Transfigured Night


The National Endowment for the Arts invited 25 arts writers from newspapers around the country to New York City for a two-week crash course on all things classical music. They call it a Classical Music Institute. Their mission: Hike up the quality of classical music journalism and, in turn, save classical music as we know it.

I apply and am stunned to receive a quick letter of acceptance.

So I’m doing mental jumping jacks about going to New York. I make plans to see some jazz, some improv, maybe stroll SoHo, nosh on a knish. Then something more salient crosses my mind—this is a Classical Music Institute, and I hate classical music.

That’s a problem particularly because a big part of my job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press is writing about classical music. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, but I’ve never purchased a single classical music CD nor sat through an entire opera without falling asleep.

My tastes skew a bit more toward musical artists who brand pentagrams into their foreheads. What can I say—I’m a sucker for the classics.

Weeks before I fly into New York, I receive a packet as thick as a steak. Inside are about a dozen or so articles from magazines and newspapers I never knew existed. No explanatory note, no instruction for what we’re supposed to do. I mean, they don’t expect me to read these, do they?

Then there’s the schedule—classes and lectures all morning and afternoon, concerts at night. Virtually every moment of our time appears spoken for, and I’m thinking, “Hey, I’ve got plans to go to the Blue Note.”

Our classes are based at Columbia University, the kind of hallowed institution that would have laughed me out of the admissions office 20 years ago. But today, I’m one of 25 journalists from around the country bestowed with the title of “fellow.”

My fellow Fellows are all from towns where you’d expect to find the saviors of classical music—Tucson, Birmingham, Boise, Wichita, Fargo. The NEA hasn’t put it so bluntly, but the implication is clear—we represent the ghettos of fine arts journalism.

My tastes skew a bit more toward musical artists who
brand pentagrams into their foreheads. What can I say—
I’m a sucker for the classics.

It’s 9 in the morning on our first day of classical music boot camp, and right out of the gates, they hit us with Dr. Walter Frisch, one of the world’s most revered and published musicologists. He unleashes a barrage of advanced compositional theory, and this instantly numbs me, but it also scares the crap outta me. What if the next two weeks are just like this? What am I doing here? God, I am such a fraud.

I look around—everyone seems glued to this guy, taking notes. Front row center, a hand spikes up. “Yes, I just wanted to call attention to the fact that both Bartok and Brahms composed within the AABACA structure—not that you’d know it by listening to their respective violin concertos, but if you look at the scores, you’ll clearly see the connection.”

That’s Grant. He comes to us from Portland, Oregon. He wears little square spectacles without frames over a flattened face and a crimped smirk I immediately take as a sign of unremitting arrogance. At this retreat, Grant represents the Jekyll to my Hyde…or, the Hyde to my Jekyll. This much I do know: It’s only a matter of hours, perhaps even minutes, before Grant exposes me as a rogue, a huckster and charlatan. I determine, Grant must be dealt with.

From my seat in the back, I narrow my eyes and shoot laser beams into the back of his head. For his own part, Dr. Frisch responds with this little look of bemusement, then spins into another strain of classical calculus. It occurs to me the next two weeks just might be the most humbling of my life.

That night, we’re beckoned to Lincoln Center for The Magic Flute, courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera. This is the first in an unrelenting series of concerts and events designed to thrust us into the belly of New York’s classical music scene.

Now, as I’ve said, I’ve never made it through an entire opera. Many years ago, for my previous newspaper in California, I was reviewing Carmen when I got a little hungry and more than a little bored. As people idled out for the first intermission, I just kept on idling and took myself to dinner a couple of blocks away.

What if the next two weeks are just like this?
What am I doing here? God, I am such a fraud.

Now, mind you, I was supposed to be reviewing Carmen, but I didn’t rush my dinner. I had two beers with my risotto, then had the audacity to return to the opera, making it back just as people were walking into the theater for Act Three of a four-act screamathon. Any lesson in ethics was in my future, and my review came out two days later. It was only in my column the following week that I revealed to readers that I’d missed the entire second act. Oy, the letters that came in. You’d have thought it was my fault Carmen sucked.

So, I’m at The Magic Flute, and about 15 minutes into the thing, my head is nodding back and forth like a punching bag. I’m chagrined to announce the winnah by knockout, at 3 minutes, 23 seconds of the second round, “Theeeeeee Magic Flute!”

After the final bow, I stumble punch-drunk out of Lincoln Center and find Kim Nowacki, who writes for a paper in Yakima, Washington. She’s got blond dreadlocks, dresses in black and smacks her gum, and I soon begin calling her Wacky Nowacki. She likes the opera—“That was very cool,” she says—but I’m not buying it. I smell cigarettes and Pachouli oil, but I’m relieved to meet someone else who seems to live on the same planet as I do.

