My wife and I never had children of our own but we were lucky to have a nephew–my wife’s sister’s son–that we could “borrow” for a week or so during summer vacations. He started coming to New York to see us every year when he was nine-years-old, arriving at LaGuardia the first time wearing a name tag and carrying a small bag with his clothes and a slightly bigger bag which contained his Goofy doll.
Our nephew grew up in a fairly large city in one of those Red States where a variety of different music is available but you have to look for it. Anything other than Top 40 or country is pretty much underground. His parents are conservative and not at all adventuresome in music, films or theater. A big cultural event in this town is its annual Christmastime “Festival of Trees.”
Before his first visit, we had struggled mightily to think of a musical event that would be “age-appropriate” and settled on Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express which, we understood, had something to do with roller skating but didn’t realize was nothing but roller skating. We showed up with some enthusiasm at the appointed performance and sat through the most boring, tedious year I have ever spent in a theater. But, we thought, maybe the kid is enjoying it. Nope. At the intermission, I asked him how he liked it and he hesitated for a moment and said “Well, it’s kind of stupid.” That’s when we realized we had a natural critic on our hands. His good taste was soon confirmed when we took him to see Peter Pan with Kathy Rigby flying through the air, and he complained that the wires showed.
From then on, we decided to drop the kid’s stuff and take him to thing that we enjoyed rather than things we thought he would enjoy. And rather than try to “sell” him in advance, we would simply give him a little background on the performers and the pieces and let him decide if it was the kind of thing he wanted more of. If he enjoyed something or expressed an interest, we would go to Tower and buy him some CDs that expanded on the interest.
One of our big hits was seeing Sarah Chang play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Not only is this a big, powerful piece that is easy to like, the kid who was playing it was only a couple of years older than he was at the time. He was mesmerized throughout the performance.
When he was bit older, we started taking him to jazz clubs which he liked, not only because of the music, but because it made him feel grownup. I think the first time we took him to a jazz club was then Sweet Basil to hear the trumpeter Art Farmer, who shook his hand and talked to him as if he were an adult. Over the next couple of years, he began to listen to more jazz and developed a teenage crush on Diana Krall whom we went to see several times. He was enchanted by improvisational African melodies of Abdullah Ibrahim. One night we saw Frank Foster and the Basie band at the Blue Note and he stunned us by remarking that the “sight lines” were better at Sweet Basil.
Our first foray into opera was a disaster. He came to visit with his father over a holiday and the only thing playing at the time was Stravinksy’s Rake’s Progress, for which we already had tickets. This is not a good starter opera and the situation was made worse by Dad looking at his watch every two minutes. We quickly realized that we should have started with La Boheme or Butterfly or some other sappy, but irresistible, Puccini and left Dad at home.
Over the years, he has become a genuine fan of Broadway musicals and has seen most of the big ones–Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Crazy For You, Showboat, Movin’ Out, Spamalot and many others. He liked Cabaret so much he saw it twice.
Perhaps our most memorable “musical” experience took place on our 30th wedding anniversary when we took him with us–he was 16 at the time–to Las Vegas and got re-married by “Elvis” at the Graceland Chapel. Our nephew was our best man.
Of course, our efforts to share the world that we enjoy went beyond music. We also introduced him to modern art and films in which nobody gets blown up. He and I went to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer together in 1994 and skiing in Verbier a couple of times. In looking back, I realize that the reason he was such a receptive student of a larger world than he might otherwise have been exposed to is that–after Starlight Express and Peter Pan–we stopped patronizing him. We simply did what we enjoyed and let him decide on his own if he liked it too.
Today, he’s 27, still our best man, a captain with the largest private aviation company. He likes and listens to all kinds of music, recognizes the painting that Jackson Pollock whipped up in 24 drunken hours for Peggy Guggenheim, and admires the films of the Dardenne brothers. He voted for the loser in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Both his parents think we are a bad influence. We couldn’t be more pleased.