Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Music and mortality


I was born in Sun Valley in 1950, on the third floor of the Sun Valley Lodge. The Lodge had been a naval hospital during World War II, and it took time for Sun Valley to return to being a full-time resort. After the war but before the Mollie Scott Clinic was built, several hundred children were born in the old hospital.

There are worse things to have on your tombstone than Lodge Baby, and worse childhoods than having grown up in the Sun Valley of the 1950s.

This summer, a hundred yards from my birthplace, my wife Julie and I watched the Sun Valley Symphony perform Tchaikovsky's Opus 35 in the new Sun Valley Pavilion. The concerto requires a speedy violinist. Vadim Gluzman did the honors on a 1690 Stradivarius, an instrument almost equal to his talent and skill.

Julie and I weren't sitting in the amphitheater. We were "lawn people," out there with a picnic basket and bottle of good wine, but during the last two movements I walked to the edge of the Pavilion and watched Gluzman through binoculars.

Cultural critics have suggested that Tchaikovsky's concerto is a high point of human civilization. If so, Gluzman's performance kicked civilization to a new peak, at least for 15 minutes in Sun Valley, Idaho, in August of 2009.

Julie and I stayed on the lawn after the concert, waiting for the traffic to clear, and I thought how odd it was to have only made it a hundred yards since 1950. I always thought I'd go further in life.

Following one odd thought with another, I realized that despite all the civilization the Pavilion has brought, I missed the symphony's old tent. Concerts were less formal there. It didn't seem as much a violation when people applauded between movements. On the lawn, the sun was warm on our backs rather than bright in our eyes. It was hard to see into the tent, so we put our energy into listening rather than trying to get a place near the front.

Also, the Pavilion's travertine affects me like a drug. I can't look at it without hallucinating ruined temples. At best, its techno-savage architecture makes me think of the Romantic follies built on English estates in the 19th century.


At worst, I want Alasdair Neale to arrange a midnight performance of "Carmina Burana," with the Pavilion lit by flickering, smoking torches, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir prescribed high-dose amphetamines for the occasion and human sacrifices during the finale to ensure that fossil fuels will be plentiful and cheap for as long as we live.

"I think I could have been an architecture critic," I said to Julie.

"It's bad enough when you talk about music," she said.

But it was true. The travertine, the warm, late-summer shadows and the sudden knowledge that 59 years had disappeared from my life without a trace made me realize I could just as easily have been on the grounds of an English country house, contemplating a faux-Roman ruin and reflecting on the transience of human endeavor. The Pavilion's skeletal superstructure anticipates a time when thieves will have stripped the roof of its copper, and the labyrinths on either side of the stage suggest holding pens for the unwilling stars of blood rituals.

It's end-of-empire architecture. It's built to outlast the civilization that built it.

The last of the concert-going couples emerged from the depths of the amphitheater, many of them consisting of well-preserved and purposeful women leading confused old men from their seats. It's what happens when you pair young women with older men, and then add two or three decades. My mind jumped ahead to the retirement party, the bypass operation and the moment when the cell phone buttons get too many and too complicated.

"During all of my life here," I said, "Most people have been my age or older."

"You must feel awfully young," said Julie.

"Not anymore. Sun Valley needs to order a few hundred portable oxygen setups, and train its resident aliens as CNAs, and put up an Assisted Living sign. I want to leave this world from a third-floor room in the Lodge."

Julie got a purposeful look and said it was time to go. I took our wine bottle to the recycling bin. We gathered up our things and walked back to our old car, sitting by itself in the darkening parking lot.

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