This past Saturday, I was pleased to be invited to the NAC symphony for the third time in as many months. You see, my girlfriend’s mother works at the NAC, and is privy to all of the inside information, from which violinist is dating which oboist, to what colour shirt goes better with Mozart. She’s also quite generous in doling out free tickets to those around her who would appreciate a night of cultural aggrandizement.
This weekend, as part of the NAC’s “Pops” series I was treated to the full orchestra led by one Peter Nero, a gentleman of music if I’ve ever seen one. From his silky white locks to his carefully groomed facial hair, I knew from the moment he took his place at center stage that he would be a spectacle to behold. He had the air of a conductor, yet none of the pomposity (as evidenced by the string of jokes he decided to warm the crowd up with). Granted, some of them may have been a bit over the age limit of anyone under 70 (who’s Gertrude Pall?), but others coaxed out a chuckle. All in all, he was a very jovial guy.
But it wasn’t until he began playing that I realized the music legend this guy must have been in his heyday (if his heyday is even over). I mean, here was a man easily over 80, literally playing the piano with one hand and conducting the orchestra with the other. Leaping back and forth from his piano bench to the conductor’s pulpit like a marmoset on methamphetimines, he led the full orchestra on his arrangements of Gershwin pieces, some John Williams stuff (from Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind), a Beethoven tribute with heavy jazz influences, and a full jazz instrumental interpretation of the entire West Side Story score.
The highlight for me (though I really loved the Beethoven bit) was when he broke out Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. For those of you who can’t picture the tune in your head, you’ve heard it on Fantasia 2000. It’s the music for the animation set in New York City, where there’s this young African-American construction worker with an eggplant-shaped face who keeps breaking out drumsticks as he’s working on the girders, as he dreams of being a jazz musician. All the while, the music takes him and some other Manhattanites through depression era themes (there’s another Italian-looking guy in a blue suit and hat who’s on the brink of an unemployment-fueled suicide). At the end, Disney sets everything straight: it turns out that the young construction kid quits his job just as the depressed guy is walking by to take his place as a jackhammer operator. The young black kid ends up being a jazz musician in a nightclub.
Disney, you’ve done it again and put all the races where they belong, and just in the nick of time! We were almost worried there for a second! But, once again, your PR team realized that no one would want to see a cartoon where the Italian man is not a construction worker and the black man is not a jazz musician by the end of it. Just look at how happy he is!
Uh, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Peter Nero’s awesome. If you’re ever in Philadelphia go see him or I will hurt you.