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Terez Mertes

Joshua and the Symphony Snobs

May 6, 2006 at 1:11 PM

I noticed them casting glances my way last Sunday afternoon—two elegantly dressed women, sitting in the row in front of me in Davies Hall. In ten minutes, Joshua Bell would be conducting and performing with the San Francisco Symphony. I couldn’t wait. I’d used the upgrade certificate that came with my season subscription, which gave me a brilliant seat—twelfth row, dead center. Perfect for a soloist and the day’s smaller, stringed orchestra.

I noted immediately that this section of the symphony hall hosted a more posh clientele. Although I wasn’t attired in the season’s latest and greatest (not even last year’s season or the spring before that, come to think of it), I did have a classy silk wrap in muted shades of lavender, beige and gold, artfully draped over my shoulders in a European style. I knew my classical music etiquette; I spoke French and read literary fiction—I could hold my own here amid the blue-bloods.

The two women glanced back at me again, followed by an exchanged whisper. A mother and her adult daughter, I surmised. The elder was your stereotypical Symphony Matriarch—wearing a faded yet still elegant Chanel suit, attractive in a blurred, ravaged sort of way. Face powder partially camouflaged her age spots and web of wrinkles. She wore heavy earrings that dragged her earlobes down, but nonetheless proclaimed their worth as fine heirloom jewelry.

Then, to my surprise, the women turned to me. “Excuse me,” the daughter, a younger, less blurred copy of her mother said in an accusing tone, “are you, by any chance, wearing… perfume?” Their noses were wrinkled, their faces wary, as if the issue were dog crap on my shoe and I might very well pluck the aforementioned shoe off and wave it in their faces.

I’d had that disdainful look directed toward me before, but for different reasons—being intoxicated; underdressed; bleating like a sheep in a library; shrieking too loudly with laughter at a restaurant. Then, I deserved the vitriol. Now, I didn’t. The question rendered me speechless for a moment. I considered telling them no. After all, I’d only dabbed on the tiniest amount of a mild floral scent, simply to cover up my sweaty smell after a forty-five minute walk through San Francisco. But I’m a lousy liar, and the younger woman, confronting me with her canny gaze, somehow knew it as well.

“Well,” I replied, summoning up what dignity I could, “I put some on quite a while ago…”

The two women exchanged triumphant expressions. “It’s her,” the elderly woman said with a decisive nod.

I spluttered for a reply. “Really, I’m hard pressed to believe you can smell it.”

“She has allergies,” the daughter said, gesturing to the other woman. “She’s VERY sensitive.” She then shot me a glance that told me, had I been a regular patron here in the rarified ranks of premier orchestra, I would have known that it was SO un-PC to wear fragrances to their section of the symphony. Then, mystery solved, villain named, they dropped their interest in me, turning back in their seats to face the stage.

I sat there and seethed with indignation while conversations (and other people’s perfumes) swirled around me like incense. Suddenly, the people nearby seemed so snobbish, so clichéd, like something out of a grade B movie script. Bunny and Meredith’s trip to Paris was wonderful, although the restaurant’s wine list started at $300.00 and went up to the thousands. Meanwhile, the Addingtons’ favorite restaurant was closed that day, creating a dreadful nuisance in finding the right sort of lunch before the symphony. When rows of seats separated these dear friends, wide eyes, theatrical waves and blown kisses sufficed for greetings. My only consolation was that soon the lights dimmed and they all had to clam up. *

The music began. The view and sound from my seat, I must confess, was divine. Joshua Bell was in his prime, first conducting/performing Mozart’s Divertimento in D major and then soloing/conducting Mozart’s violin concerto no. 5 in A major. I’d seen him in recital at Davies Hall a few months earlier, which had struck me as well done, but oddly anti-climactic. But, then again, I was in the inferior, nose-bleed section of the first tier, where common folk such as myself normally sit. Whether it was the program or the seating, his performance this time around was stellar. Along with Mozart’s Divertimento and violin concerto, Joshua conducted and performed Tchaikovsky’s sextet, Souvenir de Florence, which utilized three musicians per part. This eighteen-member ensemble was, in my mind, an ideal arrangement for watching Joshua. He was soloist but not. He was conductor but not. His signature swaying and grand flourishes seemed right in place with the set up, communicating first to the cellists, then the violinists, and then back over to the lower voices. The musicians seemed to feed off his energy, and in turn, provide him with even more. It was electric, infectious. The audience ate it all up, leaping to their feet for a rousing ovation when they’d finished. Even the snobs were cheering wildly.

