Loving Music for a Living
By Gerald Carpenter
We arrived in Santa Barbara, with two cats and all our earthly belongings, on October 20, 1984. The more significant of our cats was Duncan, a wise and confident Tonkinese, coffee-colored with dark points, who lived another 10 years to the ripe age of 18. The other cat was Wally, a beautiful but dim-witted black-and-white who, a few months later, found his way to a coyote’s dinner table.
In January 1985, we moved into the house in Ellwood where we would spend the next 21-plus years. There was a Chow named Chad and a black cat named Taz already living in the house, and we willingly absorbed them into our family. The house was Heaven on Earth, for us and for all our animals.
When we arrived, I had been writing professionally for five years. Within a month I was getting my work published in Randy Campbell’s Santa Barbara Weekly, which he had just converted from the monthly Nightlight. I hadn’t yet developed a special field, though as I recall one of the first things I wrote was a review of Die Fledermaus. I loathed it, but as was soon to become my rule, I praised the production and trashed the work. I also spoke disparagingly of the musical blockheadedness of the Viennese, and provoked an angry letter from the local representative of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce. I wanted to review movies, of course, because everybody reads film reviews and, like any writer, I want to be read.
I have now reviewed many hundreds of movies, for the Weekly and, after it merged with the Marianne Partridge’s News and Review to form the still thriving Santa Barbara Independent, for that publication. Eventually, as a means of becoming a permanent contributor to The Independent, I hit upon the subject of classical music. I was not myself a classical musician, but I have always listened to it and read about it, and I had accumulated a deep background for writing about it. For my first 17 years, I divided my musical passions between classical and folk. Then came the Beatles, and for the next decade or so, rock was the dominant music in my life. However, I never stopped listening to classical music, but it ceased to be an experience shared with most of my friends.
One day in 1976, I was standing in line at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, holding a ticket to hear John David Souther, who had just come out with his masterpiece Black Rose (“Oh, the night is a river / where the lonely are drowned”). I looked up and down the line and noticed that I seemed to have 10 years on the next oldest person. I thought of the Noel Coward saying, “Those over 40, who try very hard to be ‘with it,’ soon find out they are ‘without it.’” I was just 30, but I was already there. I got a refund on my ticket and drove back to San Diego.
Living in rural Michigan from 1977-1984, I rediscovered classical music. I could get three NPR stations, and in those days, NPR was mostly music, not talk. There were many regular broadcasts of live performances. I got into listening to them, taping them, and listening to the tapes over and over. With a surge of joy, I understood that classical music was something I would never outgrow, and certainly never come to the end of.
Passing the Lobero Theatre in summer 1985, I saw a notice that an organization called the Music Academy of the West was going to offer an orchestral concert. One of the works on the program, to be conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith, was Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. I find most of Brahms’s orchestral scores to be oppressive, but not this one, and since my wife also likes the work, I bought tickets. As far as I could see, the musicians were all just kids, but the minute they started to play, they turned into passionate and disciplined masters. I was swept away. If I had been more familiar with The Tempest then, I might have cried out: “O brave new world, that has such persons in it!” As it was, I was more apt to cite The Buffalo Springfield: “There’s something happening here!”
As a general rule, classical music and popular music don’t mix. Put to a vote, popular music will always be elected. To pretend otherwise is to court heartache and frustration. It will remain a minority taste, but it need not submit to the tyranny of the majority. Neil Postman once observed that one doesn’t get any better at watching television the more one does it. The same is true of listening to popular music, but not of listening to classical music. Some classical music can be passively heard and enjoyed, but active listening is better. In any case, and in whatever degree your mind is engaged, classical music must be heard with emotion.
Quite early in my writing about classical music, I wrote a preview of a Santa Barbara Symphony concert in which Varujan Kojian was conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection.” My approach was entirely subjective. Apparently, it struck a chord. The symphony’s Barbara Burger wrote to The Independent’s editors to say that ticket sales had made a quantum leap after my article had appeared. Best of all, those who had been moved to attend the symphony, perhaps for the first time, were treated to an overwhelming musical experience. Kojian was a master of those huge romantic scores, and his reading of the “Resurrection” was as powerful and true as any I have ever heard.
Throughout the years, as I had scarcely dared hope, my column, Music Lovers (named for the Ken Russell film), became something of a unifying force in Santa Barbara’s classical music community. After almost 20 years, it would be unfair, not to mention impossible, to single out a top five concerts or any such thing. Writing it has been one continuous joy, and what I owe our local musicians I can never repay. Thank you, and so long — for now.
editor’s note: Gerald Carpenter will always be a VIP here at The Independent, and readers can expect that, just as he may be returning to Santa Barbara from time to time as a visitor, so too his writing will make guest appearances in our pages. From all of us to you, Gerald, many thanks for your years of service, insight, and dedication.