While Susie was out having her hair done, I set about making a simple dinner of salmon steaks, courgettes, and mushrooms. To liven the apartment, I put on the great recording of Handel's Semele with Kathleen Battle singing the title role. I do not know how many of you are familiar with Battle. She is a coloratura soprano who, in the day, had a divine voice -- supple, exquisite, transcendent. Her recording with Wynton Marsalis of arias for trumpet and soprano is one of the greatest CD's I have ever heard. Early in Semele, Battle sings the aria "The morning lark to mine accords his note." As her voice filled the tiny apartment, my heart soared and tears filled my eyes. When I have not listened to beautiful music for a while, I forget how powerfully it moves me.
Battle is a famously difficult artist. She was actually banished from the Met for "unprofessional behavior," the description of which makes it clear that she was the classic diva, imperious, selfish, egocentric, demanding, impossible. So the Met clearly had every bureaucratic right to banish her. The only problem is that she sang better than anyone else they could find. Now the Met exists for one and only one purpose: to make beautiful music. If it fails to do that, it has no right to exist and to drain from the public purse the enormous resources that it takes to put great opera on these days. I have always thought they should have put up with her outrageous behavior -- and it apparently was really outrageous -- simply for the privilege of putting her on stage to sing.
When I am in the presence of great music, I lose all sense of the quotidien world. On one occasion, at Tanglewood, I heard Yo Yo Ma play several of the Bach Suites for unaccompanied cello. He did not seem to be so much playing them as listening to himself play them. He had long since so completely mastered the impossibly difficult demands of the music that now he simply existed in the same space and time with it. He was actually accompanying a ballet troupe that was dancing to the music, but I could not bear to be distracted by their dancing [which was, to be sure, quite expert], so I positioned myself behind the person sitting in front of me in such a way that I could see Yo Yo Ma but not the dancers. The music he was playing was almost more than I could bear all by itself.
There is a glimmer of the same unearthly transcendence in that lovely old movie, The Hustler, in the scene in which Paul Newman prowls like a great cat around the pool table, destroying Minnesota Fats [played wonderfully by Jackie Gleason]. "I can't lose," he says to his manager, George C. Scott, and you know that something is moving within him that makes that true.
I am an atheist, as my blog site announces,so perhaps this is as close as I can ever approach to the experience of the divine.