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Tuesday, September 1, 2020


Six days ago, I wrote a post about some memorable musical experiences I have had in the course of my long life. Today I should like to add two more – one, the most all-around beautiful musical experience of my life; the other, far and away the most bizarre musical experience of my life. Beauty first.

Almost 30 years ago, Paris introduced a citywide festival that it called fete de la musique. On June 21, the first day of summer, when the days are so long that there is light until 10 PM, all of Paris comes out onto the streets to perform free concerts and listen to them. Bands get out their electronic equipment and set up in the corner of a place, sometimes two or three competing with one another from different corners of the open space. In the elegant place des Vosges, there may be a string quartet competing with a gay men’s chorus and a solitary violinist playing all by herself. Each year, the city invites world-class ensembles to give free concerts in some of the loveliest venues of Paris. Meanwhile, the toffs get all dressed up and board river cruises while the common folk stand on the bridges across the Seine and hoot at them as they sail by. It is a lovely event and Susie and I, in normal times when the virus is not upon us, try very hard to plan our trips to Paris so that we will be there on June 21st.

One summer not too many years ago, it was announced that the famous Baroque a cappella vocal group, the Tallis Scholars, would be performing a free concert during fete de la musique.  The concert would be held in the Musee d’Orsay, a beautiful museum created by transforming one of Paris’s great old train stations. Susie and I have long since visited such museums as we want to see but we go back again and again to the Musee d’Orsay, not simply to see the latest exhibition but to enjoy the space and, perhaps, have a lovely lunch in the restaurant on the top floor. Because the museum is a transformed train station, the central space is a vast open area with a ceiling that rises for four stories. That space now contains a sculpture exhibit – the paintings can be found in the rooms surrounding the space.

We got there very early in order to be sure of being admitted and when we entered, we found that there were already large numbers of people in the museum. We managed to get some space on a marble banquette and sat down to await the concert. The important people, who had received personal invitations, had folding chairs in front of the stage where the musicians would perform but that was so far away from where we were that we could see neither them nor the stage.

The Tallis Scholars had chosen to perform a work with which I was completely unfamiliar: Allegri’s Miserere.  As many of you will know, there come several points in the composition when a single soprano voice rises high above the chorus until it seems to be suspended in midair. It is a beautiful musical moment and in that space on that evening I felt as though I had been transported to a better world. Many of you, I imagine, are familiar with the composition and will appreciate what it would be like to hear it performed perfectly in such a venue. That evening lives in my memory as the most exquisite musical experience of my life.

The second experience I want to talk about was quite different although, musically speaking, it was very lovely. In 1986 or 1987, I was living in Watertown Massachusetts and teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst after my first marriage had broken up. As often as I could, I was flying down to Chapel Hill to see Susie, hoping and planning that we would marry when my divorce was final. One weekend, a famous musical group, the Beaux Arts Trio, arrived to play a concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. Sanders is an old concert and lecture hall that occupies one half of Memorial Hall, which was built to commemorate the Harvard graduates who died on both sides in the Civil War. I was very familiar with Sanders – it was there that I heard Bertrand Russell lecture my freshman year and also where I had sung in the pit chorus of a summer stock performance of the Beggar’s Opera starring Shirley Jones and her husband, Jack Cassidy.

(Weird aside: There is a central hallway that divides Sanders Theater from the rest of Memorial Hall and high on the walls there are inscribed in large letters the names of all the Harvard grads who died in the Civil War. One evening, when I was standing around in the crowd during the intermission of a concert, I idly started reading the names on the walls.  My eye fell on one that made me stop in astonishment. It was “Benjamin Franklin Pierce,” which many of you will recognize as the name of the lead character in the book, play, and TV series M*A*S*H played memorably on television by Alan Alda. It seems to me almost certain that that was the source of the name of Alda’s character, but a check on Wikipedia reveals that none of the authors involved in the creation of the book, the play, or the TV series was a Harvard grad.)

At all events, the concert began quite nicely with the Beaux-Arts Trio playing some classical work or other but at some point in the third movement, there was a stir in the audience and a loud voice called out “is there a doctor here?” Now, it is important to understand that this was primarily a Harvard audience, which meant that any medical students present would necessarily defer to interns, who in turn would defer to residents, who in turn would defer to chiefs of service at Mass General Hospital, who in turn would differ to full professors of medicine at Harvard Medical School. At any rate, someone stepped forward while everybody in the audience sat there quietly and waited and the trio paused in its concert. Pretty soon, the sound of an ambulance siren could be heard in the distance growing louder and closer. Eventually two EMTs came in with a rolling stretcher and while we all waited patiently took somebody away.

With that, the trio picked up where it had stopped and continued on with the third movement. Several minutes later, another voice called out from a different part of the audience “is there a doctor present?” We went through the same procedure again, after which the trio called it quits and left the stage for the intermission.

The next week, as it happens I flew down to Chapel Hill to see Susie and when I arrived she told me with great excitement that she had managed to acquire two tickets for performance that weekend of the Beaux-Arts Trio. A cold hand close around my heart at these words, but it all turned out well and the lovely concert went off without the assistance of an ambulance.


RobertD said...

The grammar of the first sentence looks a little strange; after 'musical experiences I have' 'well let me say very, very strong money' looks like an interpolation from something else.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Good grief, yes!! I have edited it. I think the phone rang and what I said on the phone got inserted through my mic!!! Sorry about that.

DDA said...

One day a few years ago, after never having done it before (nor since) my wife administered the Heimlich maneuver twice in two different restaurants to two different people, once at lunch and once at dinner. Successfully.

Bill Edmundson said...

If your blog were Private Eye, this comment would go straight to the Pedantry Corner. Wasn't Memorial Hall built by alumni to commemorate only those Harvard men who had fought for "the Union cause"? Not "both sides" (although surely there were some very fine people on, uh, both sides).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Is that true? I had always heard the contrary, but not from any authoritative source. Fascinating.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hey, Wikipedia says you are right!