Saturday, March 26, 2011

She guarded my donuts for me: Like Hale for Water Music, Part I

The lobby at Powell Hall was mobbed Friday morning. I remember talking to Fred Bronstein at dinner when he was the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra president-elect, and Fred saying what remains a theme: Powell should be a destination.

On this cold, wet morning, it was more like a way station. I mean, it was bad out there. Snow, sleet, hale. The ticket handed me by the box office person identified the concert as Water Music. I took that around as a witticism to my fellow concert-goers mobbed in the lobby. "Hale for Water Music," I would say. Wasn't getting the laughs. Tried adding, "Hale is a form of water." Realized people understood that part; the problem was, I was not funny.

I like these Friday morning shows, because I am more awake at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday morning than I am when the band strikes up at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. I kept saying to the other people, "Weather like this would have kept us home on a Saturday night," and there was consensus on that point. Matter of fact, had I started a petition drive -- right then and there in the Powell lobby -- to move the Symphony's subscription series to Friday morning concerts with free coffee and donuts, then I think Fred would have been met with a major new programming challenge.

Krispy Kreme was the donut vendor. God bless those good people. I picked up as many glazed as I could carry on my thumbs and moved in for the java.

I'm going to go ahead and say the Symphony could use a feng shei consultant, or a traffic engineer, for how it dispenses free coffee and donuts in the same, fairly narrow space, cut in half by a bar, that connects the front door and the concert seats.

It was rush hour, Highway 40 in there, but with no pavement markings, no traffic cops, and (let me come right out and say it) almost only elderly drivers. I am not young and I drive like a little old man, so I include myself in the indicted group. We were not moving fast, not responding to traffic puzzles with speed or dexterity. We were clogging up the arteries of Powell like three glazed donuts.

Yes, three. I know I have only accounted for two, having carried one on each thumb, having only two thumbs. But I was hankering for a third glazed.

By now, I had navigated the badly snarled coffee pot gridlock and found the one single place remaining to stand with a place to perch your coffee cup. It was, of course, the corner of a bar. There was a nice-looking old lady (age, maybe, seventy) beside me at the bar. She seemed to be at the concert alone. She was all dolled up, looking sharp. There was straight away a neighborly vibe, the place being so packed, us smashed against the bar. We were kind of in this thing together.

I thought my wheels and reflexes for incoming traffic might be in better shape than hers, so I offered to spring for another donut.

"You mean you can do that?" she asked, in a really cool European accent. She'd been keeping to just one donut, observing some limit.

I walked over like I owned the place, dodging through the tangles of concert-goers and donut-eaters, and came back with two more glazed on my thumbs, one for her and one for me. This was when I realized I had picked the right ally. When I say she had the path blocked to my spot at the bar, I mean physically. This was like a seventy-year-old lady, but she had flung herself around my notebook and coffee cup and thrown out arms. If you were moving in on my space, you were going to have to break one of her arms to get there.

I reflected on something I think a lot, as a married parent. How much easier life is with somebody to hold up half of it, whatever it is.

My little old lady's coffee looked like it needed freshening. I came back with one Styrofoam cup of coffee that I split between us, to freshen up both. Again, she made a physical barricade of herself, in protection of my turf, until I got back. I loved this lady.

We got to talking over coffee and Krispy Kremes. Turns out she had driven over from the Illinois side, Bunker Hill. I grew up on the East Side and had a boyhood girlfriend whose folks had a place in Bunker Hill, kind of a country home for steel mill townies. I was taken back almost thirty years to an anguished boyhood crush (the girl with the country home in Bunker Hill was the kind of girl who really sticks to the ribs of the mind) when my new ally took her own flight into the past: to Vienna, where she grew up.

Holy shit. All I know about classical music is what I read in those slick, smart little program Symphony magazines. They always have a little box that says where the composer was born and died. I have noticed many of the great composers seem to croak in Vienna. People die where they live, where they work, where they want to be remembered. Vienna, clearly, was the top-shelf hang for this symphony orchestra thing.

When I gushed to my new buddy that I had never seen a better orchestra than the one in St. Louis, she said, with no boast to herself, nor insult to the house, that she had seen many better. That, in fact, was when she let drop with the Vienna name magic.

They started to ding those bells that send people to their seats. I have a lot of friends who work for the Symphony, and they don't get shook up like the rest of us do when the bells ding to start the show. From Symphony staffers, I have learned you have plenty of time to finish your wine, or donut. But the older folks move slower and don't want to hold anybody up, so my friend from Vienna was off as at the pop of a gun.

There was a moment there. I think we both felt like we had something new we wanted to hold onto. Maybe it was a form of ageism in not just asking for her number. I am going to go ahead and say it was. A man is just a lot more likely to collect a phone number from a pretty woman who is near him in age, at least within two decades, give or take.

