A “West Side Story” Story (A.K.A. “The Angry Lady Incident”)

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Being the parent of talented children is a tough job.

Especially when they are performing on stage or on the field of play.

You want them to succeed, you hold your breath as they do their stuff, and are delighted and relieved when the show (or the game) is over. You want to find a balance between identifying completely with their performance and being totally indifferent.

You don’t want to pressure them too much or feel like the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, entirely dependent on a flawless effort.

And you try to remember (and remind them to remember) the quotation of a Hall of Fame basketball coach who said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem: you’re going to die a lot.”

Then there is the question of how much encouragement or discouragement you visit upon your child if he actually wants to make a career in the arts or sports given the long odds of actually being able to make a living.

Two stories about that, the first a joke:

Question: What is the difference between a musician and a Domino’s pizza?

Answer: A Domino’s pizza can feed a family of four!

The other story has to do with Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of West Side Story, not to mention a famous symphony conductor, pianist, and educator.

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Sam Bernstein, Lenny’s father, came to the USA from Russia, where musicians were held in low esteem. The musicians Bernstein’s father had encountered in his old country were mostly “klezmers,” itinerant Jews who played at weddings and other celebratory occasions, but had a hard time gaining respect and keeping bread on the table. Thus, when Sam’s oldest son displayed an interest in this “profession,” the elder Bernstein did his best to discourage the young man’s pursuit.

Eventually, his son Leonard became world-famous. And, the story is told that a newspaper reporter asked Sam why it was that he hadn’t encouraged his son in the field of music.

The senior Bernstein answered, “How was I supposed to know he would become Leonard Bernstein!”

Then there is the problem of the audience, of which you are a part; and what people say and do while your child is doing his stuff. We all have heard or witnessed parents and fans who go a bit crazy in opposition to each other over the performance of their eight-year-olds. It is worth remembering what happened on occasion when Jackie Robinson became the first black man in the 20th century to integrate organized baseball.

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Before his 1947 debut in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played one season for the Montreal Royals of the International League. The rudeness and racism recalled by his wife Rachel at the time of the team’s April, 1946 appearance in Baltimore is recounted by Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy:

When Jackie appeared on the field, the man sitting behind her shouted, “Here comes that nigger son of a bitch. Let’s give it to him now.” The Baltimore fans unleashed an unending torrent of abuse. All around her people engaged “in the worst kind of name-calling and attacks on Jackie that I had to sit through.” For one of the few times Rachel feared for Jackie’s physical safety. That night as she cried in her hotel room, Rachel thought that perhaps Jackie should withdraw from the integration venture.

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Fortunately, as the proud parent of daughters who have performed, I never had to deal with anything like that. Just the usual twittering, texting, whispering, program rustling, and bracelet jangling, that is the commonly experienced thoughtlessness in auditoriums world-wide.

But on one noteworthy occasion attended by me with my wife, I went beyond an occasional stern look to take on a woman who should have known better than to converse with her neighbor when my youngest child was in a high school production of West Side Story.

The lady was a senior citizen two seats to my right, nicely dressed, who was talking pretty loudly to a friend seated to her right. Because she was turned in her neighbor’s direction most of the time, it was difficult to catch her eye in the hope that “a look” might communicate my wish for her to quiet down. About 20 minutes in to the performance I’d had about enough.

I leaned as far to my right as I could (across the body of my friend Rich who was our guest) and, in one of the few moments when she was looking forward, she noticed me as I said, “Please be quiet!”

It was not said with ferocity, but I’m sure she knew I meant business. And, indeed, she was quieter for the rest of the first half of the performance.

Rich and I had to walk past this woman in the aisle as we began to make our way to the lobby at intermission. To my considerable surprise, as I passed this lady, she actually pushed me into the railing barrier to my left. I turned right to face her.

“Why were you so angry?” she said.

“I wanted to listen to the performance.”

“But I was only talking during the orchestra part, not the singing!” she indignantly continued.

“But I wanted to hear the orchestra. You know, you are not in your living room and this is not TV!”

With that, the encounter ended.

No guns were drawn, no knives displayed, no one put on brass knuckles, and no chains or tire irons were brandished — there was no “rumble” — no example of life imitating art, as in the gang fight that is a central part of the musical we were watching.

And my antagonist and her companion did not return after intermission.

Given that more and more states permit concealed weapons, I suppose I was taking a risk. I can’t recommend that you take on rude audience members, who might retaliate even more forcefully than did the lady in question.

But, it is hard to “tune out” people who create a volume of sound sufficient to compete with the main attraction.

It was another one of those situations in which different people react differently, sometimes dependent on mood, the capacity to tolerate frustration, an evaluation of the importance of the matter, and one’s ability to be assertive or foolhardy — however you happen to label such action.

In the end, I guess I should simply be glad that it wasn’t Baltimore in the 1940s and my adversary didn’t have her own set of family members handy, and a length of rope to hang from the nearest tree.

Rachel Robinson would understand.

The top image is from a 2003 performance of West Side Story given in Brno, Czech Republic by Městské divadlo. It is the work of Jef Kratochvil. The second photo is of Leonard Bernstein in 1945, taken by Fred Palumbo, then a photographer for the World Telegram. The third picture is a 1950 lobby card for The Jackie Robinson Story. The final image is of Rachel Robinson Accepting the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband, deceased baseball star Jackie Robinson on March 2, 2005. From left to right: Nancy Pelosi, President George W. Bush, Mrs. Robinson, and Dennis Hastert. The picture was taken by White House photographer Eric Draper. All photos are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.