90. Memories of the S.F. Symphony (and Other Musical Events)


90. Memories of the S.F. Symphony (and Other Musical Events)

I see that I haven’t written and posted one of these Reminiscences for quite a while--also that I mistakenly numbered two of them no. 88. This will be 90, for sure, and responds to a news item: the San Francisco Symphony turns 100. I want to write out some memories of attending their concerts, lots of them, back in the early 1940s--also about a few other musical and other events I went to at that time. If some of this has already been told in earlier Reminiscences, forgive the bad memory of an old person.

The main circumstance, on which the rest depends, is that a group of us young Berkeley students--first from Berkeley High, then from freshman-sophomore years at U.C. Berkeley in the early 40’s--became regular ushers at the War Memorial Opera House, the concert hall in the S.F. Civic Center. The advantages of becoming one of the regulars are obvious; the disadvantage was that we were more or less obliged to attend regularly, sometimes several times a week, in order to hold our standing. Our group was headed by Gordon Cyr and myself (this from memory), maybe with Bill Pursell? Hans Baerwald? four or five of us, anyway. We would typically eat a simple dinner in Berkeley, sometimes nothing more than doughnuts and coffee, and then catch the Key Train--that wonderful rail system that connected many places in the East Bay with the S.F. Terminal--it was later destroyed, rails torn up, by the beastly bus people who wanted their kind of gas-guzzling, exhaust-belching transportation all over the East Bay instead. (This was long before the BART system that now runs under the Bay.) From the Terminal we would walk up Market St. and over to the Opera House, where the ticket-takers at the door would greet us and let us in free. We didn’t have seats, of course, but often could find vacant seats to sit in, once the concert started. Being regulars, we got to usher in the best place, the main floor. I once ushered Cary Grant to his seat--I remember his politeness, and his remarkable suntan (real?)

We started--I can’t remember why--the practice of applauding the concertmaster as he entered, one of two Russian? string-playing brothers whose names I don’t remember--this they appreciated. And after each S.F. Symphony concert we would go backstage to congratulate Pierre Monteux, who came to call us “his boys” and enjoyed talking with us. We were unusually knowledgeable about music, for our ages, from listening to lots of records, and could make intelligent comments about the pieces and the performances. (On one occasion he was late, and told us with a sly smile: “Mrs. Monteux and I were misbehaving before the concert.”) I remember some of his performances, notably a great one of Berlioz’s Requiem, with a row of tympani across the stage producing thunder in the great Dies Irae movement, and small brass bands appearing, as the score called for, in boxes high above the stage. I was then a Berlioz fan, and was excited by this work, which wasn’t yet available on records. (There was an old movie about Berlioz with Louis Jourdan, if my memory is right, and the performance of this Requiem was the climactic moment. The movie seems to have disappeared.)

After every concert we would walk back down Market St., often singing in parts the music that we had heard. Gordon had devised a method for us to take the parts--violins would go “Ee-ee, ee-ee,” horns “fwah fwah,” flutes “tootle-toot” and so forth. I remember a Sibelius symphony movement, maybe the fifth? that we performed especially well. Passers-by would look at us, but that only encouraged us. We didn’t, however, return immediately to Berkeley. Instead, we would go off westward into North Beach, and to one of the two musical cafes there, the Vieni-vieni (the other was the Bocce Ball, where for some reason we never went.) Most customers drank wine; we, being underage for alcohol, would order cappuccinos. There was a small stage with a piano, and sitting at it a middle-aged Italian woman who accompanied all the singers; she knew us, and would ask: What did they play tonight? We would tell her, and as often as not she would break into the main theme of whatever it was, from her quite remarkable musical memory. The singers were old, retired opera performers who lived in North Beach and did this for small pay and contributions. I remember a local Baccaloni-like plump basso who did the Leporello kind of role, also La columnia from Rossini?

Then, at some point, we would make our way back to the Terminal and catch the train back to Berkeley. If, that is, we were in time: they stopped running at midnight, if I remember, and after that one had to stand on the side of the street leading to the Bay Bridge and hitch a ride. Or, as sometimes happened, just slept (kind of) overnight in the Terminal to get the first train back in the early morning. And this was while I was taking full courses at Berkeley High and U.C., and doing lots of other things--I can’t imagine now how I kept it all up.

Besides the S.F. Symphony, we ushered for both the American Ballet Theater and the Balllet Russe de Monte Carlo, two seasons of each as I recall? Ballet buffs will know of great dancers of that time; I remember best, not the ballerinas (Alicia Alonso was one) who did classical ballet--I was never a fan of that--but some of the male dancers and their roles in story-ballet: Anton Dolin? dancing the Nijinsky role in Afternoon of a Faun, Frederick Franklin in Fokine’s Scheherezade, La Boutique Fantasque with Milhaud music and Massine as the Brazilian visitor)--or, in Ballet Theater, which I liked less well, cowboy ballets with choreography by Agnes de Mille in which the male dancers slapped their thighs etc. My favorite of all dancers was Leonide Massine, and the moment I most remember is his performing the great Miller’s Dance at the end of The Three-cornered Hat: music by de Falla, sets by Picasso, Massine dancing with a woman named La Argentinita, and--can my memory be right? Stravinsky conducting? He did conduct Petrouchka, I’m sure of that, traveling with the Ballet Russe company one year. (The story of how Balanchine and Massine created the Tricorne, the Three Cornered Hat, is a fascinating one that I found in a rare book by a former Ballets Russe costume-designer and will relate, with pictures, in one of my video-lectures.)

We were forced to usher, as I say, for events we didn’t really want to go to. These included performances by the San Carlo Opera Company, which employed aging and not-so-famous singers to perform in popular favorites (but not favorites of mine--I was never an Italian opera buff.) My most notable memory from that, which I have probably related elsewhere, is of seeing Aroldo Lindi, once a well-known tenor but aging, singing Pagliacci and dying of a heart attack right in the middle of his great end-of-first act aria--Ridi, Pagliacci, laugh at the [something] that is breaking your heart! And just at that great moment, the very moment at which any Italian-style tenor would choose to die if he could choose, he collapses slowly on stage, his clown’s ruff falling over his face--he tries to brush it aside, but falls back motionless. (A website account claims that he finished the number, and that he died in the arms of his woman co-star; neither is true.) Moments pass, a man in street clothing comes hesitantly out from the wings, the curtain falls quickly--and after a long wait the Clown, who had come on at the beginning to tell us (in Italian) that actors are people too, and have their own loves & tragedies--comes on again, still in costume, before the curtain, to say, in English: “Ladies and gentlemen, we feel we should tell you that Aroldo Lindi has passed away. God bless you all.” And then, after another long wait, another tenor is put in to sing Pagliacci so that the second act can begin, and all the singing and acting is very emotional, and at the end, when (whoever) sings: La commedia e finita! they all break down weeping, as does the audience, including myself. That is truly an indelible memory.

And a dramatic ending for this Reminiscence. I could write more about the S.F. Symphony and other musical events of the early 40s, and perhaps will some time. But that’s enough for now.

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