Half an hour before the concert starts, I watch the audience file in. The average age is well above seventy; the husbands look slight and bleached beside their wives. A few grandchildren wearing bows and shiny shoes sit between the couples. In the hangings of the Tapestry Room, Renaissance grandees display their courtly manners. Behind me, someone says, “We used to see Archie Cox there all the time.”
I try to read Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, her farm-girl narrator describing a commuter flight to Green Bay: “Then suddenly we were taking off, racing down the runway and lifting into the air like a carnival ride, the plane with a seabird’s wobble.” It’s her first time in an airplane. Near me, a voice asks, “Did you go to any concerts in Paris?” Answer: “We heard the St. John’s Passion, of which we are very fond.” Apparently, we are not so fond of dangling prepositions.
Moore’s leisurely, descriptive style encourages observation. I remember the tiled floor in this very room from when I first saw it, on a trip with my Dad, at age 17. The Bach-lover behind me is recommending the “film version of Cyrano with Depardieu.” Each French noun is perfectly pronounced, like an excerpt from a language tape. His mouth is capable of switching from Boston Brahmin to gallic r’s and back without slowing appreciably.
My misanthropy now covers the whole audience except maybe the grandchildren. The first piece of music is supposed to rebuke such attitudes. It is a Masonic cantata by Mozart, with German lyrics that recommend: “Love thyselves and thy brothers! Bodily strength and beauty be thy ornament!” I find this advice hard to take, even with Mozart’s sugar-coating.
It’s the Bartok that snaps me out of it, the string quartet exchanging spiky, stochastic phrases, snatches of folk melody, tragic outbursts. The musicians are young, diverse, and intent, interacting with their bodies and faces as well as the sounds they make. The music was new when the audience first heard it and feels new still. It puts up green shoots.