Remembering That First Kiss
Well, I don’t, actually. I think women do, more than men, anyway. As much as I try to remember, I can’t even think of what girl it was. My first “true love,” sorry to say, I never kissed. Maybe that’s why I can’t quite recall my first kiss. What I do remember, though, are the first works of classical music that really turned me on. Perhaps that tells something about me that I’d rather not know, but anyway . . .
George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. Ferde Grofe, Grand Canyon Suite. Richard Wagner, Preludes to Lohengrin and Tannhauser and Die Meistersinger. Serge Rachmaninoff, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his Second Piano Concerto. That’s a lot of love before one is eighteen. It would be many years before I had kissed that many girls—er, women.
I don’t apologize for any of them (the music, that is). There is so much music available, it’s been years since I’ve sat down and played a recording of one of those first loves. If you had asked me for my favorite music, say, yesterday afternoon, I would have scratched my head and come up with a few, probably none of which would include Gershwin or Wagner or Grofe.
So last evening was a surprise. The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra began their season at Hill Auditorium with what appeared to be a hundred chorus members behind the orchestra to give us a taste of Richard Wagner. (And Rachmaninoff, too, but that’s a different story.) I felt things I hadn’t felt in fifty years. From the first bars of Lohengrin, I was transported. I knew every note and anticipated each bit of melody as the orchestra and choir took me back to my teen-age years, when feelings were so intense I literally tasted them. I listened, last night, with my eyes closed, and just felt.
Die Meistersinger, of course, isn’t so romantic, nor was it as gripping to me. I still played the memory of every note right along with the orchestra. It reminded me of how much I’ve lost, how much passion I used to experience regularly as a youth. Those hormone-rich days are mostly faded snapshots to me now, and sometimes I miss them. People often talk about how much greater is the tragedy when a young person dies, because they have so much life still ahead of them. Those as old as I have little future to experience anyway, their death is, well, expected. But it’s not the unfulfilled promise that’s the greater loss in the death of youth, it’s the loss of passion at its peak. That early kiss that leaves one’s body literally shaking, that sweet strain from the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet that brings tears and tightness in the chest that threatens to choke off breath—those are the experiences that give youth its profound flavor.
I sat, getting my breath back, as I watched the choir file offstage and the suited handlers carefully steer the grand piano along the edge of the stage to its position in front of the podium for the Rachmaninoff. Memories lingered of places where I used to live as I first learned the romantic themes of Lohengrin coming from the tinny speaker of my radio. Applause brought me back to Hill Auditorium, where the conductor and soloist were making their entrance.
In my head I played those opening chords of the Rachmaninoff concerto right along with Arthur Greene, feeling their rising intensity, mentally pounding them into my knee, and then let the following sweet string section flow into them, dissolving the power into a tender kiss . . .
A few minutes later, when the horns emerged with their rising theme I sang along, I will give you music . . . that reminded me, incongruously, of James C. Patrillo, who led a strike of composers and musicians in 1942, banning all commercial recordings on radio. The sudden lack of popular music caused many awful renditions of classical themes into so-called “popular” songs, including that one from Rachmaninoff—an easy mark for mediocre lyricists, and the other theme from the last movement of the same work, Full Moon and Empty Arms. Many times in the years since, I’ve cursed that man for putting such inanities into my brain. But I followed the lovely melodies just the same.
After the break, the orchestra played excerpts from The Ring cycle of four Wagner operas. None of it moved me particularly, although I’ve heard the different themes countless times over the years. Only, I wished, as they played Brunnhilde’s immolation music from Götterdämmerung, that they’d kept the choir on stage, for it cried out for that strong soprano urging her steed into the fire of her death. I remembered another recording of mine from years ago, not all the way back to my adolescence but still thrilling, of Eileen Farrell singing that gut-wrenching music. Wagner needs voices.
It was a long concert. Or maybe it seemed long, after The Ring. I was so swept up in the earlier works that I couldn’t really get into it, in spite of the typically Wagnerian sonorities that reach past the intellect into the midsection.
I still don’t remember my first kiss. A pity. But the
next time I see an announcement of a concert that includes Tannhauser or
Donald Skiff, October 1, 2007