Sunday, October 25, 2009

Opening Night at Pops

I've never forgotten what Leonard Bernstein said the day after John Lennon died. All the media outlets were looking for quotes from the greatest musicians of the day, and, in Bernstein, a towering renaissance figure of American culture, they knew that a call to him would bring about some meaning to the madness of our world. Why would someone kill John? Why? Why?

So... what did Bernstein say?
He talked about the Beatles's intonation.


Great figures do not just enlighten us, they confound us. Both Lennon and Bernstein left us a legacy that continues to delight and enrich us all. But, as geniuses are wont to do, they can be maddening. Why, on a day when all of us needed to derive some meaning from Lennon's assassination, did Bernstein talk about how well the Beatles sang in tune?

Well, because singing (and playing) in tune is a wonderful thing. You don't think about it when you hear it, but impeccable intonation contributes greatly to a musical performance that is transfixing. And, last night, when the Hartford Symphony hosted the a cappella quintet, Five by Design, we were treated to a performance from Laurie, Sheridan, Kurt, Michael and Terry that held us in awe.

The orchestra charts were great. And the players, as always, came through with panache. And Five by Design's drummer, Matt, and pianist, Taylor (along with the HSO's bassist, Rick Rozie) were stellar.

But the high point of the evening was in the middle of the first half, when Matt, Rick, Taylor and all the orchestra musicians were silent. The quintet launched into a tune, sung a cappella (literally, 'from the chapel,' when singers perform without instrumental accompaniment) which is still ringing in my ears. (I had been waking up every day the past week and a half with Mahler in my head, but no longer.) And why?

Because of impeccable intonation.

What makes a great barbershop quartet? --- spot-on intonation.
Why are some violinists better than others? --- intonation.
(Pianists have no such concerns -- they can blame the piano tuner.)

When I listen to "Good Day, Sunshine,"
I hear immaculate, exquisite intonation.

Last night at the Bushnell, when orchestra players were waiting for their next number to play, something happened -- they became audience. As conductor, I had the unique perspective of being in the middle of it all, watching people seated on both sides of me, transfixed, jaws dropped. Terry, the bass man of the quintet, became a string bass player, riffing away, his entire body resonating with his vocal pizzicato. The other four, vocalizing above his walking bass, sounded like warm honey. Something special was happening, and not one of us could move. We were listening to musical magic.

In large part, due to spectacular intonation.

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