The very first thing that happened to me when I moved to Massachusetts, back in 1986, was that I got stung by a bee. My hand was closing the car door, and the little bastard got me, right when I got out. Probably, it was a yellow jacket. Bees aren’t as likely to sting, so far away from their hives, but yellow jackets will gladly attack you wherever you happen to piss them off. (A common pet peeve among beekeepers is that when people get stung, they generally say was by a bee, not a wasp, such as a yellow jacket, but it probably wasn’t. Mine was likely a yellow jacket.)
Anyhow, I’ve always wondered if that was a sort of omen.
I first landed in Boston on the steps of my now alma mater, New England Conservatory of Music, where I studied composition until 1992. Today, I went back for a recital, after which I walked the corridors and poked around, seeing what’s changed.
Still there was the giant statue of Beethoven, who has lorded it over the NEC community since 1971, when the Handel and Haydn Society donated him. It cracks me up that the Handel and Haydn Society thinks the composer most worthy of this honor is Beethoven, and not Handel or Haydn. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with the choice, particularly a classical musician. If you ever have an argument with a classical musician about who is the best composer, just say “Beethoven, Op. 131,” and they will sheepishly say, “Oh, yeah…” and then admit you’re right. The idol’s pedestal is about four or five feet high, which conveniently lets everyone grovel at his feet. Maybe it’s a helpful reminder of something. Odd, that nobody seems to mind. I certainly don’t. I find Beethoven’s gigantic, godlike presence strangely comforting, somehow. The only insubordinate defacement to it I’ve ever seen was someone typing the string of a helium balloon to his finger. More an offering, than vandalism.
It’s a shrine, and after paying homage today, I embarked on my journey to confront some ghosts. For me, the halls of NEC are packed tight with them, and I find it emotionally pretty draining to be there, especially considering their ever-growing ranks. You periodically hear of old teachers passing, but being back on site makes their absence suddenly more real. I passed the room where one of my pieces was coached by Louis Krasner, past James Hoffman’s classroom where I first learned counterpoint and harmony, then the one where Joe Maneri made us sing dodecaphonic chorales, and then the lobby outside Williams Hall, where I remembered Arther Berger saying something characteristically grouchy about some concert or another. (“Sorry, I didn’t really pay attention to your piece. The one before it was so bad I couldn’t get it out of my head.”) And on and on and on, they go.
Some of the renovation work done at NEC since I was last there looks really good. The Kellar Room is all fixed up, nicely painted, new lighting, and tweaked a bit so that there’s better backstage space for performers. (It’s unkind to suggest that the paint peels especially quickly in that room because so many soprano recitals that take place there.)
I worked stage crew at NEC for years, and used to know where every light switch and electrical outlet was located, but that’s all different, now. I actually had the opportunity to pinch the Jordan Hall bell buzzer button from a dumpster, when it was discarded at about the time I left. It’s probably in my basement, somewhere. Many an intermission was interrupted by that button. Though I did sneak backstage, I couldn’t see where the current button was located.
They’ve moved some pianos around the school too. My favorite piano in the world isn’t in room 305 anymore, where it should be. And I still remember one of my pianist friends insulting it, saying that it sounded tinny, but I always liked it, especially the lower register. It occurred to me today, decades after that conversation, that maybe I didn’t think it sounded tinny because I never played its higher notes. Maybe I liked it because it felt like a better Steinway version of the Knabe I grew up with. But there’s a giant Falcone in that room now, so I imagine I’ll never see my favorite piano again. I believe they periodically “cycle out” old pianos from practice rooms, like some people do with fading sheep or chickens. It probably got so worn out from the constant pounding these practice-room beasts take, even if I could find it, it probably wouldn’t be as good as I remembered it.
Mercifully, the horrible Yamaha in a different practice room seems to have also gone. That piece of junk was so laughably awful, there was a bit of graffiti on it that it said, “Yamaha-ha-ha-ha!!” Well deserved.
Peeking in a few classroom windows, I spotted a few old faculty relics as well, who haven’t yet been similarly “cycled out.” Nearly as disturbing as the ones who died are the ones who have aged twenty-five years, since I met them, and I saw a couple today who had the audacity to do just that. One has gone from late middle aged to elderly. Worse, another went from early middle aged to late middle aged, whereas I’ve gone from teenager to early middle aged, but that means that this old fart is suddenly roughly the same age as me. Ergo…. That hurts a lot, actually. I was glad to see the names of a couple old favorites still on their office doors. I knocked, but nobody answered.
Then, there are the endless reminders of stories, shadows of tortured romantic entanglements, disastrous concerts, life crises, faded friendships. Such things accumulate too fast, as we age.
Taking a step back into this time capsule sure stirred up a lot of muck.
I’ve started keeping bees, by the way.