I had lost sleep for two nights running worrying about the tightness of my schedule (I was due to arrive in D.C. only an hour before the beginning of the Philip Glass performance –which was my whole reason for going to D.C., and literally, the slightest flight delay could nullify the entire trip). However, all the flights were on time, the weather was great, and I got to the Kennedy Center with an hour to spare.
On the way from the airport, the cab driver regaled me with the kind of wisdom that those who make a large proportion of their livelihood from tips keep readily available; such wisdom frequently emphasises the concepts “you can’t take it with you” and “live it up.” He was a nice guy. He was just the right blend of amiable and intelligent.
On the way to the Kennedy Center we passed by the Lincoln Memorial, which was awash with orange plastic fencing and cops with swirling lights. Gee, you’d think there was something going on. We continued up to the Kennedy Center, which, for my money, is one of the most beautiful venues in the world. It’s so tall and austere and tomb-like on the outside; when you walk around it, you get this very deep impression of mystery and awe. The broad walkways around the center were covered with light snow, and it was very enjoyable to stroll around in the chilly air, looking out over the scenes of Washington with the huge block of white marble always at my back.
Heading back inside, I bought a $9 split of champagne (Frexinet in one of those two-part assemble-it-yourself flutes ... chalk it up as a birthday indulgence) and drank it as I watched the people file in for the show. There were a lot of young people in the crowd, which I thought very encouraging. Then I went and found my seat.
I had a great seat, about four rows back from the orchestra and off to the left. The house wasn’t very full, because, of course, everyone was off attending Inaugural Balls, apparently. I had a very nice little conversation with the woman sitting next to me, who was a season ticket holder. Then the concert started.
The symphony was amazing. It incorporated the center’s pipe organ (which, apparently, isn’t used all that often, according to the woman next to me) and there was a full choir onstage. The orchestra’s sound was brilliantly crisp and rich. Either I had a really good seat, or the acoustics were really excellent, but the sound was fabulous, with one exception. I didn’t think the choir sound was very good. They were too mushy and vague for my taste, and not loud enough.
The weird thing about the Glass Symphony was, I was sure that I’d heard the third movement (The Blue Deer) before somewhere. The feeling was so strong that an hour on the Web today trying to find out if a clip had been pre-released somewhere (Of course, I can’t find it anywhere). So I’m feeling very Déjà vu-ish. It wasn’t just that the music sounded familiar, I knew exactly where it was going. I was humming along to it in my head. Now, that could just be because there are a lot of very common motifs in Philip Glass’ work. But the element of the music that most clearly run a bell in my memory was the conciet of having the orchestra play a few bars, then stop to dead silence ... then play a few more bars, then stop to dead silence ... that’s what I remembered, but that’s not something that’s all that common in Glass’ works, at least not the ones I’m familiar with. So that was interesting, and a bit disconcerting.
After the Glass symphony (which was about 37 minutes long) we moved to the second half of the program, a song cycle by Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. I can’t say I was especially impressed by this section of the program. The baritone Matthias Goerne exhibited all the richness of his truly magnificent voice, but unfortunately he also exhibited all those extravagant mannerisms which make operatic performers so hard to watch; the exaggerated hand gestures, the facial expressions of Kabuki-like stylization and intensity, etc. It was both creepy and corny at the same time. Add this to the fact that the lieder themselves were sentimental and melodramatic, and the whole thing threw off a very National Socialist vibe. Pairing it with the Glass was like serving sauerkraut and cheese enchiladas on the same plate. Sure ... you can do it. But do you want to?
I hung around after the performance (as did about 200 other concertgoers) for the Q&A with Glass, Slatkin, and one of the lead brass players (I didn’t catch his name). Slatkin kept the proceedings going very smoothly. Glass is always very interesting to listen to; he’s one of those mumble-mouth geniuses who kind of ramble on and look vaguely uncomfortable. There were several good questions from the audience, and I even got to ask one of my own, which I prefaced by mentioning that I’d flown all the way from Oregon for the premiere. Then I asked him something along the lines of, “Mr. Glass, your other recent works have been longer, more substantive; I’m thinking in particular of Symphony Number Five, whereas this new work we heard tonight was much shorter. Would you say this does signals a shift toward a more abbreviated ouvre?”
[Translation for the inattentive: “Philip, I flew all the way from goddamn Oregon for a 30 minute symphony? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. But hellfire, I’ve taken shits longer than that symphony.”]
Glass’s answer: “It’s a question of programming. With a shorter work, an orchestra can program other things as well. If the symphony had been longer, you wouldn’t have gotten to hear that wonderful Mahler!” (at which point I rolled my eyes, hoping he couldn’t see it because I was fifty feet away.) “At any rate,” (he continued) “shorter pieces being easier to program with other pieces ...” (OK, but not with that drippy Mahler again, please!) “... means that the music has a greater likelihood of being performed, as opposed to bigger works, like Symphony 5, which can’t be produced as easily.”
[Translation for the gullible: “Hey, this was a commission, and they paid me for thirty yards of Glass’ finest. Oh, and by the way, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way back to Oregon.”]
Of course, I kid. I kid because I love.
Anyway, after the question and answer session, I had a bunch of people come and chat me up about Oregon. One guy used to live in Grant’s Pass, another couple had a son who’s company’s home office was in Portland. In the metro station heading back to the hotel, a random woman said, “Hey, there’s the Oregon Glass fan!” I felt somewhat conspicuous and a little silly. But, whatever. It was fun.
So I took the metro to Crystal City, goggling at the men in tuxedos and women in fur coats and diamonds (riding the Metro? Weird, huh?). I saw one guy (a puffy, white haired older gent) wearing with some kind of ambassadorial order on a red ribbon, a gold and white iron cross. I wondered if it was real. It looked very cool.
Eventually, I found the Hilton, remembered that I hadn’t had any dinner, found the only restaurant open in the area (a Sports Bar) and got a very indifferent Reuben, dubious jalapeno poppers made with cheddar (?!) cheese, and a couple of pints of sweet, sweet Harp to wash it all down.
The trip out of D.C. the next morning was nightmarish. Everyone was going home after the Inauguration, I guess, because the airport had the longest security lines I’ve ever seen. And the flight to Dallas was awfully crowded (actually, it was just that our row was full of fat people, and the guy next to me was throwing off body heat like he had deadly swamp fever). I couldn’t get off that plane fast enough. In Dallas, I bought milagros at this little store that had a latino version of “Hava Nagila” playing in a continuous loop. By the third time I heard it, I was ready to pop a cap in someone. I asked the clerk if the song didn’t drive her crazy; she shrugged indifferently.
The final interesting little coincidence of the whole trip ... I was sitting in the Dallas airport, thinking about people I know who travel frequently, and thinking about how odd it was that I never ran into any of them. Then, as I was boarding the plane, who did I see in first class but jaylake, and I said hi. The Dallas/Portland leg was doubly nice because the middle seat was empty, which allowed me the elbow room I needed to get some writing done. And since I was also able to write on the Dallas/Washington leg on the way out, I actually managed to be somewhat productive on this trip.
So, there it is. I made it home, had Chinese food with the family, and then cake and ice cream, and now we’re watching the new Battlestar Galactica. Happy Birthday to me!