From the collection Cafe Phryque.
First you should know that our director is a lunatic. That’s why no one reacted. The oboe had just called the A for tuning. I was adjusting my chair when I saw him, skinny kid, standard tuxedo, long black hair with a stripe of blue. He took a seat next to the double basses and found an outlet for his amplifier.
He sat there for the first movement, turning pages, following the measures. After the cut, he lifted the guitar to his knee – Stratocaster, black and white, a good match for the tux.
The second movement is a jaunty allegro, the orchestration rather spare: long passages of unison strings, set off by brief flurries of woodwind. Our unexpected soloist made his appearance above the staff, an electric soprano, long triplets spelling out the triads, the phrases tied off with grace notes. The timbre was clean, B.B. King playing Lucille, with a hint of red port, a warm vibrato like early-seventies Santana.
I lost track after that – had my own parts to play – but I did get the general impression: he wasn’t really soloing. He was granting the piece a luminous framework, ornaments on the Christmas tree. Rare quality for a guitarist. I was sitting out a 16-bar rest when my gaze landed on our conductor. His facial muscles were so tight you could play them like a harpsichord. Abject horror.
Orchestras, God bless them, will play through anything: fires, earthquakes, spontaneous audience orgies. In fact, we were playing beautifully, as if our mystery rocker had given us a chance to actually enjoy ourselves, to dispel the air of fascism that had begun to plague our rehearsals.
The movement ends with a series of runs, a rollercoaster of sixteenths in the violins. Our guitarist shadowed it note for note, a third above, then took a quarter rest and launched an elegant counterpoint, ending four measures later an exact octave above the strings.
Audiences are not supposed to applaud between movements, but that didn’t stop this one. It came in a burst, and a few of them shouted like Italian operagoers. Our director was forced to give his rogue soloist an awkward salute, while the rest of the orchestra did its best to suppress our laughter.
As for our stowaway, his bow was as well-planned as the rest of his operation: exuberant but brief, a double blown kiss followed by a quick unplug and a brisk walk toward the exit. Followed by two large men in blazers, breaking through the brass like fullbacks. I pretended another chair problem and stepped into their path, ensuring his escape.
This evening, I met a friend for dinner – a composer who is nevertheless a splendid fellow. He was launching into the usual complaint about the popularity of his one-act operas (as opposed to the epic Aidas dwelling in his head) when I held up a hand.
“Hold on, Henry. Do you hear that?”
Henry cocked an ear toward the window. “I think I do.”
“Can you describe what you are hearing?”
“Siegfried’s leit-motif from the Ring Cycle, played on an electric guitar.”
“I’ll be damned.”
The song disappeared into a riot of distortion and drums.
“Ah,” said Henry. “Opera loses again.”
“Hey, I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Henry and I parted ways at the intersection, and I followed the thump-thump to a club across the street, a bricky billiard hall with plate glass windows. The bar area was packed with youngsters, grinding away to a band featuring drums, bass and three guitars. The lead flung his hat into the crowd, revealing a distinct stripe of blue hair. I walked quickly to my car.
I have found that a man with a cello can talk his way into all sorts of things, and the bouncers at South First Billiards were no exception. I sorted my way toward the front, timing my arrival for the end of the song, and placed my instrument on the stage like a business card.
Mr. Bluefin had a good laugh, then set me up with a chair and a microphone aimed at my strings.
“Okay, man. You got me. Now what are we supposed to play?”
I pulled out my bow and smiled. “Are you familiar with Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor?”
“How about ‘All Along the Watchtower’?”
Photo by MJV