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Vassily Primakov, Anne Harrigan at the Symphony Tonight!

The coverboy from June 2009.

(Update below: Dick Jaeger’s review in the local paper.)

I’m just back from another outstanding concert by the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra tonight, “All Tchaikovsky” starring the brilliant young pianist Vassily Primakov performing Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor. What a wonderful night!

I’ve looked forward to it for days, the way excitement starts to build up for important events. All week I’ve reminded myself, “It’s Saturday, don’t be late.” This morning when I woke up I thought, “It’s symphony day. Buy gas.” This on the same day the Purdue Boilermakers had a football date with the Michigan State Spartans. Usually on Saturdays in autumn I think, “This is game day.” But no, this was music night.

I carefully calculated the two hours it takes for me to get from home to the Long Center, an hour for driving and an hour for the time zone change. I made it just fine, an aisle seat on the main floor, a near-capacity crowd. Then I remembered the other thing that excited me and made me wonder about tonight, the return of Anne Harrigan, the former LSO conductor who’s now music director of the Billings Symphony in Montana and Battle Creek in Michigan. She was well-liked here, and though I never heard her concerts, I thought there might be an extra buzz in the air, and there was.

She was the LSO’s maestro from 1994-2005, nationally known for her innovative, multi-disciplinary programming – but I had a humbler reason for wanting to see her; the first time I’ve ever seen a woman conductor in person.

Of course I know that women are becoming more prominent in this formerly “man’s field,” with the likes of Sarah Caldwell and others – and since my mother was a bit of a pioneer in her previously-male profession, I’m all for women breaking every ceiling there is. Women priests? Yes, ma’am – which isn’t to say I didn’t experience a minute of shock a few years ago the first time I heard a woman chanting the Mass on Christmas Eve in my home parish. (She sang better than Fr. Ed does, clear and on pitch, but ohmygod she’s a soprano! I was plucked there for a minute, despite all my high-falutin’ principles.)

So what would it be like to see a woman with the baton? Ms. Harrigan was only slated to lead the opening “Cossack Dance” from Tchaikovsky’s 1883 opera “Mazzepa,” four minutes at the most; then the current music director Dr. Nicholas Palmer would take over for the rest of the program, including the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and the later piano concerto. So I was really curious, not only about how Ms. Harrigan would do, but how the players and audience would react to her, and how I would. I mean, how did they even get her to come back for such a brief appearance?

The “Cossack Dance” is a lovely little piece, pure Tchaikovsky, and on she came. I watched her; the musicians stood for her, but they do for every conductor, and what was going through their minds? She’d been on this stage many times before. What were longtime subscribers in the audience thinking?

She lifted her baton and free hand; gave the downbeat with authority; and a half-minute later I thought, “Women belong on the podium!”

I loved every second of it.

She probably knows the piece like the back of her hand, and of course she knows most of these musicians. But I found it delightful to see her in charge of the whole shebang. Her cues are clear, she’s very expressive with her body without drawing attention to herself – she just fits in that role. So I sat back and let Pyotr T. take care of me, paint me a perfect picture.

A few minutes later, end of cameo appearance; she received a bouquet and left the stage. I found myself wishing I could hear a whole concert she conducted. The company sounded great, crisp and clear and balanced. I’m no music critic but these people are well-prepared professionals.

Anne Harrigan, music director of Battle Creek and Billings.

The appetizer was great; I could have noshed all night just on that. Then Nick Palmer arrived to serve the entrée.

I suppose I watched him a bit, comparing the woman and the man, but I soon lost interest in that; he controls and directs his band more or less the same as she did, and after a minute I stopped watching him and started listening more deeply. There are skills involved in conducting, and both he and she are careful to do it well. Gender doesn’t matter, musicianship does; management of 100 egotistical/insecure people does, so they all work together as a team.

Dr. Nick introduced the 1st Symphony before they began to play, and I got the sense that this is a warm and personable guy with a winning personality, which is doubtless important in a small market like this one, where even after 60 seasons the conductor’s extra job is to make friends. Indeed, one of the attractions of a small-city orchestra is the close connection between the audience, the donors, the players and the staff. There’s no pretension or grandeur anywhere; we’re all there to love the music and the people who make it.

The Long Center seats 1500, and we all think we own a piece of these folks. We’re never surprised if we find a gaggle of cellists at the brewpub around the corner after the concert; where else would they go, the Hyatt? There isn’t one. Come, rub shoulders, it’s time to relax.

Again, I’m no musicologist, but I found the performance crisp and clear, well-controlled, with excellent balance. In short, these people are an ensemble. They know what they’re doing, they have an identity and a sound. That’s surely a tribute to all the musicians and conductors who’ve come before; the Guild and board members and administrators who have, for six decades, molded an organization that dedicates itself to excellence, even if most people have barely heard of their hometown.

How often is this replicated across the United States and across the world? They may not be Lenny’s Philharmonic, but they’re damn good, committed to their craft and their art.

Which is what I came to see and hear, people committed to their art. Because people like that, who practice and strive to improve every day, to take on new challenges, to learn new work, provide the rest of us who can’t do what they do with an example that applies directly to our own lives.

