Wednesday, July 8, 2009

SideNote: How I almost got to meet my hero at Classical Music Northwest

Rankly amateur mandolin player that I am, I've still got my heroes. Some of my favorite mandolinists in the world are Ricky Skaggs, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile and the late great Bill Monroe, may he rest in peace. So last night I'm at the Catlin Gabel School for the first time, excited to hear Chris Thile, a virtuoso of the highest caliber, really an absolute genius on the instrument.

After sitting down, the delightful elderly woman next to me asks why I'm taking notes. I explain to her that I'm writing for Northwest Reverb, a widely read classical music blog based in Portland.

‘What's that?'

I'm not sure if she means ‘what's NW Reverb?' or ‘what's a blog?,' so I break it down for her. After asking if she has a computer (she does) I write down the web address and tell her to just type it into her browser and go from there.

With the utmost seriousness she asks ‘how do we get more young people like yourself out here to these concerts? What can we do to get young people more interested in this great music?' (Or something very close to that.)

I tell her that that particular topic is of great interest for me as well, and explain a little to her about Classical Revolution Portland. She (as well as the gentleman she is with) seem absolutely fascinated by the concept behind it (playing classical music in bars, pubs, coffee shops, other very accessible (and cheaper) venues) and they ask how to find out more about it.

Fortunately for me, Mattie Kaiser, Executive Director of CRPDX and a talented violist, is sitting one row ahead of me. She perks up on hearing me talk about CRPDX and I hand the ball to her so I can read some program notes. Mattie then gives the woman a card, and since I don't have any cards (note to self: get cards!) I take back the paper I had given her and scribble down the Musical Oozings website as well as the CRPDX site for her friend. I then notice to my chagrin that I've got about a half a sheet of paper left in the notebook I'm using, and will have to start writing on the cardboard backing to finish this review. C'est la vie; way to be prepared.

A little about Mattie: in addition to her musical talent, she's definitely a ‘people person': loquacious, gregarious, self-confident, in short, uniquely suited to being an all-around musical gad-about, one of the many hats she wears. I know that she works behind the scenes for CMNW at the Kaul Auditorium shows. After the opening piece, a spectacular transcription of a Haydn piano sonata (click the link to read the actual concert review), Mattie pops back one row to sit next to Kristin and I. (We're sitting in the balcony and the view is quite a bit better from row two than row one.) And then I'll be damned if Chris Thile himself doesn't show up out of the blue and sit right next to Mattie.

Kristin and I exchange excited glances (we're both big fans) and yet, wanting to be nonchalant, I don't say anything, I just wait for Mattie to introduce me. Mattie had been talking about how she was hanging out with the Punch Brothers one night and they started a spontaneous jam, playing long into the evening, drinking and partying. Just as Mattie gets ready to do introduce us, the woman we had been speaking with before launches into a lengthy conversation which eats up the entire time left before the start of the next piece.

Never fear, I tell myself, I'll have a chance to say ‘Hi' afterward. So we get through the fascinating Adams piece (it was so assaultive at points that I wanted to stand up and yell 'bring it on!) and before I have a chance to say anything, Chris hops up and takes his leave, wanting to prepare for the opening of the second half. Never fear, I tell myself, a little less surely, I'll have a chance to meet him after the show.

So I sit there during the intermission, anxiously awaiting my second live performance of Brandenburg #3 in just a little over a week.

"I think I need some night vision goggles," I say jokingly, squinting at my cardboard notes in the dim light.

"Or some paper..." says Mattie, eyeing my makeshift writing surface dubiously. Such dry wit. Touche.

After a fresh rendition of the third Brandenburg, hoping (in vain) that Chris would come up and sit with us again, I get to looking at the next piece, a Sextet for Piano and Strings by Mendelssohn.

I turn to Mattie. "So exactly how much sex is there in a sextet? I've never been entirely clear on that..."

"Ignore him." That would be Kristin's voice, in my other ear.

Mattie laughs. "Well, you can have two threesomes, or three twosomes."

I think for a minute. "That's a lot of sex!"

"Ignore him." Again, a little more insistently this time.

Since when do I need a minder? I ask myself. Better not answer that.

The sextet was fantastic, very sexy indeed, and after the concert ends I look forward to meeting my mandolin hero. First thing I do is go out to buy the Punch Brothers inaugural release How to Grow a Woman from the Ground so I can get it autographed, hopefully by the whole band. Now that would be something. Mattie graciously says that she'll go backstage and see if Chris would be willing to come out and say ‘hi' for a minute, or if I can go backstage to meet him.

The first sign that things are not to go as planned is that there are no more CDs or ‘merch' of any kind out front; the lady selling them has packed up and gone. So Kristin and I are waiting outside by the backstage entrance for Mattie (and hopefully Chris) and I get to visit for a bit with her parents, who are also waiting for her. I introduce myself and they say ‘Oh...we know who you are. From the Baroque Bash.' My reputation precedes me...I hope that's a good thing.

So Mattie comes out a minute later and says Chris isn't back there, but he might be out front. Paul Kowert, the bass player, and Chris Eldridge, the guitarist, are there by where the merchandise table used to be, and they are apparently as confused as I am that it is no longer there. I get to visit with them for a moment...class acts all the way, very polite and humble despite their formidable musical talents. I wait around for a few minutes, but it becomes apparent that Chris won't be making an appearance.

So I decide to leave before I start to cry like a little girl. My disappointment must be painfully obvious; Mattie makes another crack (she's quick that Mattie; she can zing you before you know you've been zung) and Paul seems a little discomfited by the fact that I'm mostly waiting around for the big star, Chris Thile. I try to explain that it's just because I've been a huge fan for years and yada yada yada but I'm sure he's heard it all before. I hope I made clear that it was a great privilege to talk to them and I was in no way diminishing that.

Long story short I leave sans CD, sans having met my mandolin hero. It's not that I wanted to hang out (though I obviously wouldn't have minded) or become the guy's best friend. Just a simple handshake, and to say ‘thanks for all the great music, and you're really an inspiration to me.' Not too much to want, is it, to say ‘your marvelous playing is one of the things that keeps me going when I want to bash myself in the head with my cheap mandolin instead of play it when I get frustrated at my meagre skills (if such they can be called.)' Not that I ever dream of playing as well as he, but that's not the point: it's the inspiration, not the emulation, that matters.

I think my dissapointment was all the more poignant because of the fact that he was right there next to us and I could've spoken to him then, but didn't want to be rude and interrupt the lovely woman next to us who was chatting with him. Don't get me wrong; I blame no one but myself. I had my shot, and I blew it. I guess it's one of those things you just have to do when the opportunity arises: speak now or forever hold your peace, so the saying goes.

And so life goes on. Maybe I'll get a chance to meet Chris someday. But I wouldn't bet on it.


Heather Mattie said...

He'll be back. I'll make it happen.

James Bash said...

I think that Thile and Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck will be strumming it up with the Oregon Symphony on September 26th!

sterles said...

Now that will be one heck of a show! How do I break it to Lorin that we have a friend's wedding to go to that evening? Never mind, I think I just did...