Saint-Saens at 35,000 feet

I fell in love somewhere near the North Pole one afternoon while kicking back at 35,000 feet. It was sudden, a veritable thunderclap. My breath caught, then quickened. My knees trembled. My husband, engrossed in a paperback, never noticed. I, meanwhile, knew right then that my life had been irrevocably altered.

But let me back up. A few months earlier, I’d read a wonderful essay in the San Francisco Chronicle by music critic Joshua Kosman about masterpieces that live on in the heart, aptly titled “Masterpieces That Live On in the Heart.” For him, he tells the reader, it’s the first encounter with a piece of music that delivers the greatest impression. A “love at first sound” kind of guy. Not me. I can listen to a piece several times, months, even, before its impact settles in. And then it knocks me right over.

The piece in question: the second movement of the Saint Saens Violin Concerto #3. (My favorite: Cho-Liang Lin performing under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.) The moment: flying from Paris to San Francisco in November. The French are so civilized, they understand that people in economy class deserve the thrill of drinking champagne while traversing the globe. So there I was, two hours into the eleven hour flight, champagne in hand, iPod hooked up, anticipating a good lunch. Then I heard the piece, the same one I’d been listening to for months, and suddenly it became a Perfect Moment. I was there, high above the world, arctic landscape below me, hazy blue sky above, this wonderful music permeating my brain. Even though it was midday, the sun was low on the horizon, producing a high-latitude winter kind of lighting: peach-toned, the backdrop of dreams. No clouds obscured my view. The frozen white ground, so very far below, was clearly defined. White, as far as the eye could see. White and peach. It felt like some sort of afterworld.

This, then, was the pinnacle. This second movement of the Saint Saens—how could I have played this recording so glibly without fully comprehending its beauty, its celestial nature? How could I have been so blind? (Well… deaf.) There on the plane, I played the movement over and over, trying to analyze its sudden perfection. No pyrotechnics, no racing passages or showy cadenza. Its genius, I realized, lay in its subtlety, its spaciousness. Cho-Liang Lin’s playing is so sublime, his tone so sweet, it made tears spring to my eyes. Harmonics at the end of the movement, the violin’s voice paralleled by a lone clarinet in a lower register, produce a warm, pure sound like nothing I’ve ever heard in a Romantic concerto before. I sat there, spellbound, moving only to peer outside and then take another sip of the champagne, a teeny one, trying to savor the experience, stretch out the perfection as long as possible.

Give it a listen:

The magic of that event has seared an imprint in my mind. Now, months later, life is back to its more typical litany of ups and downs and problems, most of which are small but annoying and relentlessly grinding. But I’ve still got the Saint Saens. And I haven’t lost that loving feeling, not one bit. I’ll play the movement it in the middle of my harried day and poof—the bad stuff recedes. I’m back. Eight minutes and forty-nine seconds of safety, of pure serenity, pure aural awareness. Like being back on that flight, looking at the ghostly white purity below, the blue purity above, and there I am, with nothing but music on my mind and in my heart.

Joshua Kosman’s “love at first sound” sounds like a great thing, but I must say I prefer my way. I love that life hands you these pearls that have been under your nose the whole time. This means that somewhere now, amid the chaos and muck of daily life, lies another soon-to-be-discovered favorite piece of music. Isn’t that great? Like the spiritual equivalent of recycling. But Mr. Kosman and I agree on one thing: that these pieces that so affect us will always be there for us. Always. Life can take away job, home, partner, treasure, perspective, but not these music masterpieces. And that’s a very comforting feeling.

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