Saturday, May 5, 2007

About town -- the accidental spectator

Having missed the Artwalk in Billings Friday evening, there was some danger that an "About town" column would this week amount to an expression of gratitude that one can pull into Pug Mahon's for a Guinness on tap.

Or it could have devolved into an extended passing on of gossip from admittedly biased sources about the Lt Gov's address at the Petroleum Club this past week, apparently billed as a discussion of the legislative session and process, but which rather seems to have been more a repetition of the executive branch's plans. Apparently unchanged from before the session, those plans seem not to have been affected by the thoughts and opinions of legislators of either party, who are now perhaps more an inconvenience than anything.

The arts connection here, lest we lose our weekend focus, was that our state's second-in-command has apparently filled his office in Helena with surplus paintings from the state Historical Society. An office as dapper as a bow-tie, one supposes.

But on a wet and torn-up Grand Avenue, a turn-off into Eckroth Music that began with browsing ended up with one of those extraordinary accidental musical moments. The state music festival's piano competition was taking place today in a back corner (why there, and not in a college performance hall, isn't certain -- but who's complaining?)

Montana Headlines has made the comment that a city's professional symphony is the backbone of its musical life, with a reach extending far beyond the concert hall. Its leading members have private studios where they teach budding musicians, they form chamber music ensembles, play for opera and ballet performances, adjudicate music competitions for youth, do workshops, and give recitals. But this is a digression.

The musical life of a community's youth is a sort of marrow -- at the danger of pushing the analogy gratuitously, youth are a musical community's stem cells, full of pluripotentiality. They study music, play music, and play at it -- in the process becoming artists themselves. They inspire and invigorate their teachers and adult listeners. Even more importantly, this is the breeding ground for future patrons of the arts and appreciative, knowledgeable audiences.

Further weekend errands called, but performances one after another made for a longer stay than expected. A highlight was a scintillating performance by a young man from Wolf Point of a Rachmaninoff Prelude -- a performance that left one wondering who on earth he is studying under up there. Not out of any surprise that rural areas could produce a pianist of his caliber, for whether it is the Miles City high school choir or a gem of an instrumentalist from a small town that many Montanans might not even have heard of, the talent is there as much as anywhere and the determination and work ethic perhaps more than in many of our state's more privileged places.

Today was no exception, with the more daring and ambitious performances coming from the hinterlands -- and the more polished but also more careful ones coming from Billings students. All in an admittedly short and unscientific sampling. But captivating performances, every one of them (and regular readers should know by this point that Montana Headlines is decidedly not home to an "everybody's special" school of thought -- so that actually means something.)

While we today have more access to recorded performances than any generation in history, we are at risk of forgetting that music is, first and foremost, about two or more people being together, as musical performer and audience, or as ensemble. There is a piercing quality to music shared in this way -- it is not an exaggeration to say that it is easier to bring to mind the ten minute pause listening to a raw performance on a city street corner or in a subway station than it is to recall a memorable moment on a classical music radio station.

One can only imagine what must be a numbingly depressing constant occurrence these days -- people walking straight past those musicians, unable to hear them because of the seashells in their ears, "thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound... coming in on the shore" of unsleeping minds. Endless pods of looping electronic dance mixes, to which no-one is dancing -- certainly not together.

And while we have at our disposal recordings of any number of internationally-acclaimed concert pianists covering the heart of the Rachmaninoff repertoire (not to mention ingeniously reconstructed and remastered performances by the master himself playing his own works,) they will not soon displace the shiver that ran down the spine listening to a kid from Wolf Point playing in the back of a music store on a damp and cloudy Billings Saturday afternoon.

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