FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Musical Reasons to Be Optimistic
Thursday, January 05, 2017 - 10:01 AM
It is no secret that 2016 was a year that even the coarsest expletive could not effectively describe. Apart from a fractious political season at home, dreadful turbulence abroad and enduring the hottest year on record, many people seemed to face personal challenges that were overwhelming. As Claudius says in Hamlet, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
Would you consider me an insensitive Pollyanna — or just plain wrong — if I say that even in this collective meltdown there might be reasons for optimism?
I look for illumination and understanding wherever I can find them. For me, the art and ideas of the Italian Renaissance and the enlightened and complex views of 18th century thinkers, writers and composers provide fertile terrain for reflection and inspiration. Michelangelo and Voltaire lived in troubled times, awful in different ways than what is going on now. And yet they gave us a legacy of wisdom, beauty and consolation forged in the face of terror and uncertainty.
Let’s not forget a group of enlightened men and their brilliant, courageous wives who optimistically created a nation that is imperfect, often troubled and yet capable of great things when it answers to what another extraordinary American, Abraham Lincoln, described as “the better angels of our nature.” If ever there was an optimist in the face of adversity, it was Lincoln.
If I were to be in the nation’s capital in the period from Jan. 19-22, I would make sure to be at the Kennedy Center to hear the National Symphony Orchestra and its music director-designate, Gianandrea Noseda, in a program of American music by composers such as Bernstein, Gershwin and John Williams and works inspired by Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. One of the pieces will be Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait read by Phylicia Rashad.
John F. Kennedy would have turned 100 on May 29, 2017, and the Kennedy Center is devoting a series of performances and initiatives to the man and his connection to the arts and humanities. You can lament that this project harkens back to a lost, more cultured time and a president who said, “we must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” I see it optimistically as an opportunity for all of us to draw inspiration and, rather than be despondent, choose to roll up our sleeves and ask what we can do for our country. I have my plans.
The NSO concert will also include the fanfare Bernstein composed for Kennedy’s inauguration. Another reason for optimism: Bernstein’s Candide comes to New York City Opera, starting Jan. 6. It is a hot ticket and additional performances have been added. This show, which lies in the sweet spot between Broadway musical and opera, was composed by Bernstein (with an original book by Lillian Hellman that has been added to by several other writers) at a time when the McCarthyism was rife in America and rights to belief and to privacy were threatened. It premiered on Dec. 1, 1956.
The Voltaire book that inspired this show is my second-favorite novel, after Don Quixote. Cervantes wrote about a nobly romantic knight errant whose idealism gains no respect in a callous society. It is deeply moving, but makes one feel that there is no place in the world for a kind-hearted optimist. Voltaire wryly named his book Candide, or Optimism, and like all timeless works of art, it defies easy description or understanding. The title character is a guileless young man who has been tutored in optimism and, despite the horrors visited upon him and other characters, he clings to the formulation from his teacher, Dr. Pangloss: “Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
Look at that 12-word sentence and repeat it out loud 12 times, putting the emphasis on each successive word. As you do that, note how the imagery and concept changes as if you were slightly shifting a kaleidoscope.
Is everything for the best only in the best of all possible worlds? Given that few people would say that 2016 was the best of all possible worlds, are Dr. Pangloss and Bernstein telling us to give up hope? To despair? To make the best of a bad situation? Or to do what we can to make things the best we can in our daily lives?
Voltaire, in his enlightened fashion, understood that tragedy and comedy coexist in life. But he concludes the book with Candide expressing a resolute optimism as he says, “il faut cultiver notre jardin” — "We must make our garden grow."
One source of my optimism comes when I encounter young people who so love what they are studying that they are willing to make sacrifices and face obstacles to learn and grow. . At a New York Philharmonic concert on Dec. 29, I met three bright, enthusiastic students from Rochester, New York, who train at the Eastman School of Music. Alan Gilbert led a bracing program of works by Copland, William Bolcom and Wynton Marsalis, who sat in with the Philharmonic and some of his players from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. I thrilled to the rapture these three young people experienced in the presence of the artistry on the stage of David Geffen Hall. Music fires their spirits.
They told me how they awakened to the glory of music. For me it was Haydn’s trumpet concerto. When I was a very small child, it was the first piece of music I reacted to, dancing around in my crib and experiencing the pure joy that music can provide. I did not understand the music. I felt it. My approach to music, despite everything I have learned about it in my lifetime, is to put my analytical brain on hold and let myself feel it. This means letting the music flow into your ears and your being. Let me assure you that your spirit will be lifted and your mood gladdened if you let the sheer beauty of music have its way with you. Don’t even try to understand it. Just be optimistic.