By: Douglas Schubert
LOS ANGELES, USA
Carnegie Hall. PLAYBILL. December 2006
Pierre Boulez leads a discovery concert presentation of masterpieces by Bartok, Ligeti, and Ravel.
I helped a charming young woman with her case of champagne outside a wine shop near Lincoln Center. She offered me tickets to Carnegie Hall. She hadn’t been able to find anyone to use them and the performance was tomorrow, Sunday.
I occupy someone else’s Gramercy Park rent-controlled apartment with her cats. I’m an illegally subletting cat sitter. I manage a wine store on the Upper West Side. I used to write in Hollywood.
The show starts at one, a matinee. No one would accompany me on short notice. I wander the city alone. I wear a blazer and carry a book.
Roaring dissonance and frantic Christmas nonsense, all around. I’m bewildered in the city, scared of people and traffic. Like Ligeti was scared of traffic but he used it to inspire his compositions, one of which I am on my way to see.
6 train at Park and 34th. Sweaty under my cashmere v-neck. Skipped the tie. Wouldn’t want to overdo it on Sunday. Good choice. A clashing cacophony of echoing screeches, voices, footsteps, and hisses on the subway platform. I lost the antidote, my ipod, to a locksmith who demanded $300 cash for breaking in when I let the door close behind my delivered corned beef and swiss. I wish I could hide under something the way I used to when someone would run the vacuum cleaner.
At Columbus Circle, the concrete skin and steel gratings of the city chew at my leather soles. I want to move with controlled purpose. But I’m stricken with panic by speed honk cabs and tourists who let famous towers dizzy them into my path. I feel always about to topple priceless things and ruin everything.
Then there it is. Carnegie Hall. Right at 57th and 7th where I used to work. Before packaging mainstream cinema geared at teenagers, I would pop out from the NRQW train with my back clueless to Carnegie and order a coffee and hot dog (I can’t stop).
More excited about composing my own future with professional experience than appreciating history, I pondered Carnegie, maybe once, thinking, ‘That must have been a hell of a Dead show. Or is it an opera house?’
Then there she is. A tattered old woman in a ragged housedress, waving her hands. The desperate dedication of the devotee is all over her. She needs a ticket. A well-dressed couple disregards her and enters with perfunctory finesse.
She spots me, a gentleman pretending to know. I feel like I’m standing too close to machinery, a car wash maybe, and her one-tooth ticket begging is frightening. A uniformed attendant opens the door for me. The scary lady follows me. Her pleading eyes seem to get bigger with mounting hope.
Inside, another woman with an embittered face bent on beating her way into the show with entitlement demands a ticket.
“Maybe,” I say. I’m not even sure the tickets will really be at will-call or whatever you call it.
I slip the business card on which the champagne woman scribbled her name to the person behind the glass and she slides two perfect tickets to me. The bitter lady witnesses.
“So, can I have one? It already started so we can’t even go in until the next break.”
I think to ask for an offer. But then I see the one-tooth desperation angel looking at me. I go right over and give her the ticket. Her face is a mask of relief. I tell her it’s my first time and she takes my arm.
Suddenly the homeless woman and I are a couple attending Carnegie Hall.
The red-vested ticket-takers shake heads in doubt. ‘She’s with me,’ I feel like saying but that would be proud. She tosses her ticket at them and powers on past.
We wind up and around a red carpeted staircase. She hurries like she’s done it a thousand times. I move at her pace because she’s holding my arm. A white-haired usher informs us in a hushed tone that the next break is in 18 minutes. He winks at her and she says, “Comment ça va, Walter?”
Other ushers greet her and soothe her with the precise number of minutes before a break. She sits on a red velvet bench in front of a set of gold auditorium doors and taps her feet like it’s the last day of school and the bell won’t ring.
We can hear the Ravel playing but it isn’t coming through the closed doors, it’s too crispy, not live. It’s coming through courtesy speakers on the ceiling. I sit next to her. She tells me in a French accent her name, Helene, and that she’s an ex-music theory professor from The Paris Conservatory.
With clasped hands in her lap, legs still bouncing, she explains how this piece is Ravel’s homage to Schubert, a love letter of sorts. I show her my license, proud my name is Schubert. She tells me I look old for my birth date.
I fracture some French to convey interest in Debussy and Chopin and she lightens up with a history lesson on these two composers and their relevance to what we are about to hear. She looks at me with glassy French blue eyes and I’m scared of her intelligence.
She informs me that the café at the end of the passage broadcasts the concert on screens. I didn’t want to wait 18 minutes with her. I loathe unanticipated interactions. It’s too hard to see the other person’s face and think about how their hearts have been beating their whole life. Plus I wanted to see the place. Get a feel.
