THE LATE STARTERS ORCHESTRA
By Ari L. Goldman
Algonquin. 290 pp. $23.95.
It comes all too rarely now, perhaps only once or twice a year: the urge to retrieve my violin from its dusty case and attempt a few lines of Bach or Brahms. I used to play the violin rather well, but upon moving to Washington in the mid-’90s, I stopped. Over time, my left hand lost its agility, and my bow arm became leaden. Intonation, once a given, was unreliable. I could no longer overcome certain technical difficulties that had posed no problem before. Now, any attempt to play ends in frustration, and I always put away my instrument soon after I start, knowing that I’ll never come close to playing the way I did at 21.
Ari L. Goldman’s “The Late Starters Orchestra” makes me wish that I had not given up. As his 60th birthday approached, Goldman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, decided to take up the cello, an instrument he stopped playing as a young man. Undeterred by the skepticism of his wife and others, he immersed himself in the routine of cello lessons and solo practice, even attending music camp in the summer. And not content to play alone, he joined a New York City orchestra of fellow late-starting amateurs. The ensemble, which requires no entrance audition, was founded, Goldman writes, “on the premise that serious music isn’t only for the accomplished musician. Playing music should be accessible to all, not just the elite, not just the talented, not even just the good, but everyone.”
None of the setbacks Goldman encountered along the way, including a troublesome back, made him reconsider his stated goal: to perform for family and friends at his 60th-birthday party. Good as the idea might be, the recital, announced early in the book, seems arbitrary and unnecessary, essentially a narrative framing device. After all, the profound joy that Goldman experiences while re-learning the cello has everything to do with journey and process, and much less to do with some final public performance of a Bach minuet. Moreover, his plan calls to mind the recent “Play It Again,” in which the Guardian editor and amateur pianist Alan Rusbridger described his attempt to master Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in one year, all the while facing some of the most momentous newsmaking events of recent times, the Arab Spring and the WikiLeaks scandal among them. It is not a comparison that Goldman ought to invite. Rusbridger’s account is far more sophisticated, both in terms of musical understanding and literary ambition. Goldman’s aw-shucks naiveté and frequent sentimentality aren’t the only problems here. He simply shouldn’t have to explain to his readers what tuning up is, or that a cello is larger than a violin and is held between the legs. His constant referring to instrumental pieces as “songs” is both irritating and incorrect.
Still, the book has its charms, and Goldman’s endeavor is nothing if not noble. “The Late Starters Orchestra” is an anthem for the amateur, and if more people to took up an instrument with Goldman’s level of commitment, our classical music culture would surely improve. In a recent article in the New York Times, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim identified the lack of education among audience members as “the main problem with music in the world of today.” Not declining ticket sales or a lack of arts funding or the pervasiveness of a coarse popular music culture — but a lack of education. There was a time (and this, admittedly, was long ago) when families that could afford a piano in the home would make music together in the evenings; it didn’t matter if it was some popular tune of the day being played or a piece by Beethoven or Liszt. By virtue of their ability to read and play music, amateur musicians became better listeners of music. When they attended concerts, they took in the experience in a deeper, more intelligent way.
Goldman’s book made me wonder: What if more people decided to learn the cello, or the piano, or the flute? The objective of the late starter is not virtuosity or a career. Nobody is deluded enough to think that, if he just practices hard enough, he can become the next principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony. The pleasures are all in the doing. But would Barenboim still find the current musical culture so dire if more people knew the rudiments of rhythm, melody, harmony and instrumental technique, if more people could sight-read a simple piece or know the delights of playing chamber music with friends? The important thing, as Goldman knows, is getting started, no matter how late that start may be.
Bose is managing editor of the American Scholar.