The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Thursday, March 27, 2003  

Or, Why Hearing the Curtis Institute Symphony Can Be Painful

We all have our roads not taken, the paths of life we chose not to follow or were hindered or prevented from pursuing. I have many, one of which came to mind again last night while I was listening to a performance by the Symphony Orchestra of the Curtis Institute of Music.

You know, I was pretty good way back when. At music, I mean. I learned -- or just as often, taught myself -- to play the piano, the organ, the oboe, the French horn, the clarinets, the saxophones, and the flute. (I went to a very small school: Each year I was assigned the instrument that was needed to fill the band's most glaring hole.)

Okay, so maybe I was just "pretty good" for a kid growing up in a small village in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, but a pair of talented and well educated instructors from my elementary and junior high school days seemed to think I had the right stuff.

But I gave it all up. Gradually, at first, as the end of high school approached, and then more rapidly, and finally entirely, during college. (I did try to learn the violin about ten years ago, but that was kind of a disaster I would just as soon forget.)

My departure from this road ultimately not taken was caused, motivated, or sparked by separate impulses and influences during high school and college.

While in college I didn't have the time to practice even on my first instrument, the piano, let alone any of the others. Over time I became frustrated by my inability to sight read pieces I once could have played by ear after having heard them just one or two times. Sonatas I previously knew by heart became laborious to play, even with the sheet music before my face. Eventually, I simply lost interest.

High school, a more critical period in the larger scheme of things, was a different story. I pulled away from music -- practicing, playing, performing, and writing music -- because of peer pressure of the ugliest sort. After years of unrelenting and vicious mockery at the hands and mouths of classmates and even my siblings, I decided studying music -- and learning it and loving it -- was simply not worth the pain. I kept playing, but I was no longer trying very hard.

Why playing the piano made me "a faggot" remains for me an unanswered question. (Oddly enough, my classmates and siblings were right, though I became -- or, more accurately, was then already -- "a faggot" for other, still unknown, reasons.)

I admit to being envious of the Curtis students in the conservatory's orchestra. "That could have been me," I kept thinking. Or not. I really have no idea whether I was or could have been as good as the Curtis's players are. But a small part of me will always wonder. And a larger part of me will always resent that I let the ignorance of others keep me from finding out.

[Post-publication addendum (March 28): The Curtis Institute's Symphony won a solidly favorable review from Philadelphia Inquirer music critic David Patrick Stearns, published in today's paper as "Curtis'[s] Unleashed Mahler is Genuine." I generally agree with Stearns's points, but was disappointed he offered no comments on the orchestra's strings, particularly the violins. They're a very talented group, but I was struck by the violinists' lack of depth, as a group that is. The better players are, or at least soon will be, world class, but once you get to the third or fourth row of both the first and second violins, there is a noticeable decline in musicality. Overall, though, the Curtis's performance of a very difficult piece, Gustave Mahler's Symphony No. 5, was impressive, with the woodwinds and brass given an opportunity to shine they grabbed with appropriate gusto. (Note: The orchestra also performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Flute Concerto No. 2 in D Major with Jeffrey Khaner, principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, both pieces under the direction of conductor David Zinman.)]

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