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    Crowd enjoying orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall

    Experiencing Bach

    I had little appreciation for classical music until 2022, when a series of Bach performances changed the course of my life.

    By Zito Madu

    April 5, 2024

    Since I moved to New York City in 2021, one of my favorite things to do is bring my friends for their first taste of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Some of them, as I am, are new to the city and what it has to offer. Some of them, it turns out, have lived there for years and years but never set foot inside this landmark – a place that has become so important to me I want them to experience it too, and experience it with me.

    From where I live in South Brooklyn, getting to Carnegie Hall is almost a fifty-minute trip on the Q train. The longest stretch of that trip between stops is when the train goes from DeKalb Avenue to Canal Street over the Manhattan Bridge. Most of the time when it goes over the bridge, regardless of the time of day, people will either get up or the ones standing up will look out of the windows and doors to take pictures and marvel at the skyline and the water. And because the others look and marvel at the landscape, I can’t help but join them, though I’ve gone over the bridge weekly since moving to New York City. The passengers’ impressions reveal it in a new light for me.

    When the train reaches the 57th Street–7th Avenue stop, all I have to do is take the Southeast exit and at the top of the stairs, above the underground network of trains and hundreds of people, the bustling area of midtown Manhattan is revealed, with all of its beauty, noise, and shock. Coming from the quiet part of Brooklyn where I live, followed by the meditative and tiring train ride, it always takes me a beat to adjust to the speed and boldness of the city. Luckily, the stop is right in front of Carnegie Hall, through whose doors another culture change takes place, a dignified and attentive air shared by all the other attendees. Despite this proximity, almost every single time that I come out of that train station, I have to ask someone where the box office is. It happens so often that each friend then asks me if it is my first time going to Carnegie Hall.

    The actual first time I went to Carnegie Hall, I was invited there and given a comp ticket by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) in 2022 after I had sent a message to show my appreciation for its videos on YouTube. Some of these showcased the Young Artist Series, part of OSL’s mentorship program. During the pandemic when everything migrated online, these students performed their favorite pieces and uploading those videos, which I could watch in parallel to the same pieces performed by the older musicians and hear how the interpretations differed and evolved. Another set of videos that I got into was from OSL’s Bach Festival, renamed Bach at Home 2020, which consisted of four weeks of performances, and then one final week of guest artists.

    I was transfixed. These performances, provided for free online, opened me up in a way that would change the direction of my life. I didn’t have an extensive history with Bach or classical music beforehand, nor did I grow up playing any instruments. My only experience with such music came from all the times when it was unavoidable – whether because it was used in films that I liked or because it was present at fancy dinners or events that I happened to attend, part of the setting that announced that it was indeed a refined and elevated time.

    My main impression of classical from this glancing experience was mostly the knowledge that the world, the culture of it, was actively against people like me and the kind of people I was usually around. Not the elites, but those on the margins, the poor, who are often not allowed in the spaces where that kind of high culture is experienced. I didn’t actively disdain the music, but I didn’t see it as anything necessary to life or appreciation of beauty and great art. After all, there was more than enough great art in the world which didn’t seem that gated, and beauty was all around me even in the worst conditions. Those same people who weren’t allowed through the gates of the enlightened were themselves sources of appreciation for the miracles of life, art, and beauty, as much as they were friends, family, and generally people I was comfortable around.

    Maybe because of pandemic isolation, or the way that the world and my idea of myself as an individual seemed to be ruptured and open for new possibilities – and because I was able to first experience the music alone, with no need for it to mean anything more than what I was hearing and feeling – I watched those videos of the Bach Festival without hesitancy or suspicion. And though I didn’t have the technical language to describe the playing or my impressions of it, I was able to get a sense of his music and which pieces moved me the most.

    Crowd enjoying orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall

    Crowd enjoying orchestra performance in Carnegie Hall. Photograph by Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo.

    I knew that I liked the Cello Suites, for both their difficulty and seclusion. As wonderful as it is watching an ensemble or orchestra perform together, there is something uniquely thrilling about watching an individual take on a grand piece of work solo, especially when the musician is younger and seems to approach it with both great confidence and anxiety. I find myself not only enjoying the performance but also rooting for the performer, as if watching a tennis player on the verge of conquering one of the great tournaments.

    For similar reasons I also liked the sonatas and partitas for solo violin. I had to admit that at some point I really enjoyed the performances for the violin family, so anything done for a violin, viola, cello, or double bass had a higher chance of grabbing my attention. A simple metric, but I can’t help it. I also enjoyed the Harpsichord Concertos and Goldberg Variations, which were both peaceful and gave the sense of being transported into a different time and space, similar to what I feel coming out of the Q train station in front of Carnegie Hall. As if though nothing has changed, though the constitution of the world before and after the performance remains the same, there is a sudden freshness and vivacity to the people, the streets, and even the feeling of being alive.

