A Night at the Opera
OK, it wasn’t the opera. I don’t do opera. Kol isha, and all that.
It was really the Hollywood Bowl, and the LA Philharmonic. I don’t do that too often either (the last time was seven or eight years earlier), but a member of my Derech Hashem shiur had been graciously prodding me for the better part of a year to join him and his wife at their box. Given that my wife majored in music back in the old days and we don’t get opportunities like this too often, I gave in.
The weather was picture perfect, and the seats better than that. The box was literally right in front of the stage (which did mean that all we could see were the strings), valets carried our take-out dinners from the car and set them on a table bedecked with white linen and a rose. An MBD concert this wasn’t.
Now that I mention it, MBD helped me with the guilt. I kept fretting about what the neighbors would think if they learned that I was at the Bowl. After the music started, though, the sheer beauty, elegance, and sensibility of the music (all Brahms and Prokofiev) just dwarfed the pop-star wannabe supposedly Jewish music I’ve had to listen to for years as the kids grew up. Push come to shove, I probably did much less damage to my soul listening to that performance than the mind-numbing stuff I’ve been subjected to on long family trips in the car.
The conversation at dinner (the Bowl invites bringing along picnic baskets) was typically frum – we talked about chinuch and the kids. As the hour of 8 approached, we had to transition to a more cultural mode as the musicians, dressed in white jackets if they were old-timers, or just white shirts and blouses if they weren’t, started filing on to the stage. So here were the two male members of the foursome schmoozing in front of the stage when a voice from above sonorously intones, “Sholom Aleichem!” It was one of the second violinists, who spotted the yarmulkes and couldn’t resist a conversation with a few landsleit. Two minutes later, this time with all of the musicians seated and waiting for the concertmaster to walk in, with thousands of pairs of eyes focused on this very professional group of performers, one of the first violins spots us and gives us a wave!
So is this a Jewish orchestra, or what? No, it isn’t. The ethnic mix is actually quite remarkable. As best as I could tell, there were a whole lot of Chinese, a few Indians and Thais, and a Japanese and Korean or two. The other side of the Pacific was definitely overrepresented. Throw in a bunch of pretty obvious MOT, and a few folks who looked liked their grandparents might even have been born in the lower 48, and you had the orchestra. The conductor – a young Chinese woman making her debut with the orchestra – was animated and made anticipating the next musical highlight much easier.
Which brings me to the puzzle of the evening. Why was it, I asked myself, that with all of the Asian participants, and all of the openness of LA to multiculturalism, was everyone listening to the music of DWEMs? Why weren’t all those talented musicians playing 19th century Chinese orchestral music? Was the Beijing Symphony laden with young blonde performers from California?
Likely, there is some explanation that a novice musicologist could provide. It isn’t really important. Somehow, the forces of history (read: Divine Providence) saw to it that history unfolded in a definite pattern. Much of that pattern was discerned by Noach, as it dawned upon him that his three sons would not be equal partners in the reconstruction of a single global culture, but that his three progeny would author three independent approaches to life. I never tire of reading Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s penetrating analysis (Genesis 9:27) of the relationship between two sons of Noach, Yefes and Shem, and by extension, between the esthetic and the rational. The concert gives me an excuse to share my enthusiasm with others:
Thus we have placed before us the representatives of the three main tendencies which characterise people and nations. Shem having the names and conception of things and conditions, represents the mind, the spirit; contrasted to him Cham, the highest power of glowing hot senuality…Yefes represents that which lies in the middle, that center point in which mind and sentiment meet… The greatest ado in the world has been made by Cham, that sensuality, worldliness, which harnesses all that belongs to spirit and mind to their chariots of fame, and only allows intellect to be used or valued as far as it serves as a means of furthering the material side of life, nations that conquer, plunder and enjoy. Nations pass across through the stage who represent hardly anything but raw force, sensuality and bestiality.
But nations also appear which use their forces in the service of beauty who characterize themselves in nurturing art, aesthetic beauty. They are conscious of some higher ideal up to which mankind is to work itself out of its crudeness. This tendency teaches people to cloak raw sensuality in the garb of respectability and graciousness. Through grace and beauty they foster a taste for more spiritual activities, music, poetry, art. All those nations who cherish that which appeals to feelings represent the Yefes character.
But the education of raw unrefined humanity to the sense of beauty is not the highest…Only that which can elevate the mind to a knowledge of, and the feelings to a recognition of what is good and true in itself, leads a man to the height of what he is meant to be. Nations who have made their contribution by cultivating the spiritual amongst mankind to a recognition of the Truth have worked in the Shem-character for the happiness and well-being of humanity.
When we look around in historical facts we can say: the stem of Yefes reached its fullest blossoming in Yavan, the Greeks: that of Shem in Ever, the Hebrews, Israel, who bore and bear the Shem Hashem as their God through the world of nations. Right to the present day it is only these two races, the descendants of Yefes and Shem, the Greeks and the Jews who have been the real educators and teachers of humanity… For all the spiritual treasures which the world has acquired these two have to be thanked, and everything, which, even today, works at the culture and education of mankind connects up with that which Yefes and Shem brought to the world. The spiritual gifts of the Romans too was only a gift of the Hellenes. Yefes has ennobled the world esthetically. Shem enlightened it spiritually.