Me, I write; I try to do it as well as I possibly can. My friend Leonardo makes incredibly decorated pieces of furniture among his many media. My spiritual director Marcia had an amazing and versatile gallery opening last week. My friend Peter found his niche in the fashion world, where craftsmanship, daring ideas and practicality come together so our bodies are pleasingly presented. Some compose, some sew, some sketch, some paint, others perform, but we’re all in the business of lifting ourselves and our neighbors to a higher plane of existence. For heaven’s sake that’s worth a $35 ticket.

Dr. Nicholas Palmer, music director of the Lafayette Symphony.

After intermission came one of the highlights of the night, the dedication of a newly-acquired Bechstein concert grand piano. The last time Mr. Primakov, the pianist, appeared with the Lafayette Symphony, he played this instrument, rented from a fine piano dealer in suburban Indianapolis. One of the LSO musicians, Everett Klontz, who just retired after 50 years as a violinist with the orchestra, heard him and thought, “We ought to buy that piano.” But Bechsteins are costly, and small orchestras don’t have 80 G’s lying around gathering dust.

That retired musician, Dr. Klontz, is also a retired professor of physics at Purdue University; this is where the story really gets good, in that now-elderly man who is both scientist and musician. He heard Primakov playing it three years ago and said, “We have to.”

So, it took three years. Then on came Primakov, who’s all of 30, to dedicate the piano to the aged professor-musician by playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

The audience broke out in applause four times for that professor as he appeared onstage, the one who made it happen.

(The LSO doesn’t always do a great job of introducing its insiders to the audience; some board chairman type who never did give his name handled this segment. I guess we’re all supposed to know who he is already. But that’s how it happens in a small town. He gave the professor’s name and I will fill it in as soon as Dick Jaeger’s concert review is published in the Journal and Courier. I have no doubt it will be a rave; if it isn’t, I’ll call the editor and complain that it ought to be a rave.)

Here was this stooped old man, who dedicated decades of his life to physics, to his students and to fine music, now walking with a cane onstage to celebrate the arrival of a fine instrument, and to listen to it put to roof-rattling use by one of the most passionate interpreters of his generation.

Then Prof. Klontz walked off to take his seat in the audience, to listen to the exciting Vassily Primakov.

Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano concerto is one of the most famous compositions in the world; even if you’ve never set foot in a concert hall you’d recognize its opening notes. I sat back in my seat, shut my eyes and let the beauty wash over me.

That’s another reason we buy tickets; to experience sheer beauty. There are artists and philosophers who denigrate beauty these days as if it’s somehow banal (because they can’t reproduce or outdo it themselves, so they’d rather sell you conflict and clash, it’s more modern). But you have to take Tchaikovsky on his own terms, in his own era and place. He wrote lots of musical/mathematical conflict, as one section of the band takes up arms against the other, but plenty of harmony too in the broadest sense. He was moved by beauty (he was Russian!), and created as much as he could.

Concertos tend to be showpieces, and Primakov was entirely ready for his thousand arpeggios, hunched over his piano like a character from Victor Hugo; but he is subtle too. I sat there, watched and listened as this young man tried to show me how to hear the cries and joys of Russia and of art. When the third movement started I had to face the pain, realizing this live experience would soon come to an end.

And it did, with a big bombastic ending that follows, but changes, the conventional form of classical music; no one’s ever been able to improve on the basic idea of ending on a “high note.” Nearly every composer and performer has sought to send the audience out riding clouds. The finale should be a climax; give the paying public a climax.

Then occurred something I’m coming to recognize as unique to smalltown audience reaction; people feeling free to yell and scream as if this were a rock concert.

They don’t necessarily do that in big cities where a symphony concert is a high-society affair you’re supposed to show up at whether you like music or not. In big cities with high-prestige orchestras, audience members act with decorum, not enthusiasm, because half the time they’re more concerned with each other than the musicians onstage.

Not in Lafayette. When they hear great music – and we did tonight – they stomp and shout.

They’re grateful; Vassily Primakov came to Lafayette, because he knows Nick Palmer and had a good time here before.

We want him to come back! So we let loose and show our appreciation for all the musicians. That orchestra played so well tonight. Ms. Harrigan and Dr. Palmer could make me eat out of their hands.

Lafayette, Indiana is a “small town with big city entertainment.” I’m thinking of selling my house and moving back. I don’t want to miss nights like this; I don’t want fog or time zones getting in my way.

This band is just too good not to listen to every chance I get. Bravo!++

UPDATE: “LSO Shines in Tchaikovsky Show on Saturday,” by Dick Jaeger, Lafayette Journal and Courier

The large audience at Long Center for the Performing Arts saw a near phenomenon on Saturday evening when the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra and guest piano soloist Vassily Primakov mesmerized the audience in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor.”

The word I believe fits best is transfixion. The deep silence that permeated those gathered to hear this remarkable young pianist was immediately followed by cheers, shouts of “bravo” and prolonged applause.

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.