A New Year, Looking Back a Hundred Years

With the new year in full swing, I found myself driving back to North Carolina after the holiday break while listening to a podcast from NPR’s “The Story” It gave the account of a music concert:

“On November 1995, the violinist Itzhak Perlman performed at the Lincoln Center in New York City. He had polio as a child and walks with crutches. The audience waited patiently as he made his way slowly across the stage to his chair, sat down, put his crutches on the floor, removed the braces from his legs, settled himself in his characteristic pose, one foot tucked back, the other pushed forwards, bent down to pick up his violin, gripped it with his chin, and nodded to the conductor to indicate he was ready.

“It was a familiar ritual for Perlman fans: the crippled genius making light of his disability before his sublime music transcended everything. But this time was different.

“‘Just as he finished the first few bars,’ the Houston Chronicle music critic recalls, ‘one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap – it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do.’ It was obvious – he had to put down his violin, replace his braces, pick up the crutches, heave himself to his feet, make his laborious way offstage and either get another violin or restring his crippled instrument.

“He didn’t. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then signalled the conductor to begin again. The audience was spell-bound.

Everyone knows it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. He played with such passion and such power and such purity…You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head…At one point it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get…sounds from them they had never made before.

“When he finished there was an awed silence, and then the audience rose, as one.”

We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering – doing everything that we could to show him how much we appreciated what he’d done. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music he can still make with what he has left.’

This statement attributed to Perlman resonated in me, and I enjoyed a peaceful journey back to the small eastern North Carolina town where I reside. Tending towards reflection as one does at the beginning of a new year, and anticipating the work ahead in the upcoming semester, I found myself bracing for the usual round of meetings on campus this morning. What a pleasant surprise to find the return to the academic community a productive and intellectually invigorating experience.

Our faculty convened with the task of reviewing several important documents concerning peer evaluation and governance. In a collegial spirit, we discussed and endorsed by vote the proposed materials in less than two hours, adjourning to enjoy lunch for all who remained. I dined with my art colleagues, but also engaged in conversation with other professors at the table from the disciplines of science and music. The choral director was quite interested in the news of UNC-Chapel Hill’s upcoming centennial celebration of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which led to a conversation ranging from Don Giovanni tenors to challenges of teaching millennials to Kierkegaard to the importance of choosing church music that honors God. I was also reminded of the podcast I had listened to about the 100 year anniversary of the famous 1913 New York Armory Show, which introduced the American public to European avant-garde painting and sculpture. Here’s some information on it: “The public sensation and the polemical critical responses to the show represented a watershed in the history of American art. The exhibition included works by such well-known European modernists as Paul Cezanne, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin, as well as leaders of American art such as Robert Henri, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Childe Hassam, along with the early work by such budding modernists as Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis.” [a slideshow of images is at NYT, here].

Later this afternoon, whilst surfing the web, I landed on an interesting article about Dave Hickey, the 74-year-old maverick art critic. The author makes this point:

“His argument amounts to a not-so-stealthy attack on the whole profession of art professors, who, not able to make a living from their art, rely on college employment. It also upsets idealistic young art students who, understandably, find it hard to accept that their art possesses no intrinsic value. In fact, Hickey’s ideas about beauty question the validity of the entire American M.F.A. system, which protects thousands of artists from having to truck with capitalist markets in which the value of their art would be determined by the tug of war between the desires of the buyers and the needs of the sellers.”

you can read the entire article here.

Basically, a pretty good day thinking about and talking about the arts & academia. In short, I’m looking forward to a creative year. Oh, and by the way — the aforementioned anecdote about Perlman and the violin string breaking?….apparently one of those urban legends!

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