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A vinyl history lesson

City Sage

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Twenty years ago, I walked into Ross Auction just as a few boxes of LPs appeared on the block.

I neither wanted nor needed any antique analog music storage devices, but when I noticed that boxes each containing 25 LP albums were going for five bucks a box, I bought four.

Bringing them home, I realized that I didn't own a turntable — so I put the boxes in the basement. There they sat until I sold the house in 2000 and moved the boxes into the next home's basement. Cleaning out my absurdly cluttered basement a few months ago, I came across the boxes. A quick inventory uncovered an amazing collection, a musical time capsule.

There were three complete sets of Beethoven's symphonies, two complete sets of his string quartets and dozens of works by Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Schubert and other 18th- and 19th-century composers. Then there were the operas: Giselle, La Boheme, Carmen, La Traviata, Aida and Die Meistersinger, among others. Finally, the 20th century: Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Charlie Parker, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck.

Rather than schlep them back to Ross, we decided to buy a turntable and listen.

I had grown up with vinyl but long since abandoned it. Eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs, iPods, Pandora, Spotify — who besides the hippest of audiophiles needed the awkward inconvenience of records?

But every record in this collection was in pristine condition. No scratches on the vinyl, no clicks and hisses when the needle was carefully lowered. There was silence, followed by warm, glorious analog sound.

Forced by the medium, we realized that we hadn't really listened to recorded music for decades. Moreover, the records were both tangible and personal. Someone had bought them, listened to them and cared for them.

As we immersed ourselves in music that I knew without knowing, I learned from the person whose albums I had bought 20 years earlier. I wondered why he or she owned multiple recordings of Beethoven's symphonies. Toscanini with the NBC symphony orchestra, Karl Bohm with the Vienna Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein, also with the Vienna Philharmonic. Listening, I heard the difference.

Toscanini seemed overwrought and emotional, Bernstein showy and dramatic, but Bohm's cerebral clarity seemed just right. Stately, unhurried and majestic, Bohm's version of the Ninth Symphony brought me to tears.

The records' previous owner seemed to agree. He or she had made a few penciled notes on the record jacket.

Along the way, I learned to love opera. Music that I'd long ignored revealed startling beauty and depth. Listening to Mirella Freni's Mimi in La Boheme was a revelation, as was the lyrical interplay of singers and orchestra.

In this case, the medium allowed the message. Had I been shuffling songs on an iPod, I wouldn't have paused for a moment, but the antique ritual of putting on a record encourages and enhances listening.

You remove the disc from its interior jacket, taking care not to touch the grooves. Just as carefully, you place it on the turntable, raise the tone arm, blow any dust off the needle and lower it gently onto the record. A second or two of silence, the needle engages, and the music begins.

I think of my teacher, my anonymous benefactor. You gave me that which I didn't even know I'd lost. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms — so glad to hear them again. Puccini, Verdi — such a pleasure to meet you! And now it's time to hear live performances.

Many of those records date from a time when live professional performances were inaccessible to small-town America. In Colorado Springs, that changed on Oct. 21, 1982, when the Pikes Peak Center opened as the home of the Colorado Springs Symphony.

That first season brought soloists such as Eugene Fodor, Gregory Allen and Malcolm Frager to the El Pomar Great Hall. Single ticket prices were $8, $10 and $12, with $3 off for seniors, students and enlisted military. It was a magical time, but as the kids grew older, work became more demanding and calendars more clogged, we stopped going.

In 2015, the Philharmonic will present a semi-staged version of Puccini's Tosca on Feb. 21, and violinist Joshua Bell five days later.

I'll be there ... thanks to some ancient vinyl.

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