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Are you old enough for Bruckner?

Poet Ezra Pound said there is no reason you should like the same book (or music or art) at 40 that you liked at 16. At 16, I liked Ezra Pound; now I’m 65.

The author graduates high school in 1966

The author graduates high school in 1966

Our tastes change as we age, or they should. My introduction to classical music was Tchaikovsky. His symphonies and concertos pumped new-generated hormones through my arteries like adrenalin — when I was in high school.

It wasn’t long before I left him behind for Stravinsky, then Beethoven.

By the time that I was middle-aged, I had gone through Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, Debussy, Mahler, and most recently had added Bruckner and Haydn to the list. I get things from each of them I was deaf to earlier. Now that I am retired, I have finally come to appreciate Verdi. But, boy, it was hard to get past all the oom-pah-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah-pah.

The path won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some general patterns that seem to hold.

In painting, we all loved van Gogh at about the same time we loved Tchaikovsky. There is a bigger-than-life striving in van Gogh that appeals to the adolescent, striving himself for some sense of the heroic.

The author 1975

The author 1975

That same aspiration drove us to read Catcher in the Rye.

With a few more years under an increasingly large belt, we drop Tchaikovsky as hopelessly sentimental, Salinger as naive and simply move past van Gogh as we become aware of the Impressionists, who tickle our eyes all over again. Hormones calm, reality sets.

When we are in college or as grad students, we tend to gravitate to those things that are trendy, new, and exclusive, that set us off from the proles: We read Umberto Eco or — in my generation, Alberto Moravia and Robbe-Grillet. We jumped on Marina Abramowic  and Bruce Nauman and listened to Lutoslawski, Schnittke and Harry Partch. Yes to Pina Bausch, meh to Swan Lake.

The author 1977

The author 1977

Yes, we were showing off. In many cases we admired more than enjoyed.

We then gave up the need to be au courant or exclusive as we came to distinguish between the gee-whiz and the substantial.

As adults, we craved the substantial. Adult tastes are acquired tastes: Poussin, Schoenberg, Milton, rutabagas, pickled herring.

Old age now brings something else: simplicity and inclusiveness. I am no longer quick to drop the critical meat-cleaver and sever away something I consider unworthy. They are all worthy. Tchaikovsky as much as Webern, Salinger as well as Joyce. We are enriched by each of them.

The author in his "Van Gogh" pose 1980

The author in his “Van Gogh” pose 1980

(No, I haven’t gone senile — I’m not ready to accept Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade, although I see some value in Norman Rockwell that would have shocked me to hear anyone admit when I was 20. No, Rockwell is no Raphael, but there is room for an entire spectrum of abilities and accomplishments. What I ask isn’t so much undying masterpieces, as sincerity of attempt, and a willingness to put in the work.)

So, growth isn’t just a case of moving on from one thing to another, but adding more and more to our trove. By the time you are my age, you will have a heady backlog of esthetic experiences to draw on.

What is most interesting to me is that, if we continue to grow, we can return to art we left behind and find something new in it. From age 17 to about 40, I couldn’t bear Tchaikovsky — it seemed like treacle. But then I began noticing his bizarre harmonic sense and what I might call ”orchestration from Mars.” You only have to read the scores to see how peculiar is his voice leading. When I could get past the heart on the sleeve, I discovered an intelligence there that was hiding, or rather, that I was unwilling to discover, having made up my mind and moved on.

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

The author at Canyon de Chelly, 1989

An now that I am bald, bearded and grey, I find that there is something even in the emotional immediacy that once embarrassed me.

As we grow, we not only grow into new experiences, we grow out of our old prejudices.

This all came back to me this week as I watched Lust for Life on cable. The 1956 biopic starred Kirk Douglas as van Gogh and Anthony Quinn as Gauguin. The film is an odd combination of excellence and awfulness, mixing insight with bromides, sanitizing the painter’s life while emphasizing the insanity.

More than anything, this is the van Gogh who appeals to adolescents, the van Gogh of idealism, identity crisis and suicide.

Alienated, misunderstood.

But there is one more aspect of him that is included: his commitment and perseverance. These quieter virtues, more than his insanity, give van Gogh his stature as an artist.

the author lecturing 2005

the author lecturing 2005

There was a time, in my 20s, that I dismissed van Gogh. The peculiar paint-busy canvasses, I was convinced, were just the evidence of a deranged mind. If you were schizophrenic, you could be a great artist, too.

But more careful study in recent years, especially of the many notebooks filled with drawings, told me something else again. Van Gogh paints the way he does because of his unwavering honesty to his eyes. He kept looking till he got it right.

And ”right” for him was to notice everything that his eyes saw, not merely what he had been trained to see.

