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The symphony reminded me of college
When I step inside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland, I feel like a cartoon mouse who has taken up residence inside a wedding cake. The interior is frosted with ornate details from floor to ceiling. It’s not quite too much.
We arrived about 10 minutes early for the symphony and waited in line for a plastic cup of wine with a plastic lid and a paper straw. Think of the turtles.
We’re here to see Emanuel Ax who is, apparently, a Grammy award winning classical pianist. He teaches at Juilliard. I’m not a classical music fan really, but I am a good husband. I have learned from my wife that the world of classic music celebrity is a little different in the United States compared to other parts of the world. Artists who play to crowds of thirty-thousand in Europe barely fill a 3000 seat hall here.
This means we got pretty good seats.
The first piece we here is “contemporary classical” which always seems obsessed with deconstructing melody and harmony. To me, this type of composition always sounds like the backing track of a direct-to-streaming Christopher Nolan knock-off movie. I like to imagine sword fights or space battles or sword fight battles in space while the music clangs on.
I look over the orchestra. Some of them seem youngish. Maybe 30s? I wonder where they live. I like to imagine they have small studio apartments downtown, with an entire wall dedicated to a big stereo and stacks of vinyl. I like to imagine them annoying the neighbors by practicing scales on a Sunday morning.
The postmodern piece is over and Ax takes the stage to play the Beethoven. From our seats we can look over his elbow to see his hands hovering by the keys. He waits patiently as the orchestra plays the first movement. When it is time, the conductor nods in his direction and his big, meaty paws dance over the keys. His hands are weightless. I wonder if the trills and cascades of notes are spelled out in the sheet music or if there’s just a little note in latin: “with a flourish”. It’s then that I realize he has no sheet music. He’s playing this all from memory.
When I was in college, back in Charlotte, I took a physical anthropology class as one of my final science requirements. I got around to it my senior year. This was a mistake. I was too busy working, trying to graduate, and trying to get a show in a gallery to really focus on my studies.
But the class was great. We learned all about human evolution and in the lab we got to measure real skeletons and try to determine age, sex, and race. I got a “C”.
The class was taught by Dr. Kathy Reichs. This is my 6-degrees-of-separation connection to Hollywood. As I was finishing my undergraduate degree, Dr. Reichs published her first novel, Deja Dead. The novel was a smash, followed by sequels and eventually the TV show Bones starring the taller Deschanel sister and that guy from Buffy. Dr. Reichs had a few cameos.
During one class, we were learning about ancient hominids, ancestors and precursors to humans. Bipedal apes who came down from the trees to begin to bang rocks together. Reichs discussed each hominid, detailing when and where they were discovered and their distinguishing characteristics including their cranial capacity in cubic centimeters. At the end of the class I slinked up to her lectern to ask a probably-dumb question.
I stole a glance at her lectern, thinking I’d see a stack of notecards, or neatly typed lecture notes. Instead I saw an empty sheet of paper. There were no notes.