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Root Canal With Chopin

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For many, the dentist's chair is associated with pain. For me, happily born in the era of Novocain, the dentist's chair has mostly comic associations.

Take, for example, my first dentist in New York. He was recommended to me by a friend who had grown up in what was then middle-class Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. I thought it odd that his office was on chic Central Park South. I was startled when he once arrived late for my appointment swathed in brown leather and suede, from his mid-calf boots to a sombrero that made him resemble a familiar figure in TV commercials of the time, the coffee buyer El Exigente. I subsequently learned that he had bought the practice of my friend's elderly uptown dentist -- he charged those patients very little. I paid what the market -- and obviously his wardrobe needs -- could bear.

For many years I went to a dentist on the Upper West Side who went to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, England, every summer. I don't recall that we ever discussed Shakespeare but I liked the idea that we could.

His practice was acquired by a young woman. All my life I had had dental work sitting up. She introduced me to the more modern practice of dental work lying down. It was rather disconcerting, the first time I lay supine and vulnerable, she hovering above me with her pick and mirror, that she began our time together asking, "Why is it so hard to find Jewish men willing to commit?"

I had no ready answer. Fortunately it didn't matter. She then went on to a monologue about men she had dated. The current one, who was not Jewish, was a refugee from Romania. He assured her that if she were willing to convert to the Orthodox church he would marry her and take her back to Romania, where he would be Prime Minister and she would be First Lady. She didn't. My office colleagues wanted me to schedule more frequent dental appointments so they could keep up with her dating adventures.

After her I went for several happy years to Dr. Bruce Ettinger, whose office, where he had practiced for decades, did not have the usual arid sterility. It was full of tchatchkas, a far more congenial atmosphere. Also we discussed Broadway musicals and opera, which made the time go quickly and painlessly.

Dr Ettinger retired and I am now happily under the care of Dr Jack Presworsky, who sent me for root canal to his colleague Dr. Steven Kaplan. I first knew Dr Kaplan and I would hit it off when he numbed my mouth with a spray that tasted like pina colada. Science marches on!!

Better yet, once the Novocain took effect and he began drilling he played a disc by one of his patients, Marianne Rotte, a very gifted pianist who has performed at Lincoln Center, La Scala and the Cathedral of St John the Divine, where she was artist-in-residence. She is the youngest person to have taught at Juilliard.

Rotte's album, Parallelas, alternates works by Chopin and Schumann, both of whom celebrated their bicentennials last year, with her own improvisations on them. In her warm and lilting improvisations familiar melodies and chords are transformed into pieces of considerable elegance, which share the melancholy sensibilities of both composers. The journey from past to present is seamless and beautiful.

Until the middle of the last century composers were invariably the performers of their own work. The fact that they appeared before paying audiences meant that their work was intended to connect with a wide variety of listeners. Nowadays "serious" music has retreated to academia, where it connects with an elite audience and often leaves the rest of us cold.

Dr Kaplan is himself a composer. I had hoped he might be a latter-day version of the dentist in Comden and Green's "Bells Are Ringing," who composes tunes on his air hose. Dr. Kaplan instead composes on the guitar -- very amiable pieces of '60s and '70s soft rock, which you can hear here.

For my second session we listened to WQXR, where they were playing Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. I heard my friend Midge Woolsey announce that the conductor was Claudio Abbado, but I didn't hear the soloists -- possibly because Dr Kaplan was drilling at the time. I had not heard the piece itself in a long time, which was good, because I had a new sense of its beauty and power.

I have one more session of root canal. I have no fear, only an eagerness for more musical discovery.