If you stare long enough and with enough concentration, you can see something of the granular reality van Gogh saw. We no more pay attention to it in daily life than we pay attention to the grain in a movie’s film stock. It is not the information, but the medium of the information. We filter out so much. Van Gogh didn’t.

the author at Giverny 2008

the author at Giverny 2008

The other wonderful thing about van Gogh is that he had so little talent.

We tend to think of great artists being as fluent as Mozart or Raphael. Yet talent is a poor indicator of quality in art. For every Raphael, there are scores of Geromes and Bouguereaus: accomplished and pretty, but ultimately empty.

Van Gogh shared a lack of talent with several other great artists: Cezanne, for instance; or Jackson Pollock. One searches the drawings and oil sketches of Cezanne for even the slightest encouragement of talent. His drawing is hopelessly awkward.

Pollock searched for years for an adequate means of expressing what was inside him. To do it, he had to give up everything he had learned. If he had no talent for drawing, he would not draw. He found a talent for splashing instead.van gogh landscape

Van Gogh’s notebooks are full of erasures. He looked, drew, erased, looked again, drew again, erased again. Many drawings are never finished, but those that are, are right in a way the more facile Ingres never is.

Van Gogh was stubborn. I admire that in him more than I admire the talent of William Merritt Chase.

But give me another 10 years and we’ll see.

By Mel Ramos

By Mel Ramos

America isn’t a big cheese country. We do Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and when we’re really adventurous, we ask for that so-called blue cheese dressing on our salads that is really no more than ranch dressing a few weeks past its expiration date. thunderbird wine

Velveeta, of course, isn’t cheese at all. It is officially a ”cheese food product.” That is, it’s a congealed block of yellowed lipids and tastes as much like cheese as Thunderbird wine tastes like Bordeaux. And the new cheese substitutes are worse. They may be healthy, but are they food? Ever tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with that synthetic stuff? It doesn’t melt, it blackens at the edges and buckles under the heat like linoleum.

Anyone for a scorched floor tile sandwich?

All this came to mind as I searched town for some Gorgonzola. For those who haven’t developed the taste, that is an Italian blue cheese that is greenish and runny, with a smell like laundry left damp too long in the washing machine. It is a taste that grows on you. Of course, something grows on the cheese, too.

But it made me consider how taste changes as we age. When I was young, I ate Hostess cupcakes like everyone else. Adults seemed to like beer and brussels sprouts. Kids drank soda pop, adults drank coffee. SONY DSC

Now that I’m old enough for my toes to start growing funny, I have learned to like rutabagas, glazed parsnips, pickled herring, Stilton cheese and single-malt scotch.

And those cupcakes are poison. As an adult, I taste every gram of sulfated polysaccharide, every microscopic speck of potassium sorbate and monoglyceride. A Hostess cupcake really and truly tastes to me now like an eighth-grade science project.

For me, it all began changing when I was about 18 and one day I tasted coffee for the thousandth time — and for the first time, it tasted good. Really good. manischewitz

I had sampled wines when a child — my parents would give me a little Manischewitz, which is really only fruit syrup with a kick — and I would make a sour little face.

Suddenly, as an adult, I tasted something really dry from France and wine seemed like ichor. Perhaps a little Alsatian Riesling to taste with foie gras and onion confit. Later, I developed a taste for Greek retsina, which tastes the way turpentine smells. It has character.

Then came yogurt, lassi, kefir, Roquefort cheese, herring, corned beef, horseradish. pear and gorgonzola

As kids, we like Hershey bars, as adults we come to enjoy a slice of pear with a bit of cheese.

Maturing taste is certainly not restricted to food. Most of us wear different clothes as we grow up, leaving the sneakers and T-shirts behind. We grow out of our metal-fleck magenta Mustangs with the flames on the hood.

Although not everyone matures: The other day I saw a BMW with racing stripes.

And we stop reading Nancy Drew and take on Eudora Welty. We go from Tchaikovsky to Bruckner and Schoenberg. From Modigliani to Poussin.

Nations go through the same transitions, though on a vaster and slower scale.

It takes centuries for a culture to create and enjoy a Poussin, a Goethe, a Corneille. They are vegetables and whole grains of the art world. And only cultures with enough maturity come to appreciate them. Poussin

France, with 10 centuries of history, can nurture a Samuel Beckett or a Sidney Bechet. Italy, with 20 centuries of history, can’t feed enough opera to its truck drivers and factory workers. The fine arts in those countries are a part of their national identity.

But America, with its two measly centuries, is still a fuzzy-cheeked pubescent soaking up Lion King.

Until America starts eating stinky cheese, it is futile to expect it to support the arts.

celibidache conducting

Sergiu Celibidache has become a cult conductor. Perhaps it is because he had a reputation for playing music slower than anyone else. Perhaps it was because he despised recording and refused to authorize CD releases even of his live performances. Perhaps it was because he required of his orchestra unending rehearsals before performance.