    Soon after I moved to New York, I found my way through those arched doors for the first time to see Schubert’s Trout Quintet as part of OSL’s chamber music series. I felt a bit out of place – both because I was wearing tracksuit pants for some reason, and because I didn’t know anyone, or the music really, and I was one of the few Black people in attendance.

    The Weill Recital Hall is smaller than the Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage where the bigger performances are held, but it was still grand enough that I was asked to walk faster by people behind me as I slowed down to gaze and appreciate the architecture of the space. I had been to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which is impressive in its own right, and bigger venues in general – in my former life as a sports writer, going to stadiums built to hold over eighty thousand people – but the context was different. I feel so comfortable in sports stadiums that they feel the same as being in a bar with friends. And yet the Weill Recital Hall was more intimidating, because I didn’t yet know the person I was going to become in that world.

    The desire to explore the possibility of what I could be was probably the main reason why I moved to New York City, and why I wanted to attend OSL’s Bach Festival. During the time that I watched its videos online, and in the subsequent months when I would have the music playing in the background, I was interrogating my life and how to make it more expansive. I traveled a lot and experienced art all over the world, as well as working on art and writing of my own, but as I told my mother at the time, I felt that I hadn’t graduated.

    I grew up in Detroit, and no matter where I went and how long I was gone, I always returned to the city and its comforts. In a way it felt as if I was always returning to a self that I knew and the world in which that self was safe. I knew Detroit as much as one could know a place, and so I knew myself in Detroit as well. What I wanted was to undo the safety in that knowledge and to see what else I could be.

    I wanted to hear Bach’s music performed in person. I wanted to see the festival, to see the musicians with my own eyes, to physically exist in the same space as the arias, movements, and variations. To have the physical experience as much as the emotional and intellectual. I didn’t expect or need the music and performances to change my life, but to be part of that life.

    Though the constitution of the world before and after I attend a performance remains the same, there is a sudden freshness and vivacity to the people, the streets, and even the feeling of being alive.

    I had been coming to New York City since I was fifteen years old, so I had plenty of friends around, but there is a big difference from friends who are happy to have you visit and the day-to-day friends and community needed to avoid the loneliness that can feel more extreme because the city has so many people and so much going on. To build a new life in a new place requires putting one’s self out there, going to events, meeting people, asking them for their friendship, and learning to deal with the rejections that can follow and the realization that some circles are closed to you. This effort has to be balanced with a respect to your own solitude and personal time, which is always in jeopardy from the feeling that you must be involved in as much as possible, or else the world that you want will leave you behind.

    That first summer I actually missed the Bach Festival that I had looked forward to so much. I had injured my knee playing soccer with some friends, and weeks later the injury was severe enough that I could still barely walk; when the festival arrived, I was too weary to take on the long distances and never-ending subway stairs. But once recovered, I steadily went to Carnegie Hall to see all different kinds of performances. Most of the time I took a friend with me who had never been, and sometimes I went with friends who became constant companions, and we developed a routine of dinner beforehand and drinks after the shows. We got to dress up and listen to beautiful music. They got to know me more and I got to know them more. And my life expanded and gained a great deal of depth from these simple things.

    By the time the next summer came around, I was careful to tone down the physical exercise so as to not end up in the same situation from before. There were three performances held at the Zankel Hall – the first with pianist Jeremy Denk playing Bach’s keyboard concertos, the second with violinist Gil Shaham leading the concertos and orchestral suites, and the last one with countertenor Hugh Cutting performing Handel and Bach arias and cantatas.

    I went to the first two shows alone. I was mesmerized by the energy and physicality in Denk’s playing. He played as if swept up in a tornado of the music – only by matching its velocity could he hope to survive. Next to him sat a boy tasked with turning the music sheets. Where Denk seemed to be a storm in himself, the boy was so controlled and ready that his left heel never touched the floor. He sprung up at the correct moment to make sure that the performance continued without a single-note delay. And he kept his back to the crowd and his focus on the score in front of him the whole time.

    I watched Shaham’s performance next to an older woman who, during our conversation before and after, revealed to me that she was actually a child of the famous Dutch Nostrand family that the streets in New York City were named after. She told me stories of growing up in the city and how things have changed, and of course the harrowing experience of living through the pandemic in a place that quickly became an epicenter for the virus. She expressed that finally being able to hear live music again gave her hope that the life that seemed extinguished in that period could be restored.

    violinist Gil Shaham performing

    Violinist Gil Shaham performs during a concert with Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph by CTK / Alamy Stock Photo.

