There are two movie franchises that I all but worship and will love re-experiencing for the rest of my life. This first is "Kill Bill",but the other is "The Matrix". I still remember going to the drive in theater as a kid to see the first one, and how shocked I was to realize that I wasn't the only one with ideas of self-substantiation beyond what we can feel and see in this world. The film has great characters, but my favorite by far (who appears in the second installment) is a character named Persephone.
In Greek mythology, Persephone is the queen of the underworld and a goddess of vegetation. Having been abducted by Hades, she is forced to spend half of the year with him and the other half on earth, per a compromise between some of the other gods. This, for the ancient Greeks, was represented in nature by the coming of spring and summer, yielding the plants essential for survival. Her story in The Matrix is a little different, but the idea of spending an eternity with someone she doesn't necessarily love anymore remains. When the main protagonists approach her husband, the Merovingian, in an effort to acquire a special "key maker", a deal is not met, but Persephone secretly intervenes and helps them get what they need. The price to be paid, however, was a kiss that would remind her what true love really feels like once again. This idea came to mind for me within the last couple of weeks, when I sat on the audition committee for Principal Oboe in Knoxville, and played Scheherazade with the Memphis Repertory Orchestra.
I found selecting a winner for the audition to be very difficult, because there were a lot of people who sounded amazing. The only real way to set people apart from one another, for me anyway, was to listen and see if anyone could capture the essence of what they were playing, and not just the notes and rhythms. Fast passages like "La Scala" sound fine once they're under the fingers, but excerpts like the oboe solo in the Brahms Violin Concerto, for example, must be handled with care, and contain a je ne sais quoi that so many musicians lack, even at the professional level. Speaking personally, I've met many bassoonists who have technique far more advanced than mine, but one of the most common compliments I get about my playing is that I put something "between the notes", and that there is a true spirit behind what's being played. When it comes to music in general, I tend to be more of a formalist, but to convey music's full meaning to listeners, I force myself to connect the composer's ideas to something in my own life, creating that certain thing that you can't always put your finger on, but you feel anyway. The winner of the audition could do this, and I look forward to playing with her this season.
During this past week's Scheherazade rehearsals and performance, I was able to relive a moment in my past through the oboe solo in the third movement. When I moved to California to go to grad school at USC, I didn't know anyone at first, so I found myself sitting at the beach reading and doing homework alone quite often. I very vividly remember one afternoon sitting next to the water, watching the waves crash on the sand, and wondering, "Have I done the right thing?". It's easy to question decisions that you don't understand (as explained my The Oracle in The Matrix), and I definitely did this when I realized that spending the next two years away from my loved ones was not just a possibility anymore, but a reality. As I had these thoughts, I listened to the third movement of Scheherazade, which just happened to be playing in my earbuds, forever coupling that beautiful oboe solo with uncertainty and a bit of beautiful sadness.
Technique, quality of sound, and tuning are essential parts of being a great classical musician, but if you can manage to make people really feel something, you've unlocked the whole purpose of playing an instrument. The same applies to countless other professions and activities. The Oracle even tells a young computer program named Sati that "cookies need love, like everything does". Persephone would not accept a kiss that was just a kiss, and we shouldn't accept anything that is the culmination of simply going through the motions. Whatever you do today, do it with some sort of passion and purpose.