Oh K. !

October 12, 2017

Call it a red-letter moment that came my way like a friendly brushback pitch. I don’t remember where I was when I glanced at a TV during one of the recent baseball playoff games. But I do remember that there were fans in the stands holding camera-catching cards with the letter K.

I tried to imagine someone not so familiar with the finer points of baseball wondering what it was all about. That letter might suggest anything from a breakfast cereal to a once upon a time automobile to a retail store. It’s often used as an abbreviation for one thousand or for a portion of the tax code that provides an investment opportunity.

In baseball, “K” refers to a strikeout. I understand that it was Henry Chadwick (1824-1908), the Engish- born American statistician and sportswriter – no relation to American composer George Chadwick -  who was the first to use the letter for the pitcher-friendly statistic. It’s the last letter in the word “struck” which was more common than “strikeout” during his time. He already had used “S” to designate a ”sacrifice.”

The all-time record for strikeouts crafted by a pitcher was set by Nolan Ryan. He retired with 5,714.  Reggie Jackson holds the record for the most career strikeouts suffered by a batter: 2,597. But he made up for that in other ways and certainly is not looked down upon.

When classical music is a large part of your life, “K” might suggest something else. The works of Mozart were cataloged by the 19th century Austrian musicologist Ludwig von Köchel  and assigned “K”  or Köchel numbers. For example, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is K. 525 , The Marriage of Figaro is K. 492  and his 40th symphony is K.550. By the way, Mozart’s K. 401 – in case you were thinking about a 401k -  is a fugue for the organ.

In more recent times, the American harpsichordist and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick catalogued the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Those too have “K” numbers, although there are other numbers that have been assigned to the Scarlatti sonatas. That’s an entirely different kettle of confusion.

Mozart and Scarlatti’s works are so firmly attached to those “K” numbers that someone trying to search for a work by either composer without them might well strike out. Though I don’t mention those numbers on the air, I certainly include them on my playlists.

In general, baseball pitchers and these 2 composers have something in common. A large number of Ks can signify success.  Mozart and Scarlatti both have respectable outputs. Neither has enough Ks to compete with Nolan Ryan. But the total number of compositions is sort of irrelevant. Each of the works of Mozart and Scarlatti reflects an aspect of their musical genius. Each of a pitcher’s strikeouts is truly a skillful endeavor. Yet somehow the enduring value of each particular strikeout is somewhat lost over the years, unlike a piece of music that continues to live on in performances. An exception might be a strikeout that plagued a batter with nightmares for years.

While I was looking at all those Ks being held by baseball fans, I imagined concert goers showing up with them to suggest encores of music by Mozart or Scarlatti, perhaps even specific “K” numbers.  Just imagine audiences trying to get seats up close so that their signs might be seen by the performers. Hopefully, audience members would make it clear to a pianist whether it’s a “Köchel” or “Kirkpatrick” in those cases in which a particular Mozart “K” number assigned to a keyboard work is the same number assigned to a Scarlatti keyboard sonata. 

I also envisioned an entirely new concept of a 5K or 10K event.  A soloist, ensemble or orchestra would “run through” 5 or 10 works by Mozart or Scarlatti. It would be a less formal approach than a concert.  In fact, they could be held outdoors on city streets for the full effect.

I haven’t thought much more about either of those ideas since I caught that glimpse of a playoff game. Maybe that’s because deep down I have this feeling that they’re probably not in the cards.


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