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The Mozart Season

The Mozart SeasonFresh Lookol­o­gy fea­tures books pub­lished sev­er­al years ago that are too good to lan­guish on the shelf.

At the end of soft­ball sea­son and the begin­ning of sum­mer, 12-year-old Alle­gra Leah Shapiro learns that she has been select­ed as a final­ist in the Ernest Bloch Young Musi­cians’ Com­pe­ti­tion. She is the youngest final­ist, some­thing she wor­ries about as she spends the sum­mer prac­tic­ing Mozart’s fourth vio­lin con­cer­to. And she thinks and wor­ries about oth­er things, too, as she prac­tices, turns pages for her oth­er musi­cians, and hangs out with friends. Allegra’s feel­ings are often con­flict­ed — she wants to be her­self and she wants to please her par­ents and grand­moth­er. She wres­tles with every­thing from what it takes to be a musi­cian to what it means to be “half Jew­ish.” She won­ders about her con­nec­tion with her grand­moth­er, mur­dered in a con­cen­tra­tion camp dur­ing World War II. It’s not just Mozart that runs through this girl’s head and heart — Alle­gra is fig­ur­ing out who she is as she plays Mozart.

When she was a lit­tle girl, Alle­gra thought she could just pick up a vio­lin and it would sing the music inside of her. At the start of The Mozart Sea­son she believes the music resides in her fin­gers and the key is to train those fin­gers well. She prac­tices a lot. Her wise vio­lin teacher, Mr. Kaplan, helps her learn to do more than play the notes — she learns to find Mozart’s music in her heart. To the strains of Mozart, Alle­gra feels her way through tra­di­tions she doesn’t always under­stand, high expec­ta­tions (from her­self and oth­ers), and the usu­al grow­ing up issues of a twelve-year-old. This is a nov­el about work­ing hard, fig­ur­ing out who you are, and keep­ing an open heart.

The Mozart Sea­son is near­ly thir­ty years old, but its themes are time­less. A read­er who has had to work hard at some­thing — be that music, sports, math, read­ing, reli­gious instruc­tion etc. — while fig­ur­ing out what they think and feel about that thing’s place in their life will rec­og­nize them­selves in Alle­gra Shapiro.

Virginia Euwer WolffIt was my hon­or to inter­view Vir­ginia Euw­er Wolff, the author, about The Mozart Sea­son.

What are the chal­lenges and joys around writ­ing about music — and clas­si­cal music in par­tic­u­lar? Did you wor­ry about mak­ing Mozart “acces­si­ble” for read­ers who might not be famil­iar with his music, or the vio­lin, or orches­tras, etc.?

The chal­lenges are con­sid­er­able. The spe­cial­ized lan­guage, to begin with. For instance, “dynam­ics.” Unlike the def­i­n­i­tions of dynam­ics in the fields of physics or social psy­chol­o­gy, a three-word def­i­n­i­tion suf­fices in music: loud­ness and soft­ness. I want­ed to make a glos­sary unnec­es­sary. Def­i­n­i­tions had to be swift and un-stum­bling. I think the most we can do in writ­ing about music is to nudge our read­ers direct­ly to the music itself. Mozart may be an acquired taste, and “the Mozart effect” may be pseu­do­science. But I did hope that the con­nec­tions Alle­gra and the oth­er char­ac­ters make with clas­si­cal music might be con­ta­gious. 

A music com­pe­ti­tion is at the heart of this nov­el — the Ernest Bloch Young Musi­cians’ Com­pe­ti­tion. Alle­gra is the youngest con­tes­tant, and she’s wor­ried about that. What are the advan­tages she has being the youngest?

Once in a blue moon in clas­si­cal music, the youngest con­tes­tant wins. A ten-year-old Aus­tralian recent­ly won the Menuhin Com­pe­ti­tion, the youngest ever to do so. Usu­al­ly, the youngest musi­cian has no advan­tage. The Cute­ness fac­tor doesn’t exist when the con­tes­tants audi­tion with an audio record­ing, and then play behind a screen for judges who can’t see them. I made a promise to myself not to use cer­tain words in the book. Two of them: “gift­ed” and “prodi­gy.” Their con­no­ta­tions hov­er about every youth com­pe­ti­tion (and the younger the con­tes­tant is, the more they may sur­face), but such labels can be con­strict­ing and bur­den­some, thin­ning the con­ver­sa­tion.

Allegra’s vio­lin teacher, Mr. Kaplan, tells her “I want you first to love the music. Then com­pete.” Is lov­ing the music a pre-req­ui­site for com­pe­ti­tion? Is that the best way, or the only way to suc­cess­ful­ly com­pete? Does this love-then-com­pete idea trans­late to oth­er com­pet­i­tive are­nas do you think?

