Thursday, July 21, 2016

Musical Timing, Slightly Out of Sync

My father once told a story about going to a synagogue in liberated France near the end of World War II. Growing up in rural Arkansas, my dad had encountered few Jews outside of his own family and didn’t really know much about Jewish prayer ritual. But on this day, he seemed to be an expert. His secret? He had sat next to an observant man and followed his lead throughout. When the man stood, my father stood. When he prayed silently, my father did the same. When the man said, “Amen,” my father echoed his word.
After the service, some of the other congregants seemed very impressed with my dad’s knowledge of Jewish ritual—for an American GI. My father just nodded and smiled. The moral of the story, my father explained to me, was “Follow the lead of those who know more than you.”

I applied my father’s lesson last weekend when Audrey and I went to a concert at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. We were on the lawn outside the Seiji Ozawa Hall listening to the Emerson String Quartet play an all-Haydn concert. (When we are in the Berkshires, we like to feel very high-brow.) According to the notes in our program, the Emerson Quartet was celebrating its 40th anniversary, though probably not with the same players all those years. They had a unique style. The two violinists and the violist stood while playing, and the cellist sat in a chair on a riser, so that his head was even with the other three players’. They bowed, plucked, and trilled through the first Haydn piece and then ended with a flourish, raising their bows from their instruments and standing proudly in what I could only assume was an exciting finish. I was ready to clap enthusiastically, but luckily I hesitated. It seemed that the others around me—those who knew more than I—weren’t clapping. They knew there were more movements to go before we could applaud. The Emerson Quartet had faked me out, but they had not tricked me into doing something as foolish as clapping prematurely. And, people do feel foolish when they applaud out of turn at a concert, and those in the audience who don’t applaud turn up their noses with superiority and think how gauche the clappers are.

The Emerson Strong Quartet demonstrates an exciting flourish.
But don't applaud just yet.
Clapping out of turn occasionally is not the worst faux pas I have made when it comes to musical timing. That occurred during my checkered band career at Savannah High School. I sat first chair in the tenor saxophone section, which really wasn’t that impressive because I was the only tenor player that year. The band director handed out a new piece of music called “Riffin’ the Blues” for us to sight read, or play for the first time without any rehearsal or instruction. Unbeknownst to anyone in the band—and especially to me— the piece had sections for three players to go into solo “riffs.” First the trumpet, then the tenor sax, then the trombone.

Key to this story is knowing that our band featured two of the top players in the state, at trumpet and trombone. So two of the solo sections would be well covered. The third called for a talented tenor player, which our band sadly lacked. As the sight read progressed, the trumpet player moved smoothly into his solo. Then there was a silence in the room. There wasn’t supposed to be a silence; I was supposed to be playing. But what I saw on my music sheets were far too many notes racing all over the page.
“Goodman, where are you?” the band director shouted. I just stared back, like a deer caught in the headlights. And then, right on time, the trombone player came in with his solo. I was off the hook temporarily, but I knew we would be playing this piece many more times during the concert season, and I would be expected to fill the silence productively.

And I tried. I tried hard. I learned the notes and even added a little improvising to my riff that was going well. My one problem was that I sometimes began my solo a little late. There would be a slight pause after the trumpet finished until I began. And I would still be playing when the trombone came in right on his cue. Unfortunately for me, the trombone player was a perfectionist, and he was pissed that I sometimes played over his first notes.
Bill Clinton riffin' more skillfully than I ever did on a tenor sax.
Both Bill and my dad came from Arkansas. 
I worked on my timing, and occasionally got it right. But not all the time. Then I found a solution to the problem, based on my father’s lesson in the French synagogue. I decided to follow the lead of someone in the know. As I played my solo, I would look over at the trombone player, and as soon as he rose to start playing his solo, I would stop mine. I might not have hit all of the notes in my solo, but I didn’t throw his or anyone else’s timing off. We were all happy, with the possible exception of the band director, but he was long suffering—which is all part of the job description of any high school instructor, as I would learn a few years later when I embarked on a brief high school teaching career of my own.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Dylan-esque Evening

"Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
But I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now."
            --Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

Back in my freshman year in college—when I was so much younger then—I decided not to take the time or spend the money to attend two concerts in downtown New Haven. One featured a young singer with an ethereal high-pitched voice named Joni Mitchell performing with an old veteran with a gravelly voice named Tom Rush. I’ll bet they were great that night. I can’t be sure because I wasn’t there. The second concert gained a certain amount of fame or infamy when singer Jim Morrison of The Doors went on a cursing binge and threatened to throw a microphone from the stage into the audience, leading to his becoming the first rock star to be arrested onstage. I missed that one too, and I still have regrets. Many years later, I did visit Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but that didn’t do much to ease my regrets about missing the concert.
Jim Morrison made history, and I missed it.
Flash forward a lot of years to last weekend when Audrey and I and our friends Helaine and Ken went to see our first Bob Dylan concert, even though Dylan has been around a lot of years. This time, my regret is that I WAS there.

