Passion for classical music is a bit like a taste for Stilton or a penchant for dark chocolate. Most people possess a love of classical music because it was an integral part of their childhood or because the dividends of all those piano lessons and violin practice yielded ultimate devotion to the art.
With only a brief period of attempting to master a rather tired, tatty flute in my grade school band, my listening habits were influenced by my parents' favorite music, which spanned everything from bluegrass and the Beatles to bagpipes and the Baja Marimba Band. Not once did I hear the strains of Bach, Chopin or Mozart wafting through our working class home and I think I must have been about 20 when I learned that the original definition of an opus wasn't the endearingly blithe penguin in Berke Breathed's "Bloom County" cartoon.
The first time I ever heard Beethoven's 9th, in fact, was in the scene from "Help!" when Ringo falls through a trapdoor into the cellar of a pub in which a Siberian tiger is pacing after having escaped the London Zoo. The stirring melody is the only known sedative for the creature, apparently, so everyone starts swinging their pints and singing heartily until eventually England has launched into a rousing chorus, thus subduing said man eater and allowing Ringo to escape.
Not quite the usual conduit into classical music, but thanks to that film, I became not only a Beatles fan but a Beethoven admirer as well. Since then, I've gradually explored the genre and cultivated an abiding veneration of other favorite composers, though I'm loathe to admit that I've often come to them via film and television.
It was "My Dinner With Andre" that led me to Erik Satie's pensively paced "Gymnopédies" with his glowing, tormented wonderment and lilting key changes that I've found mesmerizing ever since.
I've made friends sit through endless credits at the end of films so I could jot down the names and composers of exquisite classical scores and I often pause DVDs to do the same. It's a seat-of-one's-pants way to come upon great music and yet a fortuitous byproduct of cinema and television. If I had my druthers, in fact, film makers would list music info first and not scroll it up the screen at 80 mph after all the grip boys, personal assistants and gaffers, so that we music freaks could easily jot down the pieces we found compelling.
Of course, this method of expanding one's musical horizons doesn't only apply to classical work. My ears perked up during an episode of "Sex and the City" years ago — just happened to come upon it while channel-surfing, honest — and within a few days, I'd tracked down the CD with a hip tune by French rap artist MC Solaar that had made one particularly navel-gazing scene far more engaging. Likewise, one of Apple's first iPod ads made me an instant devotee of Swedish powerpop newbies, The Caesars.
With modern music, though, hearing it live means waiting for the band in question to tour and hoping they come to a town nearby, whereas classical music is performed every day by orchestras all over the globe.
We here in southern Vermont are especially fortunate to have several outstanding classical music organizations offering top-notch performances each summer, and over the next few days and into August a sumptuous inventory of composers, conductors, musicians and guest artists will fill the airwaves in and around the Green Mountains.
Putney's Yellow Barn Music School & Festival, the Manchester Music Festival and the Marlboro Music School & Festival all have their season in full swing and, even for a novice like me, it's tough to choose one event over the other. Fortunately, they don't all overlap.
At 7:15 tonight, the Manchester Music Festival presents Schubert's Overture in the Italian Style in D Major along with Bizet's Suite from the opera "Carmen" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60, at the Southern Vermont Art Center's comfortable Arknell Pavilion.
Tomorrow night, Yellow Barn does Concerto da Camera II, an enigmatic contemporary piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning Israeli composer Shulamit Ran, along with Beethoven's Serenade in D Major, Op. 25, Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, by Webern, and miniaturist Robert Schumann's Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 63. The Yellow Barn's performances take place in a spacious concert hall, nestled in a lovely garden.
On Saturday, along with Beethoven's Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 103, and Brahms' Fünf Lieder, Op. 105, Marlboro Music School & Festival is performing — in its dramatic hilltop barn theater — a piece by Schubert that I first heard when it was used as a backdrop to an episode of "Inspector Morse," the British murder mystery series that was popular in the '90s.
Apparently, entire generations of crime show addicts are receiving similarly unwitting tutorials in classical music, with many a melodramatic scene being propelled along to gripping conclusion by the likes of Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. So it pays to listen well and take copious notes once the murderer's been caught.
Schubert finished writing String Quintet in C Major in 1828 just before he died at age 31, after a life that began with great economic struggle, but that eventually brought him substantial creative sponsorship in the form of a broad circle of friends and patrons. In his brief career, he wrote more than 600 songs, seven symphonies and a long list of chamber pieces, operas and liturgical works, so he's one of those composers whose life story renders the work yet more potent and moving.
Written for a quintet that included two violins, one viola and two cellos, rather than the usual two violas and one cello, the String Quintet in C Major is colored by rich tones, emotive complexity and contemplative layers that shift from poignant earnestness to bright reverie.
The fragile melancholia, expansive meditations and interior vigor of all of Schubert's compositions are some of the most evocative classical work I've ever heard. As luck would have it, all three of these regional festivals currently under way are featuring his works, with Tuesday's performance at Yellow Barn also including the String Quintet in C Major.
Yellow Barn goes one step beyond with a brunch on Sunday, prior to an 11:30 a.m. performance that sounds as if it'll venture into unusual realms with pieces by composers Vinao, Klatzow and Korngold. Out of respect for my parents' efforts to provide me with an eclectic musical education during my childhood, I don't plan to miss this one; how could I when two of the instruments featured are vibraphone and — wait for it — marimba.
Note: I'll be lolling about on the sands of Maine next week, so Sover Scene will return in a fortnight.
Online: yellowbarn.org, marlboromusic.org, manchestermusicfestival.org