For a long time I had assumed that it was a trio of eleven- or twelve-year-olds who disrupted the Percy Grainger concert. After all, that is how they behave. Now, after a few turns on Google, I find that the concert was in 1953. It was a trio of fourteen- or fifteen-year olds, who should have known better, who should have known by then how to be sophisticatedly and quietly amused, instead of chokingly and wobblingly amused. I know for a fact that one of the three had already read three Dostoevsky novels, although he had not yet read The Possessed. That might have made all the difference. If he’d had read The Possessed, he might have felt compassion for a frail old man with a huge ego having a difficult time in a public place.
On the Steinway, Grainger had mounted a device for scrolling the music, obviating the necessity for turning pages or being hovered over by a page-turner. The pages (of, in this case, the solo part of the Grieg Piano Concerto) had been separated, scotch-taped end-to-end, and placed on rollers. Grainger scrolled the pages up to the music stand by pumping a foot pedal.
We could have appreciated it as a clever and practical, if eccentric, invention; instead we saw it as a Rube Goldberg contraption and Grainger, with his aged-elf appearance and bristling electric white hair, as its mad inventor. That does not explain – much less excuse – the peer hysteria which gripped us and the failure to control our delight, which ruined the concert, a historic Poughkeepsie occasion, for those sitting near us and, far more reprehensible, for Grainger himself.
Our piano teacher, Ginny Schwarz, had bought tickets early, to scalp to our parents, so we were seated third-row center, fifteen feet or so from the soloist. I am mortified to say that our glee at having what had portended to be a stupefying evening – the Grieg Piano Concerto, of all things, how boring! – enlivened by our vision of a mad scientist and his machine so unnerved Grainger that he fluffed the famous introduction of nineteen pounded chords. We had popped up in a ceremony of taste and decorum, like imps sent by Dionysus, and instead of devoting whatever dwindling powers remained to him once again to honor the friend and mentor of his youth with a glorious rendition of his signature work, Grainger had to use them to keep the performance from descending into chaos.