The past two days in this space I have explored how in my musical life I have recently gone from "Roll Over, Beethoven" to just... Beethoven. I have a long background in rock 'n roll, even worked as the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy for most of the 1970s, but I had little interest in classical music. Now I have become obsessed with Beethoven. As I noted, I've just launched a new blog, Roll Over, Beethoven, and co-authored a book, Journeys With Beethoven.
This third excerpt from that book recalls how my Beethoven fixation took me back to the rock venues of my youth, and beyond.
When I made it to Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center it was the first time since a 1974 Springsteen concert, when it was still called Philharmonic Hall. Part of the stage extension collapsed that night under the weight of the foot-stomping Boss. (It was also my only night backstage in that venue.) Even that didn't top the night in 1971 when, at the same site, I watched an inebriated Ray Davies of the Kinks fall backward -- and his feuding brother, guitarist Dave Davies, let an amp topple over, nearly bonking Ray on the head.
Now, on this night, Paul Lewis and the London Symphony with Sir Colin Davis at the helm offered a stunning Piano Concerto No.4, especially the haunting middle movement, which some say portrays the Orpheus legend. When it was over, I turned to my wife and whispered, "Not bad for an opening act." We spent the intermission walking the corridors, generally enjoying the high-culture vibe and looking at historic photographs, even finding a picture of a guy we know in our hometown, Joseph Alessi, trombonist for the New York Philharmonic (I had coached his son in Little League). Then, after intermission: a towering Eroica.
So I'd made my triumphant return to Philharmonic Hall. A few days later, I paid another return visit -- this time to Carnegie Hall. The last time it was for a rock concert with patrons smoking pot and putting out cigarettes on the carpeted floor. During the 1970s, I attended shows there by Neil Young, Van Morrison, Carole King, Bill Withers, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson and others. Now it was for the renowned St. Petersburg Orchestra, with young Julia Fischer performing Beethoven's only violin concerto.
First thing we saw, entering this tidy cathedral, was a long line of elderly folks waiting for an elevator to carry them up to the dress circle. Boy, back in the day, they either didn't have that or no self-respecting young rock fan would ever climb aboard. Of course, I was impressed by the renovations, the lack of burn holes in the arm rests, the general air of class so missing in my many long ago visits. And the concert was thrilling, besides.
Carrying obsession to an extreme enabled by modern technology, I checked Google News several times a day for new Beethoven mentions from around the world. Finally I learned the inspiration for "Roll Over Beethoven": Chuck Berry's sister hogging the piano to play classical music when he was a kid. That, he explained, "delayed rock 'n roll for twenty years." Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, frequently featured Beethoven -- even notes from some of his pieces -- in the comic strip, but he confessed he actually favored Brahms (the name Beethoven worked better visually). I did not know the intro to Everybody Loves Raymond carried a snippet of the "Ode to Joy," while Judge Judy used the opening of the Fifth Symphony to announce rulings from the bench.
Somehow I had also missed an apparently famous TV commercial starring one of my faves, Elvis Costello, sitting in the back seat of a Lexus, listening to the scherzo of the Ninth while explaining that Beethoven did write "a few toe-tappers." Frank Lloyd Wright, I learned, was a huge Beethoven fan, hailing the composer as a great motif architect and "builder." The Fifth Symphony, he said, was "a great symphonic poem that is probably the noblest thought-built edifice in the world."
Three months after the start of my journey with Beethoven, the Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel came to Carnegie Hall with his Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. He had just been picked to take over the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Times had declared that "Dudamelmania" was breaking out wherever he appeared. This was one of the toughest tickets in town, but I managed to score a single balcony ticket online and would try to scalp a second ticket outside. If unsuccessful, my wife and I would flip a coin to see who would attend.
Scalping outside Carnegie! This had a rich rock 'n roll tradition from back in the 1970s but I had no idea if this practice existed for classical concerts. Happily, around the corner from the front entrance, I found a well-dressed, middle-aged guy selling an "extra" ticket in the dress circle. He bore no resemblance to the scuzzy rock 'n roll scalpers I knew from my youth. Perhaps his wife simply got sick -- but if so, why did he have several other tickets in his pocket?
In any case, the concert was a smash, my first live experience of Beethoven's Fifth, and Dudamel certainly nailed the resounding final movement. Then, as the audience went crazy -- with some of them waving Venezuelan flags in the balcony -- he brought his kids back, dressed in satin jackets, to perform, dancing around the stage while playing selections from West Side Story.
But WWLT (what would Ludwig think)? Well, maybe he'd love it. "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy," Beethoven once boasted, "it is the wine of a new procreation, and I am Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for men and makes them drunk with the spirit."
Greg Mitchell, a longtime Huff Post blogger, now writes a daily blog at The Nation. He has written more than a dozen books, most recently Journeys With Beethoven, and before that Atomic Cover-Up, The Age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning.
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