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Scheherazade’s Last Tale
Joys and Sorrows of an Evening With the LSO

Marin Alsop's musical radiations

Slow learner as always, it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I realized I’d have to work hard to get past my infatuation with mediocrity. There seemed to be a direct relationship between the quality of my grades and the amount of time I studied. But putting in four or five hours of homework a night could get tedious. I needed a system. I discovered it in my father’s record collection, his boxed sets especially. A three-record set could carry me through a good two hours — 60 pages of torture by Thomas Hardy, or one page of Immanuel Kant — segmented into six mini breaks every time I had to flip the record over. Those of you who remember the vinyl era, which must coincide with antebellum America for those who don’t, surely know the pleasures of those “Long Playing” rituals.

I wasn’t crazy about classical music back then, but that’s how I discovered Haydn’s “Seasons” (120 minutes) and his last six symphonies (145mn), Bach’s keyboard partitas (135mn), and Handel’s “Messiah” (143mn), the 1966 recording by the great Colin Davis (who’d not yet been knighted), conducting — what else: the London Symphony Orchestra. Between high school and college I must’ve listened to that recording 300 times. I didn’t have to know then that it was a classic although I’ve never been able to sit through another version, judging them all by Davis’ perfection. ( Davis is about to turn 80, but he’s still at it. He just retired as the LSO’s principal conductor at the end of December, becoming the orchestra’s president, the first since Leonard Bernstein last held the position until his death in 1990). That recording is among those few that changed my understanding of classical music, from grudging tolerance when my mother used to pin my ears to it, to indispensable daily fix since my high school years.

I’m listening to Davis’ “Messiah” now as I write this (Heather Harper and Helen Watts are singing the sublime air that closes part 1, “Come unto him, all ye that labor…”). No, not the CD. It wouldn’t be right. The same old Philips LP with those nostalgic clicks and scratches that helped me through so many assignments in the 1980s, and occasionally do the job again these days, when there may be more tempting distractions than writing a column on Sunday afternoon.

This time, I’m listening to it because I don’t want to stop hearing that LSO sound, whose power seems undiminished: It changed my understanding of music three decades ago, and I think it did the same for my 13-year-old daughter with one performance Friday evening. She’s played in a large string orchestra for the last three years, but she’d never seen a symphonic orchestra at full tilt, let alone the famed LSO, let alone the LSO conducted by Marin Alsop, who gives new meaning to fissile energy. Watching Alsop’s tiny frame radiate all over the podium, it was as if she was creating her own chain reaction, colliding with the creative force at the heart of the works by the three composers that evening — Igor Stravinsky, Felix Mendelssohn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff — and channeling it through the 70-some piece orchestra. Stuffy concert decorum requires us to stay in our seats. I guarantee you: most of us in the audience wanted to bound all over the place with joy, because that’s what our pounding hearts were doing throughout the performance. It wasn’t music. It was magic-carpet stuff.

And yet, let’s not be coy about it. If our hearts were bounding, some of our throats were constricted to the point of pain for knowing that what we were witnessing was also what we might be on the verge of losing. This is the LSO’s 17 th summer in Daytona Beach. If the community doesn’t fill the $750,000 hole in the Florida International Festival’s $4 million budget that makes this possible — the hole created when a court ordered The News-Journal to stop underwriting the festival (part of the litigation between the paper and minority shareholder Cox Enterprises) — then the LSO’s transatlantic trips this way, miraculous all along, are over. What an unpardonable coda that would be to the legacy of the late Tippen Davidson, without whom the LSO would have never been here. What an unforgivable shame that would be.

It wouldn’t be the shame of a community not managing the extra dollars. The community is doing plenty, and may well pull it off again. No, it’s the shame of seeing the LSO’s visits fall prey to — and let’s not be coy about that, either — a legal and corporate “ethos” that reduces anything and everything to shareholder value — culture, beauty, community spirit and pride be damned.

There was incredible, if perhaps unintended, poignancy to Friday evening’s performance. The final work was Rimsky-Korsakoff’s “Scheherazade,” a symphonic poem based on the Thousand and One Nights. We all know the story: The Persian king who married a new virgin every night and killed her by morning until he met Scheherazade, who’d tell him story after story night after night by means of delaying the sword until, by the thousand and first night, the king had fallen hopelessly in love with her, and made her his queen.

This region’s love affair with the LSO began on its first night here 41 years ago, hasn’t skipped a beat since, couldn’t die if you willed it. And yet here we are, a sword hanging over our bounding hearts.

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