Friday, August 22, 2008

Schumann & Brahms at Stravinsky's Tavern: Who's on First?

Despite the threat of inclement weather, the crowd at Stravinsky’s Tavern was pretty much the same as usual. Not exactly packed, but then it never is when they had their comedy night stand-up specials. Not much went on in Coalton on week-nights. Igor wanted to have these on Saturday nights but his wife, Vera, kept telling him that everybody went down to the Walmart on Route 61 on Saturday nights, or they’re home watching TV.

Plus the comics were usually better down at the Moose, if you felt like laughing. And then there was that last guy they had here, she reminded him, some Russian named Tchaikovsky.

“I don’t care if you do think he’s a genius, he might as well call himself ‘The Crying Comedian’ since he turned into this big bundle of insecurities after a few catcalls.” Stravinsky remembered: it was awful. He had to lead him off the stage with a few gentle nudges.

“You’re pathetic,” one guy shouted.

“Yeah, don’t drink the water on the way out,” another heckler shouted after him, which just reduced Tchaikovsky to tears.

Igor was a little nervous about tonight’s opening act, two guys who were just starting out. Most of the people who came through this neck of the woods – a town that sometimes felt like it was so far beyond the cusp of civilization, culture was like a four-letter word – were either just starting out and inexperienced or already washed up and could care less how it went. He would have to see how these two would handle it.

Milhaud and Elgar took their usual places over by the cash register. Sibelius was sitting alone at the first booth, nursing some wings (he was always asking why they never have swan wings, only chicken wings), and Mussorgsky sat next to Thomas Mann discussing the importance of dreams as a form of inspiration. The members of Les Six squeezed into the booth at the bay window, celebrating their victory over the Mighty Handful in a twilight soccer match held out at the high school. Poulenc was complaining the wine was so bad, it tasted like steak sauce. And then Honegger pointed out it was steak sauce.

In other words, Bar Talk as usual.

Vera started clinking the glasses to get everybody’s attention while Bobsky stood at the back trying to get the applause started. Finally, Igor was able to be heard over the various mutterings.

As soon as it got quiet, Richard Wagner, a trouble-maker as usual, hollered out, “It’s not time for another fire-drill, is it?” Everybody laughed. He said this every time, like Comedy Night was always the end of the world or something.

Sometimes, Igor wished he could pick and choose his clientele but then it’s a small town. If he wanted to continue bringing in the kind of money he needed to go on writing his ballets, he needed every customer he could get.

He started to speak but the mike hadn’t been opened yet. He glanced over at Bobsky who shrugged his shoulders. He flipped the switch again and now it hummed into life with a sudden loud thud and a squeal of feedback.

“That’s the last time I ever call on that John Cage guy to fix the sound system,” Igor thought.

Igor made his usual short welcome speech – they’d all heard it before, anyway. He looked back at Bobsky, arching his eyebrows questioningly. Young Craft, his right-hand assistant, peeked behind the door to the kitchen and then gave Igor the thumbs-up.

“I can say that tonight’s opening act needs no introduction. I say that because I have no idea who the hell these guys are.” Which is only partly true - he certainly didn’t know them as comics. You never know who’s going to come through town, these days, on the Entertainment Circuit, he thought. “So, without further ados, eh! I give them to you! Schumann... and Brahms!” He started to applaud and a few others joined him as Bobsky held the kitchen door open for the night’s first comics.

The applause died down quickly as they took their place by the side of the bar. Vera and Bobsky had rolled out the old upright piano but it was clear they hadn’t bothered to waste any expense tuning it. Brahms, the one with the beard, sat down on the stool, spun himself around while his partner did the introductions.

“Hi. I’m Bob... and this is my friend Joe,” he said, turning to face the piano. Brahms immediately stopped spinning the stool when he heard his name and looked up, but he found himself with his back to the keyboard and quickly shuffled himself around into position to play a few fanfare-like chords. Judging from the expression on Schumann’s face, it was hard to tell if it was planned that way or if the timing had gone wrong. If that wasn’t bad enough, most everyone winced at the jangling discord that came pounding out of the old hulking instrument.

“What the hell...?” Brahms muttered loudly under his breath. He shifted position and tried again. Still, a nasty discord. It reminded Stravinsky of a tooth-ache he’d once had.

Then Brahms stood up, took a handkerchief out of his pocket and stretched it out full-length between his hands. He held the one end down at the bass end of the keyboard and stretched the rest of it toward the treble. Then he did the same thing from the other end. Then he adjusted the stool, moving it down a couple of inches, before playing the right chords. “We're Bob and Joe!” He looked over at Schumann and beamed.

