Friday, February 12, 2010

Philip Roth (Part 1)

Philip Roth likes chamber music as much as we do, which is why he appears in the audience at just about every chamber concert we go to. He was there once again for the Beethoven quartets on Tuesday night, sitting in about the 15th row of the orchestra section at Alice Tully's Starr Theater. Now, it just so happens that we have better seats than he does. We're only five rows back and a little to the right facing the stage, giving us a clear and vivid view of the two musicians sitting stage right and a decent view of the closest musician stage left. Unfortunately, our view of the fourth player, usually the cellist, is mostly obstructed. Still, given that Roth is also fairly far to the right and much farther back than we are, our seats offer a distinctly better view overall.

Given this, imagine that I approach Mr. Roth, conceivably the greatest American novelist of our time, and invite him to trade seats with us, so that he and his companion can get a better view of the featured quartet. Imagine, too, that we are doing this, as we tell Mr. Roth, to show our appreciation for his contribution to American letters and to honor his consistent literary excellence. And imagine he at first declines our offer, but, upon further urging, finally agrees. What if, too, we assure him that we have no wish for further interaction with him, that we are not seeking special favors or an autographed copy of his latest novel, nothing like that. We just want to do something special for him. He listens without expression, maintaining a kind of dour look on his face that, in our experience anyway, seems to accompany him everywhere. With only the most glancing acknowledgement of what we are offering, we exchange seats. And, as far as we know, anyway, everyone enjoys himself.

When we show up for the next installment of the cycle of six Beethoven quartet concerts and begin to wade into our fifth row seats, we are stunned to see Mr. Roth and a different companion already occupying our seats. He sees us, rises, and with just a hint of a smile and a quick bow, thanks us for making this switch possible. We start to object, that this trade was just for the one concert, but he is already reseated and chatting amiably with his seatmate. We stand there, just a bit numb, and decide to retreat to Mr. Roth's original seats. They are very good seats in any case and we still enjoy the concert enormously. We even rationalize that we get a better view of the entire ensemble from this more removed perspective.

As the next concert approaches, we wonder if we can expect Mr. Roth and his friend to be sitting already in our seats. We decide that our best tactic is to arrive as early as possible and to beat Roth to the punch. We grab our seats a full half hour before the concert begins and enjoy the pre-concert anticipation. With about 10 minutes to go before the start, Roth and his friend show up, looking bewildered, as if we have inappropriately reneged on some deal we had made. I explain that we did not mean to do this for the entire cycle of concerts, just the one, but he objects that since we have already done it for two concerts he assumed we would continue in this way to the end of the cycle. I now object to this, asking by what reasoning this would be the case, and he retorts that it has nothing to do with reasoning, just common courtesy. I'm starting to raise my voice now, and I get the feeling that he is advancing toward our seats in an almost menacing way. I lower myself into a crouch, as if to defend my already vulnerable position. But Mr. Roth continues to proceed in our direction toward the seats. Then, just as suddenly, he reverses his path and begins to confer quietly with a nearby usher. (To be Continued)

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