At the Bard College Music Festival last weekend in New York, the college's president and festival director, Leon Botstein, made a striking remark about Richard Wagner and his cronies. "If we used our standards of normalcy on the 19th century," he said during a panel discussion about Wagner and the Jewish question, "historians wouldn't be left with much worth remembering."
I thought about that Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl. Yo-Yo Ma played Dvorak's Cello Concerto and my guest was another cellist, Nathaniel Ayers, whose story Steve Lopez has told meaningfully in this newspaper and in his book "The Soloist." Ayers' life has not been normal, having gone from New York's elite Juilliard School to the streets of L.A.'s skid row.
I'm told Ayers has periods when his demons are kept at bay and those when they are not. On Tuesday, he was fine company. He was excited about hearing Ma and Dvorak. Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic came by the box to greet him. He was ushered to the head of the line of well-wishers backstage at intermission to visit with Ma, who happened to have been a Juilliard classmate of Ayers. They hugged, even though, Ayers told me, Ma was quite sweaty.
What impressed me was the intensity with which Ayers listened. He knows the concerto and plays it all the time. During the performance, he noticeably absorbed every phrase, as one with the music as was the other soloist on stage.
Whether or not this man was normal on this, a good day, I am not qualified to say. But I'm pretty sure he was the least distracted person in a crowd of more than 17,000. He even used his hands to block his view of the video screens, so nothing would interfere with the music.
Dvorak wrote his concerto for listeners like Ayers. Reviews of the premiere of Dvorak's major works, and those of other 19th century composers, offer detailed analysis of the scores. Critics (and not only critics) were such engaged listeners that they appeared to remember every bar of complicated music on first hearing.
Paying attention is no longer considered normal for a self-respecting proto-cyborg in a multitasking age of iPhones and apps. But unless we relearn the art of paying attention, which is the first requirement for any untrivial pursuit, it may be our century that won't offer future historians much worth remembering.