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Bob Butler: Great art has power to speak to all of us

Jobs come roughly in two types: those you perform to secure the money needed to meet the practical requirements of your life and those that provide richly human experiences that become an integral part of a well-lived life.

While attending college and graduate school in the early 1960s, I had a wide assortment of summer and part-time employment that could easily fall into either category. Several of those jobs steeled my resolve to complete my education so that I could later avoid the low pay and grinding routine of such unsatisfying work.

However, the job that provided me with the bulk of the money I needed for school was quite another matter. For five summers, I worked on the grounds crew at Tanglewood, the beautiful summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My actual duties were mundane and sometimes unpleasant because they involved cleaning offices and restrooms as well as disposing of the masses of refuse strewn on the Tanglewood lawn during concerts. But on a nearly daily basis, my work confronted me with an odd mixture of the funky and the sublime.

One of my tasks on the Monday after a weekend of concerts was to sweep out cigar and cigarette butts from the clay-floored concert hall, a truly revolting task since nearly everyone in the 6,000-seat amphitheater in those days smoked during concerts. However, while we were doing this, the BSO might be rehearsing a transcendentally beautiful piece such as Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” or Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Being surrounded by such magnificent music made me a lifelong lover of classical music and, as a side benefit, a committed nonsmoker!

One moment particularly stands out, which continues to serve as a vivid reminder of the humanizing power of art. After working a Sunday concert that featured world-renowned pianist Rudolf Serkin performing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, I had to carry out my drab duties of cleaning up backstage.

I was careful to wait an hour before doing this since all of us on the grounds crew were warned to keep a very low profile around the musicians. In particular, we were told never to whistle, since this grated against the finely tuned sensibilities of the musicians, or to create dust, because this would irritate their nasal passages and get into their instruments.

But on this occasion I was doing both, crudely whistling the melody of the “Emperor” Concerto while boiling clouds of dust as I swept. You can imagine my horror when I looked up and saw Serkin emerging from the conductor’s room and making his way toward me with a very serious look on his face. I froze in terror, sensing I was about to lose the job I needed.

But instead of requesting my name so that he could report me, he asked in his kindly Eastern European voice, “How did you like the concert?” When I stammered, “It was wonderful,” he embraced me vigorously and shouted, “Bravo!” Then he disappeared, leaving me in a state of wonderment.

I’ve often puzzled over this unlikely experience. Why did such a great man even care about the opinion of an 18-year-old dressed in a janitor’s uniform? I’ve come to understand through this rather curious event an important lesson about art, which has taught me much as a teacher of literature. Great artists do care very deeply about ordinary people, and great art speaks powerfully to all of us.

So now when I come across a particularly fine piece of student writing, I give it my highest grade, an A plus with a boldly written “Bravo” attached to it.