Nobody laughed.

Brahms began playing the bass for “Heart & Soul” but Schumann waved his hand, declining the offer.

“You know, Joe,” Schumann began, “I’ve just written another symphony but I don’t know what to call it.”

“Well, Bob, you may as well just call it ‘Shit’ because that’s what the critics are going to call it, anyway!” With that, Brahms played his two chords again - “ta daah!”

A rumpled man with unruly hair sitting in the corner went “Ha ha ha haaaah!” and stopped cold.

Brahms began playing some waltz tune quietly underneath their dialogue.

“Joe, you used to play the piano in brothels when you were still a boy. How did you land a job like that?”

“I was a child prodigy!” He played a rim-shot with his fingers on the music rack. "Ouch!"

“Apparently you still have your old charms about you,” Schumann said, glancing around the room and realizing there were no women among tonight’s customers, so he wasn’t sure how he was going to work in their next joke. It’s not good to make fun of the owner’s wife, he thought. “The other night, we played this bar in Jersey. Who was that lady I saw you talking to over by the window?”

“That was no lady, on that you can bet your life!” Brahms switched suddenly to a polka.

Schumann pulled himself up to his more or less full height. “Speaking of ladies, take my wife – please!”

Brahms just stared at him speechlessly, then switched into a high-gear Hungarian dance.

And so it went for ten minutes. Ten long minutes. The crowd, such as it was, rarely responded, or when they did, managed it with a twist of fairly obvious hostility.

“Hey, Igor,” Wagner called out at one point, “can we have a fire-drill now?”

“Tough crowd, “ Brahms thought as he ended his piano piece and pushed the stool aside. “And now, for our last number...”

Once the polite smattering of applause faded away – “it was never like this for Clara,” Schumann thought – they glanced at each other. It was time, now, for their big routine. They each took deep breaths. Schumann held the mike close to him while Brahms pretended to be looking around, kind of lost.

Schumann began, quickly checking a little note-card. “Here we are at the Music Center, getting all the stands set up for the concert tonight for the Greater Coalton Chamber Music Society. Let’s see, David Hu's playing first violin, Jonathan Watt's playing second violin, Michel Eidonneau is playing viola...”

Brahms looked up as if suddenly something caught his attention. “Wait, that's what I want to find out.”

And they were off.

