My primary goal in life, I’ve decided, is to love classical music the same way my father loves classical music.
My dad is not a musical virtuoso of any stripe. He can carry a tune, but not with any notable grace. He took some years of piano lessons as a kid and keeps up with it, and he took some years of violin lessons as a kid and does not keep up with it. He can play the harmonica and really wishes he could play bass guitar, but this is a dream that we do not expect to see fulfilled. But Dad loves music; Dad loves music to a degree that I am only now actually beginning to comprehend. When I say “Dad raised us with music,” I actually mean “Music is Dad’s fourth child.”
Dad dreams of owning a cafe next to Symphony Hall someday. “I’ll call it Götterfunk,” he told me on the drive into Atlanta yesterday to see the Atlanta Symphony play Shostakovich. “No one will pronounce the umlaut. I want all the symphony musicians to come there after the show. I’ll give them free drinks for the night if they stick around and jam a little bit. I’ll have a radio show and I’ll interview them.” He turned down the music, which had just switched from Dvorak to Kraftwerk (composers about whom he is about equally enthusiastic), the better to gesticulate fiercely. “Music should be for the people, man. I don’t want no stuffy symphony. Let them come down and walk among us mortals, right?”
Dad buys season tickets for great seats at the Symphony for an amount of money that I find startling, and makes it to every single show he pays for. If he can’t make it, he calls one of his children and demands to know which of their poor college friends might be interested in going instead. He demands no payment for this. “It’s more important to get somebody in that seat,” he says, because he believes that so long as he and people like him can support the arts, they must; that supporting the arts will make the arts more accessible; that when the orchestra has enough money to cover its costs, it will be able to produce things that reach people who have not been allowed access to what he sees as a needlessly elite world. “Classical music is gonna suffocate,” he told me once. “They got hit hard by the recession, but if it takes less money to make them actually start looking for an audience, then good.”
He loves the Atlanta Symphony for this reason. “They’re like a baseball team,” he said fondly, as we watched them warm up from our very good seats last night. “Fresh and young and trying so hard. You get to know all of them, season to season. You recognize them up there– look! There he is!” The concertmaster was crossing the stage. “God,” Dad said. “That big Norwegian geek. I have the biggest man-crush on him.”
Two years ago, we went and sat in a movie theater to see a recording of the Met’s Siegfried. I know Wagner’s Ring cycle because when I was small my dad told me the whole story on a long car trip, gave me his old translation of the libretto, showed me all the leitmotifs, and let me pretend to be a Rheinmaiden in the swimming pool for the next three years. He spent the whole movie punching me in the arm at every crescendo; he wiggled in his seat when Fafner fell and grabbed my arm when his favorite aria started; when Brunhilde appeared he thrust both arms up in a mighty double fistpump and mouthed YESSSSSSSSSSS at the ceiling.
When I was touring colleges five years ago, looking for a music program, he signed us up for a percussion master class at NYU. Neither of us is or was or ever will be a percussionist. They played a private show focusing on the works of Steve Reich, and then taught every other person in the room to play a different time signature with each hand while we tapped awkwardly on our thighs. Dad came out of it glowing. For the rest of the road trip, we heard nothing but Steve Reich.
He gave me a copy of Lives of the Great Composers for Christmas a year or two back. “Read the part on Liszt,” he said. “Did you know he, like, did the dueling pianos thing? That you could go see great composer pianist cagematches? Why don’t we do that anymore?” Last night he told me he’d been reading about Strauss – “Look, he had this big epic rivalry with some other waltz guy in Vienna, and sometimes he’d go out and play waltzes in some biergarten and then take his posse of devotees over to where the other guy was playing waltzes in some other biergarten and just start this giant drunken brawl of 1830s waltz enthusiasts. I mean, this is what classical music should be.”
I called Dad from Berlin last year. “We’ve seen the castle,” I told him. “Yeah,” he said, “But have you seen the Philharmonic?” I started to say something about the prohibitive cost of this venture, and he didn’t let me finish the sentence. “Eat cheap, sleep cheap, and go see good music, for Christ’s sake,” he said. “Look– we’ve figured out all the boring stuff – house, car, retirement, all that shit. I’ve finally reached a point where I can afford the important stuff. So go hear music. Take your friends and go hear music.”
He texted me six hours before the show last night to tell me he’d found a great podcast on Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. “I totally teared up,” he told me. “Like, there’s this part where they quote Shosty talking about how it’s a monument to all the unnamed millions who were killed under Stalin’s cruelty, right? And we’re gonna go see the monument. I can’t believe it.”
The show was excellent. Dad went in khakis and a hiking shirt and Birkenstocks, which he kicked off as soon as the music started. “That’s my boy Rex,” he said, pointing into the cello section. “Been there forever. And her, in the bass section– fresh outta UGA. God, they’re all kids. They’re so cool.” I made the mistake of pronouncing the abbreviation “ay-so” halfway through the evening– “Excuse me,” Dad said, “But the real fans call them ass-ohs.”
At the end, the audience gave the ASO not an instant of silence. The final note hit and the whole house was on its feet and applauding. The woodwind section stood up for recognition; the applause intensified; Dad flung his arms in the air and bellowed “YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAH” at the stage.
Dad wants nothing more than for everyone else in the world to love music as much as he loves music. He demands the criminalization of elitism in the classical world. He loves our Symphony because they don’t ask him to wear a suit. He wants music to be alive; he wants beautiful old things always to be new. He wants as many voices as possible involved in it. He wants to be astounded by things he thought he already knew.
It’s been nice to be home, and to hear music with him. It’s been nice to start to figure out how to love it like he does.