But we did define that corner of the bar at Powells as ours, and agree to meet again. "Next coffee concert," the little old lady said, as we parted ways -- and she pointed to the turf she had so fearlessly defended.

To be continued ....


Donut shot from the Flickr site of Scott Ableman; it belongs to him, not me.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bedhead and the beauty from around the corner of the bar

This is Part II of a report on the St. Louis Symphony's recent Bloggers Night. Make sure you starty with Part I,
St. Louis 2011: An adventurous music urban odyssey.

Sex is the only thing that is better than music. And the love of a child is the only thing that is better than sex.

The blogger and his friend both knew the love of a child. But Paul’s son was grown, and the blogger’s daughter (herself a pint-sized blogger) was at home, watching bad TV with her mom. There was no prospecting for sex going on this Bloggers Night by these two guys, but one does enjoy the opportunity to observe other human beings moving about and how splendid so many of them look.

Men are doomed to discuss these observations, as we know. The blogger’s friend Paul – shorn hairless, in the vicinity of fifty years of age; a wiry, aging hipster and Navy veteran – remarked on the splendid appearance of the young woman who happened to be sitting around the corner of the oak bar. The blogger had come to the same conclusion. The woman around the corner of the bar had good color, with a mix of southern European or Mesoamerican. She was on a date with a young man that seemed to be going well. They were scrunched next to each other, thick as thieves. When her date stepped away from his barstool and left the room, presumably to pee, the blogger asked across the corner of the bar about the young woman’s wheat-colored beer, served in a tall, fluted glass. She said her boyfriend was teaching her all about beer, and she was enjoying the education. She and the blogger were still talking about beer when her date reappeared.

The thing to do, at that point, was to include the boyfriend in the conversation as quickly and completely as possible. One needed to dispel any hint of moving in on the other man’s date when he was away from the field of battle. The boyfriend was more than happy to talk about himself. He said he was living just around the corner in the downtown loft district, though he worked 20 miles away in North St. Louis County and grew up 20 miles the other way in South St. Louis County.

The blogger and his friend were veteran newspaper men. They were up to date on the developing trends and demographic shifts in their metropolitan area, which straddled the Mississippi River, two counties in Illinois, and several counties in Missouri, not to mention the city of St. Louis itself, a tiny political entity the shape of a scrawny porkchop, segregated from St. Louis County for political motives that stopped making sense half a century ago. The blogger and his friend blinked across the bar at this young new urbanite, with his thin brown hair cut into a bedhead, the bangs flipped up at their very ends. He was that very rare thing: a statistic made flesh.

“Millions and millions of dollars of public money have been spent to produce people exactly like you,” the blogger said to the young new urbanite with the bedhead haircut, who nodded along right away, he got the point instantly – he too followed the local news. “Millions and millions of dollars of public money have been spent precisely to produce the young white male from South County who works in the County but lives in the city downtown in a loft on Washington Avenue,” the blogger continued, and Bedhead kept nodding along. “Pretty much,” he agreed.

The blogger’s friend delivered newspapers for a living. He worked on the streets all over the metropolitan area and had unusually few illusions about St. Louis. He said to the young new urbanite from the suburbs, “How do you like living down here where people get shot sometimes?”

Bedhead admitted that he did not like that aspect of city living. He said he really couldn't blame anyone from a safe suburban neighborhood who chose not to move into the city – closer to the neighborhoods where the region's poverty and crime had been segregated for half a century. But he was making a go of it, and so was his new girlfriend – the beauty from around the corner of the bar, a part-Cherokee girl from central Missouri who worked in restaurant supply.

The boy and girl had met recently at the wedding of mutual friends, presumably been swept up in the festive atmosphere of love and alcohol, and would now be turning a long-distance love affair into a relationship shared at the extremely close distance of a cohabitated loft apartment. She was bubbly at the prospects of moving to the city. But then, she seemed to be of a positive disposition – probably she would have been bubbly about staying in Missouri’s largest university town, Columbia, which she described as “a young town, a liberal town.”

She had partnered up with a man who was young in every way, but not liberal. When the blogger’s friend told the young couple they worked for a newspaper, the young new urbanite knew enough to ask (in a fumbling, stumbling, incoherent fashion) about the paper’s political direction; and Paul said, bluntly, “Liberal.”

“Well,” the young new urbanite said, “I am conservative.” This, emphatically, did not come as a shock. South St. Louis County, where he grew up, had many of the County’s most conservative zip codes. This young man managed contracts for a major corporate employer that mostly made its money off the military. These were yet more ways in which this young new urbanite with the bedhead haircut and the iron-flipped bangs was a walking statistic.

