TAFTO 2007 Contribution: Paul Alter

It isn’t a TAFTO month if there isn’t an entry from someone who isn’t a musician, manager, or critic. As such, Paul Alter, a self described “practicing music addict”, contributes to TAFTO 2007 with a round of practical advice. Moreover, Paul takes us back into U.S. orchestral history. Way back. All the way back to the days of 78-rpm records and Victrolas. Having such a comprehensive look at how orchestras and their concert environments have changed over the decades is a real treat and seeing it from the perspective of someone in the audience makes it even more special. ~ Drew McManus

I spent my early years exposed to lots of concert music — operetta, movie musicals, “light-classical” stuff on the radio, and some Victor Red Seal records that my father had bought before the Great Depression made it impossible to spend money on anything but the bare necessities. I had even spent two seasons at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s student concerts. So, yes, I enjoyed music, particularly the shows put on at the St. Louis Muny Opera every summer.

But one Saturday morning, when I’m about twelve or thirteen, I’m doing my homework, and my sister walks in carrying the morning paper, points to an advertisement, and says, “They’re selling symphonies downtown.”

I say, “What’s a ‘symphony’?”

She says, “I don’t know; let’s go find out.”

So we take the streetcar (a nickel for me, dime for her) down to Twelfth Street, walk over to a storefront taken over by some civic group, and plunk down a buck and a half — or something like that. In return, we get a manila envelope, twelve inches per side, which we take home and open. Inside are three twelve-inch records (78-rpm) and a sheet of program notes. On the records is something called “The Unfinished Symphony by Franz Schubert.” We put it on the windup Victrola with the cactus needles, play it, then play it again, and play it over and over until we almost know it by heart.

The next week we go back and get the current release, Beethoven’s fifth, which we listen to over and over.

These records are part of a series, recorded on the cheap, for a promotional stunt by some newspaper in New York. The performers are anonymous, to get around contract obligations, but I learn, years later, that the conductors include such as Ormandy, Reiner, Rodzinski, Stiedry, and perhaps Barbirolli. They are made available, one by one, on a periodic scheduled basis (weekly?). By the time the project has run its course, we have accumulated the Schubert 8th, Beethoven’s 5th and 8th, Mozart’s 40th, two of the Bach Brandenburgs, Tchaikovsky’s 4th and Nutcracker Suite, Debussy’s Faun and Clouds and Festivals, Brahm’s 2nd, Franck’s symphony, and maybe some others. It wasn’t easy: first we had to scrape up the buck or two each set cost us; then we had to sneak them into the house so our parents wouldn’t know how we were squandering money.

It wasn’t just the money. My mother tried actively to dissuade me from listening to music; whenever I’d settle down for a listening session, she’d try to make me do something else. My father was tolerant, so long as I did not make any move to become a musician, who were having rough going. The transition to “talkies” had put all the movie house orchestras out of business. A relative of ours who had previously made a good living playing violin in the orchestra at the Fox Theater found himself unable to make a living without that regular gig and committed suicide. Symphony musicians made something like $1500 per year by playing in the SLSO and had to supplement their incomes with other gigs, or working outside the industry, or — mainly — by giving music lessons. The musicians’ local union, attempting to keep the highly skilled symphony musicians from monopolizing all the good jobs, enforced rules that made getting outside gigs even rougher.

All of which is a preamble to Suggestion for Things To Consider # 1: The love of music skips a generation. If you love music, your kids won’t. If you want to take young people to a concert, borrow them — nieces, nephews or, best of all, grandchildren.

It was certainly not a member of our family who initiated us into concert-going. As I remember it, it was a friend of the family — a high school teacher — who took us to our first regular symphony concerts. We’d drive down to the auditorium, plunk down a buck-something for a ticket, and hear the concert from the upper balcony. (We were always able to get tickets; concerts were never sold out.) We’d also go to the free concerts mounted by the WPA Symphony Orchestra, formed during the depression to give employment to out-of-work musicians. By the time I was in high school, I was soon going to concerts on my own: I’d hook up with a music-loving friend or two, take the streetcar down to the auditorium, and hear the concert from the cheapest seats in the upper balcony, where we’d run into other kids we knew.

Suggestion for Things To Consider #2: avoid expectations.

OK, so much for that. Now it’s 1945, World War II, I’m a US Navy Pharmacist Mate 3rd class stationed at the UN Naval Hospital in San Diego. Otto Klemperer brings the LA Philharmonic down for a concert at the high school auditorium. I expect to be bored, because they’re playing the Beethoven Fifth, and I have listened to the recording of that so many times that it just plain bores me. But when they play the Beethoven Fifth, and it’s like no Fifth I’ve ever heard before. It storms, and rages, and cries, and has beautiful moments, and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and tingle. After a few more concerts, I perceive a pattern. I go to hear Leo Somebody and the San Diego Youth Symphony, expecting very little, and I’m moved by the technical proficiency and emotional musicality of the performance. Years later, via radio, I hear Stokowski and the NBC SO in the Tchaikovsky 4th; it’s terrible. Later, in New York, at a live concert Stokie leads a thrilling performance. A concert at Symphony Hall by Edo de Wart and the Boston SO is so boring that I sneak out at intermission.

What you expect to happen at a concert won’t. Just buy your season tickets and go. Some concerts will move you, profoundly; others won’t. It’s a mistake to build up expectations, and it’s an even bigger mistake to arouse expectations in your newbies. Don’t tell them that the concert will raise their IQ, cure baldness, and transport them to a higher plane. Just tell them, “after the concert we’ll go to Baskin & Robbins for a hot-fudge sundae.”

Suggestion for Things To Consider #3: Brush up on the names of the instruments.

One question any newbie is duty bound to ask is, “what is that instrument?” Be prepared.

Suggestion for Things To Consider #4: Explain that there is no talking, or other disturbing behavior, once the music starts.

The next time you see an adult at a musical even with a young person, watch what happens. The kid is intent on the performance, but the adult — to the kid’s obvious annoyance — leans over to whisper things to the kid. Explaining things to newbies during the performance teaches them to be rude, breaks their concentration, and should be subject to capital punishment, as should all disruptive behavior in any performing area. I’m working on getting that written into law.

Suggestion for Things To Consider #5: Be sure newbies know the quickest route to the rest rooms.

Suggestion for Things To Consider #6: They are entitled to feel the way they feel.

After the concert, if the newbie says some negative things about the goings on, respect that. The tendency to “correct” the newbies “errors in judgment” is universal and overwhelming, so fight it. It’s OK to explore it, but don’t argue against it. There is no correct way to respond to music — no, “but you ought to…”


In show biz, it’s known as, “always leave them asking for more.” In courtship it’s, “It’s better to have them lean toward you than back away from you,” and in TAFTO it’s “you can’t win ’em all.” We win some, lose some. We lucky we win one our of five. The name of the game is persistence.