We were too excited to stand in lines and be quiet, so we milled around in the lobby and raised a raucous din. It was “Elementary School Day,” 50-some years ago, and kids from all over Western New York had come to Kleinhans Music Hall to absorb a little culture.
Teachers shouted directions and herded us toward our seats. We tramped up the grand staircase to a row in the balcony, and as we gazed around, one boy exclaimed, “Wow, this place is huge!”
Soon, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra began its warm-up, a swirling cacophony of discordant sounds. When it fell silent, the conductor, a friendly looking young man, strode to a microphone and said, “Welcome, boys and girls. We have a real treat for you today – music by the famous Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg.”
He then outlined a story that would be told by the music – something about a wayward young man whose name I didn’t really catch (Pair? Peter? Peer?), a king, a farmer’s daughter and some ugly little creatures called trolls who lived under bridges and could suddenly leap out to pummel passing travelers. He said, “Listen carefully as members of the orchestra play themes, or combinations of notes. If you hear this, you’ll know you’re on a mountain, and if you hear that, you’ll be in the forest. Now, listen for specific instruments. When the trumpets sound, they announce the arrival of this character; when the French horns blow, it’s that one.”
The orchestra launched into its performance with a lot of enthusiasm, but I have to confess I didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t tell the mountains from the forests, or the trumpets from the French horns. I could see that many other kids were having the same problem, since teachers were popping up all over, fingers to their lips. I concentrated on imagining evil beings who looked like garden gnomes leaping out from under bridges and assaulting me as I wandered through the Norwegian woods.
Eventually, we applauded the end of the performance. For a kid whose musical world was bounded by Elvis on the radio, Snooky Lanson on the TV and Broadway show tunes on the stereo, the music I heard that day seemed odd and incomprehensible. Perhaps the Peer Gynt Suite was not the best vehicle for developing children’s cultural awareness. Or, perhaps I just didn’t have the music gene. I was, after all, the kid in the chorus who made the music teacher put her hands to her ears and point in my direction, “lip synch!”
In those elementary years, my schoolmates and I took many cultural field trips. We went to the Historical Society. Wow, the gun that killed McKinley! Our yellow school bus stopped at the Museum of Science. A stuffed Buffalo! Tableaux of the Wild West! Models of the solar system! We toured the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Some of this stuff is thousands of years old! Some of it’s weird; it doesn’t look like anything!
From those early cultural experiences, I developed lifelong interests in history, science and art. I have to say, though, that I never quite developed the same fascination with classical music, although I’ve given it a shot from time to time. Perhaps “nature” trumped “nurture” on that front.
I’m happy to report, however, that I did develop one lifelong habit after my childhood encounter with Peer Gynt. Whenever I pass under a bridge, I keep an eye peeled for trolls.