I’d walked by the small sign on a tiny side street in Boston’s Beacon Hill many times on my way home, and always wondered what was behind the door at 37A. Most of Beacon Hill is made up of tiny side streets that barely accommodate cars, so I often feel like I’m travelling back in time and can hear a faint clip clop of horse shoes on cobblestone. The name fed into the time travel: Harvard Musical Association. I rarely saw anyone going in or out, and I wondered if Harvard, which was way across the river, had misplaced a piece of itself.
But that’s what I love about Boston. You could walk on side streets all over town and stumble on these tucked away associations and societies — some still active because of a blue blood trust, some long gone with only a plaque to mark the spot, but all of them tracing their roots back to clip clop on cobblestone.
By chance I got invited to a fundraiser of a friend’s music organization for kids called musiConnects to be held at — you guessed it, the Harvard Music Association. Two-fer! This liberal snowflake would get to support music for kids and find out what’s behind mystery door #57A. My friend asked to pass the invitation to anyone who liked classical music. I was short on time, so didn’t have a chance to drum up anyone to bring. I also wasn’t sure who of my friends liked classical music. I like it myself, once I got over my father’s efforts to push it on us as kids, and I even took some adult ed classes to learn more. It always seemed me to be a type of music that to truly appreciate it requires some knowledge of the interplay of the notes, the vocabulary, the context in which the composers worked. Unlike, say, a kickass Jimi Hendrix guitar riff. It didn’t help that I learned the hard way, you don’t just buy Schubert’s Symphony #4 for an afficionado. They want a recording by this specific symphony, with that guest conductor who was there in 2005, on the occasion of the composer’s 350th birthday.
Jimi playing pretty much anywhere is good stuff.
At least listening to kids playing classical music, I had a better chance of accessing it. I know, I know, symphonies want a broader audience, and I get it, but some of us are still intimidated by the ornate hall and the impeccably dressed musicians. And memories from that one summer concert at the Hatch Shell when a storm blew up suddenly. It delayed the performance for a short time, but also rained, hailed briefly, and then created a spectacular rainbow, which I and my small son enjoyed thoroughly. First we laughed at the crazy weather, then ooed and ahed at the rainbow, all the while getting the stink eye from the older patrons, who seemed to take issue with our glee at mother nature’s interruption.
I had no idea what to expect, but from the moment I entered at 57A, it was pure magic. The door led to a typical winding 1800’s staircase that led to a gorgeous main room. I love how so much space is hidden in these old brownstones. The streets outdoors are actually more cramped than the indoor spaces.
The walls were lined with paintings, of course, and bookcases of musical scores. The association has a storied history, cuz, you know, Boston, complete with a library, free practice rooms for musicians, and having a hand in creating the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As one does. You can read it all on their website. But that was just the appetizer.
The real treat began when muciConnects resident musicians played 5 chamber pieces, all composed by women, in sets of string quartets, one which included the kids, and another featured a drummer of the tabla, a drum used in North Indian classical music. These professional musicians teach hundreds of Boston kids to read and play chamber music (which is typically played in small groups of 3-6 people). In the process the kids gain confidence and learn collaborative thinking.
I’m not sure what I expected, but the intimate setting and the personal chat the musicians gave about the piece and their experience with it totally flipped everything for me. This wan’t an academic talk, or giving information you could find on Wikipedia. They were speaking of it as a live thing that mattered to them. One musician introduced a piece by Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the more famous Felix Mendelssohn (but only because he was dude). She said it was a difficult piece and during practice the group struggled with the sound, so they decided to sing the notes instead and that helped them hear it in a different way. If she hadn’t mentioned the difficultly, I might not have appreciated the last movement, which indeed sounded amazing and looked … difficult. The four bows were flying back and forth, up and down, making the notes fell over each other and into each other into a beautiful finale. When they finished the last note they all looked at each other briefly and their eyes and smiles said, “Yes! Nailed it!” And how can you not get excited when the musician says, “This a really fun, energetic piece, I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.” The joy on their faces when they played was as uplifting as the music.
Then the 3 students came up and played with their teacher/musician. The music was simple, but they did so well. They were working hard to watch their teacher and each other, smiling the whole time. The relief (no mistakes!) when it was over was just as sweet.
So what’s behind door #57A? An evening I won’t soon forget. Thanks to the musiConnect kids and their teachers for showing me that classical music actually is accessible, even to a Jimi Henrix fan like me.