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The soloists

August 27, 2009 | 11:08 am

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At the Bard College Music Festival last weekend in New York, the college’s president and festival director Leon Botstein made a striking remark about Richard Wagner and his cronies. “If we used our standards of normalcy on the 19th century,” he said during a panel discussion about Wagner and the Jewish question, “historians wouldn’t be left with much worth remembering.”

I thought about that Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. Yo-Yo Ma played Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and my guest was another cellist, Nathaniel Ayers, whose story Steve Lopez has told meaningfully in this newspaper and in his book, “The Soloist.” (The motion picture version came out this month on DVD, but save your money.)  Ayers' life has not been normal, having gone from New York’s elite Juilliard School to the streets of L.A.’s skid row.

I’m told Ayers has periods when his demons are kept at bay and those when they are not. On Tuesday he was fine company. He was excited about hearing Ma and Dvorák. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic came by the box to greet him. He was ushered to the head of the line of well-wishers backstage at intermission to visit with Ma, who happened to have been a Juilliard classmate of Ayers. They hugged, even though, Ayers told me, Ma was quite sweaty.

Mostly what impressed me was the intensity with which Ayers listened. He knows the concerto and plays it all the time (some of that time on the street). During the performance, he noticeably absorbed every phrase, as one with the music as was the other soloist on stage.

Whether or not this man was normal on this, a good day, I am not qualified to say. But I’m pretty sure he was the least distracted person in a crowd of more than 17,000. He even used his hands to block off the view of the video screens, so that nothing would interfere with his concentration on the music.

Dvorák wrote his concerto for listeners like Ayers. Reviews of the premiere of Dvorák's major works,  and those of other 19th century composers,  offer conspicuously detailed analysis of the scores. Critics (and not only critics) were such engaged listeners that they appeared to remember every bar of complicated music on first hearing. 

Paying attention is no longer considered normal for a self-respecting proto-cyborg in a multi-tasking, mucho-distracted age of iPhones and apps. But unless we relearn the art of paying attention, which is the first requirement for any untrivial pursuit, it may be our century that won’t offer future historians much worth remembering.  

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Cellists Yo-Yo Ma, left, and Nathaniel Ayers backstage at the Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night.  Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Related stories:

Review: Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma together for the first time

Steve Lopez on Nathaniel Anthony Ayers


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