Some kids do com­pete in fields they don’t love, and some musi­cians play the required music although they don’t love it. And they may win. Mr. Kaplan knows that if you’re going to put the thou­sands of hours into the hon­ing of a thing, the thing itself will give you lots of rea­sons to resent it. Bet­ter if you begin with a reser­voir of gen­uine love, so you can with­stand the onslaught of resent­ment that will sure­ly come along with the work. I think that’s his main rea­son for say­ing that to Alle­gra.

violin

The Mozart Sea­son is almost thir­ty years old…. If a twelve-year-old musi­cian today were to read about a twelve-year-old musi­cian thir­ty years ago, how might things be dif­fer­ent for today’s read­er? In what ways have things remained the same, do you think?

Today’s read­er, in a tech­no­log­i­cal­ly octu­pus­like world, needs to sink down into the world of a sto­ry, any sto­ry, in order to let that sto­ry become a friend or even an acquain­tance. (None of us wants to force Insta­gram on Har­ry Pot­ter. But pos­si­bil­i­ties pro­lif­er­ate. I have seen a pro­duc­tion of Ham­let in which Gertrude wears Hol­ly­wood dark glass­es and keeps pulling out her cell phone.) Today’s musi­cians prac­tice just as many hours, with just as much frus­tra­tion and joy as the musi­cians of Mozart’s time did. The lack of instant grat­i­fi­ca­tion is one of the beau­ties of the art form; each new foothold in the ver­ti­cal rock face of learn­ing an instru­ment is so reward­ing because it has tak­en so much work to get there. And young read­ers’ ver­sa­til­i­ty often lets them snap out of Mozart into the newest Tik­Tok moves and back again. Bless ‘em, every one.

The Mozart Sea­son is told in first per­son point of view. How did you find Allegra’s voice?

Ah, that’s the life­long search, or so it seems to me. Not much comes eas­i­ly to me, and I was on my hands and knees fol­low­ing Alle­gra around lis­ten­ing to her dur­ing the years I took to get the book fin­ished. 

Is Alle­gra at all like you when you were twelve? If so, in what ways?

Some­what. A bit. I loved play­ing in the youth orches­tra as much as, or maybe more than, Alle­gra does. 

Allegra’s father is Jew­ish, her moth­er is not. Alle­gra says she’s “half-and-half,” and “if you’re half-and-half you’re the thing that can’t be. You can’t be half Jew­ish. So you go through your life being some­thing that can’t be.” This winds up being quite impor­tant by the end of the nov­el…. Why was it impor­tant to include reli­gion in The Mozart Sea­son?

I heard a pub­lish­er say in the 1980s that the only remain­ing taboo in young adult lit was reli­gion. I didn’t say a word aloud. But of course I kept won­der­ing: Would this mean that sto­ries for kids couldn’t be whole? Sub­lime music exists, at least in part, in order to help shape the great ques­tions of the world, and those ques­tions touch reli­gion. There’s not much dis­tance between being trans­port­ed by breath­less­ly beau­ti­ful music and sens­ing the pres­ence of the eter­nal that the human psy­che can just about inhale. Life sud­den­ly becomes lucid. Allegra’s grand­moth­er sees reli­gion as a sta­bi­liz­ing force; she drops this truth in Allegra’s lap at a ripen­ing time, part of her invi­ta­tion to vis­it and learn about the con­nec­tive tis­sue that befriends humil­i­ty and binds human­i­ty. 

Tell us about the Danc­ing Man, Mr. Trou­ble, who appears and dis­ap­pears at out­door con­certs, danc­ing on the side­lines. Was he always in the sto­ry?

The Danc­ing Man and Alle­gra were the first two char­ac­ters in the book. Every com­mu­ni­ty has its mem­o­rable fig­ures; the com­mu­ni­ty near where I lived when I was writ­ing this book had its danc­ing man. I was priv­i­leged to see him at sev­er­al con­certs. 

You’ve said in oth­er inter­views that your mail from young read­ers of The Mozart Sea­son is the most heart­felt read­er-author cor­re­spon­dence you receive. Why do you think this is?

Some young read­ers hear in the book the voice of some­one whose dai­ly life resem­bles theirs: prac­tice, prac­tice, prac­tice. For music stu­dents the focus is often so tight, with the micro­scope on tiny details; the con­fine­ment can make you feel a lit­tle bit crazy. When you find a book about a char­ac­ter who shares the zest and the rest­less­ness and the love, some­body who gets it about the inti­ma­cy of a pair of 16th-notes, it seems nat­ur­al to reach out to the author. I’m on the lucky end of their cor­re­spon­dence. Some of them become pro­fes­sion­al musi­cians and I’m glad to have them as my friends. 

