Monday, September 12, 2011

A better reason for me to remember 9/11

If you have never heard my friend (well, acquaintance and perhaps future friend) Shaun Tirrell play, please take a few minutes and listen to him take on Liszt (I need to get Shaun to pull a Bugs Bunny; "Franz Liszt?  Never heard of him.").  Last night, Shaun made my year because he gave my daughter something she will never forget.

It was not out of disrespect for those killed ten years ago or for those who have given their lives and so much more in the war since then, but I actively tried to avoid anything related to the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  I didn't want to watch any memorials.  My hope was to insulate myself through my DVR-space-eating Turner Classic Movies library or a book.  But my wife, Jen, talked me into taking her place accompanying our eight-year-old to the Savannah Philharmonic's annual 9/11 show, "The American Spirit."  Because Jen begged off, embellishing her "injuries" from a sterling performance in her first 5K run the previous day, September 11th is a date I will cherish.  A day many associate with terror is now the day an exquisite artist became an angel to my little girl.

Our daughter, Katie, has autism, Asperger syndrome to be exact.  It was not caused by anything, regardless of what charlatans like Jenny McCarthy tried to tell us for years in their effort to make themselves more stupidly wealthy.  It is just who Katie is.  Like many people with autism, Katie has had a gift for music since she could barely walk.  She attempted to sing before she could properly speak, and at the age of three, Katie stunned Jen and me when, after getting her first electronic keyboard, she almost immediately tried to play songs by ear.  When we bought Katie a children's book about how George Gershwin wrote his most famous piece, "Rhapsody In Blue", George became Katie's imaginary friend - his brother Ira arrived later because we needed another player for our soccer games.  When Jen saw that Shaun Tirrell would play the Rhapsody at "The American Spirit", she knew Katie had to be there.

Getting Katie to the show was no small task.  While she adores music, she also is terrified of the dark.  There is nothing worse, in her world, than a power outage, and Jen and I feared that she may not be able to handle the dimming of lights necessary in a theater.  But last year, Jen took her to a rehearsal of the Philharmonic's performance of "The Nutcracker" just before Christmas, and Katie handled it.  As many times as Katie has made us watch the God-awful Gershwin biopic, also called "Rhapsody in Blue", we knew she would be thrilled to hear the piece live.  Who better to deliver it than Mr. Tirrell.

Jen and I had twice before seen Shaun play with the Savannah Philharmonic, most recently at the previous 9/11 show.   That program featured another Gershwin tune, the final movement of his Concerto In F, most famously played by George's pal Oscar Levant in "An American In Paris" (in a dream sequence in which Oscar also conducted, played all the instruments in the orchestra, and was every member of the audience).  After the show, I told Jen that Shaun should have also been the emcee - in asking the audience to support the Philharmonic, he spoke with more passion and conviction than anyone in Savannah ever had, save for conductor/music director Peter Shannon.  In an "ask and ye shall receive" moment, Jen informed me that this year's "American Spirit" master of ceremonies would be Shaun Tirrell.

Still, she had to talk me into going, as it was a 9/11 concert, and  - and part of me feels horrible for thinking this - I was 9/11'end out a long time ago.  But Katie and I went, and during one of his emcee breaks, she perked up when Shaun began talking about "Rhapsody In Blue."  He told the story about how George found out he was writing a concerto for a concert of "American music" at New York's Aeolian Hall three weeks prior to the show - Ira read George the notice in a newspaper.  I expected Katie to pipe up, "Yeah, he was shooting pool with Buddy DeSylva when Ira told him," but she was too excited.  Shaun told of how George picked up rhythms for the Rhapsody from the sound of the train he rode from New York to Boston, where he was working on a new musical.  I kept waiting for Katie to say, "He also got inspiration from the Klezmer band at Ira's bar mitzvah and from the ragtime he heard outside the Barron Wilkins Club in Harlem when he was a kid" - I swear she would've said all that if I had been telling the story.  Instead, she was glued to her seat, smile touching her ears, whispering, "I know," to herself, or maybe to George.

After two other pieces, the Rhapsody began as it always begins, with the trill of a lone clarinet.  For the next 13 minutes, Katie was mostly hands, half-conducting, half fingering her own imaginary baby grand during Shaun's solo parts.  The performance, as is always the case when listening to American music's greatest composition, defied description.  The standing ovation was enormous, but no one was more animated than my daughter, jumping, screaming, clapping overhead as if she were at a Selena Gomez show (which proves I watch too much Disney Channel).  But, as they say (you know, 'they!'), the best was yet to come.

As the show ended and the crowd filed out of the ever-gorgeous Lucas Theater, I was about to text my wife when I noticed I had received a text from Mary Catherine, a family friend who works for the Philharmonic.  Holy crap, she was offering Katie a chance to meet Shaun!  We made our way backstage, and after introducing himself, Shaun offered to let Katie play for him in what served as his dressing room.  Katie, a mixture of nerves and thrills, sat down and played something I didn't recognize.  When Shaun asked if she wrote what she had played, she relaxed a bit and, as she has told us countless times, "no, I just made it up."

Dad was too stunned to move - I forgot to take even a single picture, though in retrospect I chalk it up to the words of one of the wisest men I know, children's book author Mo Willems.  During an appearance in Savannah a few months ago, Mo told us grown-ups to turn off our cameras during his reading to our kids because, "we often get so busy chronicling life that we forget to take the time to experience life."

As we exited, stage right, we saw Peter Shannon briefly as much of Savannah attempted to be photographed with His Maestroness.  Peter and I have been friends for a few years, though we didn't get a chance to continue our ribbing of each other - me making fun of his lack of follicle fortitude on his head, and he reminding me that he is wildly successful and I am not.  But Katie did get to tell him how much she enjoyed the show, particularly Shaun's playing and her chance to meet him.  So, if I didn't say it loudly enough last night, thank you Peter for bringing Shaun to Savannah time and again.  Thank you Jen for making me go to the concert, and thank you Mary Catherine for setting up a thrill for our little girl.

Most of all, thank you Shaun Tirrell for being a nice guy, an ambassador for good music and for giving Katie something that will inspire her for a long time.  More people outside the world of classical music should have heard of you by now, and it won't be my fault if the rest of the world doesn't know about the person and the musician you are.

As we left the stage to head toward the exit, Katie exclaimed, "This was the best time ever!"  That goes for both of us, kid.

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