Quiet As After A Thunder


26 Sep 2009, 8:32

As I walking down the aisle of the concert hall, an old black man came from behind and asked me where his seat was at because he couldn’t read Chinese. He said he got his 1280 Yuan ticket for 300, damn, I just spent one hundred more on a 980 one, and I got ripped off worse than a laowai!

I pointed to him where C3 entrance was at and I got in from C5, when I got to my seat, literally above the head of the last row’s cellist, I decided to move to another place. There were plenty of empty seats down the first floor. I saw that old man there so I went, sat down and asked him:”Is this where your seat is at?” “Of course not but we shall stay here before someone come.” Then he told me about how he normally got rid of the “a bit aggressive” usher. “Someone” did come and we moved to the conner of the sixth row, the concert is about to begin, “You see the two seats over there? When the orchestra starts to come in, we go there if they are still empty.” The lights started to dim, “Ok let go, go go”. OK now we are in the middle of the 5th row. Perfect.

When the orchestra was tuning and waiting for the Maestro, my old companion asked me if I recognized the principal player of the 2nd violins. “No” I said. “He was in the Berlin Philharmonic when Furtwängler was there.” “God, how old is he!?” “I cannot remember, but I was at his 80th or 81st birthday party years ago in Berlin, so I think he’s at least 86 now. I know him in the 60’s in Berlin, that man is all about music, you know? Many of the others in the orchestra say he’s the most musical person there.”

OK, not only did I came into Abbado’s house of holy, but also sat beside a living museum of music.

I know little about opera stuff, but you don’t need to know nothing to appreciate the genius of Mozart. "Women can sing". My companion told me before the concert started as if it's a top secret. Then it began. The melody soared above the gentle fiddle of the strings through the voice of the soprano from the beginning to the end, and the oboe, the moment the oboe came in was pure magical, it made you almost wanna cry that human race had once reached such perfection, and it made you understand why Salieri lost his mind: watching someone touched by the hand of God right in front of your face could be very heartbreaking, especially when you yourself was hopelessly mortal.

The wind section also did a splendid job in the Mahler 4th, except the bassoon massed up a little bit in the first movement, the strings really shone under Abbado's conducting, though it didn’t quite match the intense yet crystal texture woven by Christoph von Dohnanyi’s Cleveland. Maybe it’s just the 4th should sound a little bit light-hearted. The only thing I really didn’t like is the solo part of the principal 1st violinist. His virtuosity was indeed sweat, seductive, even lustful, but it’s Mahler’s 4th, as a grand yet peaceful final to the 3rd, should be more restrained and reflective imo. The desire has been conquered by faith and the man is ready to sacrifice the lamb to gain his heavenly peace that the child is singing about. Peace.

Shantih shantih shantih

After the concert the old man and me went to the subway together. We kept talking about music and at one point I asked him:”Do you listen to any other kind of music other than classical?”

“No, nothing.”

“No Jazz?”

“No. You know I was there in the 60s when everything came about, jazz, rock, but I never got into it.”

“So you never liked any of the Beatles’ songs?” At that time I couldn't help to tease him, an old fashioned “classical only” music fan.

“Um, not really. Actually I knew one of them but I cannot remember his name at this moment, he’s really a nice guy, very different from the rest of them.”

It must be George. I won’t be surprised if people call John a jerk, Paul an old granny or Ringo a dandy, but who won’t love the quiet and sweet George?

“Is that George Harrison?”

“Oh yes, George, I knew him quite well in London back in the 60s, at that time he looked like Jesus Christ, you know? I don’t like religion but George was really nice to talk to, I met him again in New York in the 70s and he introduced me to another guy of them, is his name Starr?”

“Ringo Starr.”

“Yes he’s nice too but George was special. I never talked to him or read about them after that, but when I heard that George died, I was devastated. After all those years and suddenly you know that someone like that has died...”

“Yes like I read from somewhere, ‘a whole generation learned about death from the Beatles, when Brian Epstein died we knew that people can die, we John Lennon died we knew that we can die, and when George died we knew that we will die.”

Then I tried to change the direction of the talk back to classical ‘cause talking to someone who has befriended with the Beatles and couldn’t even remember their names was too much for me. I really didn’t want to know that he had been smoking pot with Bob Dylan and had no idea what happened to that Zimmerman guy in the last 40 years.

“Who do you think is the greatest American composer?”

He looked at me as if I was asking him some very private question and said:”I don’t know.”

“Well it’s just an opinion.”

“I cannot remember many of their names.”

“What about Charles Ives.”

“Yeah I was thinking about him, but you know, we Americans overrated ourselves way too much, if you say Ives is great, then where do you put, say, Brahms?”

“Yes it only depends on who you are comparing to, as Richard Strauss said before his death, ‘I might not be a first rate composer, but I am a first-class second rate composer.’”

“He said that before he wrote Four Last Songs. No he’s not second rate. You know? In his 80s he wrote Four Last Songs, the oboe concerto, Metamorphosen, all great works. He is definitely the first rate.”

“Yes, and another interesting thing about Strauss is that, if you look at his life, it makes you feel that the history of civilization is so short. I mean, he was still alive in 1949, and when he composed his violin concerto, the Brahms violin concerto was only three years old! And Brahms was with Schumann who was with Beethoven. So you just have to go back to three or four generations and you have already reached the time of Beethoven, but Beethoven sounds like a God from ancient times, a totally different world”

“Yes, when we were listening toArnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg in the 60s people say that’s new music, now they are all old. You have to listen to what is been written now if you want to be a serious listener, I guess I am out of touch now.”

“Do you know Elliott Carter?”

“Yes I met him a couple of time.”


”Is he dead?” He asked.

“No he’s alive and last year Boulez premiered his new concerto to celebrate his 100th birthday.”

“Yes, he’s good. His wife was very rich and he was from good family too, so, you know, it good for him that he never needed to worry about money, but it also made it very difficult for him to achieve bigger success. You know, people like him, they always get their due, he didn’t have it at first, but he’s lucky to live into such an old age and finally got his due. But once you get used to it, it’s really hard to do something outside your circle, something really break through.”

“It’s all about the class.”

“Exactly. I saw his last opera about 10 years ago in Berlin, I cannot say that I’m impressed, maybe it’s just me.”

“His string quartets are great.”

“But that’s from 40 years ago.”

He said he’s going to Mongolia next week, “should get there before their festival starts.” We shook hands and wished each other good luck, and I got off at Xizhimen.

When I got back to the ground I found myself lost again in the real world, I wandered through the golden age of classical, late romanticism, and pop music and now I am standing on this shattered twittering world that I never quite figured out since when the fall began. I don’t want to, there are too many great things that people better than us from the past had already done that worth to spend a whole life to learn about.

“Father father, we don’t need to escalate.”

What a prayer. May I never be that weak to try to be too strong. I sang that to myself as I was waiting for the cab, and lit another cigarette. The music of tonight flashed back into my mind, suddenly I felt that the world in my mind’s eye became so quiet, quiet as after a thunder.


  • edpeto

    An amazing piece of writing, about what must have been a wonderful evening. Really good job Ulysses. Perhaps you were not made for these times? Ed

    28 Sep 2009, 2:54
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