    When the music began, we were caught off guard by the power of Shaham’s playing. We had both listened to him playing beforehand, but in the almost six-hundred-seater hall, in person, he was astounding. Rather than the storm that Denk produced or became sublimated in, the sound that came from Shaham was so grand that it seemed to come from the walls of the hall itself, charging the air, and filling every space in the bodies of everyone in attendance.

    He was also joyful in a way that I hadn’t seen in any such concert before. Throughout his entire performance, he was beaming and laughing, constantly exchanging smiles with the conductor and the members of the orchestra. He was having fun! When he was done, he practically hugged everyone on stage. Speaking for the audience, we were as charmed by his personality as we were impressed by his performance. My seatmate joked that if she got a chance, she would ask him to marry her. So I invited her to the reception with me, and sure enough, when he appeared, she went up, thanked him for his playing, and asked if he was single. He wasn’t, and was gracious with her question and appreciation of his talent.

    The third show I attended with a friend, B, who I met at a restaurant in South Brooklyn a few months before. She was Turkish and had moved to New York after college for similar reasons to mine, to see what the world had to offer and who else she could possibly be, away from her home turf. Unlike me, she had grown up in a musical household. She played the cello and had performed Bach in school. She had experienced Bach played by many different musicians and orchestras before, and spent the ride to the hall teaching me the history of the music we were going to hear.

    Yet when Cutting elegantly floated onto the stage and began singing, B looked at me in shock. He had so much heart, clarity, and gentleness to his voice that all her technical expertise fell away – the only thing she could say was that he sings like an angel. I couldn’t disagree.

    What at least eased the terror of his voice was, of all things, the bushiness of his hairstyle. B called him her angel with the bird’s-nest hair and clapped with all her heart. On the train ride home, B asked me if the Bach Festival had lived up to my expectations. I answered yes as a way to brush off the question.

    I thought of her question again months later, when I took my coworker Isabel to watch the Orchestra of St. Luke’s perform Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Though she had lived in New York for ten years, and had a longer and deeper relationship to classical music than I did, it was her first visit to Carnegie Hall.

    We arrived early, and from our perch in one of the boxes, took pleasure in watching the orchestra set up, pointing to whoever we found particularly interesting on the stage. Liv Redpath is always a personal favorite since I saw her perform in my first visit to Carnegie Hall, and so is Maya Gunji and her timpani. From above, it’s much easier to appreciate each individual on her own, her unique tendencies and her small mistakes and ways to recover from them. These little things make their playing, as individuals, and as a group, more impressive to me.

    The performance lasted three hours and twenty minutes, including intermission. The Christmas Oratorio is composed of six parts, with each part a cantata, that was supposed to be performed on a Christmas period feast day. I was told by another attendee that the reason for the extensive length of the program is because they weren’t made to be performed all at once, and so the performance, as wonderful as it was, also became a great test of endurance and athleticism. For both the performers and the audience.

    This marathon experience might seem a bit much for a new concert-goer, so I spent much of the first half enjoying the music as much as making sure that my companion wasn’t bored. But there was nothing to worry about; Isabel was transported.

    Finally, in the second half, I found myself closing my eyes as I inevitably do when I listen to Bach or visit the orchestra. And sometimes when mine blink open, I can see I’m not the only one. The closing of the eyes is not from tiredness or boredom, but because one needs to give in to the music completely. To shut out all distractions that can come from the sense of sight and to open one’s soul.

    It was then that I thought about B’s question, of whether the Bach Festival and hearing Bach live in general lived up to my expectations. I had said yes, but the true answer is more complicated.

    I didn’t go to the festival looking to make a judgment on whether or not it was “as” good as I expected. My attraction to Bach wasn’t to make that determination, or to become a cultured person who talks about his music in the lofty language that signals one’s good taste to others.

    What I was after was a closeness to beauty. The kind of beauty in life that speaks to the eternal spirit of human creativity and striving. The beauty that I have experienced both in great works of art and in small moments with people I cherish. A beauty that lasts and endures and makes one feel more alive. Or at least understand more what it means to be alive.

    I glimpsed this beauty in the videos that I watched, but I knew that I needed to be physically within its presence to truly appreciate it. In that sense, the experience was a success.

    When I opened my eyes at the end of the Christmas Oratorio, everything around me – Isabel, the other attendees, the musicians, and the hall itself – seemed to be glowing. Nothing had changed, but I felt a lightness and joy from the show that seemed to have charged me as well as my surroundings.

    Walking out into the night, Isabel expressed surprise that it was so late; the music was so good that time had simply flown.

    The only disappointing thing about a Bach concert is that it eventually ends and I have to return to the real world. But the consolation is that the music is, for me, something that does not just live on its own, but inspires a new engagement with the world that is outside.

    Contributed By ZitoMadu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a Nigerian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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