Berlin, Beethoven, and Band Camp

Due to a complete lack of college counseling and a great love of marching band, I started my undergraduate career in 1972 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, thrilled in addition to have been admitted to the Trojan Marching Band, which was then enrolling only the second class that included women (!). Before the actual academic term began, I found myself high in the San Bernardino mountains at USC’s Idyllwild campus for the required week-long band “boot camp”, sweating and straining from dawn to dusk to memorize endless fight songs and extensive half-time routines and and as well to conquer the various physical challenges of USC’s wild and crazy performance style, something, well, sort of like this:

Hasn’t changed a whole lot, so you get the idea

I quickly met and was drawn to another overwhelmed frosh named P, a tall lanky clarinet player from Huntington Beach. We bonded over a shared repugnance of the uncomfortably blatant macho culture of the band, but more importantly, over classical music, science fiction, and an unseemly enjoyment of word play. We quickly found other outliers at USC, folks who didn’t fit the blond/bronze/beautiful mold, and together enjoyed some typical freshman shenanigans before most of us transferred away to more appropriate institutions. (Okay, to be truthful, D on the far left below never enjoyed much of anything. Not sure why we kept him around.) Here you see us enjoying a midnight run to the Griffith Park Observatory, either before or after a visit to Tower Records on Hollywood Boulevard where we frequently salivated over the various delicious audio options, many showcasing the legendary Berlin Philharmonic, then conducted by the equally legendary Herbert von Karajan.

Oh, the hair. Such magnificence. Sic transit gloria mundi.

A bit later in the fall, P and I attended a concert performed by the USC Student Symphony Orchestra, then under the baton of Daniel Lewis, a recently arrived professor who went on to make that orchestra and other ensembles in the department among some of the finest in the country. I had heard symphonies before, but *never in person,* you understand, only on records at home. I didn’t realize, for example that all the violins would bow together all in the same direction at once.

The orchestra played, as the final number, the Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 by Ludwig von Beethoven. I was utterly strickened. I had never heard anything so powerful, so moving, in my entire life. P was equally affected. (Remember, now, we’re all of eighteen years (seventeen in P’s case), fresh off the boat of Hermann Hesse, Desiderata, American Pie, and The First Time Every I Saw Your Face. It was a powerful, primal moment.)

Life went forward, the decades rolled on, empires rose and fell. P and I pursued different paths, he to journalism and ultimately international web work in media and science fiction, I to the diplomatic world and then to various incarnations in academe. We stayed in touch intermittently through our various moves and spouses, albeit with goodly long stretches in-between. P had studied German in college (I had somehow chosen Russian), and when he and his lovely wife M came to Berlin in 2017, we rebonded over our love of this city and its bottomless opportunities. P and M came through again in 2019 and then just recently concluded yet a third visit, gently aware, but not dwelling, on the miracle and mysteries of a 50-year friendship.

But P and M had planned a very special surprise for me. Some months ago he had written and asked if T and I would be available to attend a concert with them at the Berlin Philharmonic of Beethoven’s Seventh on 30 September. (Is this a serious question? Does a bear shit in the woods?) But now comes a little hiccup. Due to circumstances completely out of their control, P and M were not able to attend the concert themselves and handed the pile of four tickets to me just the day before. After my initial shock and dismay, I quickly found two willing enthusiasts to join us.


You know me by now, I love to do the deep dive, and here’s the scoop. Beethoven’s Seventh was written somewhere between 1811 and 1812, while “improving his health in the northern Bohemian spa town of Teplitz,” just over the border from Germany, according to Wiki, a popular venue at the time for the wealthy bourgeois which included obviously the Maestro himself, but also the poet Goethe and various European monarches. The work is dedicated to Count Moritz von Fries, an extraordinarily wealthy Austrian patron who apparently, among his other favors, had recently bailed Beethoven out of a large debt to a certain London publishing company.

In the event that you haven’t heard the Seventh, what makes it magical to me is a combination of elements. First, it was written in the shadow of the Napoleonic threat to Europe, and there is always, to my ear, a dark undertone in every movement, reminiscent for me of these days in which we find ourselves now. Second, on top of those dark sustained chords and minor keys he places motifs and rhythms of great playfulness, wild joy, and almost exhausting enthusiasm, probably the “happiest” Beethoven you’ll ever hear (except for the second movement, that’s kind of a downer). But always with the backdrop of the wolves outside the doors. Kind of his “Carpe Diem,” one might say.

Waiting for the magic to begin.

And then the conductor. When I discovered we’d be hearing the Seventh conducted by the legendary Herbert Blomstedt, I just about lost it. Not well known on the US side of the pond, Maestro Blomstedt has been conducting around Europe and the world *since before I was born.* At 95, this vibrant spirit takes command of the stage and of the musicians like Mario Andretti or Lewis Hamilton. Total passion, total control. Makes one wonder if there must something to say about the Seventh Day Adventist lifestyle – it sure as heck seems to be working for him.

So what a great circle of life and music. Grateful to P for 50 years of keeping it real; grateful to P and M for this gift, grateful for this life in Berlin, and grateful to T and B and B that they were able to join me. And if you don’t have anything better to do for the next 42 minutes, how about this?

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4 Responses to Berlin, Beethoven, and Band Camp

  1. kimsosin says:

    Long ago, I told my brother that I want Beethoven’s Seventh played at my funeral: the angst of the second movement and then the joy, the almost chariot to heaven joy, of the last movement! I would be sent out in incomparable style.


    • kimsosin says:

      I thought I would put the Blomstedt youtube you linked on in the background this morning. It quickly became the foreground! Wow, I’m hearing bits I’ve never noticed before – just incomparable. And you got to hear it in person! I’m glad you got to do this!!

  2. PL says:

    Lovely remembrance, and I am so happy the tickets went to people who truly appreciate what a special experience this was! Looking forward to our next visit and, hopefully, a return to Philharmonic hall

  3. Love the marching band story!

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