A great seat, a wonderful concert. And as for that other issue—well, I have a confession to make. During intermission, I stepped away from the crowd to use a less-frequented ladies’ room. There, I reached into my clunky bag and pulled out the little vial of the perfume I’d used to freshen my sweatiness. And I put on more. Lots more. If you’re going to be accused for something, I always say, might as well give it your all. Then, thus fortified and cheered, I returned to my seat for the second half.

It was a great show, indeed.

* * *

*Author’s note: Lest you find me harsh and unsympathetic to those stalwart financial supporters of the symphony (AKA symphony snobs), please note a paragraph I’d originally included:

“I know I shouldn’t be too hard on them. Rich people spend lots of money, and better that the arts should profit from it than having it be squandered on some other venture or idiotic hobby. For all I knew, those people around me were the ones listed in the playbill as having given $100,000.00 in one year to the symphony. These kind of patrons, along with the several dozen who annually give between $25,000.00 and $90,000.00, are the backbone of the symphony. Appreciating music the way I do is fine. Buying a season subscription and thus supporting classical music is fine. But money—big money—talks.”

Then I looked at my excessive word count and decided, nah, screw defending those stalwart financial supporters of the symphony. They’ll just have to get their own blogs.

From Danielle Gauthier
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 2:27 PM
That's just snobs belong in zoos. (and their little, yippy, annoying dogs, too)
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 3:10 PM
Danielle - agreed. Rich, old-money snobs are hard to fight back against, as well. That's why I was particularly pleased to find my little vial of perfume at intermission. : )
From Mister Brucie
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 4:36 PM
Been there.
Once I went to a Concertgebouw Orchestra concert in Boston's Symphony Hall - my teacher, a member of the Boston Symphony at the time, was signed up for a comp ticket she wanted to give me, but we had to miss the first half searching for the guy who had the tickets.

So finally, after intermission, I was able to go to my seat, which turned out to be in the 5th row. The [very nice] lady next to me said "oh dear, this seat was empty during the first half, and I told my husband he could come down from the cheap seats and sit with me -- would you mind moving to that seat up there?"

It was in the 3rd row. Would I mind?!

So I went and sat down, and my new neighbor took one look at me and said haughtily, "Do you have a ticket for that seat?" (I wasn't dressed like a slob, but I was a poor student and probably looked like one.) So I explained about the seating change and pointed to the lady from before, who smiled, waved and mouthed "thank you." Dragon Lady actually said: "Sounds like BULLSH*T to me, I should call the usher," but she didn't. (The worst an usher could have done anyway was move me back to the 5th row and send the husband back to the balcony.)

The Concertgebouw played Das Lied von der Erde... there had been a mixup with luggage at the airport and the orchestra was dressed in their travelling clothes, everything from blazer & tie to jeans & sneakers. It was an INCREDIBLE concert, but I remember the unpleasant woman equally well.

Some people think "class" is just a matter of money, but even more important, it's a matter of how you treat other people.

From Colleen Russo
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 4:54 PM
I agree that class is determined by how you treat other people and not by money. Yes- sometimes having alot of money can have affects on people and change the way they treat others, but I dont think its fair to make that steryotype on all wealthy people. I know many that are some of the nicest people I've ever met.

I'm very sorry about your experience, Terez. However I am VERY glad you were able to just laugh at it and enjoy yourself none the less. That takes alot. I just pity people like that, what a horrible lifestyle. Not the lifestyle of being really rich, but the lifestyle of treating people that way. It must just be so degrading.

But hey- at least you didnt have the neighbor I had at one of the Josh bell concerts a couple weeks ago. Mine hated josh and was complaining the whole time about how he was going to complain, etc. I finally asked him, "so why are you HERE?!" and he replied, "I just wanted to see if anyone here actually liked him." I finally told him I thought Josh was FANTASTIC, etc, and he got SO angry, it was hilarious. It reminds me of how you put on more perfume... hehe... normally I would think 'aww, what if the girl really was allergic to it, and now she wont be able to enjoy concert as much!' But in this case, I think her attitude already ruined it for her!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 5:07 PM
What a great story, Mr. B! Oh my goodness, got my adrenaline going there. And your last line is VERY true.

Anyone else have a similar story to share?

