The magic happens the moment I step forward into the acoustical ambiance of a music hall and I hear that first cacophonous onslaught of instrument and musicians. They’re not just tuning up although there’s that, too. Some violinist is frantically last minute practicing a difficult phrase, at the same time the flautist is re-doing a trill. I watch the kettle drummer bending his head to catch the tremors as he taps the taut drum head. The uncorralled musicians of this moment in contrast to the program’s promised presentation !
Those sounds provoke the excitement that never fails to ripple through my heart when I step past the usher at the Hall door in the beautiful glass and concrete Davies Symphony Hall which anchors one corner of the Civic Center in San Francisco. When I hear such a strange prelude, the thrill is always there. Real live human beings are about to change dits and dots on paper into music that evanesces after it is played; reverberating only into the cells of memory.
It was in the fall, 10 or 15 years ago. For a mere pittance in artistic circles ($20.00 a ticket) I began to attend the senior Symphony Series on Thursday afternoons in San Francisco.
Of course there was a catch—there always is: Out of all the weekly season’s programs, I would have to accept the eight they offered—and friend Kay and I had to sit in the seats they dealt out to us. In our beginning, twenty years ago each program would find us in different seats; and each September I couldn’t wait to tear open the envelop when the season’s tickets were enclosed. What concerts? and where would we sit? Like the expectation of winning in a lottery .
I always thought the symphony organization was paying us olders back in a generic way: doing their civic duty in one fell swoop, just being generous. Until once, pre-concert, I overheard two smartly dressed women gossiping while lined up in front of me at the small hall-bar for a glass of wine.
Silver-hair, pleated plaid skirt and jacket by Armani said, “Well, it really pays off for us.”
“How’s that?” silver-hair, and tailored-by-a couturier pant suit responded. “Besides filling up the auditorium on a midweek matinee? With little-old-ladies who have given up driving to SF from Walnut Creek?” and she laughed deprecating her own self-description.
“There’s that, too,” and Armani Jacket smiled at the implied humor. “ But best of all, it’s like a dress rehearsal for the evening performances—gives Josh Kosman a chance to hear the music and write a review that comes out in the Friday paper.” They both obviously knew the name of The Chron music critic.
“Well, he boosts the weekend box office.” replied Pantsuit. “The tickets fly out the window if he says MTT is doing a good job. The seats are really filled if he praises the soloist.”
“Yes, I grant you that. But Josh goes overboard at favoring the new music, usually that short piece at the beginning of the program. I can’t stand that stuff.” Armani Jacket dared to voice that bit of contemporary heresy .
The women moved away from the bar, careful not to spill any of their Chardonnay’s on their symphony-elegance.
I stepped up, “ One coffee,” I ordered, “please, only half full, and add two ice cubes.” The coffee is great here—probably Peet’s—It’s always so hot I never have time to finish before the ten minute warning chimes ring for seating.
Oh, woe, the year when our seats were in the 2nd row, side section: Most of the music just eddied around us. We had to stare up at the immediate legs of the bass viol players and the black pumps, ankles and thighs of the end cellists. However, there was an antidote for that pill: Arrive early enough to exchange seats at the box office. But before friend Kay discovered that way, I had found one other answer.
After the concertmaster entered to a smattering of applause, when the audience settled down, when the candy wrappers didn’t rustle any more, I said, “Look, Kay,” and I prodded her gently with my elbow, “Look over there.” She turned slightly and her glance followed the gesture of my head towards the rear of the house. Agreement was implicit in her smile.
When the lights lowered just before MTT or a guest conductor stepped through the stage door, in a matter of seconds I grabbed Kay’s arm, scooted over our seat mates, and dashed back up the center aisle for four rows. We settled down in the perfect house seats: two on the aisle kept available for last minute sales at full price.
Heading the symphony roster is the stalwart good looking concertmaster who about five-six years came to the orchestra from Europe. I have an old-ladies crush on Alexander Barantschik; his name is like music itself when I say it aloud. Alex-AND-der Bar-An-Schik. I smile when he strides to the front, sounds his “A” and takes the first violin chair. What sends me is not his debonair demeanor. Nor just the way his violin strings leave smoky trails of heaven in the air.
The tipping point that turned me into an aging Barantchek groupie has nothing to do with music—hold your breath: It is the red lining to his afternoon concert jacket—what a European touch! His looks, his skills and the flamboyance of his red lining: irresistible! Of course, MTT, our conductor, is pretty dashing himself..
It is easy to check out the blonde in the violas—she’s a happy-camper with a great smile whose body sways with the notes she plays. The piccolo player leaves me breathless : it is said she can do 28 notes in five seconds.
I watch for Robin Sutherland who plays the keyboard part. I don’t need the opera glasses to find him: his hair is swept straight back right from his eyebrows, from his forehead and fastened tightly behind. He sports a long blond ponytail! I’m sure he had to fight for it with the symphony brass.
We look forward to what Kosman will say in tomorrow’s Chronicle about what we have heard this afternoon. It doesn’t matter whether we agree with him or not. We know. We burnish each such afternoon like the pearl it is.