Isle of the Dead

Chicago Symphony Center

I love music! But I don’t know very much about music. In fact, thousands upon thousands of music books have been written about everything that I do NOT know about music. And, I am proud to say that I have never read even one of those books! Despite the fact that I love music so much.

I really do love music. I listen to music almost every waking moment. But I listen to different kinds of music, depending on where I am. When I’m at UIC, I listen to  rock on my iPhone. When I’m driving, I listen to the oldies. However, whenever I’m home, I listen to 98.7 WFMT. All the time! Even when I’m sleeping. And I always crank up WFMT all the way to eleven. Except when I’m sleeping. Listening to classical music allows me to read or write, or even correct Spanish compositions. I don’t know much about classical music either, even though I listen to it all the time.

Even though I’m not qualified to critique music, I would like to tell you about a concert I attended at the Chicago Symphony Center. I went to see Beyond the Score that explained the structure and meaning of Sergei Rachmoninov’s Isle of the Dead. The orchestra played the works of other composers who influenced Rachmaninov for this piece. It was a multi-media presentation, so there was a giant screen to show pictures of the painting Isle of the Dead that also influenced this piece as the story was narrated. I sat in the third row right in the middle of the screen. When the conductor Vladimir Jurowski came out, he stood right in the middle of the screen, illuminated by it from behind. This ominous sight made such an impression on me that I wanted to take out my camera and take a picture. But I managed to refrain myself. I regret it now. I should have lived a little more dangerously and taken the picture anyway!

So why do I love music so much? I’m not really sure. Why do I especially love classical music even though I don’t understand it? Okay, you really got me on that one!

However, if I think really hard, I picture Sister Cecilia from my school days at Holy Cross. Sister Cecilia was the music director for our school. She would teach the school songs for Sunday mass, for Christmas, and–her favorite holiday–the pastor’s birthday. For Father Edward’s birthday, the school would meet in the assembly hall at least twice a week and we would sing a special birthday song that Sister Cecilia prepared just for him. She would take a current top forty hit and change the lyrics just for Father Edward. For example, one year, she took “Georgie Girl” and we sang “Hey there, Father Edward …” Another year, “What’s It All about, Alfie?” became, “What’s It All about, Father Edward?” Pretty clever, huh? Unfortunately, I can’t remember the rest of the lyrics to these wonderful songs or any of the other songs we sang for Father Edward’s birthday.

Sister Cecilia went through great pains to teach the entire school these songs. When we met to rehearse, she would pass out the sheet music with her new, improved lyrics. She was very demanding. We would stand at attention while we sang and she would walk among our ranks ensuring that everyone sang. She would tell us, “Open your mouths wide when you sing! I should be able to put a silver dollar in your mouth when you sing!” Things didn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes she would yell at us if too many students sang out of key. She would yell, “Look at the music! If the note goes up, your voice goes up, too!” I always sang at my best when she stood directly in front of me. The rest of the time I merely lip-synced the words. I think I was ahead of my time.

When we got a new pastor, Father Mikolaitis, she didn’t seem that enthusiastic about his birthday celebration. In fact, we never called our new pastor by his first name.

In the seventh and eighth grades, we took a music appreciation class, taught by none other than Sister Cecilia. I actually enjoyed this class. I don’t remember much from this class. Well, I do remember f – a – c – e and every good boy does fine, but other than that, not much. My favoritie part of the class was learning about the orchestra. She would place the phonograph that came in a box that always reminded me of a traveling valise. She would put it on her desk and play a 78 rpm record. The narrator described all the instruments of the orchestra one by one. Each instrument would demonstrate its range and what it was capable of playing. I was truly fascinated by this information. To this day, I recognize most of the instruments of the orchestra. Sometimes, I like to amaze my friends with my knowledge of music while we listen to classical music, despite insisting that we listen to something else. Ever the veritable font of wisdom that I am, I will correctly point out, “Did you hear that instrument? THAT was a triangle!” And they’ll stare at me with their mouth gaping. Because I know that they’re truly amazed by my knowledge of the classical music and the orchestra!