Proust’s Ear for Music, and the Ineffable in Art

Boston Globe:  Third Ear by Jeremy Eichler (November 10, 2017)

One night in Paris in the winter of 1916, at around 11 p.m., the distinguished French violinist and quartet leader Gaston Poulet was already in his pajamas when the doorbell rang. He opened it to find perhaps the greatest chamber music fan in literary history standing on his doorstep. “I am Marcel Proust,” the man announced. 

It so happened that the not-yet-celebrated novelist was extremely keen to hear a performance of Cesar Franck’s String Quartet in D major that very night. He had a taxi waiting. If Poulet agreed, perhaps they could quickly round up the other members of the quartet, bring them back to Proust’s home on Boulevard Haussmann, and have an impromptu private concert?

Off they went. According to Proust biographer William Carter, who recounts the scene in detail, violist Amable Massis, hesitated upon entering the taxi, apparently confused by the sight of the pale author, swathed in a giant down quilt, sitting with a bowl of mashed potatoes nearby. But he was duly reassured, and on they went.  

 The concert, Carter recounts, took place in Proust’s candlelit bedroom, his manuscripts stacked in plain sight, the author listening with eyes closed while reclining on a green divan. When the ensemble reached the final bars at around 2 a.m., Proust opened his eyes and requested that they start all over again.
 
Proust, we are told, was a natural listener, one who “drank in music effortlessly.” And as his housekeeper Céleste Albaret described, the music penetrated somewhere deep. After the private concert, she recalled, Proust “was transfigured and lit up from within.” He was also fortified for the artistic work that still lay ahead: completing the novel of the century. 

Across the pages of “In Search of Lost Time,” Proust ultimately repaid (and many times over) whatever debt he owed to music. The Boston attorney James Connelly has in fact assembled a kind of user’s manual to the musical references that populate the novel — and this reference document itself, at 171 pages, stretches toward novelistic lengths.

But Proust did more than just drop the names of works by Beethoven, Wagner, Chopin, and Fauré into his pages as a kind of period scene-setting. The novel also includes profound meditations on the poetics of listening. Indeed, Proust gave voice to the interior experience of perceiving music as no one else had done before him.

Given all of these connections, coupled with the general hunger for imaginative thematic programming, it was hardly surprising to find St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brookline packed to overflowing last Sunday for a Proust-themed concert presented by Mistral Music (Julie Scolnik, artistic director). Short readings from the novel — including descriptions of the famous “little phrase” from the Sonata by Proust’s fictional composer Vinteuil — were interspersed with performances of works by key composers in Proust’s universe: Chopin, Fauré, Franck, Wagner, Beethoven, and Debussy. 

The atmosphere in the church, despite the size of the crowd, was intimate, suggesting something closer to a salon concert than a standard-issue chamber event. And the performances themselves were persuasive, especially pianist Max Levinson’s thundering account of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (in Liszt’s dazzling transcription), and a warmly attentive reading (by Sarita Kwok and Qing Hou, violins; Lawrence Neuman, viola; and Jan Muller-Szeraws, cello) of the slow movement from Beethoven’s celebrated A-minor String Quartet, Op. 132. 

The Beethoven in particular remains a formidable test case for anyone who has even dabbled in the rather Sisyphean task of finding words to evoke the wordless art of music. Put simply: with Op. 132, there are none that do the trick. The work’s so-called “Heiliger Dankgesang” in particular is a desert-island slow movement, music of such vertiginous beauty and spiritual power that attempting to summon it onto page or screen feels futile at best.

But this is also where Proust steps in to help. In truth, the musical descriptions from the novel, including those of the “little phrase,” often convey varying states of reverie more tangibly than they convey actual music. Especially when the character Swann is doing the listening, we are swept into his own febrile intoxication through sound. That said, in the novel’s fifth volume, “La Prisonnière,” the narrator, Marcel, attends a performance of Vinteuil’s Septet, and it is here that Proust proves himself once more as the great guide to art’s ineffability. 

The Septet, we are told, is a late work by Vinteuil, and its otherworldly power unlocks several key insights for Marcel. The reader learns that the miracle of the music of a late-Vinteuil, or the canvases of Proust’s painter Elstir — or we could easily add, of late-Beethoven — is how works by these artists exteriorize the inner essences of their creators as individuals, particular ways of the self inhabiting the world, that otherwise remain incommunicable except through art. They offer, in short, the promise of nothing less than new ways of seeing. Proust writes: “the only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would not be to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes . . . and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.”