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 5:09 PM
Colleen, just read yours. I'm shocked! I must say, everyone around me seemed extraordinarily impressed by Josh on Sunday, which I found heartening to see. Didn't look like anyone was just "doing time at the symphony" or going to be seen. That, too, is a stereotype of the rich that doesn't always apply.
From Karin Lin
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 5:15 PM
Hi Terez, I'm sorry your otherwise wonderful experience was marred. Did you hang around to meet Josh after the concert? That always lifts my mood :)
From John Chew
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 6:12 PM
Great story!
From Pieter Viljoen
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 7:08 PM
Terez, you're my hero.

I sit in the expensive seats quite often since my parents don't mind me using the credit card for symphony tickets. Just to let you know, the balcony is actually the best for soloists most of the time, and you typically hear next to nothing in the 3rd row, Mr. Brucie.

Most of the time I try to dress respectfully but sometimes I do come from class and am wearing a t shirt and jeans... you must see the glances I get from idiot investment bankers trying to impress their girlfriends when I sit beside them. Usually, it turns out they know about as much about music as I do about building model ships. Also, most of the people giving lots of money are the least conspicuous people there. The lady with the tired Chanel on was probably some bored socialite or wannabe who just wants to feel special for the day by having an "allergy".

Who cares. Next time we'll both go in overalls and flip flops.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 9:08 PM
Dissenting opinion: (1) I have problems with allergies, chemical sensitivities, and asthma. My worst problems occur when I'm out in a field of pollen, riding on a highway with a lot of vehicle emissions, and in a concert hall, where both men and women use perfume, cologne, after shave, etc. Many people get dressed up when they go to a concert hall, and that includes the use of scents. I come armed with cough drops, antihistamines, nasal spray, and my ever present asthma inhaler. People give me really dirty looks when I take one of these out of my purse and use it because of the sound. Would they rather hear me cough, sneeze, and wheeze during a concert?

(2) When I was married to a man with more money than artistic sensibility, we always bought tickets for "the best seats in the house" -- center, orchestra, about 1/3 of the way back from the stage. One of my friends told me that concert-going was more fun in "peasants' heaven," where you can see as well as hear the musicians. He's right. In a concert hall with good acoustics, the sound is very good almost everywhere, and it's so much more fun when I, as a dedicated amateur musician, can watch the professional musicians. I recently heard Itzhak Perlman and Pinkas Zukerman in the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Sitting in peasants' heaven and using my opera glasses, I could see and hear Perlman's fiddle, bow, and hands, and that made the concert extra special. The same is true for times I've seen and heard Hilary Hahn and Yo Yo Ma, to name a few.

(3) I used to feel uncomfortable when I went to the Kennedy Center wearing the clothes I had worn to work or one of my fancier dresses. My mother certainly would have disapproved. Lately, I've noticed that most of the other women there dress pretty much the way I do, and some of the students wear jeans.

I agree that class is a state of mind, not an income. I believe that people of any income, including wealthy and poor people, can be classy. To assume anything else would be prejudice or inverse snobbery.

From Jenna Potts
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 10:12 PM
Some good meaning people honestly don't know the most tactful way to handle situations such as the one your "friend" found herself in. Maybe she really was concerned about her daughter's allergy and (albeit thoughtlessly) went about finding the cause. I just wonder how many times I thoughtlessly do things that offend other people or make them uncomfortable.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 10:50 PM
Thanks, everyone, for your lively comments. So glad you can appreciate the story. Pauline and Jenna - I can appreciate what you're saying. My husband has a big problem with perfumes, so I'm always careful to wear the smallest amount. That's why I didn't think I was the cuprit in this scenario, as I could smell several other perfumes around me, some of them the harsh fruity kind that that jars my senses. It was all in the presentation of the issue. The women's eyes had accused and judged me even before I'd opened my mouth. I'll admit that was a rude thing I did in putting on more perfume (the mom was the allergy sufferer, BTW, and she didn't show one sign of suffering - no dabbing at watery eyes, no sniffing or sneezing, no labored breathing. This was not an allergy sufferer, in my mind, this was an intolerant old cow), but I'm delighted they handed me the ability to fight back, after they'd "put me in my place."

Karin - no, I didn't get to meet Josh. I always feel too timid to stick around to meet the artists, particularly since the shop had sold out on his CDs, so I couldn't stand in the signing line. Some day I'll get braver...

