How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

2 June 2018

I’d like to address the matter of talent not being distributed evenly…and its corollary…thankfulness for not having to make a living as a musician. It’s a fact that became indelibly clear to me at a long-ago concert at Bard College to commemorate the opening of a new performance center designed by Frank Gehry.

But first, what jogged my memory was a concert Roberta and I heard on Memorial Day this past Monday in Brooklyn performed by the Interschool Orchestra, an audition-only assemblage made up of New York City school students. To my relatively untrained ear, they were terrific, even tucking one of the most challenging pieces…the overture to Bernstein’s comic opera Candide…into their repertoire. Lilting Mozart it is not. What it is, is a raucous, fun bit of musical thunder with a lot of moving parts that have to be in sync to work. I wondered about its degree of difficulty compared to other pieces and asked,, to see if it’s as hard to play as I suspected. Someone explained it in diving terms…it’s like a reverse four and a half somersault piked from a three meter board.* Yes, very difficult…and these were kids.

A string orchestra from a high school in Virginia played two opening selections and they, too, were impressive. And then it began to dawn on me that the amount of musical talent out there is incredible. Most of the millions who start with instruments get peeled away early on the way up the musical ladder. By the time anyone gets through junior high, high school, college and conservatory, they are good and music is what they want to do. And then the hard part begins. They’ve got to find an orchestra to audition for. I was peeled off in junior high, lasting two shrieking weeks on the violin and about a year on the clarinet. Ready to move on I was not. It’s the same daunting odds of making it to the top in anything, like baseball. Putting in the time and the practice is no guarantee that you’ll get past playing slow-pitch in the local rec league. (It’s the old lament about Ph.Ds driving cabs.)

Now back to the inaugural concert at Bard College and talent not being distributed evenly, proved by those who do ascend from the lucky gene pool. The soloist that night was a young man, late 20s, named Melvin Chen. His curriculum vitae made Nobel Laureates seem like shift workers at an auto plant. He graduated from Yale with two Bachelor of Science degrees…one in chemistry and the other in physics…then added a Harvard Ph.D in chemistry. Sounds promising, no?

Yes, but then he decided that there’s more to life that tinkering with theoretical chemistry and was lured by the siren call of the music hall. So, of course, his path led to Julliard for a couple of master’s degrees…one in violin and the other in piano. That evening at Bard, he played the piano. Probably could have sung Falstaff, if asked…or played the xylophone, standing on his head.

*Not info I carry around in my head. The Internet is wonderful.