Growing up in Las Vegas was an occasionally frustrating situation for a kid who was new to the world of classical music. The Las Vegas Philharmonic has an on again/off again relationship with existence, and during most of my youth it was off again. There were occasional performances by local groups, including a B Minor Mass that somehow got messed up about 20 minutes after the chosen intermission, leading to the conductor starting the half over again. There was the Las Vegas Summer Music Festival, which had some really nice performances, but it too struggled to have a pulse. It was a pity, because there were some wickedly talented players in town (there still are, as some of the big Strip shows have reverted back to using live bands).
Every now and again, orchestras on tour would come through Artemus Ham Hall at UNLV (which supposedly had amazing acoustics, although I don’t remember thinking that exactly). But this was Vegas, and there was no way that Danielle Gatti and the Royal Philharmonic doing Mahler 5 would draw a crowd. Ditto Ashkenazy and the DSO Berlin with Shostakovich 10. I mean, I know Sammy Davis Jr. was still alive, but Jesus, you’d think a city of well over a million people could scrape together 2,000 to enjoy some of the finest music by some of the finest performers in the history of the galaxy.
What’s a boy to do? Mercifully, Los Angeles was a comfortable 4-hour drive away. I wound up seeing several concerts in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: Salonen conducting a concert called “Three Aspects of Spring” (Debussy Printemps, Schumann 1, Stravinsky Rite of…), a Mahler 5 in which I thought Thom Steven’s trumpet sound was going to follow me home and murder me in my sleep, and a Brahms 1 that was not entirely memorable as I do not remember anything about it other than someone performed Brahms 1 and I happened to be there.
But the most memorable was the first. My dad took me the way dads would take their sons to baseball games (which we’ve also done, because I’m also a sports nerd). I always appreciated it, because my dad doesn’t listen to classical music much, if at all. He played clarinet in a community band that my sister played in for awhile, and he played trombone in marching band at San Jose State, but I recall his music preferences being The Doobie Brothers and Jimmy Buffett.
We rented a Mitsubishi 3000 GT and headed down I-15, presumably looking cool, although he probably much cooler than me because a) he had a beard (and still has one of the great beards of all-time), and b) he had all the money. I had never been to LA before, and we took a pretty sweet driving tour: saw the Hollywood sign, Beverly Hills, the Capitol Records building, downtown, probably passed Dodger Stadium so that I could flip it off. We ate dinner at the original and never duplicated (actually, according to their website, they’ve duplicated it 4 times throughout the valley) Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles in Hollywood on the corner of Sunset and Gower. I remember wanting to befriend the doorman, to this day the dapperest motherfucker I’ve ever seen; purple from head to toe, including the cane. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you that I bring up that meal at Roscoe’s entirely too much. The food was amazing: pan-fried chicken, really delicious waffles, and some pretty great mac and cheese as well (possibly the greatest soul food I’ve ever eaten, although Aunt Flora’s in Cincinnati might be at the top…holy shit the peach cobbler).
The concert itself was stunning to someone who had never been to a classical music concert before. We chose this one because it had one of the first pieces of music I ever listened to enough times to sort of “know”: Siegfried’s Funeral Music. That was the only piece I recognized on the program, but I was blown away by the entire night. The program, which I will never forget, was basically a showcase for Jane Eaglen (who was making her LA Phil debut that night) to go batshit crazy: the last 45 minutes or so of Gotterdammerung (the Rhine Journey, Funeral Music, and Immolation Scene) and the last half hour of Salome (the Seven Veils Dance and the Closing Scene) with a riveting Don Juan thrown in to start the second half. After that night, it was impossible for me not to be hooked.
Thank you, Dad. Not everyone’s parents would be cool enough to drive them 4 hours, eat soul food in the hood (although a look at Google Maps street view tells me that it isn’t nearly as hood as it used to be…there’s a hell of a lot more going on there now than there was in 1996), fight LA traffic to stay in a hotel in Rialto, and attend a 2-hour concert with expensive tickets just so their idiot kid could get a taste of good live music. That experience was huge, though, and it sticks with me to this day. It’s why I plowed through a bunch of money acquiring all kinds of recordings, it’s why I went to college to study music, it’s why I chased the dream of conducting, and it’s why I still love music to this very second. That was a clutch fatherly performance.
Happy Father’s Day!