Or at least, from concert to concert? On Sunday evening, the response from Mistral’s audience was grateful — no doubt for the performances themselves but also perhaps for the literary reminder: When it comes to “possessing other ears,” if not to interstellar travel, Proust’s narrator had Vinteuil. And we, to this day, have Proust. 

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Soprano in the City: Building Community Through Classical Music

Blogger (November 8, 2017)

On Sunday, November 5th, Mistral performed for a sold out literary-themed concert—In Search of Marcel Proust—at St. Paul’s Church in Brookline. This was the last of three performances held over the weekend.

The idea for the concert came from flutist Julie Scolnik’s (Mistral’s Artistic Director) revelatory experience reading Proust’s epic, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (In Search of Lost Time), while studying abroad as a youth in Paris. She notes Proust’s genius for describing sensory experience of memory: “But most astonishing were his descriptions of music, and the visceral experience of listening to it.” She explained that Proust often describes a particular, “little phrase of music” throughout his novel and writes of a fictitious composer, Vinteuil. In personal correspondence, Proust wrote that this character was symbolic of specific composers, notably César Franck, whose works deeply influenced him. For over a century, scholars have speculated much over which composers and works Proust referred to. Mistral’s concert was conceived in order to shed light on some of these musical inspirations. Before each piece the performers read extracts from the novel, talked about its author, and shared amusing anecdotes regarding the composers.

Beginning with a sensual arrangement of Chopin’s Étude, Op. 25, No. 7 in C# Minor, cellist Jan Muller-Szeraws spun the audience into a voluptuous web of sound, as pianist Sophie Scolnik-Brower led the two instruments’ delicate dance.  Excerpts from two violin sonatas then grasped hold of the crowd. Fauré’s passionate Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 I: Allegro Molto: Sarita Kwok’s  ardent violin merged gorgeously with Max Levinson’s piano. Chromatic, fervid violin runs extolled an agonizing beauty as a rumbling piano augmented phrase endings sung by Ms. Kwok. The final impassioned forte left off with an electrified feeling of anticipation.

Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major III Recitativo-Fantasia and IV Allegro (arranged for flute) followed. Clear, even tones from Scolnik’s flute shaded dramatic opening notes with great dynamic sensibility. Scolnik-Brower’s dulcet piano arpeggios embraced the flute’s wild mood changes throughout the piece.

Then, Mr. Levinson played Liszt’s transcription for solo piano of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan & Isolde. His enduring smile betrayed an obvious pleasure while playing the robust piece. It crescendoes to a violent forcefulness but smoothly tapers out, replacing its storm with placidity. Levinson’s substantial artistry revealed a maddeningly creative spirit. His exceptionally visceral, nearly disconcertedly passionate tour de force was honored with two ovations—the second one a standing.

The first half ended with Beethoven’s String quartet No. 15, Op. 132 Molto Adagio. Beginning slow and contemplative, like a prayer, it captures the composer’s sense of grace following a great convalescence. He wrote it to thank “the deity” after recovering. Suddenly, all four instruments pulse in unison, rising in volume, expressing what could only be a great reawakening. This mystifying, watershed moment discloses yet again, a painful beauty, something akin to a birth. Ms. Kwok’s violin splendidly phrases the melody, imparting caressing trills upon the listener. A rich cello line pours forth. All four players (including Qing Hou, violin and Lawrence Neuman, viola) breathe into one endless phrase after another, creating waves in what amounted to a truly fantastic performance: artful, soothing, sublime. Beethoven would have smiled.

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Intermission treated the audience to complementary madeleines, an homage to an early moment in Proust’s novel in which the narrator’s childhood memories are triggered by tasting this pastry dunked in tea. This delightful bonus put all in a sumptuous mood for Debussy’s Apres-Midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) for flute and piano. Scolnik and Scolnik-Brower’s soothing interpretation created an intimate portrait of the famed symphonic poem.

The final piece of the night was Franck’s brutally passionate Piano Quintet in F Minor. Levinson explained that this piece caused a scandal when it premiered because it became evident that it was meant as a dedication to a young woman the composer had fallen in love with. The pianist who premiered the piece, Camille Saint-Saëns, was also in love with her. After a successful performance he left the stage in anger, as did Franck’s wife, who burst out of the hall in protest of its passionate innuendo.

