Conspiracy Theory--A classical "think tank" meets every week to analyze classical music.
Thursday, January 29, 1998
If Bach is the godhead, the Carmel Bach Festival is the religion. With Mozart as spiritual leader, the Mozart Society provides the politics. If Clark Suttle delivers the artistic vision, the Monterey County Symphony Association supplies the lobbyists.
How these secular institutions appropriate and proselytize their chosen "saviors" is the grain that gets milled or the ox that gets gored every Saturday morning, 10 to noon, at the Carmel Foundation. Twenty (more or less) feisty music lovers, in their 70s and up, gather to express heated opinions, engage in verbal fisticuffs, and generally pronounce upon classical music, its execution and its institution, not necessarily in that order or configuration.
It is my unique adventure to man the wok at these weekly stirfries, to increase the fuel or suppress the fire, but to keep the sizzle going as all relevant issues are subjected to the unforgiving crucible of investigation, discovery and sharp judgment.
Offered by Monterey Penninsula College in its Older Adult Program under the unassuming title "Topics in Music," this Saturday morning set-to has now reached its 20th anniversary, with some participants ("students") faithfully in attendance, every semester, from the beginning. "It''s an institution," declares Alice Bethel of Pacific Grove. "I started attending the class at Canterbury Woods in the ''70s, and keep coming back for more." State funding is confirmed by attendance; the course is offered without additional charge and is open to anyone.
Nominally, Topics offers the unsuspecting public a kind of music-appreciation, liberally laced with historical perspective, social attitudes, economic realities, vagaries of taste, historic v. contemporary opinion, videos on musical topics, and, of course, liberal use of recordings of classical music. But classical music, in all its variety, is not the only focus; every semester begins with a roll-call vote to select the musical topics for a freshly revised course outline. Majority rules, therefore no one ever is completely happy. "Beethoven gets my vote," says an often disappointed Bethel. "Mahler, Mahler, Mahler," crows Elizabeth Hughes of Carmel. "Strauss, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Hindemith," declares class "radical" Elizabeth Kobsa of Monterey. "I vote for Broadway musicals," chimes in Frank Martin of Monterey. "What about Australian composers?" protests Aussie-born Athalie Haile. "Let the instructor decide," pleads Anna Gaab of Carmel Valley.
Analyzing current actions and predicting future consequences for area music institutions is only part of the drill. Personal desire for musical gratification usually takes first prize. The literature and its artists always attract major voter appeal. And yet, every semester, the group''s collective inquisitive mind asserts itself, often with surprising results. New classical music has aroused increasing curiosity, as have recent revelations of historic music. Jazz and popular music periodically revive wide interest, and world music is no longer a single category unto itself. "Orient Express," a topic visited twice during the last dozen years, samples a line that begins in Spain and ends in Japan, with stops at every musical culture along the way. "It''s a real eye-opener," says Marian Latimer of Carmel, pointing to her ear.
Over its many years, "Topics in Music" (including a Tuesday equivalent, with a different semester outline, at Park Lane in Monterey) has seen some students stop coming, and new ones join. It becomes clear that a sense of humor is the only prerequisite; new attendees without one usually don''t return after one or two exposures. Otherwise, participants tend to make it part of their lives, semester after semester.
"Anybody with an interest in music, who also loves a good laugh, can find something of value in the class," remarks Mac McAninch of Monterey. "And if we sometimes can''t remember a topic we studied in a previous semester, we can always visit it again." He adds with a twinkle, "For us oldtimers, it''s like making a new friend."
Last Week''s Quiz: John Adams, second president of the United States, appears in what opera? Answer: Virgil Thomson''s The Mother of Us All.
This Week''s Quiz: What famous and beloved classical-era work opens with five strokes on the timpani?