By Meg Currell
A few years ago my husband and kids sent me to the symphony for Mother’s Day. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra had been performing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Tim earmarked this event at the beginning of the symphony season as the perfect chance for me to do something just for me.
I love going to movies and live performances by myself. It’s easier to get lost in the moment. I find it taxing to be considerate of another person’s thoughts and responses. My sweet husband–as bright and thoughtful as he is–does not have the background in music that I do, and doesn’t always appreciate it the way I do.
The irony was, though the performance was on a Mother’s Day, the person who taught me to appreciate music on a deeper level was my non-musician father. My musical talent came directly from my mother’s side; she was an accomplished pianist and soprano. But my father was a completely self-taught student of music from the Baroque era to the 20th Century. He and I would sit at the dinner table after everyone else had finished, and I’d listen to him talk about libretti and composers and conductors and pianists. In that pre-Internet era, he had researched all subjects “classical” music. It was from him, the U.S. Marine/farm boy, that I first learned that “classical” is an era in the history of Western music, not a designation for all music played on WFMT in Chicago, or all music played by an orchestra. He taught me about Bach and Mozart, sonata form and the classical orchestra.
I was shocked — but shouldn’t have been — to realize my father knew at least as much as my music history and literature professors. When a subject interested him, he’d pile books on his nightstand and read endlessly. Neither he nor my mother were ever without a book. He spoke in the language of great conductors and performers, of Ashkenazy and St. Martin’s in the Field, of Emmanuel Ax and Borodin and Scriabin. He knew the prose and poetry of the Goldberg Variations, the delicate power of Debussy, the fearsomeness of Wagner and the intimacy of Chopin, the simplicity of Copland. My mother’s musical ability may have been the genesis of my interest, but there is no doubt my father’s influence propelled my fascination.
And it all started with a recording of Scheherazade. My dad loved to tell stories, often creative narratives to entice me to finish my peas. I remember when he told the vivid story of Scheherazade, the slave girl who saved her own life nightly by telling the King, who had a penchant for murdering his brides, stories whose ending required another night of telling. This was the premise of 1,001 Arabian Nights, and of my lifelong love affair with music’s magical ability to transport us from reality.
When I was around 10, he started an annual tradition of taking me on “dates,” consisting of dinner and then live performances in the city. Starting with a performance of the musical 42nd Street and carrying through multiple symphony, ballet, chamber, solo and opera performances, he taught me the beauty and wonder of live performance. We’d get dressed in our Sunday best, have dinner at amazing restaurants, and then nestle in the quiet theater, where, wide-eyed, I’d gaze upon grown-ups in beautiful clothes, some men in tuxedos, chatting casually among themselves, as if this were the most natural thing ever. To me, it was the height of sophistication, and I was careful to behave myself as well as I knew how. My father, always well dressed, was my idea of a dignified man, and I watched him closely for cues on how to comport myself. The entire experience worked together to create for me heightened expectations both of myself and of the performance. It was inebriating.
To this day, live performances by talented musicians are transcendent experiences for me, an opportunity to set aside the mundane and inhabit an enchanted world of wordless storytelling, witness musical incantations that create moments of pure magic. The musicians have worked tirelessly to perfect their art to the point where they can convey beauty and tragedy and glory and defeat and passion and grief, and in the moment of their big performance, they share it with me. Just for that moment. Small wonder that my first husband was a professional musician.
So, while that visit to the symphony a few years ago was my Mother’s Day gift, I was thinking of my father. We’ve grown apart in recent years, with little hope of reconciliation. What divides us is a gulf I’ve failed to bridge. But he gave me the great gift of appreciating music and stories beyond the pleasant sounds, into the heart of human understanding.
And even now, when I listen to Scheherazade, I have his voice in my head, telling me all about the symphony from his bottomless well of musical knowledge. The rift will disappear, and I’ll be his kid again, sharing that moment of transient beauty.