Thoughts from the Front Row: A weekend of celebrity encounters

There’s a game my friend and I play, where we name the ten people in the world we would want to have dinner with.  Any ten people — celebrities, family members, politicians, war criminals.  The only rules are that they must be alive, and they must be real (sorry, Harry Potter).  Our lists change from month to month and year to year, and every once in a while we check in with each other: “Who’s sitting at your dinner table these days?”

Right now, my dinner table comprises (in no particular order): Jon Stewart, Albrecht Mayer, Elizabeth Warren (my love for her is undying), Tina Fey, John Green, Gottfried Schlaug, Yo Yo Ma, Chris Hadfield, Regina Spektor, and Bill Hader.

Bill Hader (source)

Beautiful, beautiful Bill Hader.

Bill Hader is the only person who has been on my dinner table roster since its conception.  For those who may not know, Bill Hader is an exceptionally talented alum of the sketch-comedy bastion Saturday Night Live.  He’s funny, but he’s also smart-funny: his timing, his writing, his mannerisms and versatility — his comedy is just so unbearably wonderful.  Bill Hader is one of my very favorite comedians, and two weeks ago, I got to meet him.

Well, not exactly.  But I got to sit in the front row of his Q&A show at my university, mere feet away from him, which was good enough for me.

I had never sat in the front row at a performance before… nor at anything, come to think of it.  The front row is to be avoided: it’s the least comfortable position in a movie theater, visually and acoustically undesirable for an orchestra concert, awkward on an airplane because you can’t fit your carry-on under the nonexistent seat in front of you.  But sitting in the front row at Bill Hader’s Q&A was thrilling.  Eye contact and snarky comments were directed at us, just because of our proximity.  There was no fourth wall: we may as well have been on stage with him.  It was intimate, and exciting, and hilarious, and I left the auditorium feeling like I knew Bill Hader, almost as a friend.

And just when I thought the weekend couldn’t get any better, I managed to score a last-minute ticket to the Emerson Quartet‘s sold-out performance at Eastman the next day, from a friend who could no longer attend.  The ticket was in the cheap, student-discount price bracket, and as a result was — you guessed it — in the front row.

Emerson String Quartet (source)

The performance had sold out nearly a week earlier, prompting the Concert Office to arrange at the last minute for some on-stage seating.  A single row of chairs enclosed three sides of the stage from behind curtained railings, and from my seat up front I could wave at friends onstage whose seats were even closer to the action than mine.  Eleanor, a cellist, leaned over the divider to say hi.  I asked her if she was excited.

“Hell yeah,” she replied.

The quartet strode out like superstars — calm, suave — and opened with a pair of Purcell fantasias followed by his G-minor Chacony.  Also on the program were Berg‘s Lyric Suite — breathtaking — and Beethoven‘s A-minor string quartet, No. 15.  Everything was executed flawlessly — would you expect anything less from a nine-time Grammy-winning ensemble? — but from the front row, there was a whole extra dimension to their flawlessness.  They played beautifully, yes, but they also played honestly.

I’ve been playing chamber music for many years.  Hours upon hours of rehearsals go into preparing for every performance, but there are some things you can’t rehearse.  The connection between group members is electrified as soon as you step onstage, and the music takes on a different energy: it might make you hold your breath, or move a certain way, or bring a smile to your face.  You can’t rehearse when to smile — it just happens — and the smile on Paul Watkins’ face the entire time was entirely genuine.  Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer’s synchronous swaying, Lawrence Dutton’s impassioned sidestep — they moved and breathed like an organism.  There was no choreography — just good, honest music.

Maybe you can see this from any row in the hall, but from the front row, you can feel it.

Another effect of the front row: the performance was humanized.  These titans of chamber music, Grammy-winning gods, keep their sheet music in a binder with colored tabs.  (So do I.)  They sweat.  They blink.  They have fun.  Just like at the Bill Hader show, there was this sense of intimacy — companionship, almost, like we in the front row had shared an experience with them.  And we had, hadn’t we?  Up close and personal, we had embarked as a unit — performers and audience, together — on a journey from Purcell to Berg to Beethoven.

After the Beethoven quartet’s electrifying finale, a standing ovation brought them out for an encore.  “A pre-Super Bowl Bach prelude,” Philip Setzer announced, met by laughter from the audience as well as from his three compatriots.

It was beautiful.

When it was over, they took a bow, and Eugene Drucker turned sideways to adjust the music on his stand, and he looked RIGHT.  AT.  ME.  And he smiled.


Then they walked off stage and the lights went up, and the audience became a bustling mass of people trying to put on their coats and get out — and I was left thinking how amazing it would be if everyone in the hall could be made to feel like they were in the front row.  I definitely plan to sit in the front row more often.


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