Now, some people love Bob Dylan, and some people hate him, or at least his singing voice. I am in the former group. I have really liked Dylan the songwriter AND the singer over the years and have appreciated most of his many incarnations, with the possible exception of his “born again Christian” period (think” “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). Until now. The aging, rather than ageless, Dylan has decided to record parts of what music historians call, “the Great American Songbook.” On his latest album, he does Dylan-esque versions of some terrific standards such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Young at Heart.” But he also throws in a real zinger in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” Yep, Bob Dylan, the rebellious folk-rock pioneer is singing about polka dots and moonbeams! It’s not as charming as it sounds.

Which brings me to last week’s concert at Tanglewood in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Before Dylan came on stage, we were entertained by Mavis Staples, who is around the same age as Dylan but a lot less cranky. Mavis charmed the audience and even got us all singing along in a 10-minuite version of “I’ll Take You There.” We sang only the same four words over and over, but we did it enthusiastically, and she seemed to really enjoy singing with us.

Mavis takes us there.
Then Mavis walked offstage to a rousing ovation, and Dylan came on just a few minutes later to an even louder welcome. He said nothing to the audience. Literally, nothing. Not “hello”, not “hi there,” not “hello Tanglewood,” He immediately broke into song. Now, we were on the lawn at Tanglewood a long way from the stage, but Dylan didn’t seem to be making eye contact even with those in the front rows. The only non-song words he spoke to the audience the whole evening came just before intermission, when he said, “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” Audrey turned to me and said, “The man is 75, he probably has to pee and figures he has to say something.”

Dylan performing in his own world
The second half of the program featured mostly Great American Songbook numbers sung in a strained voice, though Dylan did deliver almost unrecognizable versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Those songs upset me most of all. They were sung with little emotion and didn’t echo any of the bite or the irony of the originals. Even the amazing Dylan rhymes seemed to get lost. I felt that Dylan was saying, “These are my songs, not yours, and I’ll deliver them however I want.” Of course, he has the right to think that way, but we in the audience deserve a little more recognition. The concert ended soon afterward, without any comment from the performer. The lights simply came on, and we got up to leave. I’m not sure just what I expected from my evening with Bob Dylan, but it was more than I got.

The Dylan concert was our third live performance this year with an American icon in his or her 70s. A few months ago, we helped celebrate Joan Baez’s 75th birthday at the Beacon Theater in New York and attended one of the final performances of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” at City Center in New York. Joan and Garrison developed a warm rapport with the audience and seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. And we loved being there with them. No true Dylan fan would expect him to be as upbeat as Joan Baez or as amusing as Garrison Keillor. But we have walked down a lot of roads with him since the mid-1960s and lived through a lot of changing times and styles with him. I wish he had just acknowledged that we were there then and now.
Garrison Keillor weaving a story
Joan and Judy together on Joan's birthday

Monday, July 4, 2016

 Before and After the Pogrom

After we arrived in Bad Konigshofen and checked into the charming but unpretentious Hotel Ebner, Audrey, Amanda, and I walked the three blocks to the town’s central market square. Amanda, who had actually visited the town 12 years before, served as our guide. “I think Grandma’s family’s apartment was on that side of the square,” she said—pointing toward a corner with a restaurant on one side and a bakery on the other— “and the family’s business was down the block over there.”

Then she pointed us in another direction and said, “I think the synagogue used to be down that way.” We followed her lead and walked three blocks to where we spotted a historic signpost. The marker showed an image of a two-story building with an inscription that we could sort-of translate. It roughly said, “Near here. . .the Jewish synagogue and culture center of Bad Konigshofen im Grabfeld was destroyed on the inside during a pogrom on the morning of November 10, 1938.” Near the marker there is just a blank asphalt rectangle in front of a modern garage. That rectangle is even more descriptive than the marker. It says, “There used to be a Jewish community in this quaint, historic southern German town, but not anymore.”

Above is the signpost describing the synagogue's destruction;
below is the empty paved rectangle where it once stood.
Audrey’s mother and grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives had been part of that community from the 1880s until soon after that 1938 pogrom. But none of her relatives lived there anymore, though several were buried, unpeacefully (as I will explain), in the local Jewish cemetery. There were never very many members of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community—perhaps 125-150 at most in a town with a population of between 2,000 and 3,000—but today there are none.

