Sunday afternoon. The second Minnesota Youth Symphony concert is tonight, which blows a big broad hole in the entire day. When the concerts were in the afternoon, I could get up, have a light breakfast, suit up in concert livery, drive downtown, and be home by 5:30; I won’t get home tonight until nine or so.

Gnat just came in asking if I knew how to play the flute. It’s actually a recorder. Almost a Tonette, but it doesn’t smell as bad as a Tonette. Those things were made entirely of toxic refinery waste, I think, which is why I can’t stand to look at the things.  I’ve got Tonette’s Syndrome! Ha Ha! (Warning: site contains a small sound file of a man saying "Tonette." Really.)

“Can you show me how to play the flute?” she asked.

Sure. Put your fingers over these holes here, then cultivate an air of fragile mystery. The boys in the string section will be entranced. And if anyone calls you a flutist, correct them with a gentle air of condescension. It’s “flautist.” And the sound the instrument makes is “flautilance.” Or “flautiilisme,” in the French.


Watching her tootle away on the thing made me realize how long that particular instrument has been around. Probably goes back to a caveman who sucked all the marrow out of a bone and got a pleasant whistling sound. And thus was music invented. What’s the most recent instrument anyone invented? The Saxophone, perhaps, although it wasn’t really invented; Adolphe Sax wasn’t some musical Edison who tinkered in his lab for years until he stumbled on the saxophone while trying to invent a sexier tuba. Buy “recent instrument” I mean the traditional conception of an instrument – something metal that requires air, or something stringed that requires fingers. Synthesizers produce new sounds, but they're still keyboards. In any case, we don’t invent new instruments anymore; we don’t have to. We can invent new sounds, which opened up an entirely new dimension for composers . . . none of whom seem to have taken it up, I’m afraid.

Anyway, there’s nothing to do until the show starts. The day is divided into three parts: before the show, then THE THING ITSELF, then the glorious Afterwards, with its boisterous floods of relief and mutual congratulations. The time before stretches out like a surrealist landscape, littered with strange misshapen anxieties and peculiar shadows; and when you’ve all day to wait, well, then you’ve all day to wait.

So now I wait.


Holy FREAKING God, and by that I mean the ancient god of fertility who needs an annual virgin to convince him to let the earth flow forth with vines and grains. The Symphony orchestra did “Rite of Spring,” and I don’t mean a watered-down Reader’s Digest 4/4 version, I mean the Rite of Spring, uncut. If you don’t know the piece: it’s the music for the Dinosaur sequence in “Fantasia.” That was my first exposure to the music when I was young, and it unnerved me from the first bar to the last; it’s unappeasable, without comfort or consolation. It’s not even pagan; it’s pre-pagan. Elemental. Which makes its immediate and undeniable claims on your id all the more unnerving, I suppose. It’s everything you’ve been trained to deny in yourself, and for good reason. More than that, though, it’s fiendishly hard to play. And these are high school kids.

Most of the pieces I introduce I know and like (or love, like “The Thieving Magpie Overture” performed by one of the orchestras; that one I first came to know through the “Clockwork Orange” soundtrack, believe it or not) but I don’t love “Rite,” and I wonder if anyone does. The word rolls right off the piece.  You just stand back and let that thing happen. If there’s an anecdote attached the piece, though, I’ll mention that. I had nothing written, but said a few things to the mirror in the dressing room, then went out and said them to several thousand people in the hall. And that is fun.

When I left the stage, Manny the Conductor was collecting himself before the great battle. He looked at the clock: 8:01.

“See you at eight of,” he said. It’s always the last thing he says before he goes on stage. He tells us the exact time he’ll be done.

Before the orchestra played, Manny explained about the controversy that erupted the night of the piece’s initial premier, how the piece split the audience in thirds. One third hated it, one third loved it, and one third just wanted the other sides to shut up so they could listen. As an experiment, then, he divided the great expanse of Orchestral Hall into thirds, gave everyone their role, and cued up the orchestra to the point where the protests truly began to disrupt the piece. I thought: this isn’t going to work with Minnesotans. No one’s going to dare to heckle. The orchestra sailed into it, and with three measures everyone in the hall had assumed their roles. Catcalls! Cheers! Hushing shhhushes, boos and bravos. It was hilarious, really, and a brilliant way to set the mood.

And then it began.  I could only imagine what people who’d never heard the piece must have thought; at least they heard it the way it was meant to be played. At one point Manny cracked his baton; it flew off into the ether. Later he lost the rest of the baton. I feared his arms would fly off as well. When they finished the audience rose directly to their feet and stayed there for the next eight minutes through all the recognitions and bows and curtain calls, until all the orchestra leaders and your humble narrator took the stage for the last bow –

Hello, it’s a Coke Commercial moment: a little kid came up to the front of the stage with Manny’s broken baton. Manny gave it back to him, and he ran back to his seat arms up in the air, fingers splayed in the V-for-Victory gesture. You don’t think an audience has more applause left in it after eight minutes, but they do, and the room just roared.

Incidentally, the piece ended at 8:52 - precisely as Manny had said.

New Quirk & Match; see you tomorrow.