About 24 years ago.
That's when, if I was Felix Mendelssohn, I would have had to compose his Octet. He wrote the first version when he was sixteen. Yes, I would have been putting the finishing touches on it in 1995.
As it happens, I turn fort tomorrow, and get to celebrate by playing the Mendelssohn Octet in an A Far Cry concert! This is mostly amazing, and also a tiny tad sobering. Young brilliance! The passage of time! It's funny how the Octet, more than any other piece I know, occupies that weird age-space in classical musicians' brains. I don't think I know how old any other composer was for any other work, but as soon as we think "Mendelssohn Octet" the next thought is "Sixteen!" It would definitely be on the Taboo list.
And speaking of the Taboo list...
The Mendelssohn closes out a program that we've titled "Entartete Musik" or "Degenerate Music." It's a sort of who's who of works that were banned by the Nazi regime for various reasons. Written by Jewish composers. Referencing music that the regime considered inferior. Anti-German in sentiment. Whatever that meant. (Convenient, that.)
What does it mean to ban something? Well, obviously it's an act of violence, but also an act of fear. And given the colorful and brilliant life that courses through the veins of each of the pieces we'll be playing, the regime was right to be afraid. This music makes you sit up and pay attention; it plays with you, flirts with your perception, makes you gasp, double-take, shake your head, stare in astonishment, inhale, exhale.
Very hard to dismiss someone after you've danced together. Much better to make sure you never get that chance.
We'll play a Haydn string quartet with a first violin part that references an improvisatory Roma fiddler with a fiery bow. Five wild pieces by Ervin Schulhoff that twist popular dances into forms that fall somewhere between the grotesque and the fascinating. A Partita by the young Gideon Klein, who wrote this piece at 25, in the last year before his death in one of the concentration camps. Most of it is joyful and strong, but the end of the slow movement is like hearing a voice telling you a truth that you will never forget.
And then there's the Mendelssohn, suffused with light and wit and architecture and ecstasy. And fame. Everyone knows every note of this sucker. But here it is, beaming its brilliance out from behind prison bars.
I think, more than any other piece on this program, the Mendelssohn says: don't look away. This has happened before and it can happen again. It happened to me. It can happen to you.
And that's exactly why I'm so happy to be playing this particular Mendelssohn Octet on my 40th birthday.
Do I want it to be an act of defiance? Why yes. Yes I do.
It's not like art is perfect. No illusions there. But art gets banned because it works. It pours out a liquid beauty that seeps into the spaces that separate us. It allows us to stretch our perceptions beyond our initial impressions - or rethink them entirely. It challenges us to notice more, it entices us to give more to each other, it tempts us to take more of it into our selves. The more we receive from it, the more we can give.
Why is a soon-to-be 40-year-old obsessed with, like, every note of a piece that a 16-year-old wrote? Because art works, and because it works, those numbers don't matter. I cannot wait to experience the Mendelssohn Octet at 80. John Keats said it perfectly; a thing of beauty is a joy forever, and its loveliness only increases.
I can't think of anything that would frighten an authoritarian regime more than something that only becomes more beautiful over time. You can't quench it or discredit it. You have to ban it, you have to attempt to destroy it, and even then, you know it won't really work.
I look forward to bearing witness, on Sunday, to the fact that it didn't work. And I look forward to doing it as a passionate member of a musical democracy. A Far Cry isn't perfect, but we live out loud inside an industry that has often given value to a certain kind of authoritarianism. Every day we continue to exist, we're saying: we believe there are other, more interesting, more compassionate ways to thrive in the world of music.
So - we try to make it count.
When the Mendelssohn Octet begins, it features a soaring solo violin line, accompanied by 7 other players. But by the time the last movement arrives, it's a dance between eight equal voices.
I look forward to playing my part.