Monday, August 13, 2007

Physicians and musicians

This weekend, I got to hear two piano concerts: one by a physician and another by a musician, one by a celebrity and another by a debutant. That I was able to attend two concerts within the space of two days, speaks a lot about the opportunities for cross-cultural experiences which university life in this country offers an interested visitor. The first concert was a lecture demonstration by Dr. Richard Kogan entitled 'Music and Medicine: George Gershwin' on Friday, 10th August 2007 at the Mayer Auditorium in USC Health Sciences Campus. I learnt from the online USC Arts and Events Calendar that Dr. Kogan " has a distinguished career both as a concert pianist and as a psychiatrist...and The Boston Globe wrote that 'Kogan has somehow managed to excel at the world's two most demanding professions.' " At the outset of the lecture demonstration, Dr. Kogan outlined his mission as promoting 'music as a healing modality' and cited some examples from antiquity to show that the view that music and medicine are totally disparate disciplines is a fairly recent one. In the Greek pantheon, Appollo was the god of both medicine and music. The shamans of old were both physicians and musicians.

The theme of the lecture was a biographical presentation on George Gershwin, who in the opinion of the speaker is the greatest American composer of all time. In all of 38 years tormented by childhood conduct disorders, hyperactivity, almost pathological narcissism and cut short by an untimely death due to a brain tumour, Gershwin has left behind a life's work that still captivates audiences and offers valuable insights into the masterly creations of the so-called 'idiot savants.' As part of the demonstration, Dr. Kogan played 'Rhapsody in Blue', one of Gershwin's best-known works. It was a piece as astonishing and as full of surprises as promised by the speaker's introduction. I found it compelling, but far too capricious to be good music, though I quickly warned myself that this may simply be because of my almost total ignorance of this form of music. When Dr. Kogan himself said many of that those who first heard 'Rhapsody in Blue' lambasted it for its total lack of any form or structure, I felt a little relieved! Dr. Kogan repeated some of the more pulse-quickening parts of the rhapsody with some light-hearted, though not entirely unfounded, comments on how such music could be composed only by someone with chronic hyperactivity. The lecture was generously sprinkled with a series of anecdotes offering vivid illustrations of the 'idiot savant', notably one in which Gershwin took home from Paris some Parisian taxi horns to be included in his concerts, since he found their honking irresistibly musical! I've read of the irresistible Song of the Sirens in Greek myths, and chuckled to myself that this was the Song of the Horns.

Unlike the audiences of the few Carnatic concerts I got to visit back home in India, the audience here seemed less pedantically erudite and parts of the audience consisted of incidental and even indifferent participants. Biographical presentations of the lives of composers are a staple in the Harikatha performances in Carnatic music, and they are more suffused with religious sentiment and devotional fervour. By contrast, this concert seemed to be a less emotional exercise almost like a documentary. But I was not disappointed and got an opportunity to quickly correct myself. Dr. Kogan introduced his audience to 'Porgy and Bess', a folk opera considered by many to be Gershwin's magnum opus. The devotional fervour that I had missed was made up for by the human interest in the story of the opera, a grim tale of the hardships of penury, racial abuse, physical handicaps and bereavement. The pieces Dr. Kogan played from Porgy and Bess were especially moving, and would have been more so had I a little more grounding in music. But he played the piano with a very visible angst that would touch a chord even in someone merely watching. In an active audience questioning session, Dr Kogan agreed with a questioner that most of history's greatest music is born out of deep sorrow and spoke as if it was almost intuitively obvious, and borne out repeatedly by his studies of the lives of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky among others.

I had a tryst with some of the greatest composers in the Western world the very next day at the United University Church on the 11th of August 2007. The pianist here was Abraham Currameng from USC's Thornton School of Music performing as part of the requirement of his Masters of Music programme. The programme included pieces by Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Debussy, Prokofiev, Chopin, Granados and Liszt. After the unorthodox pieces of Gershwin, this was as classical an introduction to European music as I could get. The pieces sounded melodious and showed beauty of form and structure even to uninitiates like me, and the performance was undoubtedly first-rate given the responses of the more discerning audience in the church. The piece I found especially memorable was Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the Water) of Claude Debussy. I don't know if I allowed myself to simply be guided by the name of the piece, but it did have a languid, pellucid, tremulous feeling. Fancifully enough, the gentle movements of the pianist during this piece, made me think almost that his fingers were the feet of angels walking on water. The genius of the composers seemed to find adequate expression in the skill of the debutant. Some years ago I remember reading a heated conversation between two estranged bickering pianist parents of the protagonist of the book 'Eat Cake' by Jeanne Ray, where the runaway father scorns at his prim and proper wife, 'you play as if you never set foot outside a Methodist church!'. Here I was in a real Methodist church at a classical piano concert and am beginning to see sense in the choices of those hear and play nothing but classical. The beamed wooden roof, the stained glass windows and the Corinthian colonnades of the Methodist church, completed the classical experience. Perhaps, the 'music of the spheres' is simply a philosopher's metaphor, but my experience of the 'music of the spires' was most memorable.

3 comments:

Vishy said...

Wow... piano concerts... Somehow i feel like i have been cooped up here in Georgia Tech, one-way-tracking between college and home...

Seeker of Truth said...

It's the age-old debate of tunnel vision versus panoramic views. Does disciplining oneself to a single-pointed regimen invariably give better results? Or does subjecting oneself to a greater variety of experience aid the educational process better? Mostly it is an individual judgment, but the doctrine of 'nothing in excess' remains universal. However, one can't help notice the balance of priorities in this country between the sciences and humanities. Interestingly, Asians are found only in the engineering school and are almost totally absent in the other departments.

vikram said...

try the 'Serenade Melancholy' of Tchaikovsky and then what i feel is the greatest composition of al times and all genres Beethovens 'An Ode to Joy' I recommend them because of their interospective quality