You are a vio­lin­ist and a writer. What par­al­lels do you find between writ­ing prac­tice and music prac­tice?

Well, we have to use or lose it. My years of vio­lin lessons have instilled in me a respect for the instru­ment, its care and feed­ing. A holy awe. In both music and writ­ing we need to keep lis­ten­ing for the best and know­ing it when we hear it. A dai­ly dif­fer­ence, though: Musi­cians need to prac­tice scales and arpeg­gios each day — like dancers at the barre — but writ­ers may get by with­out, oh, let’s say dia­gram­ming a dozen sen­tences every time. Writ­ers get to be inven­tive about our warm-up exer­cis­es. Anoth­er dif­fer­ence: The lapsed musi­cian must go through char­ac­ter-build­ing ago­nies in recon­struct­ing the skills s/he once had at the ready. The lapsed writer may get stiff or slop­py or ragged, but the return to craft is prob­a­bly not as pun­ish­ing.

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Beethoven in Paradise

Beethoven in ParadiseFresh Lookol­o­gy fea­tures books pub­lished sev­er­al years ago that are too good to lan­guish on the shelf.

Mar­tin Pittman takes a reader’s heart and runs with it. He lives in a trail­er park called Par­adise, but his home life is any­thing but. Martin’s father is abu­sive, his moth­er com­plete­ly cowed. He has no sib­lings. His grand­ma, Haze­line, who comes on Sun­days to take him to the Howard John­son Prince of Wales buf­fet, is quite a char­ac­ter — one the read­er is unsure of at first. She’s a leath­ery, give-you-a-piece-of-my-mind, smok­ing, cack­ling sort of grand­moth­er — but she’s on Martin’s side, thank good­ness. So is his reclu­sive friend Wylene, a grown woman who can tol­er­ate only Martin’s gen­tle pres­ence in her trail­er and her life. And so is Sybil, the new girl who comes into town — Sybil is unlike any­one Mar­tin has ever met before.

Mar­tin needs these good peo­ple on his side. He faces bul­ly­ing at school, in town, and on the base­ball field, in addi­tion to the abuse at home. What keeps him going is music. Mar­tin loves music — all kinds — lis­ten­ing to it, mak­ing up tunes in his head, play­ing his har­mon­i­ca. Wylene says he has a gift. Haze­line and Sybil echo this encour­age­ment. Mar­tin wants to play a real instru­ment like a piano or a vio­lin, and when a vio­lin shows up at the local pawn shop, he can think of lit­tle else out­side of mak­ing it his own.

The prob­lem is his father. For some rea­son Ed Pittman thinks music — and espe­cial­ly the play­ing of it — is for sissies. He’s furi­ous with Mar­tin for his lack of base­ball skill, his love of music, and his friend­ship with Wylene. He’s furi­ous with life, real­ly. Haze­line con­firms this for Mar­tin. Ed doesn’t like any­one, she says — not Mar­tin, not him­self.

In the course of this short nov­el — and with the help of Haze­line, Wylene, and Sybil — Mar­tin learns that, although he can’t change his father, he can learn to stick up for him­self. He can live into being who he real­ly is. He can find a way to make music.

There are many jump­ing off points in this nov­el for social-emo­tion­al learn­ing. Beethoven in Par­adise is replete with scenes show­ing empa­thy, anger, sad­ness, hap­pi­ness, and wor­ry. It’s all about new and unex­pect­ed friend­ships. Although there is bul­ly­ing and abuse, Mar­tin expe­ri­ences kind­ness­es and shows kind­ness to oth­ers, as well. He learns that he can’t change peo­ple, but he can change how he reacts to them. He does not have to become like his father.

A class, read­ing group, or book­club could have fun learn­ing about dif­fer­ent kinds of music. Wylene and Mar­tin lis­ten to a diverse array of music, which is men­tioned by title/composer/performer — easy to look up and play. There are inter­est­ing details about har­mon­i­ca play­ing, musi­cal prac­tice (Mar­tin plays by ear), vio­lin, sax­o­phone, and Beethoven, as well. Music might actu­al­ly be con­sid­ered a char­ac­ter in this book.

Beethoven in Par­adise was pub­lished in 1997, but its time­less­ness — in theme, cir­cum­stance, and emo­tion — makes it an excel­lent pick for read­ing with mid­dle-grad­er read­ers today. With good humor, hon­est looks at hard things, and a won­der­ful cast of char­ac­ters, Bar­bara O’Connor gives us a com­ing-of-age sto­ry of friend­ship, com­mu­ni­ty, and genius that deserves a Fresh Lookol­o­gy here in 2019! 

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