Getting your ears in tune for summer music festivals
Boston — Handel took to the river. Haydn reveled in the great outdoors. Beethoven got his greatest inspiration from nature. Music and nature have long held an affinity for each other. And, as summer settles in, the opportunity to bring them back together seems irresistable. Whether it is at Blossum, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, or Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony spends July and August, this is the season when music takes to the hills.
More than any other art form, music derives an indefinable value from the open air. But how much of this value are you prepared to receive? How can you get more?
According to some keen musical minds, you need to bring along a perspective - a point of view about what you will hear - and a memory of what you have heard before.
''People have to be prepared to respond to the immediacy, shapes, spectrum of sounds, and the silence in music,'' says Larry Hill, music director of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston. Other musicologists agree: Music is its own language, and listeners must learn how to respond to it.
There is, of course, a very basic way to involve yourself with this: ''You really just go there and let it hit you,'' advises Boris Goldovsky, a prominent figure in music and opera. ''I really think that is the best way. Music is something that by and large should have an immediate effect.''
Conductor Thomas Dunn generally agrees. ''What you need to do,'' he argues, ''is to put down a feeling of insecurity. Like what you like; don't feel bad about what you don't like. People listen in different ways. Some people are aware of the shapes in music. Others can't see or hear them. There are people who have no vocabulary to describe what they hear, but they do, in fact, hear the shapes.''
Hearing the shapes. Letting it hit you. Appreciating the music's immediacy. These seem to be the primary elements in rewarding concert going. But many who attend concerts must feel that a lot more is going on than they can grasp.
How can you get a hold of this musical mass: the structure, materials, and meaning of music?
Once you get beyond what composer Aaron Copeland calls ''the purely sensuous plane'' of music listening, you come into a maze of values and structures that requires experience and some leisure study to negotiate. Copeland's book, ''What to Listen for in Music,'' is one of the very best volumes on this subject (New York: Mentor Books). Slender, uncomplicated, the book introduces you to the basic elements of music and explains how to begin to grapple with them.
Applying this knowledge is not always easy. ''I am pretty sympathetic to any listener's problem in going to a concert,'' comments composer, conductor, musicologist Gunther Schuller. ''It's hard to bring to the performance prior listening experience, to fully appreciate what is being played. . . . It's like asking me to go to a zoological seminar.''
Schuller argues strenuously that there are people who instinctively respond to the essence of music, people who can appreciate the icy abstractions of Schonberg as well as any musical scholar can. For these people, he says, intellectual knowledge of music is so much extra baggage.
''Who am I to say they are not having as valid an experience as I am having, because I know what is going on?'' Schuller asks rhetorically. However, for those who want to ''know what is going on'' (and in most cases this means getting more out of the music), he lays out a blueprint for better listening: Listening a lot; reading about composers; and listening in an historical context.
Listen to the shapes or the themes in the music, he advises. He calls it ''a modest, but useful thing'' to ask: ''Is it an arching shape? An ascending shape? A descending shape?'' To identify this shape, and then stay with it, is the most fundamental aspect of musical listening. ''As you listen to the shape, other things start to come out. You begin to hear counter-melodies, bass lines, the whole vertical arrangement that the composer is supporting it with.''
Schuller adds that it is important to have a feeling for the personality, temperament, and era of the major musical figures. If you know what Beethoven said about the piece you are listening to, for example, you have a better perspective on the work. Numerous biographies combine excellent personal history with easy-to-grasp musical analysis.
The last step, listening in an historical context, may be the most important. ''You cannot appreciate the immense impact of Beethoven if you are listening with ears conditioned by contemporary music,'' Schuller says. ''The dissonances in Beethoven were ear-shockers.'' Some musicologists suggest listening to recordings of Mozart and Haydn to prepare for a Beethoven concert. Then, one can better appreciate the awesome surprise of Beethoven's music.
''To appreciate the enormous span and scope of the 'Eroica' (Beethoven's Third Symphony),'' Schuller says, one has to listen with the ears of a 19 th-century concertgoer. ''Nothing like that had ever happened before.'' The Third Symphony took its audience by storm. If you can grasp the reasons why - the incredible compression of the thing, its structural innovation - you get a more vivid picture of the composer's remarkable powers.
Where all of this advice leads is to a more finely honed viewpoint. The idea is not to accumulate vast stores of knowledge about the history and technical terminology of music. The idea is to get familiar with the basic elements of composing and the tortuous historical path music has taken.
Of course, all of this is meaningless if something isn't happening on a much deeper level between music and listener. Schuller and others say that the pride of knowledge more often comes between listener and concert than it brings them together. ''Bringing the score along,'' says Larry Hill, ''can get in the way of appreciating the performance.''
What counts is the ability to let a direct involvement with the performance benefit from a little background knowledge. Mozart's G-Minor (40th) Symphony is moving and powerful all by itself. But it doesn't hurt to know that for most of the last century it was thought of as light-hearted. It was only much later that musicians discovered the deep under-currents of grief in the work. This makes you listen harder for the emotional base of the piece, and it helps you better appreciate Mozart's subtlety.
Similarly, knowing that the commoners' parts in ''The Magic Flute'' are all written in a folk-song-like, earthy idiom, while the more exalted characters are treated with a higher genre of music, gives a more illuminated vision of the work.
Understanding that much of the genius of ''Eroica'' lies in Beethoven's ability to release the incredible energy in the opening chord gives you a clue of where to look for the symphony's power. And so on.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is a simple technique for getting more out of music: continuity of listening.
Few people pick up a novel, read a few pages closely, and then let their mind wander while absently turning several more pages, eventually picking up the thread again, and so on. Yet this is what often happens at concerts.
When you apply the same concentration to live music that you do to printed literature, amazing things happen. Structural elements stand out. Fragments of melody meld into a flowing series of ideas. The architecture of the piece appears.
It's easy to be distracted by the ambiance of the places where music sprouts in summer. On the other hand, as Larry Hill points out: ''Listening to music involves qualities of cherishing things. That's why summer festivals can be so special. Active listening, creative listening, using one's mind and memory to appreciate the live quality of the experience.
''What you're really doing is cherishing music and nature combined.''