Chaz meets the Classics

or, "How an unrepentant pop junkie discovered the Music of the Ages without so much as breaking his stride"

On a regular basis, cultural pundits appear as if from nowhere and bewail the fact that teenagers seem to be listening a lot more to [fill in name of current chart-topping act] than to the Old Masters. This happened just as much in the Sixties as it does in the Nineties, and truth be told, I wasn't paying attention to the cultural pundits — I was trying my best to rock out. And, being the pitiable geek that I was, I wasn't succeeding very well.

Cover artThe year is 1969, and I'm browsing the record racks at the University Co-Op, across Guadalupe Street from the University of Texas at Austin. Suddenly, two or three aisles over: a vision, one I've seen before but have never dared to address. Today, I don't remember her name, and can barely remember her face. What I do remember is that I had the preposterous notion, based upon half-heard stories filtered through my own special brand of delusion, that the way to her heart was through classical music — if I could be seen purchasing actual concerti and such, she couldn't help but fall into my arms. I quickly decided that the time to act was now, so Santana was shelved for another day, and as conspicuously as possible, I grabbed the heaviest-looking symphonic stuff on the rack, which turned out to be a recording of Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony.

Merely owning the material, I sensed, might not be enough to do the job, so I set about the task of familiarization. I popped open the shrink-wrap, pulled the disk — very heavy, it seemed — out of its envelope, set it gently on the platter and dropped the all-purpose sapphire stylus in the lead-in groove.

I'm not quite sure what happened after that. The side break came between the second and third movements, about twenty-five minutes into the work, far longer than most pop LP sides, yet I hadn't so much as stirred the entire time. I got up, turned the disc over — "flipped" would have been, well, flippant — and did another twenty minutes in much the same position. And as the last notes of the finale resounded through the room, I found myself speechless.

When my voice came back, I asked nobody in particular, "Why this piece?" To this day, I haven't answered that question satisfactorily; many works, including some of Rachmaninoff's, move me more than the Symphony No. 2. But as I spin that same disc once more today, I suspect that the real breakthrough was not so much musical as emotional: my willingness to throw myself into the music as prelude to a commitment was the key to opening up my heart. It could have just as easily been Beethoven or Debussy or Mozart or Prokofiev or, indeed, anyone represented on the Co-Op's record racks that day. What mattered then, and what matters now, was that I had heard something I wanted to keep hearing, again and again.

As things turned out, Miss Right had better things to do with her life than to hang out with the likes of me — and isn't that always the case? — but when I look at the four hundred or so classical recordings I've accumulated in the three decades since, I feel she did quite a bit more for me than either of us could ever have imagined. On the off-chance that you might someday read this, dear lady, thank you.

You, too, Sergei.

Posted 4 April 1998

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Copyright © 1998 by Charles G. Hill
Artwork by George Giusti; © 1963 by Grand Award Record Company, Inc.