The Beauty Issue: Three Musicians on the Power of Sound

By Christian Chensvold

This story is part of a the Nob Hill Gazette’s feature, Perspectives on Beauty, in our March issue.

Curious, isn’t it, how much our sense of musical beauty is entwined with feelings of emotional pain? As Elton John put it, sad songs say so much

From left to right: Kleinbart, Bogatin and Valeri by Spencer Brown.

Violinist Melissa Kleinbart finds Bach transcendent, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 otherworldly, and many passages in Mahler’s symphonies to convey “feelings of tenderness and intensity beyond words.” As much as she loves performing large orchestral pieces, she can’t resist the intimacy of chamber music and lieder. “One of my favorite song cycles is Dichterliebe by Robert Schumann, based on poems by Heinrich Heine. My favorite of the songs is No. 12. Before any words are sung, there is an immediate sense of yearning that comes from syncopated notes in the piano line, and one is quickly drawn into the mood of pain and longing for a lost love. Schumann uses unique harmonic shifts to bring out certain key words in the song, and writes the most sublime piano line to carry on the feeling of anguish once the words have ended. It is at once heart-wrenching and sublime, and transports me to faraway places every time I hear it.”

As a high school student, San Francisco Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin would attend music camps in the mountains. It was there she experienced many life-defining firsts: first time away from home, first kiss, and first successful audition. Then there was the world premiere in which a piece of music moved her from her trembling fingertips down to her deepest core. “It was here that Franz Schubert reached across the span of time with his String Quintet in C major,” she says, “and revealed that music could express all the joys and sorrows that life held in wait.” Each time she plays the piece, with its majestic slow movement, she experiences a sense of love, loss, yearning, suffering and redemption. “Written at the end of his life while holding death at bay,” she says, “the journey begins with a radiant sunrise, gives way to heart-wrenching turbulence, and ascends to heaven with the most intimate, sublime sadness in all of music.”

As expected, horn player Jessica Valeri, also with SF Symphony, struggles to name one piece more beautiful than all the others, but does hold a special place for the “Summit” movement from Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. “The piece describes an alpine ascent at sunrise,” she says, “complete with thunderstorm, traversing a treacherous glacier, herds of cows, and finally descending into night. The entire program can be a metaphor not only for an epic hike, but for life itself.”

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