Old age just creeps up on you. One minute life revolves around heavy metal and the next minute Metamucil.
Let’s face it: no one wants to get old. That’s why they have hair transplants and Botox and Grecian Formula 44. And little red sports cars and 20-year-old au pairs from Norway. There are whole industries aimed at fending off aging.
I look at myself in the mirror and I see a middle-aged man. Yikes. Who’s that? Where did that other chin come from? There seem to be lines where there were no lines before. I have begun to look like my father.
Old age brings me to Shriver Hall on a Sunday evening, because when I lope up those gentle, worn marble steps on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, I am young again. The Shriver Hall Concert Series is worth a deluxe membership at any health club (cheaper, too). Here is the fountain of youth.
You do not need to know anything about classical music. Midori does. So, too, do Hilary Hahn, Emanuel Ax, Trevor Pinnock, Garrick Ohlsson, Helene Grimaud, Radu Lupu, the Juilliard String Quartet. All you need to do is show up and listen. And if you are under 60 years of age you’ll feel like an adolescent. I do. The audience just gets older. Naturally, I don’t feel that I am aging at all. Sometimes my seatmates don’t come back when the new season begins. Extended care? Sent to live with the dreaded daughter-in-law in Kankakee? Death? Old age, as Marx reminds us, is not for sissies. (That’s Groucho not Karl.)
I feel the same way on Thursday evenings while attending the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I get the same seats every year. I like that there are no surprises. You never need to worry if Janet Jackson’s breast might be revealed. Or if the musicians will be too drunk to play the second set, or if there will be a fight at the bar, or trouble in the mosh pit. Alas, the restroom lines move slowly and there may be a slight bit of aggressive driving exiting the parking garage, but then the hour is growing late and old people need to get home to bed.
I like to hear familiar strains— Mahler, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven. That’s how I pick my tickets. They do some interesting and exciting and innovative things at the BSO— and I am careful not to buy tickets on the nights when that happens. I have to live in an interesting, exciting and innovative world 24/7. I want a night off.
I don’t want to hear a lady playing a Chock Full o’Nuts can full of roofing nails. Or a set of wire coat hangers. Or tin pie plates. The program note reading “American debut” makes me nervous. Let’s stick with the golden oldies.
I feel young again at Shriver Hall and the Meyerhoff. And yet I also feel we are like the last Yiddish speakers, a vanishing culture, the last generation of Americans who listen to classical music. But sitting there in the dark, listening to Dvorak’s “American Suite,” all is well despite the fact that soon many of my companions will be in the arms of Morpheus, snoring like Hessians.
Classical music, in general, has done me a world of good. WBJC-FM is permanently tuned into my car. It’s prevented uncountable instances of road rage and probably saved lives. Mine, at least. It’s hard to run amok with Monteverdi playing. People don’t want to bite the head off a live chicken when they are listening to Domenico Scarlatti. It’s impossible to be angry enjoying a Bach organ prelude and fugue in E minor. Tomaso Albinoni does not make a man want to go postal.
Perhaps we should experiment with playing cello suites in public places? A kind of musical therapy? Harpsichords in the prisons? String quartets in Congress? At the very least, the Federal Communications Commission should require talk radio stations to play a comparable number of hours of classical music as an antidote to the mischief they do. Two hours of Glenn Beck must be counteracted by two hours of J.S. Bach.
In my car, at intersections, I hear the angry throbbing from other vehicles. Apparently the drivers feel they must roll the windows down so that they cannot merely damage what remains of their own hearing but disrupt the general quietude. I hear them and wonder, will you be listening to this music in a century? Or even 20 years?
Most popular music is not for the ages. But Bach and Brahms and Beethoven are. Shriver Hall and the BSO remind us of what is timeless, while we still have time.