Cheers, Decadence, Poverty, and the Littlest Pianer I Ever Seen

Let me set the stage. We’ve chopped some organic vegetables and put aside a dozen organic eggs and are going to mix them with a bit of local raw milk to make a quiche for dinner. A friend is coming over to watch our children so that we can go to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s blogger’s night, which afforded me the opportunity to get free tickets to a KSO performance in exchange for blogging about the event. I emerge from my home office at the end of the workday to the panicked sounds of my wife saying that the oven won’t turn on. It’s been on pre-heat for a half hour, but it just won’t come on, and what are we going to do about dinner and the timing and all the vegetables and the homemade crust and we’re going to be late? Simple. We order a pizza for the kids and sitter and the two of us head out early to grab dinner in Market Square.

On the way there, I chatter to my wife about the program notes I had read online, noting that the daughter of the great violinist Itzhak Perlman will be playing piano tonight. The elder Perlman once came to the university I attended what feels like a million years ago, and I remember hearing much buzz about him and regretting that I didn’t attend, myself. I’ve since seen him on PBS a number of times. “Is his daughter Rhea Perlman?” my wife asks. She’s joking, of course, but the jest isn’t entirely tangential, since there’s to be a wine-and-cheese reception (with Rhea as barkeep? we spend the evening looking for a Danny DeVito clone to pair with the pianist) following the performance at which I envision meeting a few of the local bloggers I’ve been reading recently as I try to cultivate a stronger sense of geographical belonging.

I’ve lived in Knoxville nearly ten years, and I figure it must be about time to call it home and become more involved with the community (even if mostly the online one) around me. In all that time, I’ve never been to the Tennessee Theatre, which is the venue for the performance.

And what a neat venue it is! I knew to expect an old-fashioned theater, but this thing is just over the top. The style of the building (says wikipedia) is apparently Spanish-Moorish, with various influences from other parts of the world. In purely visual terms, what that seems to mean is lots of plaster to make textures, lots of red and gold patterns on the walls, big drapey curtains, patterned grates backlit with colorful lights, and everything’s big. When the house lights are up, if you look up at the big oval tray-type ceiling, it’s sort of a light aqua color (with lighter I think gold or yellow textures) that seems to move in contrast to the red/gold surrounding it and is really sort of dizzying. I can’t help thinking it’s supposed to be sky-like, and this is reinforced by the way the illusion of movement actually gave me a similar vertiginous feeling that I get sometimes when looking at moving clouds. When the lights go down, the ceiling glows a royal blue. The theater is a neat place to be.

Here I’m going to digress for a moment and talk about being a fish out of water. This was apparently a big concern of bloggers invited to attend last year. Those of us who are new to the KSO don’t know what to wear. I’m a flip-flops and tee-shirt kind of guy, and I joked that I’d wear my usual attire to the performance. I wound up going with okay-looking jeans and a sweater. When I went to the bathroom before the show, I noticed that lots of the older guys were wearing suits and long overcoats and hats and such, and I couldn’t help wondering if they weren’t sizing me and my jeans up and thinking about how it was types like me who were really lowering the bar and ruining the significance or specialness of the experience for them sort of the way a group of loud teenagers at a decent sit-down restaurant can kind of take away from the experience of a nice dinner out.

Mencken famously lambasted the South and its appreciation of the arts in a 1917 essay entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart.” His essay ultimately helped to catalyze the growth of the arts in the South. A brief sample of what he had to say:

But consider the condition of [the South] today. The picture gives one the creeps. It is as if the Civil War stamped out every last bearer of the torch, and left only a mob of peasants on the field. One thinks of Asia Minor, resigned to Armenians, Greeks and wild swine, of Poland abandoned to the Poles. In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, or a single orchestra capable of playing the nine symphonies of Beethoven, or a single opera-house, or a single theater devoted to decent plays, or a single public monument that is worth looking at, or a single workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things.

