From Skid Row to Disney Hall

Crane, who had read about Nathaniel's rise from Cleveland's public school music program and his ultimate fall, gave him a VIP tour.

"We're right behind the stage right now," Crane said in the bowels of the auditorium.

"It's like a dream," Nathaniel said. "I don't know if this is a dream or purgatory."

A voice came over the P.A. system as we entered a long hallway, which Nathaniel said reminded him of the announcements in a Cleveland mental hospital.

Nathaniel asked about famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, intrigued to know if he was a regular guy. Crane said he seemed quite nice, indeed. Nathaniel also threw out the names of the conductors he remembered from his days at Juilliard: James Conlon, Lorin Maazel and Herbert von Karajan, no longer seeming like the man who an hour earlier had delivered a skid row rumination on cockroaches.

"Do you know Dvorak's Cello Concerto?" Nathaniel asked.

"It's one of my favorites," Crane said. He told Nathaniel he had a Czechoslovakian cello made in 1875.

Nathaniel was impressed. "I don't wanna mess with it," he said. "I don't even want to look at it. I'll just wear dark glasses."

It was almost as if he were a student again, joshing with a classmate. Was Nathaniel being sly, fishing for an invitation to have a go at Crane's cello? If so, it worked. And when Crane offered, Nathaniel didn't hesitate. He sat in Crane's office tuning up, the PR man marveling at the sharpness of Nathaniel's ear.

And then he played, without the bow at first, picking the strings with his right hand. It was Bach's Cello Suite No. 1: Prelude. Several Philharmonic staffers heard the music and wandered over, peering in to see a man of the streets, tattered and elegant, close his eyes and drift into ecstasy.

Nathaniel was still floating as we made our way toward the hall, where the orchestra was gathering.

"Stage Level Door 1," read the sign in front of us.

"Are you ready?" Crane asked.

Yes, he was ready, and he was certainly impressed by the hall — a stunning monument to his sustaining passion. But it was the musicians who drew his eye, the hallowed messengers of the gods he worships.

A cellist named Peter Snyder came over to say hello to Nathaniel, whom he had read about. Nathaniel mentioned a resemblance to Hungarian-born cellist Janos Starker and marveled at Snyder's 33-year career with the orchestra. Snyder returned the compliment, mentioning Nathaniel's own record of survival on the streets.

"I just want to play," Nathaniel said. "I'll live underneath a rock."

Nathaniel took a seat front and center in the orchestra tier for a rehearsal that would amount to a private concert.

"They look so happy," he said as the musicians tuned. "I would be happy too, if I was going to play the Third Symphony, especially with good players. You look over at the next player and say, 'Wow.' "

On most days, Nathaniel goes to Pershing Square to study the Beethoven statue for inspiration. On this day, he leaned into me during the first movement and whispered that Beethoven was with us in Disney Hall.

"He's in the room," Nathaniel said later as the funeral march began, a low, creeping dirge. "If his spirit was in the room, it would be somewhere around there. Do you see the conductor? That's Beethoven. He will interpret Beethoven. He is Beethoven."


Jump to a blog