“Mojave Classics”

Listening to my iTunes collection, I remembered in a flash why I’d called one certain playlist the “Mojave Classics.” It is, I promise you, a tale most improbable.

You see, back in 1990 a number of us decided to caravan down to the Mojave Desert for a weekend of shooting and relaxation. There were several of my friends and their wives, and me and my good friend Sharon. But there was a catch.

The girls insisted that it’d be great fun to have a formal dinner down there, right out in the middle of nowhere. That meant dressing up. That meant tablecloths and a fancy formal dinner. Oddly, none of the men objected. I was appointed to put together suitable music for our evening in the desert. For our special dressy occasion, I chose formal Classical, selected mostly from around the renaissance period.

Try to picture us there after dark in the Mojave. We men dressed up in semi-modern suits and ties and western boots. We sported western hats and impressive period sidearms. My single-action, ten-inch barrel .44 magnum and holster hung prominently below my suit jacket. The ladies dressed closer to the style of a hundred years ago, in full, flowing costume-style ball gowns and old-fashioned bonnets. They did a great job.

Our long table was covered with white linen, place settings of real silverware, a ham, sliced cold cuts and vegetables, and the mandatory wine bottles. Candles and lanterns lit the scene well. A wonderful time was had by us all. In no time we were “well on our way.”

Given that we were car-camping, we weren’t really that far from the access road that brought us there. Mind you, all this time, the boom box was blaring out my classical baroque and pipe-organ music.

We saw car headlights approaching up the road. At just that point, JS Bach’s “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Scrhitten (Cantata BWV 78)” started playing.

Now, this stately music is still far too lively to be played in a church. It is just right for the entertainment of a king or duke who can afford to keep a pipe organ and entire brass band ensemble on call in his castle, impressing and entertaining two hundred guests and visiting nobilities.

As that car approached our camp, it slowed down. Windows rolled down. It stopped. Shocked faces appeared in the car windows. Jaws dropped. It was as if they had all just seen ghosts from the past. They drove on again, very slowly, quietly and respectfully. They’d just witnessed  something to tell the grandchildren.

Great memories are priceless. We can carry them forever, wherever we go. Sometimes a simple trigger event like a song on a playlist can summon a whole feature-length memory like it was just yesterday.

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“Now I’m in the BATHROOM”

This is the Chase radio ad that shouts at you: “NOW I’M IN THE BATHROOM”. The ad boosts Chase’s new smart-phone check bank-deposit service. Chase, a 2009 recipient of $25 billion in TARP funds, needs to peddle a LOT of checking accounts to pay for their $138 million plan to buy two new luxury jets and a new hangar.

I, for one, am not now in the Chase bathroom. Courtesy of iTunes music streaming, I’m listening to classical FM radio station KBAQ in Arizona, on my PC.

KBAQ is an NPR station affiliated with Arizona State University, Rio Salado College and Maricopa Community Colleges. As far as I know, it’s the only classical station in the Phoenix area. Advertising consists of community announcements and sponsor info for the programming segments. The classical music selection is interesting, diverse and non-repetitive. You can leave KBAQ on all day and never become bored or irritated. It’s a 24-7 delight.

Around San Francisco, we also have just one classical FM station, KDFC. It bills itself as the Bay Area’s classical “Island of Sanity”. The announcers have a friendly, generally relaxing and low-key delivery, they’ve been around for years, and they’re nice people.

Unfortunately, KDFC was bought out a couple of years ago, or otherwise suffered a radical management change. The subtext was PROFIT. Management started selling more advertising content, and that wasn’t “highbrow” any longer. It was cheap and sleazy, and “the Chase ad” is far from the only ad that shatters the relaxed listening experience.

I can just hear KDFC management telling the staff, we need to reach out to a younger, broader advertising base. You need to broaden programming to attract people who may not even care for your classical music.

For some reason, KDFC also gets a lot of bank and credit service ads that read legal “fine print” like an old 33-1/3 rpm record played at 78 speed.

Now we know why we really NEED an”island of sanity”: to recover our composure before the next round of grating, irritating, distractingly inane ads that will overload the senses again and again. KDFC ads can rattle the aggregate out of a concrete freeway overpass.

KDFC has a predictable repertoire of “standard” classical, including much Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. This is “elevator music” for the classical crowd. A lot of it is still very nice, but wears thin quickly when you realize the day’s programming sounds like an endless-loop tape. If I hear another Beethoven’s 5th or Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture excerpt, I think I might just be sick.

I used to discover a lot of great new music and obscure old favorites on KDFC: Guiliani, Tallis Singers, and Schubert (to name just a few). What KDFC has done now is to substitute classical diversity with movie and television sound tracks. Harry Potter and Star Wars theme songs are insipid at best. Like the Chase ad, they have their own way of detracting from the classical listening experience.

Gotta go; another CHASE ad!

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Mendelssohn Symphonien No 3 und 4I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand tastes in music. Even my own.

My local classical station KDFC has a neat feature where you can look up what’s currently or recently played, click a link, and order the CD from ArkivMusic.com.

I heard a classical piece that used to flood our living room when I was a kid. I really like it, but can’t recall having noticed it since. The KDFC website said it was Mendelssohn. As I’m trying to build my classical collection, I ordered it.

Monitoring the CD later, I kept waiting for the “good part”. This thing sounded like proto-Hollywood Romantic: schmaltzy and unfocused. I finally picked up the jewel box and read what I’d ordered.

Symphony No. 3 is known as the “Scottish”; Symphony 4, the “Italian”. I was listening to No. 3. Maybe the “good part” was No. 4. It was.

 It’s not uncommon to be partial to one track of an artist, and indifferent to the next. This is as true for classical as country & western or “jazz”.

Now, it should be pretty obvious I’m not up on my Mendelssohn. But if you take two different symphonies of other well-loved composers, say Berlioz or Beethoven, even if you can’t remember “that’s the Pathetique” or “That’s the Ninth”, you can still say with certainty “that’s Berlioz” or “that’s Beethoven”.

To my ear, Mendelssohn’s third and fourth symphonies sounded like they were written by different composers. It’s not that I’m setting myself up as an “expert” – high school kids carrying a lot of units in Music should be able to run circles around me. I guess I just figured that after 50 years of listening to classical music, I should be able to hear “Mendelssohn” in both symphonies on the same CD by the same composer and conducted by the same conductor (the ubiquitous Claudio Abbado).

Go figure.

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