Three Shows

It’s an hour into the first set and the guitarist is digging into his first solo of the night. Until now he’d been comping unobtrusively, nodding and inscrutable, but now his guitar is starting to moan above the rhythm and he’s got a few things to say before he cedes.

You wouldn’t have known it, the way he loafed through the first few songs, but he’s got plenty of technique.

And now his head has started lolling carelessly. He’s paying it no mind, the now startling peregrinations of his head back and left, then down, then left, then right. His tongue, which until this point hadn’t featured in the show, is now draped enormously on his chin. Strip away the soundtrack and you might think epilepsy.

This musician, he’s a pretty big black guy with a shaved head. The rest of the group is diverse enough. Young white dude on drums, probably a student at Berklee. Sax and guitar both black. On keys might be Middle Eastern, it’s tough to tell. The guy on upright bass looks like he might be Slavic or Nordic, probably Russian, tall and too lanky for comfort, which I think is pretty typical.

The solo is heating up, the guitarist unpacking a week’s weight of baggage, his guitar raining fat drops on the crowd.

His girlfriend is sitting at the next table over and is practically on top of the band. She had been well settled by the time we got to the bar, before the set even started, a table to herself, fifty pounds overweight and chatty, talking through some of the organ solos, but now is transfixed. She’s probably been waiting for this moment all night.

The guy playing organ is bent over the keys, and he’s shaking his head robotically left and right, as if he had a screwdriver attached to the crown of his skull and were trying to bore a hole through the front of his instrument. Come to think of it, this group gets pretty low marks on neck control across the board.

Wally’s is shoulder to shoulder by now, and will be until the early morning. Plus there’s a rumor floating around that Soulive is going to drop by after their show at the Orpheum, so a bunch of underage Berklee kids are lurking around nervously, carrying clandestine trombones in hopes of jamming with.

His adipose sweetheart is fairly swooning. He doesn’t look at her. His eyes are open, but he must not be registering much, the way his neck is craning. He’s still going at it, still wailing his melody, and the rest of the band seems stoic, except for the organist, whose head is drilling left and right.

He’s at it still, and if anything he’s building, and he’s building yet, and now you would have to admit that he is kicking ass. Yes: this man is definitely kicking ass. The Scandic bassist is flagging, and, perched above the rest of the band, is looking down like, it’s fine if you come here for catharsis but damn. We don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems this one night.

Our hero eventually relents. The next moment, he considers his neck, and his head slopes back into alignment. He’s pretty quiet for the rest of the night.

* * *

I am underemployed at a music festival, moving around chairs for a major east-coast orchestra. My specialty is the winds.

None of the other guys on stage crew are much into music; they’re all pretty happy to sit around backstage and make fun of the audio team, who they call humheads. This is the enmity between fellow bottom-dwellers in such a towering, top-heavy festival.

I always volunteer, and so am always assigned, to help with the chamber music rehearsals across the grounds. Sometimes I sit and pretend to read my book, as not to make the musicians feel self-conscious while they rehearse, and listen enraptured, an audience of one. Sometimes I actually read my book. Other times I struggle to stay awake.

They’re working on the Shostakovich Piano Quintet. This is one of my top five desert island pieces, and I’d been looking forward to it all summer. Bronfman is going to fly in for the weekend to play piano, and the quartet, all symphony musicians, are getting a jump start on the rehearsals with a student filling in Bronfman’s part. This is the way they always do it. The soloist will arrive Thursday night, perform the quintet on Friday as part of the chamber music series, and then a concerto with the whole orchestra Saturday.

I’m sitting in the corner of the rehearsal cabin, pretending to read my book. Things aren’t going well. They’re blowing through all of the tempo changes, like they’ve never heard the piece before. The student pianist’s eyes are bulging out and I can tell she’s thinking, am I the only person in here who knows how this thing goes?

The first violin is the problem. And, listen! She starts the fugue at double tempo, misreading the quarter-note-equals marking at the top of the page. I’m chewing vigorously the side of my cheek. I remember the first time I heard this movement, the halting first strokes of the theme, the entrance of the second and third voices. The most honest portrayal of grief I’d ever heard in music. At twice tempo, it sounds a little like Joplin.

They stop her and the second time through is better. She’s playing it at the right tempo, a tempo at the excruciation point. She hangs her tongue out of the side of her mouth, as if to say, I was hoping for something a little peppier, and at this moment I hate her.

Not a difficult job, but it does take a certain knack to swoop in unobtrusively and mark the orientation of the stands and chairs in the five seconds between the end of the dress rehearsal and the moment the musicians push back their chairs and make a general mess in their rush to get out of the hall. They like for it to be set up just the same way for the concert. I usually tear the strike tape into exes and els and stick them to my shirt so I can slap them down at a moment’s notice. Exes underneath the stands, els for the chairs and the piano.

It’s Friday morning and Bronfman is here for the dress rehearsal, his left hand full of pent thunder. By this point the quartet is prepared, if deferential. The tempi are credible. But where is the page-turner? The stage manager is hunting the hallways and we’re losing time. Just give me same man for rehearsal and performance, Bronfman bellows. I stand up from the back of the hall, red exes and els already taped to my T-shirt. I know this piece, I call out.

* * *

These are my phenomenal musician friends from college, and they happen to be playing a concert in my obscure hometown. It’s at the Unitarian Universalist church, where my mom sings in the choir Sundays, the only room in town that can be credibly used as a performance space.

I’ve wrangled together a few of my old high school friends, hyping the Bartok even though I suspect they won’t get much out of it. The Mozart they’ll like better, it’s not nearly so brackish and thorny. Or rather, with Mozart the thorns are so stylized and pretty that you need a music degree to know when he’s trying to make you uncomfortable.

For me, Bartok is better. They’re doing his third string quartet. This is the one where the cello spends the end of the last movement dropping bombs on the rest of the group, a wide-open sort of crazy portamento pizz and you’re not going to hear anything else like it until Hendrix plays the national anthem at Woodstock.

We live in a culture where classical music struggles for relevance. There’s a lot to listen to these days, and classical isn’t always the most compelling thing on the dial, especially not the Albinoni Concerto a Cinque crap that they play during rush hour on WCRB. In the end, you get out what you put into it, just like with anything else. Or sometimes you get out a lot more than you put in, depending on the composer.

These musicians are my age, kids really, and therefore grappling with a Bartok they can barely wrap their arms around. It’s better this way: through the struggle you can hear a more compelling truth. I’ve heard too many performances ruined by insufficient grapple, a work’s wonder lost when the group always hits their downbeats together and unruffled.

Performing music can be a rapturous experience, and the shows you want to go to are the ones in which the musicians are themselves rapt. Pretty often, these happen not to be the concerts with an audience that knows when to clap, or that scowls at you when you show up in jeans.

Tonight the cellist will drop his pizzicato bombs with a manic grin on his face, the way that I’ve seen him do it in rehearsal. The violist will be laughing out loud, laughter jangling into the texture of the music. Sonata for string quartet and cackle. My old schoolmates will be fidgeting uncomfortably in their seats. I’ll be perched in the second row off to the side, enjoying the show. We don’t have to solve all of the world’s problems this one night.

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