…Everyone’s entitled to be wild/ be a child/be a goof/ raise the roof/Once a year – lyric from The Pajama Game
On the last Sunday in June, it seemed as though everyone had taken this old Broadway patter song to heart. It was Gay Pride Day in San Francisco, and 1.5 million people were celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier the same week invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Eighty unisex couples had married on the previous day at San Francisco City Hall; the party on Sunday was, in the words of a Mercury-News reporter “like the biggest, happiest wedding reception you could imagine.”
My husband and I had ridden BART up to the City to attend a San Francisco Symphony program, and were swept up in the festivities as we made our way from the Civic Center BART station to Davies Hall. All around us were men and women wearing rainbow colored tutus, fanny wraps, neon lace stockings, and costumes creatively cut out to show off tattoos in peculiar places. We saw a man on stilts clad head to toe in purple feathers, another person of indeterminate sex clad from top-knot to platform shoes in silver glitter, and T-shirts emblazoned with rainbows and mottos ranging (among the printable) from “Some Chicks Marry Chicks – Get Over It” to “Christ is Coming – Look Busy.”
As we threaded our way through the crowd, a conservatively dressed middle-aged fellow with a well-trimmed beard spoke me. “Are you two a couple?” he asked, gazing from me to my husband, both in our Sunday Symphony best.
“Yes, we are.”
He broke into a huge smile. “It’s so great to have people like you here in support! This is such a great day! I never thought I would see this day!” I didn’t tell him we were there for the symphony, but agreed with him and wished him a wonderful afternoon. “It will be!” he replied, as the crowd separated us.
The symphony performance was terrific – a first-time performance of a concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, led with gusto by Bernstein’s friend and protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas. The lead singer, a minor TV star named Cheyenne Jackson, has an amazing vocal range and great ability to sell a song. He was also listed in the Pride Guide as one of the Celebrity Grand Marshalls of the Gay Pride Parade.
At the intermission we wandered out to the balcony from which we could see a corner of the celebration still going on at UN Plaza. Traffic was at a standstill on Van Ness Avenue, and people in costumes, carrying balloons, flourishing signs, and holding hands were crossing below, waving up at the balcony-viewers. We waved back.
After the concert we made our way through the packed throng to the BART station. We passed a group of people dancing and shouting along with a rap group on one of the side stages. We passed another side stage where a cheerleading squad was performing acrobatic flips and pyramids. We saw black guys in blonde wigs and high heels. We saw white guys with buzz cuts and bright new Intel@Pride T-shirts.
The BART station was solid people, a big friendly mob – no pushing, no elbows, just laughter at our common sardine-hood. We inched our way to the turnstiles where a guard was assisting people with Clipper cards – we made it through. I have never seen BART so crowded, but a young couple in cut-away jeans and pink tank tops jumped up and offered us their seats.
It was a party. It was raucous and joyful and raunchy and sweet. There are different opinions about the Supreme Court decision and about what marriage means, but it is hard to resist something that made1.5 million people so plainly, euphorically, unreservedly happy.
Long shining hair falls across the musician’s face as he sways to the music he is creating. His tight-fitting khaki-colored T-shirt is sweat-drenched from his exertion. He holds his instrument as if it were an object of passion, eyes half-closed. The back-up group struggles to match his intensity.
There are plenty of teen-age girls in the audience – why aren’t they screaming, fainting, calling out his name? Because this is not Justin Bieber or Enrique Iglesias – this is Joshua Bell, the former teenage violin prodigy, belting out Glasunov’s violin concerto in A minor, opus 82 in open rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony (October 5, 2011).
So why are there no screaming groupies in the classical music audience? Here are some possible reasons:
1: The Instrument Effect
Unlike Gene Simmons of Kiss and others like him, Joshua Bell does not end each concert by smashing his violin. It is as famous as he is in certain circles – the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius, twice stolen , recovered the second time after a deathbed confession by the thief, and purchased by Bell and his backers for something around $4 million. The history (and the price tag) elicits a certain amount of respectfulness not conducive to screaming.
2. The Costume Effect
As a rule, classical musicians don’t get to wear cool duds. If I had seen Joshua Bell in concert instead of in open rehearsal, his muscular shoulders and narrow hips would likely have been effectively masked in dowdy concert wear – those white-tie and tails were great for Fred Astaire, but in those days the sweat wasn’t supposed to show.
3. The Grandmother Effect
I realized after a casual conversation with the adjacent well-dressed rehearsal-goer that most of the teenagers in the audience on a Wednesday morning in October were music students field-tripping with their teachers and chaperones. The non-pubescent portion of the audience were mostly silver-haired retirees of a grand-parently or even great-grandparently demeanor. If any of the teenagers had shown any inclination toward swooning, one of the grandmothers would inevitably have whipped a vial of sal volatile out of her bulging reticule and brought the young lady to her senses immediately.
I have worried, along with other classical music aficionados, about a decline in popular interest in the classical repertoire. I suspect that some of the hand-wringing is over-blown – there are few among the younger generations of listeners who cannot recognize the orchestral themes from Star Wars or Harry Potter as easily as they identify music by Rush or the Moldy Peaches. There is so MUCH music available today that orchestral music is logically a smaller percentage of this larger iPod-fueled universe. If a groupie fan-base is needed to energize this genre I propose:
And don’t forget to sign me up with the groupies!