I walk the red-carpet back to Helene, my music theory teacher. I jokingly attempt charm as I tell her next time we’ll get an opera box. She looks at me like I’m crazy. I wipe sweat off my forehead (the success of my visit to the café, a napkin). She soothes the moment by telling me we missed some great works but we are in for more. She has the giddy disposition of a teen about to board a roller coaster.
The doors open. The palatial architecture overwhelms me. I thought it wouldn’t. But it does. What a place. I want to tame astonishment and stop looking around so I can be the gentleman attendee I am. I turn around and admire the space again. This is straight out of Vienna. But it isn’t. It’s here. This is a thriving real place. Before the ushers can assist me, she takes my arm. What to me were polished sophisticates were to her mere obstacles filling seats.
She takes over the usher roll, not to show me my seat, but to show me a better seat. She puts me fourth row right, in the parquet section. There’s a seat right next to me but she scampers across the packed hall, even putting her hand on the stage for leverage, to claim a seat on the opposite side near the piano.
I understand why. Gyory Ligeti’s chaotic Piano Concerto, with its contrasting sound worlds and fiendishly difficult piano, is one of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s signature pieces, I learn from the Playbill.
The esteemed pianist even requires a page-turner – a svelte beauty in a black dress stands at his side. He flies off his piano bench with sealed-eyed vigor as he pounds two-armed chords. The piece is chaotic but controlled.
Next is a case study in contrasts. The French master Ravel wrote his elegant Valses Sobles et Sentimentales as an homage to the composer Franz Schubert as well as to the waltz form itself, I learned from Helene moments before.
Four ovations. Helene’s clapping and standing. Everyone is. I think about all the hands that have clapped in here for the musical feats and wizardry over the years. My clap, once famous on the tennis sidelines for it’s uniquely cupped loudness, makes an appearance.
Helene applauds and smiles over at me across the swoop of pleased attendees.
Then she does the unthinkable. The pianist comes out for yet another bow and she runs to the lip of the stage and offers her hands. He recognizes her. There’s no bouncer to yank her away. No hushed moan of concern emanates from the house. Pierre-Laurent Aimard bends down from the stage, takes Helene’s hands, and squeezes them. Those same hands that moments earlier revived one of the most famous pieces of all time. He didn’t even acknowledge the page-turner who rigorously followed the piece so he wouldn’t miss a note. I had originally thought Helene had a better seat because of her proximity to the sexy page-turner.
It is a pupil, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, bowing to his teacher, my date, Helene.
Then she runs along the pulpit, speeding past the front row attendees, and finds me in the fourth row. She leans over a couple who had been obsessing about who was where and played what, to address me.
My heart’s pumping hot blood through crippled nerves and I take her hands.
“Wasn’t exactly Schubert, was it, Schubert?”
Everybody’s still standing, clapping, and watching Helene, too. For that moment, I experience a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall with the sensation that it is for me.
I start in with what I felt but it quickly turns into what I read from the Playbill. “It was dissonant but passionate. Controlled and chaotic.”
She nods, probably happy to see me pleased, but more pleased to see her newest student, moved. Then I say it was both violent and sexual.
This sends her back to wherever she knows she needs to go to have the best seat. This time front row center.
You idiot. Violent and sexual? I was quoting the program from a section that described The Magnificent Mandarin by Bartok, a piece that had yet to commence. The orchestra sets up, house lights dim, Pierre Boulez (the conductor) comes back out.
I take some comfort in the possibility that those around me thought my knowing Helene elevated my opinions to the level of hers, someone down to whom the main attraction virtuoso pianist bowed.
It closes with a heavy dose of sex and violence in the form of The Miraculous Mandarin, Bela Bartok’s sordid pantomime of prostitution, robbery, and murder. The work’s provocative subject matter and wildly dissonant sonorities were considered shocking in 1926, but the piece is now a staple in the symphonic repertoire and I love it.
Amidst all the applause and standing, I lose Helene. I can’t find her anywhere. I make my way out, looking over my shoulder for her. I get corralled out a side door that spills right onto 7th Avenue.
Just like that, back in Midtown. I round the corner on 57th to see if she’s where I first saw her but I can’t find her in the sea of people bubbling down the street.
I look straight down 57th between a canyon of skyscrapers. I envision the rows of towers as a massive support bridge that seems to perfectly contain all the whizzing chaos on the streets. I stroll all the way home, soothed by the chaos.
About the author:
Douglas Schubert has created over 300 minutes of broadcasted material for feature films, TV series, commercials, music videos, and PSA's. He currently works as a writer for several companies and for award-winning director, George Hickenlooper. His work has garnered 2 Clio Awards, 9 MTV Video Music Awards and resulted in the most requested TRL video of all time. New York Press has featured his short fiction and he has been a contributor to NYLON Magazine.
TWO TICKETS TO CARNEGIE Copyright © 2006 Douglas Schubert