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Beer, Cheese, and The Rite of Spring

The waitress slid two glasses full of beer toward me. I hesitated for a moment. “Are these both for me?”

“Yes,” she smiled, exposing perfect white teeth. “We always serve our beers in pairs!” I kind of like this place already.

A few minutes later arrived the cook himself. A thin, tall guy, his bare arms covered with tattoos. He was carrying a plate with my order: a Reuben sandwich and cheese-covered fries on the side. Beer and cheese. Two main ingredients in the Milwaukee kitchen.

“This is the last meal that I cook for the day!” he announced, and then added: “I’m the skinniest cook you’ll ever meet!” He laughed and disappeared in the kitchen.

I finished a full glass of beer and had just a few sips of the other one. I am conducting the Milwaukee Symphony tomorrow morning, and I still have some work to do tonight. So I need to be careful.

Outside the dark pub, the sun was still strong and the air was wet. An espresso wouldn’t hurt, I thought, and crossed the river to search for a café. I have been conducting orchestras for about 18 years now, and the nervous feeling I get before meeting a new orchestra has never failed me. I practically embrace it by now. Oh hello nerves, I almost thought you wouldn’t be showing up this time. Nice of you to join me.

Lorin Maazel told me once that conductors who get nervous are egocentric people, because they are focused on themselves instead of on the music.

On the other hand, he also said that if something goes wrong, it’s the conductor’s fault. Great.

I am trying to focus on the music.

The Sacrificial Dance, which ends Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, feels like you’re conducting against the orchestra. The meter keeps changing, but the timpani and bass play a steady pulse, like a march that sounds as if it was written in a simple 2/4 time. Someone who watches from the side and doesn’t know the piece might think the conductor has gone mad.

The amount of stories about conductors and the Rite of Spring could fill 1001 nights. Some conductors have attempted to change Stravinsky’s score and rewrite everything in 4/4. Others faked strokes and heart attacks during a concert in order to break out of a performance that started to fall apart.

I am finishing my coffee and heading back to the hotel. Marching in a steady pace, “one-two-one-two,” my legs are the timpani and basses now. I’m lifting my right arm and conducting 2/16 and 3/16 alternately, against my legs’ rhythm. I’m quietly singing the piccolo trumpet part. Some people pass me and stare, but I’m quite confident that they have witnessed stranger sights.

The piece becomes more and more wild and violent, as it’s getting closer to the final, inevitable blow. It does so without blinking, without looking back. It’s merciless. Merciless toward the chosen girl who will soon be sacrificed to the god of Spring; toward the orchestra, that plays in extreme, unusual registers; and toward the mad, obsessive compulsive conductor, whose whole body is now possessed by the music.

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