It begins with an emotional outburst of turbulent crescendoes. A motive of lento piano followed by dramatic strings repeats again and again. Movement one ends on a somber note with dark piano sonorities. The second movement has a questioning, reaching tone. It is more subdued than the first. A striking, dull cello bow sounds in the midst of the other players. It is galvanizing to the point of appearing just nearly errant. But this paves the way for imploring, tortured violin and viola to enter and underscore the movement’s yearning tone. A dreadful mood expressed by the piano along with two pulsed plucks on the violins end the movement. This creates an unresolved feeling. The third movement is nonetheless electrified, violins bowing fast with anticipation.  A feeling of subterfuge dominates. It is as though the music strives to escape itself. Or perhaps it is pursuing a passionate chase. It culminates in a huge bang and the audience literally roars into a standing ovation. They pour out of St. Paul’s reinvigorated.

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Mistral: Building Community Through Classical Music

Brookline Hub: Community Profiles by Alicia Landsberg (October 17, 2016)

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On a warm, breezy night in late September, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church came alive with the hypnotic sounds of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, chamber work for klezmer clarinet and string quartet written by the world-renowned Argentine composer and Brookline resident, Ozvaldo Golijov. The Brookline-based chamber music group, Mistral, performed the haunting set.

Coined as “unstuffy, unpredictable, and unmatched,” Mistral is the brain-child of flutist Julie Scolnik, who is the artistic director and pulse of the ensemble. The group aims to bring exciting and powerful chamber music to audiences that may not otherwise be exposed to it and enhance the cultural fabric of the community.

Scolnik’s musical passion began during her early childhood and evolved into a successful, freelance orchestral career. When Scolnik moved to Andover with her family in 1996, she recognized an invaluable opportunity to bring chamber music to her new community.

“When I first founded the series, it was to play music I loved the most with the most wonderful, communicative musicians,” she said. “But I soon learned that it afforded me something which freelance orchestral work could not — a chance to connect with my community through an intimate concert experience.”

The group evolved into Mistral in 2013 when Scolnik and her family moved from Andover to Brookline. Today, Mistral is comprised of five core members and enjoys a steady rotation of guest musicians and composers. Artistic variety is important for Scholnik as she recognizes the importance of playing recognizable music. However, she still believes it is part of Mistral’s mission to expose the community to classical music that is either newly composed or lesser-known.

Beyond Mistral’s music, it is the intimate concert experience that truly differentiates Mistral from other local cultural offerings. In this day and age, with technology and endless entertainment options available at our fingertips, the opportunity to sit in a small concert hall and listen to live, classical pieces both old and new, is a unique experience because it connects both musicians to the audience

“When people experience something beautiful together, sit and listen to a few hours of music that we have prepared, it fosters a sense of community, and it changes them in some way,” she said.

Scolnik fondly recalls the many compliments and notes of appreciation that Mistral’s performances have inspired. Mistral has performed for low-income schools in Lawrence and Scolnik says that she is blown away by the enthusiastic reaction of schoolkids to their performances. Children have free admission and Scolnik does not hesitate to promote concerts the old-fashioned way through hanging up posters around Brookline and chatting up people she meets while out and about. Scolnik is delighted when she looks out into the Mistral audience and sees a cab driver or a cashier from Trader Joe’s that she had chatted with sitting in the audience. 

Healing Others During Julie’s Cancer Recovery

As a breast cancer survivor, there was a period of time when music evolved from being Scolnik’s livelihood to her lifeline. She recalls how she sat in chemotherapy for hours, opting out of the classic self-help material offered to cancer patients, and, instead, plugged in earphones and enjoyed all her classical music favorites like Mahler 5 and the Beethoven string quartets.

“It was like love serum that flowed through my veins and lifted me out of a place of darkness and into one of beauty and hope,” she said.

Even having lost all of her hair and eyelashes, Scolnik continued to perform wearing wigs. Performing her music provided her with the joy and energy (and endorphins) helpful in carrying herself through her illness and to an ultimate recovery. Mistral fans also became another support network to lean on while she battled the disease.

“My audiences, who felt like extended family, were in the know throughout the experience, and I felt their support too,” she said.

Today, Scolnik performs at several benefit concerts and regularly speaks about her experience and the healing power of music at Harvard Medical School.

With Mistral’s regularly packed performances, Scolnik has no plans of slowing down or retiring Mistral. Every performance is very emotional for her even after all these years since its founding.

“When I see it all come together after months of planning, fundraising, marketing, the posters, the emails; then the artistic elements — the programming and researching every piece, finding the best team of artists to perform, writing the message from the director, etc,” she said. “When all this happens on the night of the concert it is nothing short of miraculous.”

This dedication and joy illuminated from a radiant Scolnik the night of their most recent concert before the “Dreams and Prayers” performance began. Scolnik greeted the full crowd beaming in an elegant gown, thanked them for coming and announced heartily “It means so much to me that you love this as much as I do.”

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