Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Alex Frey and Tristram Shandy

An Air Force officer recently back from Iraq came up to Berlin for a few days. The blog immediately took on a Shandean impossibility, in which 10 hours' solid writing might do justice to, say, the wealth of incident in a single hour. I blamed Alex Frey. Alex has an inexhaustible supply of stories about remarkable people; they deserve a wider public; each day the blog fell further and further behind -- and what was worse, I knew Alex knew it. When a man spells the names of the people who feature in his anecdotes you know he is checking up on you; when he starts introducing anecdotes with the sinister phrase "This would be good for your blog" you know he is not impressed with what you have achieved so far.

The fact is, of course, that this is a man who needs a blog of his own. In the meantime I thought of the next best thing: he should write a guest post for MY blog. THIS would be the way to catch up on all the stories about Bernstein, the Queen, Princess Anne, the Queen's chaplain, Garrison Keillor, Oscar Levant--

I was sent drafts of the guest post yesterday. Halfway through the afternoon we met briefly at Yorckschlößchen, Alex on his way to Spandau to buy a new set of tails for his concert in Mexico. (The post had not yet been published.) 'Is it OK?' asks Alex. 'You don't think there's too much about Montezuma's Revenge?' 'Oh no no no no no,' I say. But I am lazy about publishing, the day drifts by -- and in the morning I find that all this procrastination actually worked! Alex has started a blog of his own! And he has launched it with the guest post for this blog! Only minus Montezuma's Revenge! So you can read it scatologically here or unscatologically there -- the choice is yours.

Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only Alexander Frey.

This, believe it or not, is my first blog. I’ve read blogs before, usually written by friends of mine. But most others I’ve seen wear down my patience because they seem to drone on about inane things.

For example, a famous violinist wonders in her blog how elevators seem to know whether to go up or down.

If I were so inclined, I might ask how a solid ball of lint winds up in one’s belly button at the end of the day.

The mind boggles. Or, should I say, bloggles. Hopefully I have more relevant wanderings to explore.

With that inane and self-serving preamble I’ve just written, let me start.

Here beginneth the blog:

I am to fly to Mexico this coming weekend to conduct a marvelous orchestra. I performed with them a few months ago as piano soloist in the Vivaldi Concerto in A-minor, followed immediately by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue-the quintessential American piano concerto.

My trip in March was memorable for two reasons: the first being that I enjoyed making music with this great orchestra; the second being that I came down with the so-called well-known intestinal illness referred to as “Montezuma’s Revenge”, with the typical symptoms of severe cramps accompanied by diarrhea and nausea or both (I experienced the first two). Because of my current marital problems, I can’t help but wonder if Montezuma was a woman.

Anyway, the only time I wasn’t crapping on the toilet was when I was sitting on the piano bench rehearsing or performing, which was very merciful indeed. The calming effects of music. Shortly before my first performance, as I was changing into my tails (or “frack” in some countries), I received an urgent signal from my intestines telling me that I must run to the bathroom very quickly, but I didn’t quite make it to the toilet in time. After cleaning up the mess, I changed into my concert clothes and walked to the stage entrance. The concerti went well and I walked back onstage to play an encore.

I know I’ve given a really good performance when I feel as if I’ve gone through a catharsis. That first Mexican concert proved indeed to be especially cathartic because I once again ran into my dressing room and flew to the loo. This time, my ass arrived punctually on the toilet seat where I remained for the entire second half of the concert which consisted of Prokofiev’s 5th Symphony. Because the dressing rooms are right behind the stage (in my case, behind the entire brass section), the rumblings of my bowels were mercifully covered up by the fortissimos of the trumpets and trombones. I must admit that the Prokofiev sounded especially wonderful in the bathroom. Bathrooms are known for their fine acoustics.
Helen DeWitt invited me to write this guest blog. It’s her fault, really. Helen, as we all know, is the brilliant author of The Last Samurai. She is also my neighbor and great conversation companion.

We meet almost everyday in the well-known Yorckschloesschen, a legendary restaurant know for its artistic cliental. The place is modeled after an establishment that one might find in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It has a wonderful outdoor beer garden where we all sit during warm weather. Since Helen has begun frequenting the restaurant, she has brought some of her writing colleagues in tow. An interesting bunch, for sure. I took Garrison Keillor there for lunch once.

My father was also an excellent writer, as seen in the legal briefs he authored as well as the letters he wrote. He read voraciously, often reading 3 books at the same time, their pages bent in the corners and containing copious handwritten notes in the margins, reflecting Dad’s musings on certain passages, or cross-referencing other books and thoughts.

My father was an ardent fan of Ernest Hemingway, having read everything that the mercurial author had written as well as every available Hemingway biography. Some months after Dad’s death, I visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway had lived for awhile. I took the wrought-iron elevator to the 5th floor where he resided in various rooms at different times. One can stay in any of those rooms as a hotel guest. I honored my father by wandering around the place and soaking up the atmosphere. I felt that he was there, too, enjoying the experience with me.

In Cuba, the average salary for a citizen is about 5 to 15 dollars per month. However, I am convinced that two of the wealthiest people in the country are the old lady and old man (not the Old Man and the Sea ) who are the dedicated pianists in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos. Each day, their tip glass is filled to the brim with dollars. Even though much of Havana is poor, the populace does receive excellent and free health care. Many of their doctors go to the United States or Europe for their medical studies and residencies, and then return to Cuba to work in the hospitals. I’m told that the University in Havana is superb. Certainly the music is, heard live in every bar found on almost all the street corners, It’s a pity that the Bush administration doesn’t want Americans to travel to Cuba. It’s not actually illegal to visit the country. What is illegal is spending American money there. But those dollars are the joy of every pianist who performs during the days and mysterious nights in the lobby of the Ambos Mundos.

Alexander Frey

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