Cold November Sunday, downtown Minneapolis: the streets by Orchestra Hall are thick with traffic. Cars are queuing for the ramps. This sight always fills me with damp dread, because I will soon be facing the hall to which these folk are streaming. Then I remember: I'm just the host, the MC, the simple squirt of WD-40 that lubricates the event. I am the least important aspect of the concert. And I relax. This is my fifth season as Master of Ceremonies for this remarkable organization. And my suit still fits! Little do they know I have a master plan. After another five years I will sit down with the board of directors, slide 30 programs across the desk - ten years' evidence of volunteerism - and say: its payback. I get to conduct the Egmont overture. Or you can get yourself another boy.
I note this in advance, in case you wonder why they got themselves another boy.
There are four orchestras, stratified by age. Rep did Offenbachs Orpheus, and you can always feel the audience come to life at the end of that one hey, its the Can-Can dance. I didnt know that was classical music! The Symphony orchestra did the last three movements of Symphonie Fantastique. High schoolers? You couldnt tell. Really. Tiny regional medium-city orchestras would sound less professional. During the March to the Scaffold we could all feel the tubas in our guts backstage behind the insulated doors. Theres a big brass theme in that movement thats just so French its shorter than the Marseillaise, but better. Its Frenchier than the French national anthem, almost in the way that Coplands famous Beef: its whats for dinner melody sounds more American than the Star Spangled Banner. When I first encountered this piece in high school I thought it was the Coolest! Music! Ever! The older you get the more you hear; you pick up the madness of the crowd, the cold sight of the scaffold in the distance, the panic of the condemned. The piece moves back and forth between exterior and interior perspective with no cues; as soon as you realize youre in one youre back in the other. As a kid I thought the blade came down after the drum roll. No. We hear the idée fixe, the little snippet of melody that symbolized the Beloved, and then theres a wet brutal thud and two pizzicato beats to chart the head bouncing into the basket.
The fanfare that comes afterwards is the glory of the state.
Then came the Witches Sabbath, aka the theme from The Shining. The score calls for backstage bells, and they had the real thing on loan from the Minnesota Orchestra. The bells were about 10 feet tall. A tall kid in a tux stood on a chair, reading a score on a stand that must have been the Special Music Stand used for the bells most stands dont go ten feet up, unless its for the NBA Mens Chorus, I suppose. The door was open so the audience could hear the bells, but the kid took his cues from the TV monitor trained on the conductor, Manny Laureano. Theres something Hector B. never anticipated - 173 years after he scribbbled this brilliant mess, an adolescent in the middle of America would be watching a Magic Picture Globe on the wall for his cues, sweating, intent on delivering Hector's notes exactly as Hector wanted them.
The bells were marked with letters on masking tape: G and C. As the man requested. I've read Berlioz' autobiography - a great book, should be a movie - but I'd never read his notations on the script. Backstage Manny showed me the footnotes, and you could hear the man speak as you read his instructions. He lives not just in the notes but in the words, and that's a rare accomplishment. You can have your "Amadeus" - Berlioz was a guy who said "you know, I really don't want to be a doctor. Too much cadavering" and shamed his dad by turning to music. My favorite scene in his autobiography: he decides to shoot his ex-GF and her new boyfriend, so he devises a plan whereby he'll surprise them at their country retreat. And how will he surprise them? By showing up in a dress! He goes to a Paris dressmaker, buys a nice outfit,, admits to himself that he looks quite stunning, then thinks better of the plot en route. Calls it off. It's written with eye-rolling what WAS I thinking? Ah, but I was in LOVE bemusement that only a 19th century French Romantic could pull off.
Anyway. The entire show was a testament to the power & genius of the human hand. You had all these brilliant kids out on the stage sawing and blowing; you had this young man backstage hammering the pipe, you had Manny churning the air with what may have seemed to be a frenzied interpretative dance. But every moment was precise; every movement had a purpose. No, it doesnt take a lot of skill to hit a pipe. But I watched the kid shut the sound down he put his hand around it and dampened the sound before he actually grasped the bell. Doing this while listening to the orchestra while checking the score while watching the image of the conductor on the TV on the wall well, its amazing what we take for granted, isnt it? There might be a robot made who could do all that, but Im not sure it could tell you why it wanted to. Its like an emotional reaction to black-and-white 40s cinematography - there are some things you cant program. You wouldnt know where to start.
We had a Pixar marathon at Jasperwood this weekend, and I am once again astonished at the artistry that studio produces. Again it all comes down to the human hand. Saying these movies are computer generated is like saying Vermeers painting are horsehair-brush generated.
(If he used horsehair brushes. Sigh. Email for corrections & amplifications is email@example.com.)
When Manny came backstage after theyd finished the Berlioz, he said he had no memory of the last 12 measures, and I believed him. Orchestras are the Worlds Greatest Air Guitar.
This Riyadh bombing story would be cause for a brief dank gust of saudenfreude if the damage hadnt been so horrible. Will the Saudi newsmagazines run covers that say Why Do They Hate Us or, more accurately, Why Do We Hate Us? Its a blue-pill / red-pill moment for the Saudis; it reminds you if you needed just a jab that history is moving swiftly around us. And it would seem to be an act of audacious stupidity by Al Qaeda this isnt just biting the hand that feeds them. This is biting it, tearing it off, chewing it up, and blowing smoke rings with the bone powder.
And it makes me wonder: They stick the shiv in the ribs of their richest and most enthusiastic backers.
What makes them this confident?