Critic's Notebook: Music lays down a path toward harmony

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LENOX — If you've followed the action at Tanglewood this summer, you've heard a bushel of talk about "Koussevitzky's vision." But beyond music, what are the implications of his "dream of a music and art center" that became the Tanglewood (then Berkshire) Music Center?

Consider his utterance at the opening of his academy in 1940:

"There is hope for humanity, and all those who believe in the value and inheritance of culture and art should stand in the front ranks. If ever there was a time to speak of music, it is now in the New World."

In other words, music can save us from our worse impulses.

The Tanglewood founder's challenge referred to the war then engulfing Europe, but it could also apply to our time. The threat of war and, even worse, destruction of the planet hangs over us. Our future seems out of our control. But what difference can symphonies and operas make when the public is divided and distracted and our leaders' chief interest is self-aggrandizement?

I think of the answer a friend gave when, admitted to the hospital with the aneurysm that would take his life within 24 hours, he was asked his religion. "I love music," he said.

So, can music — specifically, classical music — be a kind of religion? There is a resemblance. If the audience for a classical concert sits quietly in attendance like a church congregation, the music or musicians before it are like a preacher delivering a sermon. You go out feeling uplifted.

Much of Bach's music is specifically Christian, but a Jew, Muslim, atheist or anyone with attentive ears can be uplifted by it. Likewise, some of Beethoven's and Brahms' music, such as the Missa Solemnis and German Requiem, has that same grounding in Christian text and sentiment, but goes beyond religion to speak to something essential in all of us. So, the quality is not religion as such, but a kind of faith best, if mushily, described as spirituality.

Spirituality has taken a beating from various gurus who have made a cult of it. At its core, it's the transcendental quality — the sense of a power greater than ourselves — that we feel in nature, great art or religious experience.

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Yo-Yo Ma is perhaps our most visible personification of that humane quality in music. He understands music as a bond between peoples and cultures. It's one reason, in addition to his musicianship and stardom, that audiences love him.

As he once told me: "We live in a world of increasing awareness and interdependence, and I believe that music can act as a magnet to draw people together. Music is an expressive art that can reach to the very core of one's identity. By listening to and learning from voices of an authentic musical tradition, we become increasingly able to advocate for the worlds they represent."

Putting this ideal into practice, Ma will precede his Aug. 11 Tanglewood performance of Bach's six suites for unaccompanied cello with an Aug. 10 "day of action" on the Pittsfield Common. The Bach solo pieces, which in the hands of a cellist like Ma can have the character of a soul communing with eternity, are at the center of a two-year project in which Ma will play them in 36 locations on six continents, with a day of action at each.

In Pittsfield, Berkshire residents will join with Ma to build wooden tables and benches. At the finished tables, they will engage in dialogues, as Ma puts it, "to put culture in action by bringing people and organizations together to discuss pressing social issues." That, in turn, should lead to community action.

Music can also be abused. Hitler and Stalin used music for propaganda purposes. At a more benign level of abuse, music serves as background to humdrum stuff. Heard that way, music becomes wallpaper. Or, as Leonard Bernstein once said about such use, music becomes Muzak.

Still, this leaves the question: Can great music really make us better people and save the world?

Impossible to prove, of course. But music like Bach's and Beethoven's does put us in touch with our deepest emotions — or, to use Koussevitzky's term, our humanity — and this feeling can translate into empathy. Empathy, in turn, can lead us to recognize a human bond that chooses cooperation over hostility, peace over war. It's like Ma's tables project: We connect.

So yes, in that sense Koussevitzky had it right. If there is hope for humanity, great music of the kind performed at Tanglewood can make a difference. Ideally, it could bring a dose of empathy to national leaders who so conspicuously lack empathy.

Can anyone imagine our president putting his tweeter aside and listening to Bach or Beethoven? Then standing as a moral beacon to the world? Shakespeare said it best: "The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils."               

That's the guy.


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