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Classical Notes

Menlo: noisy world

Posted at 9:49 AM on July 31, 2006 by Brian Newhouse
Filed under: Concerts

There's a pretty good chance that if you're reading a classical music blog, you have yet to experience the phenomenon of Aly & AJ. (If you're a parent of a girl 6-16 years old, all you need to do to get up to speed is ask your daughter.) For the newcomers, Aly & AJ are 16-year-old California pop-rockers. Tall, slim, blonde twin sisters who write songs in their bedroom, a couple years ago they made it very big. Your 6-16 year-old girl wants to be Aly or AJ. Heck, I wouldn't mind being Aly or AJ.

My two daughters are frantic fans and their most outlandish dream came true last week when they called a San Francisco radio station and won four tickets to a concert, the first time anyone in our house has ever won anything by calling a radio station. They even got backstage passes. When she heard she'd won, my nine-year-old let out a scream that I felt in my eyeballs. She and her little sister then jumped on the bed and pretended to faint.

So Friday night, my wife and I and two extremely excited little girls left the classical music Valhalla of Music@Menlo for an open-air theater south of town. We were surrounded by 5,000 other extremely excited little girls. Ours were wide-eyed at the fashions in the crowd and the mountains of speakers onstage. When Aly and AJ bounded on we were swamped by that same scream I'd heard the day before—times 5,000. Our daughters danced in the aisles to music that was peppy and loud and unintelligible. They tried to get me to dance and they screamed themselves hoarse. We had a blast. Backstage afterward, Aly and AJ were as nice as could be to my girls.

The next night I was back at Menlo for chamber music. As much as I love this stuff, I have to admit that I was ready to feel let down; after getting my ears pasted back by 60,000-watt speakers and feeling (if only for an evening) With It, Schubert was going to sound just a little antique, a little too polite.

But Wu Han and Jeffrey Kahane opened the concert playing Schubert's Fantasy in F Minor for Four Hands on a wide-open nine-foot Steinway and I have to tell you that that being 30 feet away from a world-class concert grand played by two such athletic pianists made an impression that Aly & AJ with all their watts could do well to contemplate. Schubert made the bigger impact. His Fantasy unrolls like a brooding and twisted story but interrupted by moments of hope… Wu Han and Kahane put me on the edge of my chair.

I know I'm in apples and oranges land here by comparing. But this is the way my mind has always worked, jostling experiences to make sense of a noisy world. Don't you do the same? These two concerts were as different as they could be and I liked them both. But when I hear stories of pop music's omnipotence and classical music's irrelevance, it's nice to road test the assumptions once in a while. On a northern-California weekend, classical did just fine, capturing at least one heart and mind to a depth that no other music can.

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