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How to be a classical snob

JOEL STEIN

May 23, 2008|JOEL STEIN

A few years ago, I began working toward my retirement goal of being an intolerable old man. I'm way ahead of schedule on knowing enough about wine to bore anyone, but classical music has proved much more difficult, largely because no matter how much you listen, it does not get you drunk.

But because my cultural 401(k) depends on being able to cite conductors, orchestras and recording years, I called David Moore, a bassist for the L.A. Philharmonic, and asked him to get me on the road to insufferability. Moore met me at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and said that, like me, he got into classical music late -- in his case at USC, where he started out majoring in jazz, which he discovered by getting into guitar solos in Rush and Iron Maiden songs. New York is the center of high culture because its orchestra members keep these kinds of things secret.

His first tip was to tell me not to bother buying a lot of CDs because, unlike with rock bands, the live experience is far more important. "The Varese piece had 16 percussion instruments, and you can't capture that in two ear buds," he explained. I'm not exactly sure what his point was, but I longed to say things like, "The Varese piece had 16 percussion instruments." When I accused him of just saying this to get me to buy concert tickets, he told me that he never listens to classical recordings at home unless it's for work. Again, the New York guys would keep that quiet.

Moore kept giving me advice on appreciating music, but I didn't care about that. I wanted to know how to express snobbishness about it. "Knowing Sibelius is Finnish and influenced by natural surroundings can deepen the experience, but you don't need to know it's cold and dark in Finland to appreciate it," he said. Yes, I do. This was great advice. A quick Wikipedia read is always the first step to intolerability.

Sensing my excitement, Moore started to get what I was looking for. "If you can refer to recordings or conductors, then you can be elitist and mock me for not knowing that stuff," he said. Check. "Also, pronounce composers in their language of origin." Got it. BAY-toe-fen. And if people applaud between movements during a concert, I should stare, loudly shush and shake my head in disapproval. The musicians don't mind the clapping, but snotty audience members love to assert their knowledge of classical music etiquette. When I'm old enough to have really gotten the hang of this, I'm sure I'll be able to use my phone to excoriate the clappers on an online social network inhabited only by the snotty, old and self-obsessed. It would still be called Facebook.

After banging out some classical licks on a piano that did seem pretty memorable, Moore invited me to the orchestra's performance of Mahler's Sixth, with guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Not only was this supposed to be a great performance, but more important, I could tell people, "I saw Eschenbach do Mahler's Sixth." Moore was starting to understand my needs.

But before I went, Moore suggested -- against his earlier advice -- that I actually get the disc and listen to it once or twice. This could help with my most serious hurdle to remembering any piece I hear live: staying awake. "The familiarity of a piece is like a return drive," he said. "It doesn't feel as long because you recognize the landmarks along the way." Also, during the performance, I could focus on a particular section -- say, the bassists -- to give me something to do with my eyes besides close them. That's when I got the awesome idea for Solid Gold Philharmonic Dancers.

When I got home, I downloaded Leonard Bernstein's version of Mahler's Sixth and read the Wikipedia entry about the symphony. This turned out to be really smart because I found out the symphony not only requires a triangle, a glockenspiel and, awesomely, cowbells, but, according to Mahler, a hammer that was to be pounded "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a nonmetallic character (like the fall of an ax)." Somewhere, a child-prodigy percussionist is being yelled at for not pounding a wooden hammer dully enough.

That night, I did a lot of staring at the hammer guy, who, to my delight, was also the triangle and cowbell guy. And his hammer was this gigantic, Wile E. Coyote-sized mallet that he slammed maybe five times onto this enormous wood chopping block on wheels. I couldn't decide if I was more delighted by the notion of Eschenbach, who conducts this symphony all over the world, trying to persuade airport security to let him board with his carry-on giant hammer, or the idea that the Philharmonic keeps a giant hammer and table in storage just for Mahler's Sixth. Or that, for the rest of my life, I can talk about the sublime dullness of the hammer, which gets lost on recordings, as soon as Mahler's Sixth comes up in conversation. Which it will. Because I will bring it up.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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