Other mortals emerge in class over the next two days. Soon, our little group of journalists organically divides into two “Survivor” tribes—the Know-it-Alls, with Grant as the de facto captain; and the Know-Nothings, of which I am a charter member.

Wacky is one of us, and so is a burly, hairy, chain-smoker from Fargo. You can’t get into an elevator with this guy without contracting second-hand lung cancer. There’s also a gun-toter from Montana named Joe, who I quickly dub Joe Montana. Every day, he shows up in some sick threads straight out of John Travolta’s wardrobe closet from Saturday Night Fever and every night returns to his room with bottles of whiskey and Coke. Of course, the Know-it-Alls have no clue they’ve stepped into a high-stakes Classical Music smackdown. Certainly, the NEA never bargained for this sort of drama.

The first instructor I connect with is Joe Horowitz. He describes himself to me a Jewish hippie from the 1960s and says he can’t stomach the New York Times because it’s too conservative.

Joe learns I write about the Minnesota Orchestra and tells me I should read a certain biography of Dimitri Mitropolous. I say, “Hey, I’ll bet someone with the orchestra will lend me a copy.” Joe just stares at me for an uncomfortable moment, drawing on my face a look of dumb confusion. “That is shameful,” he says. I respond by looking even dumber and more confused, and Joe says “Buy the book—it should be in your collection.” I’m thinking, “Collection?” I don’t have the heart to tell him the only things I collect are paraphernalia from the movie This is Spinal Tap.

Still, slowly and through no concerted effort on my part, this classical music immersion is starting to have an effect.

During one lecture, I hear the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and something clicks—wow, I like this guy. On the subway to that night’s concert, something compels me to make an early stop and detour to this magical place at 50th and Broadway. I’ve stopped by twice since arriving in New York, but now I’m drawn up the escalator, to a place so foreign, so forbidding, I would have never gone unaccompanied until now, and certainly not without a weapon. But here I am, at the entrance to the classical music section of Tower Records.

She’s got blond dreadlocks, dresses in black and
smacks her gum. I’m relieved to meet someone else who
seems to live on the same planet as I do.

Behind the counter is a guy with peppered gray hair sprouting in a tangle in every direction. I approach and ask if they have any Schoenberg CDs. He asks what I’m looking for, in particular, and I respond with a shrug. “Umm, is there a Greatest Hits CD? Maybe Live at Budokan or something?”

He smiles and says “Come with me.” He leads me to an entire row dedicated to the music of Arnold Schoenberg and plucks out a disc.

He turns to me and says “You must have Transfigured Night.”

“I must, must I?”

“Yes, it’s his most famous work and maybe even his best.” He hands me a version featuring Yo-Yo Ma. I figure if it’s got Yo-Yo, it’s gotta be good.

He says, “There’s also the Guerrelieder with the Berlin Philharmonic. This one’s very good.” He hands me that, too.

“These string quartets are very good,” he says, handing me another disc.

This guy is absolutely burying me in Schoenberg, but I don’t mind, because his passion is becoming mine. I get to the cash register and I’m just beaming when I hand him the Schoenberg. Just then, another guy wearing a Tower badge steps behind the counter and pauses when he sees me.

“Hey, weren’t you in here yesterday buying Judas Priest?”

I’m thinking, “It was Iron Maiden, jackass,” but my Schoenberg guide simply looks at me and smiles. “Yesterday is yesterday,” he says. “Today is a whole new day.”

Two nights before our camp shuts down, we’re treated to the Boston Symphony with James Levine. We’re at Carnegie Hall, and I’m sitting in a balcony high enough for satellites to orbit, but I’m in the front row, and when I look over the railing, it’s as if I’m hovering directly over the orchestra.

Tonight’s program is Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, just a massive piece of work. There are 120 musicians on stage, another dozen horn players in a lower balcony and 200 vocalists on risers in the back. I feel like I’m looking down on it all from the Goodyear blimp, and it seems the perfect place for this concert. I tune out everything and everyone around me. The orchestra is crisp and robust, of course, but I also feel myself getting swept into Mahler’s mind. For the first time since I arrived, I’m humbled by the music, not my own ignorance.

“It was Iron Maiden, jackass.”

The next night is our final one in New York—no more writing assignments, no more lectures—and everyone’s giddy. We have tickets to City Opera’s Dialogue of the Carmelites. By now, word has gotten around that I’m allergic to opera. One of my colleagues swears tonight will cure me. He even wants to make a bet with me.

“This isn’t anything like Magic Flute. It’s all darkness and death,” he says. “There are even beheadings—you’ll love it.”

I’m skeptical. First of all, there’s death in every opera, and if there isn’t, there should be—preferably before the opera is written. Secondly, there’s my personal history.

I somehow make it through Act One, but in Act Two, I’m on the ropes within minutes. I wind up snoozing right through the beheadings. But I’m not too disappointed. On the flight home, I listen for the first time to Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, close my eyes and fall wide awake.

© November 2004,

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