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on May 6, 2006 at 11:22 PM
You could start an email campaign to get Willie Nelson on Masterpiece Theatre.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 7, 2006 at 1:44 AM
Jim - ??
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 7, 2006 at 3:47 AM
A few words on allergies and chemical sensitivities: They are highly individual. A scent that wouldn't bother your husband at all could mean serious trouble for someone else. Allergy reactions are not always easy to spot. The affected party may have been gasping for breath quietly or had a burning sensation in the eyes or other manifestations of their adverse reaction. I think that you believe that the two women were harrassing you because you don't look wealthy. There are plenty of other possible explanations. You are attributing motives to them, but none of us knows the truth.
From Sydney Menees
Posted on May 7, 2006 at 5:02 PM
Haha, that's the Oprah thing!!! Rich people are the majority of who listens to classical music even though there is no particular reason for it! I'm sure a rap concert costed more than a lot of classical concerts. Sorry to bring Oprah into this, I had to :-)

Glad you enjoyed the show!

From Linda Lerskier
Posted on May 7, 2006 at 5:30 PM
Evil Terez!

Hah Sydney, (c)rap is bleh.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 7, 2006 at 8:55 PM
Loving all the continued comments - thanks, everyone!
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 8, 2006 at 5:15 AM
I like your comment on (c)rap, Linda.

It's true that a ticket to hear a big rock star probably costs more than a ticket to hear classical music, and you can wear jeans to the former.

From Theresa Martin
Posted on May 8, 2006 at 3:33 PM
Oh my, that was so so funny--GREAT description of those people--I was TENSE reading to see what "happened." I have to admit that I too have been bothered by people's perfumes before (probably never by the amount you were wearing), but would never had had the gall to say anything to anyone. To what purpose? Oh, it was too too funny. Now if you were smoking cigarettes?

Actually that reminds me of buying deoderant for my son. He claimed that the unscented stuff I buy at the co-op doesn't work, and wanted something stronger (i.e. from the regular grocery store) that did. So we went deoderant shopping. We took the lids off of every singled kind to sniff them, and finally chose the one that we thought was the least obnoxious (he actually agreed that they were all really stinky). That very afternoon, with his underarms duly slathered, I started coughing, and my throat felt tight. I could still smell the deoderant, and my chest started clamping up. I told him so. I had him wash off his underarms. I told him I was probably allergic to the scent in the deoderant (you can say things like that to your own teenaged son). He said he couldn't believe I could even smell it, and it was all psychosomatic anyway--if I hadn't known he was wearing a new deoderant, I wouldn't have even noticed. I even made him take the offending stick and put it in his room instead of the bathroom, and promise to only use it right before track practice and not at home.

The next morning I realized that I had gotten a cold, and none of my distress was due to his deoderant at all.

But he still agreed that the smell was obnoxious and said he'd try a different unscented brand. I got two different kinds, and have heard no complaints since.

Thank you for your concert story!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 8, 2006 at 4:51 PM
Oh, Theresa, I LAUGHED when I read the part about your getting a cold. I was feeling more and more remorseful, reading about your "allergic" reaction and thinking about Pauline's gentle admonitions. It reminds me that I really don't know what it feels like to suffer from allergies. But, then again, the concert reminded me that there are people who lack common decency and respect for the people around them. ((And Pauline, I mulled over your comment about doing it because they were wealthy. Nah! I mean, sure, that was a big part of it. But if I'd been sitting near a couple snickering teenagers who mocked what I was wearing or how I looked, you can bet I would have tried to find a way to put them in their place as well. Childish? You betcha. But honest as well. And willing to fight for something I believe in. Okay, off my soap box already.
From Theresa Martin
Posted on May 8, 2006 at 6:42 PM
Pauline said: "You are attributing motives to them, but none of us knows the truth. " Yes, that may be true--but oh, how much fun we can have making up reasons for things. Terez is, after all, a fiction writer, and one of the great joys of writing fiction is making up things.

I teach creative writing in a public high school, and one of the assignments I have my students do every year is writing monologues for strangers--getting into people's heads that they don't even know and imagine what they might be thinking and what their voices might be like. They've written some marvelous ones.

One of my dearest friends, who is also novelist, was visiting one summer and one evening I had to leave her and her daughter at a band concert in the park while I did something else. When I went back to pick them up, they told me they had spent the whole evening making up names and life stories for various people they had seen. They regaled me with tales, and as we were driving down the main street, the daughter said, "Look, there's Guido now!" It turned out to be someone I knew well, whose life was nothing at all like what they had described, but to this day, some part of him is Guido. Their story has colored his history in my mind. Terez's rich snobs at the concert hall are REAL, whether those particular women are who she described or not. They're sure a part of my consciousness now.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 9, 2006 at 4:45 PM
Cool comments!

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