Music as a civic "conspiracy": George Mathew

George Mathew‘s extraordinary musical project unfolds anew tonight at Carnegie Hall. On the bill is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire, Mahler’s Third, with a couple of hundred star performers on stage, all for the benefit of Children of AIDS. The mission, grander even than the materials, might be titled: Music is a force that gives us meaning… that incarnates another way to conspire and connect… that puts us to work.

It is part of the statement tonight that master musicians and their students have volunteered for this gig — starting with the trombone legend Joseph Alessi, Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet, Glenn Dicterow of the New York Philharmonic and a dozen more concert masters in orchestras from Boston to Hamburg to Singapore. Two years ago, a pick-up band with many of the same stars in it played Verdi’s Requiem for relief in Darfur. Three years ago they played Beethoven’s Ninth for the earthquake-shaken in Kashmir. But George Mathew is always up to something more than musical philanthropy… something closer to musical “conspiracy”:

The humanitarian aspect — the mission even as manifest by the music — is really important. But still it is not the “deep magic,” as C. S. Lewis would say in the Narnia books. The deep magic comes from what your guest Daniel Barenboim said, about his West-East Divan Orchestra. The deep magic is that when musicians come together to play music, in an ensemble, in an orchestra, in a quartet, they are required to engage the highest form of musical activity, which is listening. Listening with a view — that the person sitting next to you who is playing music that may contrast or even conflict with what you’re doing, has to be given a right-of-way in your own consciousness…

Wilhelm Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic in the middle of the 20th Century, has this mysterious diary entry. He wrote: “The West. Christ. Europe. The intensification of instinct and self.” And across the page: “The East. India. Buddha. The overcoming of instinct, self.” And I like to think these two things are not conflicting but complementary values that ensemble music actively embraces.

I had this incredible experience in India a few months ago. I was conducting a young school orchestra, all playing violins and cellos and reading a Mozart Symphony… It got to this point where I said: hold it, let’s stop for a minute. You guys in the back: do you know each others’ names? It turned out they’d been playing together for six months and didn’t know each others’ names. And I said: well now, you’ve got to breathe together, which means you’ve got to know when the other person is breathing. Will you play the phrase looking at each other? Will you play the phrase understanding where the other person’s breath is coming from? Oh, okay! And they did, and this went on. Finally, in about 45 minutes, the whole orchestra not only knew everybody’s names but they were living and breathing together. And they knew, for example, that somebody had a slightly bum A-string, so to make allowances for it. So they were going into the space of the other person, every single one of them. They were all bowing and playing furiously in tune, and it sounded like a very respectable professional orchestra that you might find anywhere in the Western world. After 45 minutes! And I said: you have to know that what you’ve just done is: become a community. You’ve just engaged eachother in a way that none of you can walk away from. Stop for a moment and consider what would happen if the Indian Parliament started behaving this way. Or the U. S. House of Representatives. Or, God save us, if the U. S. Senate started behaving this way.

In 2009 — three and a half millions years after the monkey stood upright and took a look around — maybe it’s time. And maybe we as musicians can make this our contribution. Maybe this is the moment when we say: the art of playing music, if we can expose it to the segment of the population which is biologically specialized to absorb this (namely the segment of the population which is under 12) might have an impact. And maybe if we really made a stand for musical education for our very young, with a view to what is happening in Venezuela or some of the other enlightened music education programs around the world, maybe we could have a chance that the aberration of civic life that we just saw in the last eight years will truly be a thing of the past; and these pained, hurt, deprived children will not grow up and come to haunt us in their adulthood.

George Matthew in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 9, 2009.

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