The day classical music mattered

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Classical music matters in my household. That’s because my husband, Chris, makes his living in that field, as a professional clarinet player.

Before I met Chris, I could not tell a French horn from a flugel horn, Mendelssohn from Mozart, Menuhin from Midori. Okay, I still can’t (but aren’t you impressed that I can spell them?). Like most Americans my age, I knew diddly squat about classical music. Orchestral music played no role in my life; opera had no meaning; “wind instrument” meant something else entirely.

I did not set out to marry a musician, and I certainly didn’t expect to meet one through work. Journalists often marry other journalists; musicians, for that matter, usually intermarry too. That’s because our work tends to be so all-consuming that we don’t get out of the office (or out of the practice room, as it were). When I went out, it was usually with my work buddies, which in my first job were my fellow reporters at Adweek.

Chris was the best friend of my Adweek colleague Mark. One day, Mark invited the lot of us to his apartment for a party. Mark’s roommate was a med student. The party was packed with soon-to-be doctors. And who do I meet? Uh huh.

As fascinating as I’m sure medicine can be, I’d wager that music makes for more pleasant dinner conversation (certainly with less potential for gore). Names like Mahler and and Schoenberg and Britten often come up. The other night, Chris came home excited after playing a chamber music concert including compositions by Ned Rorem—and Ned Rorem had shown up. I was excited that I knew who Ned Rorem was.

Today, though, classical music matters in households across the country, even, perhaps, the world. People everywhere are talking about the New York Philharmonic’s historic trip to North Korea. The orchestra played a concert there last night, and were met with a standing ovation that would not end. (Our Bill Powell was there; read his account on Time.com.) In hearing and reading reports of the event, I was most moved by accounts of musicians standing backstage and weeping with emotion.

Chris often talks about this: orchestral musicians, perhaps more than any other kind, display little emotional connection to their work. This never made sense to me. After all, they don’t even call it work. You don’t work music; you play. Chris gets to play for a living. How could they not enjoy it? Of course, I understand why: the intense pressure of performance; the requisite concentration; the desire not to attract the attention of the conductor—none of this is fun. There isn’t the raw connection to the music or to the audience that, say, a rocker in a band might experience. Also, the outfits aren’t as cool.

That’s not to say classical musicians don’t derive satisfaction from their work, or feel a keen sense of pride in what they do. It’s just that it’s not often visible in the stony faces of the tuxedo-clad instrumentalists up there on the distant stage.

So to think of a symphony—the long-toothed members of the New York Phil, no less—crying at the experience of playing for an unusual audience—the thought of this moved me to tears, too.

News reports and analysts are talking and writing today of how this historic concert will affect bilateral relations between two hostile countries. But what about its effect on the relationship between the public and classical music? Have you listened to Dvořák’s New World Symphony lately? How about the opening clarinet lick of Gershwin’s American in Paris? (I wouldn’t recommend that latter, live, in your living room, 50 times in a row, if you cherish your hearing.)

Tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern time, WNYC is broadcasting the concert. Do tune in. I’m going to. Meantime, here’s Christiane Amanpour’s report on CNN about the visit.

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