Lydia finally settled down at the high school Holiday Concert last night. She’d done well, in fact, until the interminable shenanigans of a boy’s choral group called The Retro Men, performing right after intermission, took her beyond her capacity to sit still and pay attention. Directed by a Burl-Ives-looking emeritus music teacher, the Retros needed badly to be reined-in as they poured their testosterone into a twenty-minute rendition of Sylvester Stalone’s Eye of the Tiger–their third song of the evening! By the end of it, I, like Lydia, had a very strong urge to climb over the seat and play with a little girl named Erin, also largely unrestrained, behind us.
The following performance by the “White Stage Band,” including my daughter Marguerite in the flute row, featured a Warner Brothers cartoon music medley. It was accompanied by a rather fraught sideshow in the second-to-last row of the audience as I fished around in the aisles for a squiggly, ready-to-bolt seven-year-old. I finally extracting Lydia from the even wilder Erin and seated her on the edge of the up-folded theater seat next to me, high enough so that she could see the performance. By the time the “Blue Stage Band” took the boards, I was thinking that Lyddie and I might have to take one of those little pressure-release walks in the hall. I’m glad we didn’t, because “Blue” was cuing-up Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird.
Yes, Lydia settled down finally—it was about 10 pm—resting her head on my arm as an abridged version of the suite began. I thought she was sleeping, and I closed my eyes.
I listened to The Firebird Suite a lot during the marginally-employed phase of my life that began with Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. It’s beautiful. It evokes the vivid kind of mythological imagery I associate more with painting than with music. Images with a Russian flourish that translate easily into the more round-edged figures of the Nordic mythbook. In fact, my subsequent encounter with Emil Nolde’s mythological paintings—northern German mysteries—connected immediately with the visions that came to me listening to Stravinsky in my dorm room at the Matheny School, which was then, more precisely, an institution, a kind of cuckoo’s nest in the best sense, for physically disabled children and young adults. I worked there as a care aid.
I imagine that many people, knowing only the name of the piece and familiar primarily with Western mythology, associate Stravinsky’s The Firebird with the phoenix rising from the ashes. And the music more or less supports this. But the Russian myth of the Firebird is a lot more like a leprechaun tale: Prince finds and captures elusive pretty-bird, bird begs for life in exchange for magical support in Prince’s quest, etc. Still, the imagery Stravinsky drew from me spoke neither of the firebird I assumed he was describing, nor of the bird his Russian audience would have been familiar with. I envisioned a monster-centric Night Journey ending with triumph and ascension from a decimated, post-conflict mountain landscape on a big lake.
Lydia was not asleep. She was listening to the music. I opened my eyes. I noticed a kid with a Carrot Top hair style in the percussion section. I listened as the teenagers nailed the emotive parts where the melody is launched from a tentative rest, something I am more familiar with in the music of Louie Armstrong and The Hot Fives (Stravinsky, of course, is the great modern composer). But there is something about an entire orchestra carrying off a seemingly extemporaneous pause during the booming final movement of The Firebird that I find moving. Very “post-conflict triumph.” The Blue Band got all the layers of the softer parts right earlier in the piece as well. Very “Night Journey.” And their tempo shifts emulated a montage of silent era newsreel footage–very modern for 1910.
I also watched the conductor—a twenty-something music teacher with a 19th century Russian idealist’s beard. He spoke of his mentor, his teacher at the same high school years ago, when introducing the final piece for the evening–circus music from what he called the “turn of the century.” He meant the turn of the previous century, of course. He was hunched forward, dynamic, a little tentative, not unlike his orchestra. He gave us none of the Band Room inside jokes and corny humor we’ve gotten from veteran high school music teachers in Holiday performances past. This new man had the right touch.
And the right program. Up and down my blogroll, I have tuned-in to some very sad stories this month. Some having to do with seasonal depression. But much of it is a little more deep-rooted. I’ve got a bit of my own, as I always do, with some new twists—I’ve been advised to structure a little exercise into my cramped day if I want to avoid the chemical path, which may prove unavoidable. There is big picture Weltschmerz in my bogroll. There is some personal sadness and turmoil downing even the most enthusiastic Christmas revelers. There are folks just feeling the miles. And there are at least two cases of the all-too-archetypical death at the holidays—three depending on what you count.
But last night, with little Lyddie’s head on my arm and The Firebird followed by pre-World War One circus fare, music gave me its bittersweet taste of the Big Lake. That sublime taste of happiness and hope.