Them, it turned out, was fightin’ words. More:

Virginia is the best of the South today, and Georgia is perhaps the worst. The one is simply senile; the other is crass, gross, vulgar and obnoxious. Between lies a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence… As for the cause of this unanimous torpor and doltishness, this curious and almost pathological estrangement from everything that makes for a civilized culture, I have hinted at it already, and now state it again. The South has simply been drained of all its best blood. The vast hemorrhage of the Civil War half exterminated and wholly paralyzed the old aristocracy, and so left the land to the harsh mercies of the poor white trash, now its masters.

As I walked into the restroom downstairs from the auditorium, I had a sudden fear that maybe this was the sort of bathroom that had an attendant whom I wouldn’t know how to address or whether to tip. Luckily, there was no attendant, but my sheepishness at going in highlighted to me how out of water I felt. I wasn’t a fish out of water so much, I guess, as a small-town Southern boy in culture. And it was hard for me not to imagine these fedoraed gentlemen thinking of me and my jeans and sweater as some remnant of that poor white trash that killed culture in the South.

So when I found my seat six rows back from the stage and saw what was a teensy tinsy piano-looking thing, I leaned over to my wife and whispered in her ear in a put-on yokel voice, “That there’s the littlest pianer I ever seen.” After consulting the program notes, we learned that, duh, it was a harpsichord to be played during the first piece of music, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. Bach was apparently not terribly well-known during his life, and Mendelssohn (whose Italian Symphony closed the evening) was largely responsible during the hundred years following Bach’s life for bringing Bach’s music to the public. This revival reminds me of the Southern revival of culture clearly in evidence during the KSO’s performance.

And yet during the concert, I found myself looking around at other attendees and wondering how many were here because they really enjoyed the music. Don’t we sometimes pose in order to give the impression of learnedness or culture? Do my references to Mencken enhance this little article or do they serve primarily to give the impression that I do know literature and culture in spite of my written assurances that I’m a redneck who doesn’t know the triangle from the violin? I thought of the beer commercial from the last year or two featuring two guys attending the opera with their girlfriends clearly against their personal wills. They sneak bottled beer into the concert and are busted when a high note shatters the bottles of beer in their coat pockets (a guy in front of them conspiratorially waves a can of beer at them). How many people were at this performance of the KSO more or less against their wills? And how many thought about their taxes or mentally composed an email to send at work tomorrow? How many were there out of some sense of duty to something they couldn’t name? (And how many were listening to the music while writing six small notepad pages of notes that would inform a later blog post?)

It’s a strange thing for most of us to sit and listen to music as our primary focus for an hour-and-a-half. Music is usually a background. It’s something you turn on to drown out road noise or (quietly) to provide an air of sophistication or elegance at a dinner party. Sitting and doing nothing but listening to music, it occurred to me, denotes that the listeners are people of leisure. Else we’re just too darned busy and in need of multi-tasking for it. This is why it’s traditionally the haughty upper-class types (e.g. the wealthy overcoated restroom gentlemen) who we think of as orchestra-goers.

As I sat waiting for the concert to begin, I leafed through the printed program notes, which seemed mostly to be advertising. I saw, for example, an advertisement by ImagePoint, a 60-year-old local company that seems recently to have shut its doors and left many people without work. I saw ads by several area insurance providers and the Pilot Corporation and Clayton Homes. In the back of the notes was a list of donors, and I read that Clayton Homes — which routinely and (from a business perspective) understandably has to evict people from the homes they’ve bought — and the Pilot Corporation made $100,00-or-above donations to the KSO in the last year. ImagePoint donated between $25,000 and $49,999. Eleven individuals or groups made donations between $10,000 and $14,999; 30 between $5,000 and $9,999; 19 between $2,500 and $4,999; and more than I was willing to count at lower tiers. The decadence of going to the symphony much less of donating large sums of money to it while some of those very donors are experiencing financial difficulties that put people out of work or are in industries whose pricing or general administration causes great hardship to people who live paycheck to paycheck made me most uneasy.

