In my days as a bicycle racer, some teammates and myself were once approached by a scruffy-looking gentleman as we waited for the call to the start line at a race in New York’s Central Park. Reeking of cheap wine and clearly inebriated well before noon, he started to rattle off, completely unsolicited, a list of famous cycling events he’d done and star riders he’d
competed with during a long and illustrious career made possible by a vivid and chemically-altered imagination.
We listened with rapt attention, partly for the comedy, and partly due to the shock of his knowledge of a fairly arcane subculture. Before we rode away to the start of our race, he exhorted us to travel to Europe and to “jump in” and ride in the Tour de France as he had done, because, he said, “the experience can’t hurt you.”
Our new mentor was right, of course, adventures and audacious exploits rarely disappoint, even if one does not just jump into Le Tour, an event reserved for only the top teams of highly-paid professional cyclists. And so when I was invited in 2017 to join a choir of mostly professional musicians in an unusual performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that involved a much smaller than usual vocal ensemble and orchestra, I remembered the advice of the drunken Central Park champion, and also the life of another denizen of Manhattan, the late author, Sports Illustrated contributor, and Paris Review editor George Plimpton.
Plimpton led the enviable existence of a professional dilettante, and he defined the concept of participatory journalism. A blue-blooded Harvard graduate who spoke with a distinctive, patrician Brahmin accent, Plimpton once put on boxing gloves and sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson, pitched for the American League in a post-season exhibition Major League Baseball game, played backup quarterback for the Detroit Lions (serving as the basis for his best-selling book Paper Lion), became a high-wire performer in the circus, appeared in TV spots for Oldsmobile and for Mattel’s Intellivision video game system, held his good friend Robert Kennedy as he lay dying right after his 1968 assassination, acted in the films Volunteers and Good Will Hunting, and was a pyrotechnics enthusiast and expert who was appointed Fireworks Commissioner of New York by Mayor John Lindsay.
Plimpton also played the triangle and other percussion instruments (in a section of the orchestra euphemistically referred to as the “Dark Corner”) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Leonard Bernstein, during a concert tour of Canada. He described it as his most terrifying assignment of all.
Music was particularly frightening, Plimpton explained in a speech later given to members of the Philharmonic, because it was predicated on the idea that the musician perfectly execute the composer’s — and conductor’s — artistic vision. This was different to sports, he explained, where the athlete often counts on the errors of an opponent in order to win the game.
“In music, you cannot make a mistake. It is not part of the zeitgeist. If you make a mistake, a big one, you destroy a work of art. The thought of doing this nags at the consciousness of all musicians, even the very good ones,” Plimpton said.
And so it was with me. I had last performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as a teenage member of a large chorus some thirty years ago. I feared making an error because Beethoven’s Ninth is one of the most beloved and well-known works of classical music; the first use of voices in a symphony, and perhaps the apotheosis of symphonic expression in the Romantic idiom.
Going into the pre-concert rehearsals, I didn’t know of the conductor’s temperament or artistic vision, but I was relieved to discover that they were not as uncompromisingly elevated as the famously tempestuous Bernstein’s were.
Plimpton became the object of Bernstein’s ire after a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony №4 in London, Ontario. The piece opens with repeated tolls of sleigh bells in an extended diminuendo that announces the entrance of the woodwinds. It didn’t go well for Plimpton.
“I began tapping away. I may have hit the instrument twenty-three times [the score calls for eighteen], carried away in my terror. Or not enough. Or raggedly. In any case, I knew something had gone wrong,” he wrote.
After the performance, Bernstein came backstage, looking for Plimpton.
“In a near shout he informed me that I had “destroyed” Mahler’s Fourth, that he never wanted to hear such a terrible sound emerge from the back of his orchestra again, and that as far as he was concerned I was finished, through!” said Plimpton.
There was a close fraternity among the percussionists of the “Dark Corner”, and they came to Plimpton’s defense and pleaded together as a group to Bernstein to allow Plimpton to perform in a subsequent performance in Vancouver.
After some deliberation, Bernstein relented, and Plimpton played the final stop in the Canadian tour. Bernstein and Plimpton resolved their differences and remained friends until Bernstein’s death in 1990. Plimpton himself passed away 13 years later, in 2003, at the age of 76.
A year before his death, Bernstein conducted a special performance of
Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The words of the final movement, from Friedrich Schiller’s poem Ode to Joy, had been altered for the historic occasion, by replacing every utterance of the word “joy” (freude) with the German word for “freedom” (freiheit).
Beethoven would have sanctioned this, Bernstein claimed. I’m hoping he also would have sanctioned the contributions of a decidedly amateur bass/baritone to his work of astounding beauty and perfection.
In the end, for me, it all went swimmingly. I was lifted by the talent and professionalism of the other singers as only being part of a group focused on excellence can elevate one’s individual performance. The concert was a sublime experience, a suspension of both time and reality. It was akin to leading up the Champs-Elysees clad in the maillot jaune, catching a perfectly thrown pass in the end zone to clinch the win in the Super Bowl, meeting the U.S. president in the Oval Office of the White House, or indeed, striking a blow at the Berlin Wall after the collapse of oppressive rule.
And somewhere, in the dilettante’s gallery behind the pearly gates of heaven, George Plimpton was smiling.