There had been much media chatter in St. Louis about the young new conservative urbanites. This was a staggeringly sexy demographic for the big Republican money that propped up the nominally Democratic, but in practice entirely opportunistic, political leadership of the city. These guys were middle-aged conservative white men who had become experts at manipulating the city’s divided and demoralized electorate, at least on election day, and an influx of young, conservative, white men like Bedhead was nothing but good news to them.

Politics had been standing on its head lately, in St. Louis and Missouri and the rest of the country, so it was not difficult to see why this young conservative new urbanite represented a sexy demographic. Now, what the effortlessly beautiful Cherokee lass saw in this guy as a sexual partner was harder to figure. Her clock was probably starting to tick, two years out of college, living in a university town where everyone around her stayed frozen in youth as her girlfriends began to grow up and get married. Whatever the source of the urging, clearly it was there. She stayed clenched closely to her date throughout their conversation and was holding onto him pretty tight as they left the tavern and walked out into the city.

“You know what they are going to go do,” the blogger’s friend muttered into his dry-hopped ale.

“The only thing that is better than music,” the blogger muttered into his dry-hopped lager.


This is Part II of a report on the St. Louis Symphony's recent Bloggers Night. Make sure you start with Part I, St. Louis 2011: An adventurous music urban odyssey.

Image from Thom Fletcher's Flickr. It was the best I could do. I seem to know no one who takes pictures of guys like Bedhead.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

St. Louis 2011: An adventurous music urban odyssey

Image borrowed from the Flickr of Matt Scutt; it belongs to him, not me.

It was a disappointing beer list. The blogger handed the menu back to the man behind the counter at the City Diner and said to his friend, “Let’s go.”

Walking back to Powell Hall, they passed a couple of familiar faces from the concert, walking the other way, toward the diner. “There go two of the other bloggers,” his friend said. “Are you sure you don’t want to go back and talk to everybody?”

“The beer list sucks. I’d just drink coffee and get all wired out and talk too much,” the blogger said. “I don’t really have anything to say about the music anyway. I can write music criticism if you pay me, and I’ll come up with a blog post, like I promised the guys at the Symphony, but all I really have to say about a concert like that is: Sex is the only thing better than music. And the love of a child is the only thing better than sex. And that show was as great as music can be. So only sex or the love of a child could be better than that.”

They passed a stout black woman in a police uniform, struggling herself into a rain slicker. It was a rainy night in St. Louis. The blogger loved a rainy night in St. Louis.

“And after music,” the blogger continued, with the felt need to complete a list, once he had started one, “comes booze – beer and wine – and after that, food. Those are the very greatest things.”

They turned the corner on Grand Boulevard at Powell Hall, where they had just sat rapt at the concert for Bloggers Night. They strode down Delmar, on the north boundary of the grand old movie theater turned concert hall. Concert-goers in St. Louis tended to fear parking to the north of events at night. North is perceived as the general direction of poverty and danger in St. Louis (explained by patterns of investment and neglect). The blogger noticed two empty police cruisers were now parked down Delmar where the less fearful concert-goers looked for parking. He and his friend agreed that was a good idea for discouraging street crime and boosting the comfort level of the nighttime concert-goers.

The talk of booze and food had put them back in the mood for those fine things, so the blogger’s friend drove them toward The Tap Room, a nearby brewpub on the outskirts of downtown St. Louis with a long list of delicious homemade beers.

“That was just about as great as music can be,” the blogger said again, repeating himself, as the white van moved through the dark, rain-slickened city streets. “Hearing that entire, gigantic orchestra – I have never seen that many pieces play in this orchestra! – break into that music from Space Odyssey, out of nowhere! My God!”

The concert program had concluded with Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Its swelling, dramatic, brassy opening theme is now famous from its prominent use in the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (The blogger reflected that 2001, which had seemed a futuristic date to audiences when Kubrick premiered his film in 1968, was now a decade in the past. Strauss premiered his symphony in 1896, composed in response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical treatise written in the first half of the 1880s.)

This night, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra had managed to make some of the most familiar music in the symphonic canon new again by breaking into Also Sprach Zarathustra without a pause following the previous piece on the program, a modern tone poem by Gyorgy Ligeti titled Atmospheres. It was an unexpected and stunning move.

“I know,” the blogger’s friend, Paul, said. “I kept closing my eyes, because I wanted the full effect. I wanted nothing but the music. But then I kept having to open my eyes to figure out where the music was coming from.”


