By Christina Linhardt
“When I was about your age,” Maestro Victor Vener addressed an audience of youth and their parents, “I liked baseball. …I played drums for fun…”
Then his brother, 15 years his senior, took him down to the Pasadena Central Library, put headphones over his ears and played him a recording of the “Overture to the Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart.
“I went ‘wow! I love this stuff!’” And that was Victor Vener’s first introduction to classical music, which started him on the path of career musician and current conductor (for a decade and a half) of the California Philharmonic Orchestra. And so, wishing to give back, and possibly recreate his life-altering experience so many years ago for a new generation of classical music lovers, the Maestro personally gave an interactive talk at the South Pasadena Library on October 13, 2017, sponsored by the Friends of the South Pasadena Library.
Held in the Library Community Room, the atmosphere of the high beamed wood ceilings and Spanish-Craftsman Art-Deco mix unique to South Pasadena, set the stage for Dr. Vener’s workshop on music, conducting and the orchestra.
He first asked the audience who had been to a live orchestral concert. Much to my relief, everyone in the audience, which consisted mainly of kids 8 to 14 and their parents, raised their hands. In this modern day and age of pop culture and reality tv, being a firm believer in “the Mozart effect” and the positive influence of classical music on developing brains, I worry that younger generations are not exposed enough. Hence, the importance of outreach programs and funding for the arts.
After sharing his story of his first real concert, the Maestro had his associate, Aline Sardao, a conductor originally from Brazil, show a video clip of the California Phil playing the Figaro Overture.
The audience was entranced. Context is everything. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I’ve heard that overture, and yet at that moment, it seemed to come alive, bounce off the screen and dance about with us in the historic hall.
To further create a connection with the music, Maestro Vener then asked the audience—including the parents who he advised to “never let your kids do something you wouldn’t do”—to get up and go to tables where Aline had laid out crayons and paper.
As a piece of music was playing, he asked everyone to draw what it made them feel. The first piece, though he didn’t tell the audience, was the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 6th. Abstract colors, expressionistic designs, blues and purples appeared on the pages. I even saw a few skull and cross bones.
Quite appropriate, for those that don’t know, the 4th movement is titled “Tempest & Storm.” Then, again not announcing the piece, the “William Tell Overture” was played. Squeals of recognition rang out in the air. Some kids sang along, others danced while they drew or tapped the crayons in rhythm onto the paper. It was a synergistic experience of the music, reminiscent of Wagner’s term “Gesamtkunstwerk” meaning “total art work.” After, he asked some kids to get up and share their images of what the music evoked for them.
“A guy falling off a boat and drowning and then getting run over by the boat,” declared an otherwise sweet looking young lady. It was a testimony to the transformative power of music.
“Mary Poppins,” “Santa Claus,” “the Statue of Liberty,” “a man shooting an apple with an arrow” were all impressions from the William Tell Overture.
The Maestro then showed his baton, explaining it means “stick” in French, and clarified how it was indeed different from a magic wand. He shed light on what a conductor actually does, explaining, “the easiest part of the orchestra, second to the triangle, but the hard part is knowing what you want…. It’s all in the imagination of the conductor and having to know about all the instruments.”
Opening it up to final questions at the end, one girl asked if he ever made a mistake. Maestro Vener answered, “It’s not about making a mistake, which will happen, but how do you fix it.”
He concluded with the sage wisdom, “I’m not going to tell anyone I made a mistake, except my puppy, but he’ll lick me anyway, so it’s ok.” Revealing that through it all, the Maestro knows what truly matters in life.
After having their pictures taken with Mr. Vener, the kids skipped away, in an excited mood, having just had an internal spark lit. It was a flicker that will hopefully turn into a flame – a torch for classical music that they will carry the rest of their lives, passing onto yet another generation.