Over the next two days, we would learn more about that Jewish community from our two special guides, Elisabeth Bรถhrer and Rainer Seelmann, and gain a better understanding of Audrey’s family’s place in the town. Everywhere we walked with Elisabeth and Rainer, we found echoes of Audrey’s mother and her family. The apartment and business that I wrote about in my last blogpost. The old synagogue where Audrey’s mother had been taught lessons by a teacher/cantor whom she often spoke about with great reverence, even years later when she was living in upper Manhattan and he in the Bronx. The newer synagogue (the one that was partially destroyed on Kristallnacht) that her grandfather and granduncle had been forced to desecrate soon after the pogrom. Her mother’s kindergarten. The building that had housed her granduncle’s shoe store. The cemetery where members of two older generations were buried.

While growing up in New York, Audrey had heard a little bit about this town from her mother and grandmother, but not much. Were the memories too difficult, or had they just decided to move on? But we were here now, and we decided to explore and learn.

On our second morning in Bad Konigshofen, we returned to the no-longer-synagogue location where we met our guides. Rainer had stories to tell and a binder filled with copies of old photos. He turned to a page in the binder with photos of the synagogue before and after Kristallnacht. Particularly sad were photos of the synagogue’s ark (Torah cabinet) in its pre-pogrom majesty and afterwards. Rainer explained: The synagogue had not been completely destroyed by fires set inside the building during Kristallnacht. Later that night or the next morning, elders of the Jewish community, including Audrey’s relatives, had been forced to wield saws and hammers to dismantle the shul’s pews and ark to be used for firewood. For whose fires? We weren’t told. The shell of the building was left as a gruesome reminder for several more years before the lot was cleared in 1951.
Bad Konigshofen's synagogue in the 1920s.
The desecrated ark on November 10, 1938
The synagogue was not the only “victim” on that November night. Gravestones in the Jewish cemetery located perhaps a mile away were toppled and smashed. Some would later be used as paving stones; others were smashed into gravel. Eight Jewish men were arrested and transported to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were held for a few weeks.

Kristallnacht marked a life-changing event for most of Bad Konigshofen’s Jews.  Nearly 50 emigrated soon afterwards, including Audrey’s grandparents and uncle, who would join her mother in London and then head to New York. I have written about how my mother-in-law rescued her family previously (see: http://goodmanwrites.blogspot.com/2013/11/bravery-in-faceof-hatred-it-is-no.html). Others left in the following year. Most of the emigres went to America and a new life. Some fled to other parts of Germany, and their stories didn’t end well. Soon, only six Jews remained in Bad Konigshofen—being either too old or too infirm or too alone to escape. These last members of the community were deported to concentration camps and killed in 1942. One of those was Audrey’s then senile great aunt Bertha, who had been unwilling to leave earlier.

Having sufficiently depressed us, Rainer and Elisabeth led us on a happier journey. As we walked through the town’s central area, they pointed out the town’s earlier synagogue and school, where Jewish children such as Audrey’s mother and uncle were taught prayers and Jewish culture. We walked past Audrey’s mother’s kindergarten building too. It’s still there, but serves a different function now. They pointed out family members’ former homes and business locations. We continued walking into a different part of the town where there were more modern homes and an elementary school and high school. Rainer and his wife both worked in the high school, he teaching history (including a special course on the history of the town’s Jews) and she teaching math. Both were on holiday that week, and they invited us to lunch in their home with their four young children. After a morning filled with depressing history, it was great to spend time with a modern vibrant family. We really appreciated their kindness—and the great lunch!

After lunch, Rainer’s oldest child, 11-year-old Josef, joined us on a short walk to the last remnant of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community, the cemetery. As I mentioned above, most of the gravestones in the cemetery had been destroyed in November 1938. But the cemetery was revived in 1974. Amazingly, stones of three of Audrey’s direct relatives—her great-grandfather, great granduncle, and great grandaunt—survived. Those stones have been restored and replaced upright inside the revived cemetery. The bones of Audrey's ancestors may or may not be located anywhere near the stones that mark their graves, but the stones declare that all three once lived and later died in Bad Konigshofen and were among leaders of its Jewish community.

Brett stands beside the gravestone of his great-great grandfather, Phillipp Malzer. The Malzer brothers were Kohens, descendants of priests, who were given special honors in the synagogue.

This monument inside the Jewish cemetery contains segments
of broken gravestones discovered near the cemetery
While in Bad Konigshofen, we were also welcomed at the Rathaus (town hall) by the Deputy Mayor, who told us about the town’s long history and its growth in modern times. We were invited to sign a registry and were interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper. Audrey was a media darling in yet another place in Germany. The deputy mayor told us a very different story from the ones we learned at the empty site of the synagogue or in the cemetery. He described a vibrant place whose citizens have in recent months readily agreed to take in more than 200 Syrian refugees and find them homes and jobs. Bad Konigshofen today is a welcoming place. For a brief period 80 years ago, that was not how things were.
Brett, Amanda, Audrey, and I signing the town register
 as we rediscover Audrey's mother's history.