ODE TO JOY. . .
Thirty-two years ago this week, I ditched Venice High School and nervously boarded an RTD bus headed for downtown L.A.. I was 17 years old, and hadn't been out much on my own. I barely knew where downtown was, and had never done anything so daring as to cut class.
My destination: the Music Center. A friend was having a birthday party there. Guy named Beethoven.
Back up with me, just a moment. When I use the term "friend," I'm not being precious. I had just been thrown out of my home for reasons that remain obscure (perhaps my step-parental unit objected to my breath), and was living in a room in Mar Vista, courtesy of a friend of the "family." I was, to understate matters, not happy. Music was far and away my best comfort, and Beethoven was the best of the best. His message of triumph in the face of colossal absurdity and pain hit me on a gut level.
I wouldn't have missed his 200th birthday celebration for the world, and neither would the Music Center, which was holding a 12-hour--- twelve-hour---concert of his work, from 11 a.m till 11 p.m., in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Admission: the best dollar I've ever spent in my life.
I got off the bus somewhere on the USC side of the Harbor Freeway, feeling skittish. This was terra incognita; downtown didn't have all the hallmark skyscrapers it has today, which would have afforded a compass point. Inhaling, I aimed vaguely toward where I guessed the Music Center might be, and walked fast. Made no eye contact with all the big city people scudding by. Maybe they wouldn't think anything unusual about a kid out of school. Maybe the tie would fool 'em. . .
By the time Pershing Square planted itself underfoot, a mile or two later, mild panic had taken hold. Where the hell was I? I dared not ask any "strangers" for directions. No one really knew my whereabouts -- not parents, teachers, friends. I was. . .lost in metropolis! And then, looming directly in front of me, hands clasped behind him, brow furrowed in mad concentration, was. . .
Somehow, I had bumped smack into the statue of the composer that stood on the Square's north end, near General Pershing, back before the city recast the place as a purple Pythagorean disaster. I didn't even know there was such a statue. This was a sign! I was going the right way! Picking a flower from a planter, I laid it at the great man's bronzed feet, then charged up the hill beyond which---eureka!---the Dorothy Chandler miraculously stood.
Eight o'clock in the morning, and a truant high-school student was first in line. When the doors eventually opened for the "Beethoven Marathon," I stepped reverently into the empty Pavilion "orchestra" section and picked out a seat dead-center, about a third of the way back. I had been in a concert hall only once before. I felt like an emperor.
Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic took the stage at 11 sharp, and launched into "Happy Birthday," followed by the rollicking, rousing finale of the 7th Symphony. What a start! A giant black-and-white sketch of the composer hung behind the stage, jaw set, eyes staring nobly into the distance.
Twelve hours of his music. Could I even sit still that long? They'd have to pry me out of the seat! I was with the guy whose 5th Symphony urged me on through worry and rejection, whose 6th filled me with calm and reverence for nature, and whose 9th -- well, I sang the "Ode to Joy" in the shower from the age of 14. The night I was evicted from home, I put the 9th on my stereo and played it so loud that the windows shook. (Fledgling sense of irony.)
The afternoon was built of quartets, duets, trios, sonatas, the occasional local orchestra. I sat, applauding, reading program notes, awaiting the promised finale like I waited for Christmas Eve: Mehta and the Philharmonic doing the fourth movement of the 9th. It was scarcely comprehensible that I was going to actually hear this music in person. Yes, a baritone would intone Beethoven's own words -- the first ever sung in a symphony -- O freunde, nicht diese Tone/ Sondern last uns angenehmere anstimmen/ und freudenvollere---right there in the concert hall. They meant so much to me: "Oh friends, no more of these tones/ Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!"
Night brought a pouring rainstorm, bringing to mind images of Beethoven on his deathbed, shaking his fist at the heavens following a great burst of thunder, in one last act of defiance. It also brought my father, who had first introduced me to this music -- and to classical music -- a bond that withstood the breakdown of our home. He took the seat beside me, which I had saved, as the American Youth Symphony played the 5th Symphony (if memory serves) under the late Mehli Mehta (Zubin's father), before the Phil took the stage for the 6th, and ultimately, the finale of the 9th.
I can no longer conjure the feelings induced by that performance any more than I can re-experience my first bite of apple pie, but I know they were powerful and good. Here is what I wrote later that night, at home behind my old Royal portable:
When the finale of the Ninth symphony was performed, people were no longer people. They were Man. Beethoven was there. As the soloists sang out, "Bruder!" (Brother!) over and over again, the spirit of brotherhood was no longer spirit. It was real and it was there. Beethoven, whose own brothers robbed him, whose friends and teachers shunned him, who was no one's brother in his life, was everyone's brother at the concert. At a time when division is common, men and women had been united in one good feeling. Call it what you will: love, brotherhood, peace: it was there and the people knew it.
There was a 15-minute standing ovation(!) at the end of the concert---at the end of the day---and my father and I stood for the duration. On the way home, stuck in the rainy traffic, I glanced over at the car beside us, a black Lincoln Continental, where a man sat in the front passenger seat, dabbing his brow with a folded handkerchief. It was Zubin Mehta! I elbowed Pop, and we waved. Mehta smiled and returned the salute, making for a poetic ending to a day that had begun so uncertainly. Greeted by Beethoven in Pershing Square, ushered home by the wave of a great conductor. . .
As I said, I wrote about the concert that very night. I drank coffee and pounded out a long piece for the Venice High paper, The Oarsman, for which I was editor---and my great advisor, A.H. Rotman, slapped a headline on it: "Brother Beethoven." To my monumental astonishment, a couple weeks later, the Music Center magazine, Performing Arts, got wind of it and sent a letter asking to buy my article for publication. Asking? I would have walked downtown at midnight to get my words published in a "real" magazine. How they had learned of the piece, I don't know, but I suspect Rotman had a hand in things.Well, Performing Arts never got around to printing my article (although they paid me fifty bucks -- a royal endowment!), so perhaps someone was just being kind to a fledgling music lover. No matter. This was my first professional sale, one hell of a shot in the arm for a depressed, displaced kid.
The other day, I was burrowing around in a trunk, and came across my actual program from the "Beethoven Marathon," intact after all these years. In it was a quote from the composer, in which he observed that whoever should understand his music would be "freed from the misery that burdens mankind."
For at least one day in December 1970, I think I understood that music. Probably better than I ever have since.
HAPPY BEETHOVEN'S BIRTHDAY!
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