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Minor League Symphony: Fun at the Ol’ Ballpark

Tonight I went to the season opener of the local minor league team. The Twin City Crescendoes play a good brand of ball, the tickets are affordable, parking is always free and their home field, though not the newest stadium you’ve ever been in, is comfortable, well-maintained, the perfect size for seeing all the action, without a bad seat in the house. The ushers are friendly, the crowds are enthusiastic and you never get hit by a foul ball.

The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra opened its 60th season at the Long Center for the Performing Arts with a world premiere Fanfare for Freedom, Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor with Bella Hristova, violinist. I had a great time, even if you’ve never heard of the home team.

Sixty years ago this team was semi-pro at best. They were starting from scratch without any money in a small market, where no one really knew whether there was any interest in their brand of ball. But a few fans got together, formed a syndicate (they called it a board of directors) and issued a call for players. That first year they could barely afford uniforms and equipment; they played their first game in a room built for dancing, not for playing ball. But they were good enough that they attracted some fans and investors.

It took a decade or so before they could afford to pay a first baseman. Then they got a pitcher, a catcher, an outfield, a double-play combo and a big guy to cover the hot corner. But the key, of course, as with any team, was that first player-manager, who taught them to work together and win ballgames.

They stopped playing rookie league and took their place as professional ballplayers in Class A. I think they’re breaking into AA right now.

The current skipper, Nicholas “Dizzy” Palmer, has just signed a five-year contract extension. He also leads the Kentucky Opera, the Owensboro Symphony, the Duxbury Music Festival Orchestra and is a frequent guest conductor in Prague, Sofia, Milan, San Remo and Lausanne.

The Dizzy Dean of the podium, Dr. Nicholas Palmer.

In person he is warm and engaging, a fan favorite; he seems like a perfect fit in this small (150,000) Indiana city. He is a passionate conductor; his players are precise, integrated and coherent.

Still, classical music isn’t baseball. On the minor league diamond half the excitement is seeing young guys on their way to bigger and better teams, if only they can impress at this level. Go to a minor league game and you’re pretty well certain to see one or two future stars – get ’em while they’re young, so you can brag, “I saw him when.”

It’s different on the classical music scene, in age, experience, maturity and individual goals. Age is an enemy in sports, but it’s a friend in the arts. Among the LSO’s 72 players, ages range from early 20s to late 60s. This isn’t a naive orchestra like you often see a brash young baseball team, full of promise but also quick with an error. A company like the LSO that’s grown and lasted for 60 years has learned all along the way, with everyone who’s been a part of the effort, whether musician, patron or volunteer. This band has developed an institutional memory, and that translates over time into an identity – a place in the community – a network of friendships (and occasional foes) – and a level of competence and artistic mastery you’re not going to get with a bunch of talented rookies, each out for himself.

So I was completely happy with the musical experience; these people are damn good. The fact is that what separates a world-famous orchestra from one you’ve never heard of is less the talent level than the size of the city, the wealth of the company and the amount of publicity garnered. A professional musician – one who gets paid to play – can fit into any number of slots depending on the group and the venue. One week s/he might be a local hire for a touring star, the next week playing on “Prairie Home Companion,” teaching classes at the conservatory, and the next week playing midnight mass on Christmas Eve at my home parish. (The LSO’s where we get our string quartet – and I swear to God, those people can walk on water.)

The snootiness and snobbery that surround the serious music scene are really mostly reflections of competition among big-city patrons to appear more knowledgable (richer, better connected) than others in the audience. It’s not generated by what the musicians do – and there are no sharp elbows in the audience here. The musicians like playing, performing and sharing what they’re good at, whether they’re wearing white tie and tails or a pair of jeans. They don’t care what the audience wears either; some people dress up out of respect for the music and the players, and other people come as they are. (I aimed for the middle, office clothes but no tie, and fit right in.)

Most musicians at the LSO could move up to bigger, more prestigious companies if they had the ambition and life circumstances to allow that. But climbing the musical ladder is a young person’s game, a single person’s game. Once you get involved in a relationship, maybe get married and have kids, Carnegie Hall loses some of its allure. Your parents are getting older, you want to stay close to home. You take a job at a university, a regular weekend gig with a jazz band, and all of a sudden you’re not going to jump on a plane for Los Angeles for $500; who would take care of the dog?

For a minor league orchestra, the key thing is how well it fits the local community. Tonight in Lafayette I saw a company that really fits well.

Many of the people in the audience know each other; it’s a small city. Many of the ticket-buyers are also donors and volunteers, for many years or just a few. The LSO has a family feeling to it, without coming across like a suffocating clique. The audience wants the home team to do well, and rewards them when they do; Ms. Hristova, tonight’s soloist, received a standing ovation. She also brought a certain glamor to the evening, and that’s a fun part of the classical music scene too; she’s 25 and gorgeous, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University’s music school, which has produced concert stars like Joshua Bell (whom I heard at Purdue two years ago). When she stepped onstage in her bright red strapless gown, with her 1665 Amati instrument under her arm, she brought excitement with her.

Combining serious musicality with small-city friendliness and affection is, I think, the LSO’s specialty. Here’s an example. At a previous fundraising auction, a longtime patron won the right to conduct the National Anthem, which opened the concert. But he’s no conductor, so he gave the baton to a friend, who then got called out of town. So we got a second pinch-hitter, a fellow named Dick Jaeger, a retired choral director and arts teacher at the local high school (whose theater is named for him) who for years has written music and theater reviews for the newspaper. Even I know who Mr. Jaeger is – and when he came on stage, there was an outpouring of affection, from people who know how long and how well he has supported local arts and the LSO in particular.