The Romanian-born maestro died at the age of 84 in 1996, having left behind a very few studio recordings but a trove of taped concerts, never meant for public release. Eventually, many were released on the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI labels. Those who have heard them either love them distractedly or despise them profoundly. Few are left indifferent.

It took me a while to jump on the Celibidache bandwagon.

I first made his acquaintance with an EMI recording of the Beethoven Eroica Symphony, which he took at the speed of rush-hour traffic. It is a lugubrious affair. Admittedly, he found a great deal of sonorous sheen in the music but little of the fire that we go to Beethoven for.

Celibidache’s stated aims were to make his orchestra sound “beautiful” playing the music, which, as far as Beethoven goes, is fairly irrelevant.

Celi, as he was called, originally replaced Wilhelm Furtwangler as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after World War II (and a short reign by the unfortunate Leo Borchard), when Furtwangler was under suspicion of being a Nazi sympathizer. Celi lasted until 1952, when Furtwangler, cleared of the charges, took back the baton.

Celibidache was influenced not only by the conductors he trained with, but by a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, which reinforced his conviction that music exists only in the moment of its creation, and that recordings cannot capture the electricity of live performance. This was not just a question of technology, but of spirituality. Live music, for Celi, had a spiritual significance, making recordings something close to blasphemy.

It’s hard for me to know if this is true or not. I never heard Celibidache live. I have only the recordings, and most of them are frustrating at best. His tendency to play slowly, and his insistence on the surface sheen of the music, achieved through endless rehearsals, means his performances often lack much in the way of forward drive, and for most of them, any sense that the music might have any deeper meaning than its erotic surface. His Beethoven, in particular, feels neutered.

Yet, it turns out, Celibidache has the measure of at least one composer: Anton Bruckner. And has that measure as no other conductor has. Like Bernstein and Mahler, Celibidache and Bruckner seem to be soulmates. celibidache bruckner 4 cd

Because so many reviewers were raving about Celi’s Bruckner, I bought his EMI Bruckner Fourth on spec. It is a nearly 80-minute Fourth, longer by nearly 20 minutes than even that of Otto Klemperer, a notoriously slow conductor. It absolutely knocked me catawampus.

Bruckner is a composer one comes to late in life. A young man simply will not have the patience for it. The “tunes” are not particularly memorable, and the structure of the symphonies will seem, at a young age, desultory and aimless.

But the problem is that we expect from youth that our music will “go” somewhere, give us some good tunes in the meantime, and surprise us with interesting turns. That pretty well sums up Beethoven.

But Bruckner doesn’t do that, and many poor performances of Bruckner try to make him do that. Instead, Celibidache — and a handful of other great Bruckner conductors — recognizes Bruckner is not a journey, but a place: You enter into his sound world as you enter into a deep forest or a Gothic cathedral and you experience that world in all its corners and cavities.

It is possible to play music very slowly and merely make it dull. Lots of conductors do it in the post-Bernstein era. But it is also possible to do it and keep every musician in the orchestra on the edge of his seat, concentrating fully on every single note as if he were defusing a bomb. This is what Celibidache does with Bruckner. You come away from a performance drained completely. It is an expedition through a sound-universe and you are carrying your own staff and pack.

Such music, played in such a performance, is nearly a religious experience.

You are given a vision of the Burning Bush, the infinite “I am.”

I thought we had long ago left a world that could take a Bruckner without irony. It is that irony that gives Mahler his 20th-century cachet.

But Bruckner gives us a metaphor for the unmediated experience — direct apprehension of the divine. I recognize the irony in my own phrase — and it is the rare musician who can approach the music that way. Just as it is hard to be a true religious believer in an age of irony, so is it difficult to play Bruckner convincingly.

If you have not yet had the pleasure, I recommend to you Celibidache’s EMI Bruckner Fourth. I also recommend his DG Bruckner Eighth, packaged with the Schubert Fifth. It is odd to hear a Schubert B-flat where the slow movement is as long as the other three movements together, but it gives new depth to what has always been a Haydn-ish, breezy symphony. I’m not sure it is appropriate for Schubert, but it is interesting to hear.

As far as the Bruckner Eighth, this is one of the great performances of one of Bruckner’s greatest symphonies — an immense world that seems to extend aurally to the infinite.

I’m probably gushing too much like a schoolgirl, but classical music is supposed to give you a genuine experience, something more than the ordinary, something you will remember for your whole life as a turning point. The Celibidache Bruckner is one of those. Rare, exquisite, raw, profound, strong, lung-shuddering, eye-sobbing. You will feel those Wagner tubas in your sternum, vibrating.