Not long ago my teenage son and I sat in on a violin master class given by Charles Castleman at Portland State University. We were introduced to him afterwards. He’s one of those rare birds in the classical music world, a child prodigy that didn’t burn out or commit suicide by age twenty-five. At six years old he performed as a soloist with the Boston Pops. At ten he appeared with Jack Benny on The Frank Sinatra Show. In his late seventies now, Castleman is gray-haired and clean-shaven, compact but lithe. When we met him he wore dark purple loafers and was dressed in what looked like fancy silk pajamas.
If you’ve never been to a master class, here’s how it works. Students, who are specially invited to participate beforehand, step one at a time on stage and play a solo piece of some difficulty. The master teacher then steps up to offer criticism and make suggestions. Try this, try that. While listening to students act on his instructions, Castleman moves his bow hand in quick sympathetic arcs at his side, as if he were the one playing.
I am no musician myself. I thought I might like to play the oboe, but my son tells me that oboists are all crazy. That’s their reputation. The oboe is an especially difficult instrument. The player needs to marshal a lot of controlled wind and, the theory goes, this increases pressure in the cranium, leading inevitably to madness. My son once played with a temperamental oboist. His attendance at rehearsals was poor and he upset the others with sudden fits of temper and the open romancing of the quintet’s blonde cellist.
H.L. Mencken was a lover of classical music and knew all about oboists. In Heathen Days, the third volume of his autobiography, he mentions an oboist who doubled with the English horn and “was naturally insane, for mental aberration is almost normal among oboists.” Later he describes other members of the orchestra:
“The bull-fiddle players were solid men who played the notes set before them, however difficult, in a dogged and uncomplaining manner, and seldom gave a conductor any trouble, whether by alcoholism or Bolshevism. The cellists were also pretty reliable fellows, but in the viola section one began to encounter boozers, communists and even spiritualists, and when one came to the fiddlers it was reasonable to expect anything, including even a lust to maim and kill.”
Here I pause to wonder if my son, who has played violin since age seven, boils with unguessed violence beneath his placid demeanor. But Mencken continues:
“So, also, in the brass and woodwind. No one ever heard of a bassoon or a tuba player saying or doing anything subversive, but the trumpeters were vain and quarrelsome, the flautists and clarinetists were often heavy drinkers, and the oboists, as I have noted, were predominantly meshuggah.”
Therefore avoid oboe master classes.
A few weeks after our encounter with Charles Castleman, my son and I attended a performance of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The Schnitz, as it’s called, is a large Italianate theater originally built to host vaudeville shows, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The conductor, a native of Costa Rica, came dashing out of the wings in a long tailcoat, while the players stomped in applause. He talked awhile in sanguine tones about the organization, the evening’s selections, and youth symphony’s planned trip to Italy this coming summer. He conducted with enthusiasm.
Mencken said of conductors that their lives are “full of misery” and I had to admit that this young conductor, despite his energy, had a face for sadness. He never ceased to smile, but he seemed born for Spanish tears. “When I became well acquainted with a number of them,” says Mencken of orchestra conductors, “it seemed only natural to learn that they were steady readers of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and heavy consumers of aspirin, mineral oil and bicarbonate of soda.”