Friday, April 08, 2005

Fayetteville Rhapsody

It's not every day you arrive in an airport and discover that you get to take the back roads for a while before hitting the interstate to the city. But so it was in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Beautiful rolling farms and woods and pickup trucks and cows and the first greens of spring. But I was a little confused; where was Fayettevillle? Why couldn't I see any skyscrapers from the plane, like you usually can?

Where I landed was half an hour north of Fayetteville. The North Arkansas airport serves several small towns that contain a lot of rich people -- most notably the Tyson Foods people (CHICKENZ) and the inconceivably rich Walton family -- as in Wal-Mart. Everybody there talks about the Waltons with the same awe and gossipy fervor that Brits reserve for the Royal Family. The statistic everyone knows there is that if you assembled the twenty BILLION dollars that each Walton family member inherited from old Sam Walton, their collective worth would be twice that of Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. And the Waltons all live right there! They contribute mightily to the community, leaving their name on buildings and civic stuff all over the area, like the bright silver trail of a slug.

In my mind, I'd pictured Fayetteville as a small town transformed by all that local money into a tiny, shiny jewel of a metropolis,with ultra-modern sleek buildings reflecting the sun, state-of-the-art malls and elegantly landscaped public spaces.

So I was perplexed as the airport van approached the city limits, and all I saw was slightly more closely-packed little houses with slightly more organized front yards. And then -- we were there. In the center of "downtown," the Radisson hotel was an oversized cinderblock of a building about 12 stories high -- and THAT was the tallest building in Fayetteville. And the really big thing going on in town was -- the University! Ohh, it's a COLLEGE TOWN; now I was getting it. With a serious football team, the Warthogs or Dust Devils or something. The place looked more than anything like Charlottesville, minus the Jeffersonian architecture. The University was up on a hill; its twin bell towers looked very pretty from my hotel window. It all looked very pretty, very soft, in the early spring sunlight. But it was no metropolis, that was for sure. What was I thinking?!

That afternoon, as I devoured my room service grilled chicken sandwich, I caught an enchanting movie on Turner Classics: "Rhapsody," starring ELizabeth Taylor, who goes to study at some conservatory in Switzerland to prove to her rich father that she should be taken seriously. There she meets the tempestuous, driven Italian violinist (Vittorio Gassman) and the eager, blond American pianist (some actor I didn't recognize), and the triangle begins. Elizabeth Taylor wears one drop-dead outfit after another as she swans around Europe with one musician or the other... it was the silliest movie ever -- and all that Tchaikovsky and Rachmanninoff! I vaguely remembered my father talking about this movie. I'd have given anything to be watching it with him, laughing our heads off.

At the rehearsal that evening, the North Arkansas Symphony sounded a little shaky, but the conductor, Jeanine Wagar, pushed them right along, and I figured it would be OK by the next morning's pair of concerts for bused-in schoolkids. And it was. The kids seemed to like it, although I always worry -- and there was that one boy over on the left who kept yawning expansively... but he sure got shaken out of his torpor by the audience yelling "MAMBO!" I almost cut their second "rehearsal," they were so deafening the first time.

It was a very small orchestra, the North Arkansas Symphony, but so enthusiastic! I never get tired of the musicians' enthusiasm for Bernstein music, and their gratitude for a kids' concert that has a little meat on it.

Later that day, incredibly enough, I came across a SECOND classical music movie on the TV in my hotel room. I didn't catch the title, but it featured Jeanette McDonald, madly in love with (and secretly married to) that great, great maestro, Jose Iturbi. But Jeanette's three daughters don't like him; they're sure that Jose has "hypnotized" their mom, who sings in her preposterous hyper-soprano every chance she gets.

These movies made me think about what classical music represented to the filmgoers of their day. You'd never see a movie like that now. But back then, in the early 1950's, there was obviously such a longing in America to be "classy," and classical music was one guaranteed way to get there. Is that what Leonard Bernstein represented to people back then, too? Maybe that's why he was so enchanted by those movies; he loved to laugh at them, but they must have given him a sense of what people were looking for in him.

After the first pair of concerts on Friday morning, I was to give a "presentation" to music teachers at a workshop at the -- what else? -- Walton Arts Center, in the same building where the concerts were. I'd been very worried about this presentation. Who was I to be lecturing music educators, with their postgraduate degrees and their classroom experience?? I fretted for several weeks about what to do -- and then, four days before coming out there, while making tuna salad, it hit me.

I remembered a story my father used to tell about his friend, the celebrated drama teacher Stella Adler, and what she always did on her first day of class. She'd write the numbers one through ten on the blackboard, then start enumerating the ten prerequisities to being a great actor. She'd leave number ten blank. Finally a student would venture to ask, "What's number ten?" And she'd say, "I don't know what it is, but if you don't have it, you can forget the other nine." I'd always loved that story. But then, over the tuna fish, I had the idea to borrow Stella's model. I wrote feverishly for two days, and came up with my presentation.

The lady who ran the workshop was a tall birdlike woman, Dr. Pat Relph. I would have pegged her for an anthropologist; she had a brainy, rough-hewn, no-time-for-glamor-in-the-field quality. She spoke in a rich, plummy voice. "Teacher, refresh yourself!" she'd say, pointing to a table of snacks, as each music teacher dragged his or her exhausted frame into the black box theatre. It was a school day, after all, and a Friday -- so they were all pretty wiped out. I'm amazed they showed up at all.

So at my presentation, I wrote one through ten on the oversized paper tablet balanced on an easel, and began to enumerate the ten prerequisities to being a gifted music teacher, leaving number ten blank. Bless those weary music teachers' hearts; "What's number ten?" they asked. "Well, as Stella Adler used to say..." I was idiotically pleased with myself.

My point being, of course, that Leonard Bernstein had Number Ten. But I added, in a sort of self-therapy way, that we should all set aside any feelings of inadequacy, and simply learn from the master and get on with our own teaching. Hey, if I could get over it, I told them, so could they!

I must say I loved making my presentation: writing stuff on the easel with a fat marker, and talking my head off. I could really turn into a windbag if I don't watch out.

The next day had two more concerts for school kids, and the day after that, a regular family concert. It all went well, but you really know you've been eating room service in the Fayetteville Radisson for too long when you get to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, and the southwestern Cobb salad at Chili's Too tastes like the freshest, most sophisticated dish you've ever eaten.