Schumann: Well, I said - Hu's on first, Watt's on second, Eidonneau's on viola.
Brahms: Are you the manager?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: And you don't know the musicians' names?
Schumann: Well I should.
Brahms: Well then, who's on first?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: I mean the musician's name.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy on first.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The first violinist.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy playing...
Schumann: Hu is on first!
Brahms: I'm asking YOU who's on first.
Schumann: That's the man's name.
Brahms: That's whose name?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Well, go ahead and tell me.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: That's who?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Look, you gotta first violinist?
Schumann: Certainly.
Brahms: Who's playing first?
Schumann: That's right.
Brahms: When you pay the first violinist after the gig, who gets the money?
Schumann: Every dollar of it.
Brahms: All I'm trying to find out is the musician's name on first violin.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy that gets...
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: Who gets the money...
Schumann: He does, every dollar. Sometimes his wife comes down and picks it up.
Brahms: Whose wife?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: Look, when you contract the first violinist, how does he sign his name?
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: The guy.
Schumann: Hu.
Brahms: How does he sign...
Schumann: That's how he signs it.
Brahms: Who?
Schumann: Yes.
Brahms: All I'm trying to find out is what's the guy's name on first violin.
Schumann: No. Watt plays second violin.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first.
Brahms: One stand at a time!
Schumann: Well, don't change the players around.
Brahms: I'm not changing nobody!
Schumann: Take it easy, buddy...
Brahms: I'm only asking you, who's the guy on first violin?
Schumann: That's right.
Brahms: Ok.
Schumann: All right.
Brahms: So... what's the guy's name on first violin?
Schumann: No. Watt is on second.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann: He's the violist, we're not talking about him.
Brahms: Now, how did I end up with the violist?
Schumann: Well, you mentioned his name.
Brahms: If I mentioned the violist's name, who did I say is playing viola?
Schumann: No. Hu's playing first.
Brahms: What's on first!?
Schumann: Watt's on second.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann: He's the violist.
Brahms: There I go, back with the violist, again!
Brahms: Would you just stay at the viola stand and don’t move.
Schumann: All right, what do you want to know?
Brahms: Now who's playing viola?
Schumann: Why do you insist on putting Hu in the viola section?
Brahms: What am I putting in the viola section?
Schumann: No. Watt is the second violinist.
Brahms: You don't want who on second?
Schumann: Hu is on first.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA!
Brahms: Look, you gotta clarinetist?
Schumann: Sure.
Brahms: The clarinetist’s name...?
Schumann: Why.
Brahms: I just thought I'd ask you.
Schumann: Well, I just thought I'd tell you.
Brahms: Then tell me who's playing clarinet.
Schumann: Hu's playing first.
Brahms: I'm not... look, stay out of the string section! I want to know what's the guy playing clarinet?
Schumann: No, Watt is on second.
Brahms: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Schumann: Hu's on first!
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA!
Brahms: The clarinetist's name...?
Schumann: Why.
Brahms: Because!
Schumann: Oh, he's the cellist.
Brahms: Look, you got an oboist in this band?
Schumann: Sure.
Brahms: The oboist's name?
Schumann: Tomorrow.
Brahms: You don't wanna tell me today?
Schumann: I'm telling you now.
Brahms: Then go ahead.
Schumann: Tomorrow!
Brahms: What time?
Schumann: What time what?
Brahms: What time tomorrow are you gonna tell me who's tuning the band?
Schumann: Now, listen. Hu takes his pitch from Tomorrow.
Brahms: Look, I'm gonna break your arm if you say “who's on first”! I want to know what's the oboist's name?
Schumann: Watt's on second.
Brahms: I don't know.
Schumann & Brahms Together: VIOLA...!
Brahms: Gotta a bass player?
Schumann: Certainly.
Brahms: The bass-player's name...?
Schumann: Today.
Brahms: Today, and tomorrow's tuning up back-stage.
Schumann: Now you've got it.
Brahms: All we got is a couple of days on the team!
Brahms: You know I'm a bass-player, myself.
Schumann: So they tell me.
Brahms: I’ve been known to save a few rough passages with some fancy footwork, ya know. Picture it: the cellist misses his entrance when this fugue starts up. When he drops the theme, me, being a good continuo player, I'm gonna throw the theme back to the first violinist, right? So I take the theme and toss it... to... who?
Schumann: Now that's the first thing you've said right all day.
Brahms: I don't even know what I'm talking about!
Schumann: That's all you have to do.
Brahms: toss the theme to the first violinist.
Schumann: Yes! That’s what good chamber music playing is all about.
Brahms: So now who's got it?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Look, if I toss the theme over to the first violinist, somebody's gonna play it. Now who has the theme?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Who?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Naturally?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: So I toss the theme over to Naturally?
Schumann: No you don't, you toss the theme over to Hu.
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's different.
Brahms: That's what I said.
Schumann: You're not saying it...
Brahms: I toss the theme to Naturally.
Schumann: You toss it to Hu.
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: That's what I said!
Schumann: Okay, go ahead, now: you ask me.
Brahms: I toss the theme to who?
Schumann: Naturally.
Brahms: Now, you ask me.
Schumann: You throw the theme to Hu?
Brahms: Naturally.
Schumann: That's it.
Brahms: I said it the same as you! Same as YOU! I toss the theme to Who – whoever it is drops a beat and the guy playing second misses his cue. Who takes up the theme and tosses it over to What. What hands it off to I Don't Know. I Don't Know passes it on to Tomorrow, it’s a triple fugue!. Now today, somebody starts playing a cadenza, just because. Why? I don't know! He's the violist and, frankly, I don't give a damn!
Schumann: What did you say!?
Brahms: I said, “I don't give a damn!”
Schumann: Oh, that's our conductor.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

The applause was polite but not that polite. Stravinsky walked up to them and held their hands up as they bowed. “Let’s hear it for Schumann... and Brahms!” He ushered them back toward the kitchen, Bobsky quick to close the door behind them. Igor returned to what passed for a spot-light to announce that the evening’s main act was about to begin.

Meanwhile, Brahms quickly drank the beer one of the kitchen workers handed him, wiping his brow while Schumann splashed water on his face.

“My first piano concerto got better applause in Leipzig,” Brahms said. “Tell me again why we’re doing this?”

“We gotta brush up on the timing a little on the opening,” Schumann said as he rubbed his hands vigorously with the towel, “we’re playing Frackville, tomorrow night.”

“I beg your pardon?” Brahms clapped his friend on the back and laughed as they walked through the back door out into the parking lot and the quiet stillness of the night. It wasn’t always like this, they knew. Some nights, the laughs were good.

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2008

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