I have seen the future: in baseball, in tennis and, after making some high-level observations and celestial calculations this past weekend, in classical music.
First let me establish my credentials.
This past Friday I wrote about the early season struggles of Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, but wrote at the end of the post that “you can put your money on Manny to improve this season.” So what happens? On Saturday Manny gets two hits and scores a run in the Orioles win over Houston. Yesterday he gets two more hits – a double and his first-ever major league grand slam – and steals a base in another win over Houston.
Roger Federer, unfortunately, also fell prey to the power of a Riley prediction (“don’t put your money on Roger to win”), losing yesterday in the fourth round of the French Open to Ernests Gulbis.
But here’s where I take the prognosticating up a notch or two. Not content with weekend baseball and tennis results, I am now ready to take on bigger fish: the splendid developing careers of soprano Mary Bonhag and double bassist Evan Premo, wife and husband, co-founders of Scrag Mountain Music, two of the brightest stars in a star-spangled summer Vermont sky.
Over the past week Mary and Evan, along violinist Owen Dalby, violist Meena Bhasin, cellist Karen Ouzounian, pianist Gregory Deturck, librettist Liza Balkan, and composer Lembit Beecher have been rehearsing and performing the final set of concerts in the 2013-2014 Scrag Mountain Music season. The program was one for the ages – the world premiere performances of Lembit Beecher’s Looking at Spring: Meditations on Aging and Schubert’s Trout Quintet – and the performance last night, in a little church in Warren, VT, goes into the memory box as a concert that I will remember for the rest of my life.
As a disclaimer, it should be noted that I have commissioned Lembit Beecher to write a piece for the Burlington Choral Society, and I serve on the Board of Directors of Scrag Mountain Music, but my intent is not to talk about Lembt’s music (which is deserving of as many garlands of poetic words as you can heap upon it), or Scrag Mountain Music’s innovative programming, but rather to talk about the significance of the devotion of Mary and Evan’s lives – their one, wild and precious life – to the art and social potential of classical music.
Listening to Mary, Evan and their friends make music this past week, and especially listening to the performance of the Trout Quintet last night, reminded me of the film made in 1969 featuring Daniel Barenboim, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Jacqueline du Pré, and Zubin Mehta rehearsing and performing the Trout Quintet in the (then) new Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Barenboim et al were, at the time, all in the 20s and 30s (Zubin Mehta, at 33, was the oldest of the group), and the exhilaration of fully-developed technical facility coupled with the joy and playfulness of making music with compatible musicians communicated not only Schubert’s music, but the happy belief in the limitlessness of their own musical careers. And so it has been, with the tragic exception of Jacquiline du Pré, whose career and life was cut short by multiple sclerosis. Barenboim, Perlman, Zuckerman, and Mehta have had careers at the forefront of the classical music world for well over 40 years.
But without wishing to diminish anything about the careers of these gentlemen, it is worth noting that they were recognized, encouraged, and lionized during a different era in classical music. Doors were opened for them early in their careers and, possessing extraordinary musical and personal gifts, they were able to pass through those doors unimpeded. Again, I do not mean to minimize the attainments of any of these extraordinary musicians, nor to pretend that they faced no challenges in life, but when they were establishing careers in the 20s and 30s there was within the world of classical music a power structure that ensured that the most talented musicians would be heard.
That world has changed, and career success in classical music now requires, in addition to the requisite talent, an extraordinary courage and commitment to live with the uncertainty of what the future holds for the art form. Evan and Mary have embraced that uncertainty, and brought their talent to a society that is much less certain about the place of classical music. Yet they have resolved to make their careers part of the community in which they live, to quite literally draw sustenance from their environment (Mary announced that some of the musicians went fishing yesterday afternoon before the concert and caught three brook trout that they were planning to eat for breakfast today) as well as give back to the community through international-level music-making in the intimate spaces in central Vermont.
That’s where their resolve stands today. I hope that, like Vermont’s maple sugarers, they can stockpile that resolve when they have successful, well-attended concerts like this past weekend, and draw on it when they have a poorly-attended ones.
My prediction is for extraordinary careers for Evan and Mary and, perhaps more importantly, for extraordinary lives. Undergirding their musical gifts are deep wells of intelligence and compassion that will never run dry. My life is richer for their presence, but I’ll have to come to grips with the uncertainty of whether they can flourish as my neighbors, or as those “I knew when” they starting to leave indelible marks in a star-spangled planetary sky.