, by working extensively on one piece at a time for a season, is very rewarding and important for the purposes of giving a good performance and really getting a good grasp of the music.  I do often wish, though, for another outlet where I could explore more music, more playing and exploring, and encounter more of those great masterpieces I've listened to and loved throughout my life.  I've still never played any of the late Beethoven quartets, I've done only one of Mozart's six that he dedicated to Haydn, none of Bartok's (though these might well be beyond me and any quartet I could ever join), only one of Shostakovich's, only a couple of Haydn's...there's such a big world of this music, so much I know and love as a listener but not a player.  I would like to get a reading quartet together, not worry about perfection, just go through music and enjoy it.  Maybe I'll work on that next year, or some year.  

No comments: