I worked in the yard a little this weekend, weeding, and since it was a beautiful day I took my Tivoli PAL, (the very radio seen at the top of the blog) a book and a chair out to the shade of a big tree. WCNY-FM out of Syracuse came in fine, and I caught the end of the still-wonderful Leo Rayhill’s jazz show.
(I learned a lot from listening to Leo, when I lived in Syracuse and his show was on the main channel every night at 6. I usually caught a good 15 minutes after I got off my reporting shift at WTVH.)
Anyway, I wasn’t expecting what came next: WCNY still plays old Syracuse Symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons. Today it was a 1978 show with the late Calvin Custer conducting (Christopher Keene was the marquee name, but Custer carried a lot of the load). A young Yo Yo Ma was the featured soloist. and the whole thing opened with Webern’s “5 Pieces For Orchestra.” Don Dolloff, one of the great voices of WCNY, hosted.
It seems impossibly long ago that Syracuse had a highly regarded symphony, one that was confident enough to begin a program with something as tough as Webern’s music, and smart enough to bring a pre-superstardom Yo Yo Ma to town. The local classical station did live recordings of the symphony’s concerts, and played them a couple times a week.
The SSO went bankrupt a few years back; musicians, at personal cost, have tried to keep a “something-like-the-symphony” running since. I root for them, but still. For a long while, a medium-sized American city could have its own orchestra, and the extraordinary thing looking back from 2014 is that it didn’t seem extraordinary at all. We just figured it was a permanent part of the town, and if you asked me back in the 80s if the SSO could just go away, I wouldn’t have gotten the question.
A note about the Webern: my least favorite music for a long time, no contest, was the music of 12 tones and serialism which dominated classical music during the first half of the 20th century. It was never heard, let alone enjoyed, by most people, and has been entirely out of fashion for a long time – which is a good thing. Having the movement washed up, wrung out, exhausted and then largely ignored and passed over makes it easier to hear the individuals involved. So over the last year, I have learned a little about classical music in general, and the 1900-1950 high modern period in particular. I never really heard Webern before listening to the “5 Pieces” today, and I was instantly hooked. They’re tiny little things, each a few minutes long at most and sometimes shorter and there’s a precision to them which grabbed me. It’s not easy going, but in its own odd way, it’s entrancing.
So I ordered a Naxos cd, which has the Webern in question along with a few of his other compositions. It was $7.90 for the cd through Amazon, shipped in two days. The iTunes download is $9.99. Why is the one in which no physical product is delivered more expensive? This continues to make no sense to me.