They were not the only people in town with the bright idea of finishing an evening of sublime music with delicious homemade beer and good food. Inside the Tap Room, there was a gaggle of people holding instrument cases, waiting to be seated at a table. The blogger and his friend moved past them to take seats at the old bar. One young, tall, frizzy-headed man holding a smaller instrument case (it held a trumpet) was standing there, waiting for his beer.

After establishing that the trumpet player had just performed with the Symphony, the blogger asked him the one thing he really wanted to know about that program – the one reason he regretted not joining the other bloggers and Symphony staffers at the diner: “So, whose idea was it to bust right into the Strauss, without a pause for applause and letting everyone get settled in again for the next piece?”

The trumpet player smiled brightly above his blonde beer. “I don’t know,” he said, in the tone of someone who appreciated a great idea without worrying too much where it came from.

“Was it David’s idea?” the blogger asked. David Robertson was the Symphony’s musical director, though the guest conductor that night had been Carlos Kalmar.

“It was probably David’s idea,” the trumpet player said, “but Carlos pulled it off!” Then he joined one of two large groups of musicians being led across the tavern to adjacent tables. The blogger liked that the two groups of musicians were being seated at adjacent tables. This was their work, and more than 40 musicians had been on stage to play just Also Sprach Zarathustra; it was nice to think they wanted to extend a group experience, rather than take a break from coworkers after many tiring hours of rehearsal and performance. He also liked the easy affirmation of, “But Carlos pulled it off!” – one musician sticking up for another.

The blogger had watched Carlos Kalmar with interest throughout the concert. Conductors are kind of a trip as a human category. Even the most sedate of them jump up and down and have a fit and make the most outlandish and individual gestures with their hands and faces. Carlos Kalmar did not disappoint in this regard, though he left no suggestion of a vapid showman. He just lived the music from the inside-out, like a conductor is supposed to do – he ripped the symphony out of himself and then distributed it around the orchestra, one section, one player at a time.

The blogger also had imagined that he and Carlos Kalmar – born in Uruguay, of Austrian descent – were together with the thoughts on one point. The program had opened with Franz Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which the orchestra ripped right through without so much as a glance at the conductor’s stand. It even seemed like the guest conductor was feeling and calling for slightly different beats and emphases than the orchestra was feeling and playing. On the Liszt, the guest conductor seemed (pleasantly) beside the point of the tightly rehearsed collective of musicians performing together from the page a sharply constructed piece of music. The blogger imagined that Carlos Kalmar recognized this himself, after the band stopped and the audience erupted into applause, when the conductor instantly whipped his hands around the orchestra and had all of the musicians take the first bow – all of them – as a collective.

The blogger was squarely in Carlos Kalmar’s corner just from reading the program notes, where we were told he “resides in Portland, Oregon, and Vienna.” How cooler could you possibly be? To direct a symphony orchestra in a town like Portland, Oregon, while keeping a foot on the Earth in the European city with more collective memory of symphonic music than any other.

Portland! The blogger’s globe-trotting friend Scott Intagliata, itinerant merchant of the temperature control systems of the future, once described Portland as “hipster fantasy camp.” Hipster fantasy camp! But they were in a gritty old river city, home to an orchestra that makes music as well as music can be made, and there is nothing better than that except sex or the love of a child. They were in a river city where it is remembered how to make very good beer. The blogger knew the barman, who poured them delicious homemade ales.

The barman had given some thought to the symphony’s program that night himself. He said, “Ligeti’s son is coming to St. Louis.” Ligeti was the composer of Atmospheres, the piece that had bled into Zarathustra in that night’s concert. Talk about hipster fantasy camp, or fantasy camp for serious enthusiasts of adventurous music, as St. Louis always is. The barman came back with scrap of paper, scrawled with, “Ligeti’s son, April 29th @ FoPoCoCo.” That’s Forest Park Community College. The barman tipped the blogger to consult his own blog for more information.

So it had turned into a Symphony Bloggers Night out, after all.

St. Louis is a magic city. Many people have felt this, and there is no need to defend the feeling against those who disbelieve in enchantment or disregard St. Louis (by comparison to Portland, or Vienna). St. Louis is a city where you can leave the brassy heights of Also Sprach Zarathustra and walk into a bar where you end up talking to one of the trumpet players (four, total, in this score!) who just scaled its heights. Then, turn from the beer-sipping Symphony trumpet player to a poetry-slinging bartender who just got done looking out a Southern-exposure window in St. Louis, listening to the Ligeti composition that bled into Zarathustra that night. And he has the drop on Ligeti’s son coming to town that spring.

The blogger turned to his friend and said, “Isn’t tonight something special with the moon? Isn’t the moon closer to Earth tonight than it’s been in, like, 18 years?”

“Yeah,” Paul said, “but, the clouds. You can’t see the moon.” And then he drove them home through the nighttime city in the rain.