by Richard Gambino
There is so much good music performed here on the East End in summers. (How I wish it were also so during our winters.) Funny how the most abstract of all the arts, music, goes deepest in our souls. Pop music can nourish our need for fun, our romantic sense, our whistling-down-the-street joy in the happy, pretty experiences in living and loving, and in other highs and lows of everyday life. At the more profound modes, music takes the soul also to heights and depths that express our profoundest spiritual essence, and brings us to new experiences of being human, each of us uniquely, as we relate to it. At our souls’ peaks, music expresses and moves our human sprit, and sometimes grows our souls, and so makes our lives more meaningful in ways only it can. Music’s power cannot be duplicated or grasped in language, or in any other art form.
I remember a scene from an old movie, Children Of A Lesser God (1986). In it, William Hurt plays a dedicated but unconventional teacher of deaf kids. In the scene I’ve found unforgettable, he comes upon a way of engaging those born deaf, some bewildered by life, some bitter, remote or angry toward life. He places their hands on something that is vibrating to very loud music. I will never forget the look on the kids’ faces as their souls begin to dance with the vibrations. It is the look of those who have been born to a higher life. A life those of us with hearing can sometimes take for granted, neglect to nourish and make grow. As an example of what expresses and expands our best spirit, I say to people, only half kiddingly, about the greatest music of all, “Beethoven didn’t write Beethoven’s music. He merely held the pen while God wrote it.”
I’m very thankful for all the people who make music for us — the Sag Harbor Band, the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival, Music for Montauk, and others. But I want to talk about one group in particular. (I have no relation to it except as a long-time audience member.) I’ve written about it before, two years ago. So, I’ve asked myself why again — why do I think about it so much. It is a music school for youngsters. The Perlman Music Program on Shelter Island, whose concerts — running this year to September 4 — are free to the public, sometimes with Itzhak Perlman himself playing. (For descriptions of concerts and other events, and dates, Google “The Perlman Music Program,” or call: 631/749-0740.)
True, the students at the PMP are exceptionally gifted, in fact talented beyond belief, chosen from around the world, by video auditions. True, the young musicians are a delight to hear. In fact, hearing them provides the kind of deeper musical experience I tried to describe in the first paragraph of this article. But why I write of them is more than all this. It has to do with the reason that in forty years of college teaching I tried each semester to teach students of all stages from freshmen (whom many professors want to avoid) to PhD students. True, graduate students might ask challenging questions. But the freshmen also challenge, with much more basic questions, which compel a going back to the root importances of matters.
Well, I did not teach music. For good reason. I have a passion for music, but not one bit of talent for making it. I can’t even sing on key. But if anyone asked me, why learn music, I would answer, to touch the soul, the human spirit. Your own and that of others. And great music takes the soul to heights beyond the heavens. The third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony pierces our souls to their deepest cores, and the fourth rockets our souls with ever-accelerating power to spiritual ecstasy. Watch an audience as a performance of the Ninth Symphony ends. If the performance has been a good one, at first people seem overwhelmed, their eyes wide and lit up. Then, they begin to applaud, and in some seconds the applause rises to an increasing crescendo, the audience now on their feet. The expressions on people’s faces the opposite of everything that is dull, base and petty in us.
But people called musicians have to take us there. Extraordinary musicians, who are far beyond just the ability to play an instrument well. They must have greatly talented souls and wed these souls to great music. As is true of all marriages, it takes much time, love, personal growth and growth together to become one. So for years I’ve listened to the students at The Perlman Music Program in this spiritual odyssey of soul and talent. Their talent is astonishing, and their mastery of instruments amazing. They are in these senses advanced as can be. But their souls are quite young. (I love to hear them hoot and cheer each other after some have performed a piece, as they take turns playing and being in the audience. It’s only my square adult’s inhibitions that keep me from joining them, and not just applaud energetically, as do the rest of the people in the audience.) And these young talents are still forming as they work love’s labor to make their souls deeply kindred, as one, with the souls of the likes of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Just as one of the joys of my life was to see my students’ intellects, emotions and sometimes their spirits, develop, so it has been a great part of my joyful experience of being in the audience at the Perlman Program for many summers.
We are, of course, the products of biological evolution. But I’m partial to the idea that our individual and collective evolution continues, through culture. And the best of our culture, e.g., great music, gives each of us the means to evolve a great human spirit. However, culture needs support — it is not, like biology, a force of itself. Running a music school with in-residence faculty and students is expensive. So, come to the free concerts and be awed, but I urge all also to contribute to the PMP, by sending a check to: The Perlman Music Program. Attention Maureen M. Nash. 19 West 69th Street. Suite 304. New York, N.Y. 10023.
RICHARD GAMBINO thanks Toby Perlman, the faculty at The Perlman Music Program, and all the others who bring this gift to us every summer.