Walking from the parking deck to the theater, I worried about seeing homeless people. This always bothers me for a variety of reasons having to do with social awkwardness, guilt, sympathy, and other things. My ears went numb from cold in the three or four minutes the walk took, and some people have to live in these conditions while the rest of us stream into the warmth of an opulent theater to spend an hour-and-a-half of otherwise unoccupied time listening to beautiful music. Uneasy indeed. It certainly put the catastrophe of a nonstarting oven and an aborted quiche in perspective.

The concert itself was lovely. Although the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 gets a little old to me, I love the style of music, and hearing in person the quiet richness of the eleven-person ensemble playing it was a treat. Listening to the music in person, I think you get a greater sense of texture than you can get from a recording. I could feel the contrabass resonating in my chest, and I’m a sucker for the lower pitches in music to begin with, so I really enjoyed the piece.

Next up was Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, which I wasn’t familiar with. I’m not a big fan of the piano fronting an orchestra. It seems to me that the piano makes an utterly different sort of sound that doesn’t blend well with the rest of the music. I imagine Perlman’s performance was virtuosic, but my bias against the piano and my tin ear left me a little underwhelmed by the piece.

Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 I hadn’t known by name, but I recognized it instantly once the music started. According to the program notes, Mendelssohn considered this one of his jolliest pieces, and jolly it is, save for the second movement, which was somber and processional and gorgeous (the low notes here really struck my fancy again as, later, did the improbably quiet buzzing of the string instruments during a very quiet part of the piece). I liked this one quite a lot.

I was optimistic about getting to meet a few local bloggers at the reception after the concert, but I managed to foul that up. I spoke briefly with Doug McCaughan but then cowered behind a pillar having forgotten, until confronted with the fact, that I am an absolute wreck around strangers, and particularly around larger groups of them. Katy Gawne, a performer and the official KSO blogger, graciously answered a couple of questions I had (what’s the difference between a symphony and a concerto? the concerto usually has a soloist out in front of the orchestra; what exactly is a scherzo [which I learned is pronounced not “sure-zo” but “scare-zo”]? it’s a type of musical construction). There was no Rhea Perlman acting as Carla slinging drinks, but Navah Perlman did show up and seemed personable and approachable. After standing around awkwardly for a few minutes, we opted to grab our coats and run. I had hoped the reception might be slightly more intimate and give me a chance to meet a few fellow-bloggers and get a little more plugged into that community, but my own sociopathy, inflamed by the press of people, prevented that.

Still, it was a nice night. I enjoyed seeing the theater and having a chance to see and hear the orchestra. I’m glad that the KSO is reaching out to try to pick up an audience that’s not composed simply of the crusty types I imagined in the restroom were looking down on me. In fact, the KSO does a number of neat programs in the community; my wife always takes our daughter to see the ensemble that tours the libraries from time to time, for example. And the outreach to bloggers is a neat idea. It’s clear that the KSO cares about giving music to people and accommodating even novice redneck listeners like me.

The only downside for me was the uneasy feeling I get when I contemplate the decadence of doing things like going to the symphony when there are people nearby without homes or healthy (or any) food. For all that I think it’s a good idea to support the arts, I have trouble reconciling large donations to the orchestra with the sad fact that there are always people huddled with their small bundles of personal effects in front of the homeless shelter just a few blocks away from the Tennessee Theatre.

By assuring the availability of the arts, which demand the leisure to patronize them, do we guarantee that there’s a greatness always to be striven for that, once attained, affords people the chance to help those in poor circumstances? Or is it all so much puffery? I’m not making a judgment either way. I suspect reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. If the KSO will have me back next year after this ambivalent (but at its root ultimately enthusiastic and grateful, I promise) article, I’ll probably attend again. But maybe I’ll also donate to the local shelter or food bank in the amount of the tickets in order to offset the weight of my relative prosperity on my conscience.

2 thoughts on “Cheers, Decadence, Poverty, and the Littlest Pianer I Ever Seen

  1. I wish we could have talked more. That was quite a crowd at the reception! I left feeling like I didn’t really get to have quality conversation with anyone despite talking most of the time. Looking forward to seeing you guys in the real world again soon.

    You’ve got the best write-up so far! Well done!

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