Maestro's Musings: Party Like It's...Aww, Never Mind
You say you want to have a party? You’ve consulted Emeril for the food, Robert Parker for the wine, and Martha for the décor? All good. The guest list? Hmm, must have interesting guests, perhaps a special person….aha…an artist! A famous composer….that would be just the ticket!
How about Ludwig van Beethoven? Perfect. Shortly after arriving in Vienna at the age of 20, young Ludwig became a regular at the finest homes, largely for his astounding skill at improvisation. After dinner, guests can repair to the drawing room as they did back in the 1790s, entertained by a polite young phenom at the piano, spinning luminous sounds for up to two hours. Brilliant. But what if the other Beethoven shows up? The country bumpkin, the unwashed, uneducated, ill-spoken, odorous, profane Beethoven, the one arrested for vagrancy, the one who threw food at waiters and laughed? Who often left his chamber pot unemptied for days on end? No, that would never do.
Perhaps Johannes Brahms might be available. Kind, old, avuncular Brahms, of the Santa Claus beard, with his dazzling wit and his widespread renown. Surely the other guests would enjoy him! Oh dear, there was that gathering at which Liszt introduced his new B-Minor piano sonata, and much to his disgust heard Brahms peacefully snoring on the divan. Quelle horreur! No, unfortunately Brahms, who grew up dirt poor in the port town of Hamburg and spent his childhood years earning money for the family by playing piano every night at a local brothel (!), was not known for his social graces. To a patron who asked “Will you send us to heaven with your music tonight, Dr. Brahms?” he responded, “Frankly, sir, I don’t care which direction you go.” And then there was that party which he famously left early, saying: “If there’s anyone here I have failed to insult, I apologize.” Witty, yes. Good party guest? Let’s move on.
You might reach down to Winona, MN, to invite much-admired Carl Ruggles, whose composition Sun Treader inspired a generation of fellow American composers. His fiery personality would no doubt enliven any gathering. But you’d have to endure the possibility of a stray anti-Semitic outburst or racist scream, or suffer in silence as he entertained your guests by repeatedly pounding on the piano a single jarring chord, “to see if it stands the test of time.” No, perhaps not.
But isn’t there one considerate guest among the greats? There must be……of course! Anton Webern, who along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg formed the Second Viennese School. Now he was a considerate guest. But perhaps, to a fault. In September of 1945 in occupied Germany, he was invited to supper, where he very much looked forward to smoking the American cigar he was expecting. The cigar came from his son-in-law, a trader on the post-war black market, who that very evening was to be arrested. Not wanting to disturb his companions with the cigar smoke, Webern stepped outside, directly into the sting operation. In the confusion he was shot and killed. How to ruin a good party!
On second thought, how about pizza and a movie?
Markand Thakar is the Charles A. & Carolyn M. Russell Music Director, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra; music director, Baltimore Chamber Orchestra; principal conductor, Duluth Festival Opera and co-director of graduate conducting, Peabody Conservatory. Visit him online at www.markandthakar.com