Berkeley

Charlie Cockey

[August 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:1.]

Last night I went to Berkeley. I had on my calendar that the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra was doing a concert version of a new opera called “The 60th Parallel” by Phillipe Manoury, a French modern composer. It started at 7:30, so I had to close the shop early and drive like a lunatic in Rome to get there. And I did! In what seemed like an impossibly quick time! And discovered that I had listed the concert on the wrong night!! It wasn’t Tuesday, it was Wednesday!! Aaaaaaaaargh!! I don’t know how I did that, but there I was, in a little classical CD shop across the street from Zellerbach (the big hall on the Berkeley campus) moaning and groaning. Remember my little motto (one of many, tihihi): “There are no mistakes, only surprises?” Well. That was sure a surprise!

And then the guy behind the counter at the shop looked at me and said, “Aren’t you the guy with the science fiction book store? Who grew up in Idaho? And had Carrol Meyers as piano teacher in Boise? Well, I’m the guy you spoke to last winter who also came from Boise and had him for a piano teacher years after you left.“ And we chatted merrily and exchanged email addresses and had a great time. And that was a surprise!

And then the other customer (well, actually, neither one of us were customers, but we were the only non-employees in the shop), a young guy, kind of Italian looking, with one of those tiny bits of beard just under the lower lip — you can’t quite call it a beard, just a tiny bit of decorative facial hair so popular with the 20-somethings — turned to me and asked if he had overheard correctly that I was really hot to see this opera / concert, and had come all the way over to Berkeley to see it on the wrong night. I admitted that this was true. “Well,” he said, “I’m the guy who’s doing the supertitles for the show, and the dress rehearsal starts in 15 minutes, and if you don’t mind watching a dress rehearsal I can certainly take you in to watch that, since you’re already here and all.” Mind? Did I mind? Hooo, I jumped at the chance, said yes and went with him to the rehearsal! And boy, was that a surprise!!

The concert / rehearsal was really great! The music was very effective, lots of huge sonic washes, and just generally great sounds. There were about eight singers, all decent (oddly enough, they were miked, and a couple, one in particular, had a bit of trouble with their mike technique), one really very good, a couple more definitely fine also. The orchestra was huge, and it was really great watching Kent Nagano, up close and in a less “formal” mode, conducting, working, talking — I kept thinking of lucky you being at Celibidache rehearsals — boy I’d like to be able to connect to your mindmemories of that in some total fashion, know what I mean?. One more thing used in the piece that was mostly very very effective, and that was tape. I don’t think it was electronic enhancement, although it might have been that as well, but there was a lot of tape music and sound effects that swooped around and circled around the speakers set all over the walls of the auditorium, which did not drown out the orchestra, but tended to in some way make it seem like the orchestra’s sound was instead being pulled out from the stage and was being created not from that one point, but from all over the auditorium. A really neat effect.

The “plot” of the opera was basically a whole bunch of people stranded in an airport, waiting to get out, but bad weather had stopped or severely delayed all the flights (the storm music, tape enhanced was great — and once or twice there was an out and out electronic sound effect of a jet taking off or at least revving up its engines, that was also really neat). The dialog varied widely, from the intriguing (there was a plot thread that had to do with an abandoned suitcase, and then the realization that nobody could find the passenger for it either — I won’t tell you where that plot line goes, because that was more or less the climax of the opera) to the banal (there were two women who just kept discussing their fingernail polish, makeup, things like that, which frankly went on a wee bit too long in the later portions). I’m not sure, but I think there was also a lesbian couple. Certainly there were two women who sang about being alone together at last, but, without the action, there were a few places where I wasn’t sure exactly what was supposed to be going on. But overall, it was a really neat piece, and a great evening of music. Also, I had mixed up Manoury with another composer, an American, who is actually a whole lot less interesting. So the quality and adventuresomeness (hey, look — it’s almost long enough to be a German word, tihihihi) of the opera was also a surprise!!

I met up afterwards with the fellow who got me in, and gave him a ride home. He lives in San Francisco, his name is Ron Valentino (he is of Italian descent, after all), and is a really nice guy. When I asked him how he got into doing the supertitles, and if he does it elsewhere as well, he told me that yes, he also does it for the SF Opera. I told him I had an old customer who had become a friend, a really nice (and really huge — not fat, just tall and big) black guy named Jim Akins, who used to do that for the SF Opera as well, but he’d quit and I hadn’t seen him in several years. Well, not only did Ron know him (turns out he’s done this for a long time), but in fact he had just returned from visiting him in Fairbanks Alaska a couple of weeks before!! (And get out your map and check just how far north Fairbanks is). He’s going to pass my email address along, and I’m sure we’ll be getting in touch. And this bit of unexpected connections was definitely a surprise!!! And just possibly the biggest of the evening.

So, you see, even a little “accident” is really the doorway to a whole parade of amazing surprises that would never have occurred without the original mistake.

ADDENDUM:

Now this may just be overkill, but I forgot that last night I wrote to another friend about the same concert. don’t know why I’m loading you down with this, but here’s what I wrote to her about it (this her is my Iranian lady friend, who is now playing setar (in fact, the reason I remembered writing this is she responded that she can’t see this tonight because she’s teaching setar to a friend). A most fascinating lady. Anyway, here’s another version of the same experience. I myself haven’t compared them together, so who knows….

If you’re free Wednesday night (that’s tonight, sorry to alert you so late, but you’ll understand bythe time you get to the end of the paragraph), the Berkeley Symphony (at 7:30, a cruel and early time of the evening) is doing a concert version of a new opera by a French composer named Philippe Manoury (or Manourey, I forget which). Now, the text is kind of vague, but I think you’ll really like the music. I discovered this on my calendar for TUESDAY night, closed the shop early, and dashed like a mad driver in Rome during psychotic evacuation across the bridge, making the transit in what should be an impossibly short period of time, especially considering that the approach to the Bay Bridge was crawling at best, finally arriving, with apparent seconds to spare, at Bancroft and Telegraph to find — a PARKING PLACE opening up absolutely right across from Zellerbach!! [My son calls these serendipitous parking spots Kojacs. Ed.] Sprinted across the street, and … Zellerbach seemed bare, empty, nobody milling about outside. Could I have erred? I quickly crossed the street to Musical Offering (classical music CD store), figuring that if I’d gotten the venue wrong they would be the most likely to know the correct. Nope. I had the venue right. Date wrong. It’s Wednesday!! I’m sure you know my little mantra “There are no mistakes, only surprises.” Well, surprise number 2 (after the initial surprise at my date error) … one of the two clerks behind the counter was a young fellow that I had met a few months prior at Tower Classical (even found a cheap used CD that I bought. Can’t remember what, since I bought it as a joke present for somebody else, and I’ve even forgotten who) who came from my home town of Boise, Idaho, who had had the same piano teacher that I had had (and had about as much love for his ruthless disciplinarian ways — hitting the back of your hand with his mechanical pencil for incorrect hand positions and the like). This was doubly fun, because he recognized me from our prior meet, not I him. But we had a lot of fun talking about pianists, and we both agree that Martha Argerich is the best living pianist we can think of.

Anyway, I stayed there for a while and talked about pianists, and this and that, and was moaning about oh god I drove all the way over here and got the wrong night and now I guess I’m going to have to do the same thing again tomorrow night, sigh, when the only other customer (also hanging around and talking with us) turned to me and said, well, listen, I’m doing the supertitles for that show, and if you don’t mind a rehearsal, I can get you in to the rehearsal tonight. And that’s where I’ve been tonight, and that’s why I know that you’d probably enjoy the evening a whole bunch.