Werner and I loved the Lakewood, Ohio public library. After school we’d tear cross the street that separated our little Lutheran elementary school from the Lakewood Public Library and spend hours scoping the books. But what we’d like best was listening to the vinyl records.
We’d sneak into the “adult” section of the library and fly up the stairs to the Audio Room where we looked at the plastic wrapped album covers and randomly selected music based on the coolness of the covers. We’d pull out the albums, seat the ancient tonearm into a vinyl groove as gently as possible, sit ourselves in the leather chairs – if adults weren’t around – and listen to the music as quietly and politely as we could, turning up the volume only if the musical passages required more dynamic range. In this way we were exposed to Berlioz, PDQ Bach, the real Bach, his cousin Bach, his brother Bach, all of the Bachs really, Mozart, the Russians, Sibelius, and on and on. That Audio Room was our haven.
At home we didn’t have a stereo. We did have a television, but we pretty much had to watch what our parents watched. Their musical tastes ran to Lawrence Welk. The bubbles annoyed us and left us screaming to go outside and play again. And the Lennon Sisters? We’d rather have been tortured with cattle prods. So when we needed a musical fix we would race out of grade school at the end of the day and head across the street. The times were a bit simpler then. We could get home any time we wanted, as long as it was before dark. No busses, no parents driving in SUVs. We walked everywhere. Ran, mostly. And we hung out at the Lakewood Public Library.
By this sort of osmosis we developed our favorites. I liked George Szell and Eugene Ormandy. It seemed they got the right balance of strings and brass, and they phrased passages beautifully. Some of the French conductors were a bit impetuous for our unrefined tastes.
I had no idea how to articulate musical terms at the time – measure, chord, tempo, andante, allegro -- we didn’t learn them until we played in a kids’ orchestra later on, but in my inarticulate way I made it known that some conductors were better than others, and would point to the record player and play the passage and tell others there, that’s the way that music should sound.
We also developed favorite pieces. I loved Sibelius’ Finlandia as soon as I heard it, and played that poor album over and over again. A few of Mozart’s symphonies, like No. 40, were clear favorites. The rest belonged in the music bin. Bach’s work was very interesting. We liked a bit of his stuff. As Sheep Grazed… whatever that was called. We liked that. We liked the fugues, where parts of one orchestra would play the same music as other parts did 8 measures before. Fugues seemed to go round and round in circles, and I believe we used to call fugues round-and-rounds. We made up our own musical shorthand when we didn’t know the terms. Forte we called loud, and piano we called soft. Loud and soft. We liked Berlioz, because we always had to have our hand on the volume knob. His stuff went from VERY LOUD to very soft. We got a kick out of that. We would know exactly he’d trick the listener into lulling him to sleep and then wake him up with a VERY LOUD blast from percussion and brass and everything. We’d always get to the quiet Surprise passages (that was our term) and we’d giggle like the school kids we were and say, HERE IT COMES HERE IT COMES until the adults would move away and we’d blast that section to its glorious fortissimo.
In this way we were always flirting with disaster. The librarians up on the second floor began monitoring our progress. Those librarians and the way they peered over their glasses. Totally hot. No wonder I’m warped the way I am about librarians to this day. I blame the Audio Room.
I believe they were secretly proud of us. We had absolutely no clue what we were doing, but we did it enthusiastically. They probably thought we’d grow up to be Friends of the Public Library.
Back to the music:
We absolutely loved Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. We were totally berzerk over this one particular album where Ormandy conducted the Philadelphia. No other conductor phrased the music as perfectly as he did so that’s the one we were always after.
I would read the album covers while listening to the albums so I would know exactly what passage was being played and read about the orchestra and the conductor. We memorized every measure, every single one. When Pictures at an Exhibition was playing - it got rather overplayed while we were in residence – I could tell by the first few measures if we were playing the Promenade, or The Castle, and of course I knew when we were winding down from the Hut on Fowl’s Legs (Baba Yaga), because at the end it glissandoed down to the striking chords that formed the opening of the Great Gate of Kiev. I always stood in front of the stereo and conducted, unless adults were in the room or my brother was complaining, which he often did as soon as he saw me take the No. 2 pencil wand in my hand.
The Great Gate of Kiev had everything: drama, volume, grandeur, and a tremendous buildup to the final chords. The thunderous way the Great Gate of Kiev ended demanded we play this at maximum volume, over and over again. We thought this was perhaps the most perfect piece in all of music.
Years later I have the CD in my hand, the digitally remastered version of the old vinyl original. Today, I slide the CD into the computer tray, put on the headphones. The first few measures are enough. The room fades away here, and I am transported back to the Audio Room with Werner.