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Then the Concertmaster Began Body-Surfing Across the Crowd

May 24, 1999|ROY RIVENBURG

Roll Over Beethoven: Until a few days ago, we were always afraid to send our time-traveling journalist into the past--mainly because of a Ray Bradbury story we read in high school titled "A Sound of Thunder," in which the world was horribly transformed because a time voyager accidentally stepped on a prehistoric butterfly and forever altered the balance of nature.

But recently we've had second thoughts. Since Nostradamus and other top psychics predict the world will end in a few months anyway, what difference does it make if someone explores the past? A time trekker might even be able to do something beneficial, like save Abraham Lincoln's life or stop the invention of polyester.

The deciding factor was a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony we attended last week. We wondered whether classical music audiences have always been so snooty and formal, so we sent our time-traveling journalist back to 1805 for one of Beethoven's original appearances.

Unfortunately, the show was sold out and the ticket scalpers wanted too much money, so we had to reprogram the time machine for 1804 so our journalist could be first in line at a 19th century Vienna Ticketmaster.

Anyway, he eventually got into the performance, where he discovered that early classical concerts were remarkably similar to today's rock shows. For example, instead of Jumbotron TV screens, there were giant canvases hung above the stage with artists painting scenes from below so people in the back rows could see what was going on.

Bouncers stood up front to prevent the screaming fans--many of whom wore tunics emblazoned with "Ludwig-palooza 1805: Tell Tchaikovsky the News"--from getting out of control. When Beethoven finally walked onstage, after a brief set by opening act Johann Mellencamp (the composer formerly known as Johann Cougar), pandemonium erupted. Some spectators shouted out hits they wanted to hear ("Fidelio!" "Symphony No. 1 in C Major!" "Freebird!"), but because Beethoven was deaf, he couldn't hear them.

Crowd members also danced minuets in the aisles, applauded long timpani solos and roared wildly whenever a particular musical passage was believed to be a metaphor for alcohol. Instead of strumming "air guitars" like today's rock fans, they flailed their arms madly as "air conductors," pretending to lead the orchestra with invisible batons.

When the symphony ended, they held up candelabras until Beethoven returned to play an encore, which lasted 45 minutes because it was another entire symphony. The finale was a fever-pitch crescendo in which the musicians smashed their violins against the stage.

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Unpaid Informants: Renee Tawa, Susanna Timmons, Ann Harrison, Wireless Flash News. Off-Kilter's e-mail address is Off-Kilter runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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