That wasn’t any ol’ pinch-hitter up there, “It’s Larry Doby!” And even at 80 he can still swing the bat.

Being no slouch, he even had a little comedy bit with the maestro; it was fun. The orchestra then proceeded to fondly ignore him, since they can play that number in their sleep.

There’s no more beautiful version of The Star-Spangled Banner you’ll ever hear than that of a symphony orchestra. Yes, you get the military drums and the bombast from the brass, but for the pretty part in the middle, professional violinists take over and make you proud to be an American; proud that this is your song.

The Cincinnati Symphony always used to start every concert with the Anthem; in Lafayette tonight, the audience sang along, hands over their hearts like Hoosiers still do.

This band fits the city like a bespoke glove.

But the ultimate question perhaps is this: why go to a symphony orchestra concert at all? If you want the best rendition of the best music in the world, chances are you listen to a CD in your living room by some famous guy with a famous band conducted by a major-leaguer. You don’t have to dress up, you can pause the music while you run to the fridge, and the admission price is cheaper than even my front-row center seat in the upper deck at the Long Center, which was only $20.

What you hear through your headphones or speakers will, if you’re lucky, transport you to a sublime mental place – unless the dog starts wanting attention.

But that’s listening to a recording, not attending a live performance – and being there to see it and hear it live makes a big difference.

A live concert is better than a recording in that there’s so much to look at! You might not think so if you only know classical music from records or the radio, but when it’s live, you can watch this group of musicians produce their sound out of their bodies as well as their instruments. It’s a physical thing. In that sense it’s almost like baseball. The body (heart, mind, soul) is what makes the sound.

Bella Hristova, tonight’s soloist, looked the part of a concert violinist, and made music like one – but she also worked up a sweat doing it. And the 73 people behind her got a workout too.

As the composition changes and develops, you hear new sounds and look intently; flutes, oboes, clarinets? Who’s singing that? Then the brass comes up, and look at those trombones!

My favorite thing (and this is really homely, I admit) is watching the string players when they’re called upon to pluck instead of bow. For some reason I love plucking. And yes, I can tell you certain favorite recordings where I know that sound (say, the very ending of Schubert’s Unfinished) was produced by a finger plucking a string, though I could not see it happen. But it’s so much better, more exciting, more thrilling, to watch them do it live, as the cellists did tonight. Here these players have spent their entire lives learning how to master the bow on those strings, but the ending to my all-time favorite piece is just them and their fingers on a taut piece of catgut. It’s so basic, elemental and physical that it reminds us that all music – the New York Philharmonic, villagers in Soweto or the Rolling Stones – comes from inside our bodies.

So the big reason why people in Lafayette, Indiana and surrounding areas ought to support their symphony orchestra is because it offers high musicianship with the thrill of live, once-in-a-lifetime performance, much like a night on Broadway.

We go to the theater to be lifted out of ourselves and shown other planes of existence – where we can dwell for two hours or, if we make it happen, the rest of our lives.

We pay musicians like these not just because they’re technically proficient and united as an orchestra, but because, whatever their individual stories, they live both in the world and beyond the world – which is the way we’d all like to live if only we knew how.

I knew a guy named Gary once, a nurse in Cincinnati who was really good at honky-tonk piano; his idol was JoAnn Castle of the Lawrence Welk Show. But he only came alive when he was performing at the Gay piano bar in Clifton; then he had a great time and gave others lots of fun. But when it was over it was over; he went back to his humdrum existence. Nursing was his safe job, not his vocation. (He did play professionally when he was younger, but when the pickings got slim he didn’t have the finances to continue. Being an independent musician is hard.)

The difference between a bassoonist in New York and one in Chicago is infinitesimal; between the Chicagoan and a bassoonist in Indianapolis, barely detectable; between Indianapolis and Lafayette, non-existent to the untrained ear.

But the difference between any professional bassoonist and someone ordinary like you and me is that the bassoonist or typanist or oboeist made a commitment to pursue his or her vocation instead of a safer job. Maybe it works out well; maybe it’s a constant struggle. Musicians in the LSO will never be rich and famous (and neither will a mere bassoonist at the New York Phil). But the reason to support a minor league orchestra is that even the unknowns can show us to reach for the sublime and not settle for less.

If during a concert they can also make us sit back, close our eyes and just listen – then sit up and look, look, look at these folks making beautiful, intelligent noise – that $20 ticket for the upper deck in an old refurbished movie house in a minor Hoosier town is worth more than the Yankees or the Reds.

Those guys are just batting a piece of horsehide with a stick, chasing after a ball. The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra transported me to New York on 9/11, Milan in 1862, Bremen a few years later, and an English country house in late Victorian days, while welcoming me as a newcomer to their extended family.

Whether theater, dance, opera, orchestra, visual arts or baseball, go, see the professionals play. Don’t get caught up in the hype of who’s got the big reputation; those people may disappoint you and they’ll surely be overpriced. Look around you in your own area, find the arts and the artists where you live. They’re worth knowing and you might actually become friends.

Then watch out; that tuba player may secretly double on the honky-tonk piano.++

Bella indeed: Ms. Hristova and that gorgeous violin.