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Kate Coleman: Enjoying the beat of music

April 05, 2010|by KATE COLEMAN

I enjoy listening to music -- many genres of music. But "enjoy" doesn't fully explain the impact music often has on me.

When I interview Maryland Symphony Orchestra members and guest artists, I tell them I am not a "music writer." I am not qualified to review their performances.

I've learned a little in the years I've been writing about and listening to the MSO. I get excited when I can identify a piece on the radio as something I've heard the orchestra perform in concert. I can close my eyes and see Music Director Elizabeth Schulze conducting: swaying, reaching for a note, coaxing a desired nuance with the extension of a finger or expression on her face.

I attend the concerts as a civilian, not a critic. I go to be wrapped up in the live, in-the-moment performances, to hear dozens of musicians playing many notes on many different instruments come together as one. I respect and admire their skill and their daring.

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I go for the goose bumps. I've never been disappointed.

That sensation is not limited to symphonic music.

I had what I labeled "head chills" at a recent Solas concert as Winifred Horan put her bow to fiddle for a lively jig.

Solas is the amazing "Celtic folk" band I've loved for several years since I heard the group play a couple of Mountain Green Concerts at Hagerstown Community College.

(Note to series organizer David Fitzwater: Oh, how I miss those wonderful shows that presented the likes of Cajun-rooted BeauSoleil, Tom Chapin, Robin and Linda Williams. I so enjoyed the variety of music by contemporary performers - all with a link to tradition, all with the creativity to make old art new.)

While listening to Solas the evening after St. Patrick's Day, I noticed that my feet were tapping. And then just a few notes from Seamus Egan's flute had tears stinging my eyes. Yes, the music evoked the memory of the gorgeous green of Ireland's West Coast. Maybe it also unlocked something in the Irish genes passed to me by my ancestors.

Music seems to have power over the Italian quarter of my heritage, too.

I'm not sure what inspired me a couple of months ago to hunt down a YouTube video of Luciano Pavarotti singing "Nessun Dorma," an aria from Puccini's "Turandot." A phrase of the music from I don't know where was stuck in my mind.

I am not a huge opera fan. I've attended exactly one opera performance in my life. Admittedly, because at the time I was a high school student and the venue was Convention Hall on the Asbury Park, N.J., boardwalk, my experience of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" was far from ideal.

But now, hearing the opera legend sing - even just the first four notes - sent me into full-body-chill-oh-my-gosh-I'm-crying-again mode. So did videos of performances of the aria by tenor Andrea Bocelli and Aretha Franklin, for Pete's sake. The Queen of Soul sang it on short notice, subbing for an ailing Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards telecast.

What's going on?

For the record, I conducted my own little science experiment and watched those performances again. My physical and emotional reactions were the same.

There are two possible explanations:

1. I'm even more emotionally on-the-edge or crazier than I thought.

2. There is a scientific basis for music's power over me.

Perhaps I'll find the answer in books I just got from the library. One is "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession" by Daniel J. Levitin. The other, by neurologist and author Oliver W. Sacks, is "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain."

Meanwhile, I'll stick with my own theory: Music is magic.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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