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Pay attention!

THE PLAY, THE Three Sisters, was in the basement of the Piano Factory, which seated no more than 50 or so people. Some Chekhov stories are among my favorite works of art (I'm thinking in particular of "The Lady with the Dog"). But I don't really know his theater. A friend was in the play, so there we were. A spare set, walls stripped down to brick. A table and chair. A wooden bench covered with a piece of fabric, a throw pillow - meant to be a divan. In an outdoor scene, tall birch logs with branches were set against the wall, their leaves spread about. The characters seemed to talk in vague abstractions. "And the clock was striking then, it's striking [now]." Was it V.S. Naipaul who called Chekhov's character's "chatterboxes"?

I was distracted. It was a David Mamet "adaptation," after all. Maybe something was lost in the translation, although the costumes were detailed and the actresses were pretty and cried well. The jazz critic Whitney Balliett once said that judging improvised music depends in large part on "mood, digestion, and the fit of one's shoes." What live performance isn't like that? An event that transpires in time. "It's going to happen fast," the young Bob Dylan once warned a journalist about an impending concert. Speaking about the experience of art from the other side, as an artist, Sonny Rollins told me in an interview not long ago: "When I'm really on, usually I don't know I'm there anyway, because I'm just playing, because it's happening so fast, the music is going by and it's going by, so you don't have time to kind of look back at anything, things are going by so fast."

The play went on. I drifted in and out. I watched for my friend, who's a good actor and whose performances always make me laugh. The three sisters kept weeping. I looked at their faces. Theater is one of the only places where you're allowed to stare.

Then, in the third act, actors burst onto the stage - soldiers from the earlier scenes, now out of uniform, their shirttails flying. They appeared to be covered with soot. One of the sisters, Olga, and the nanny, Anfisa - they'd been talking about a fire, hadn't they? "They're saying we should take up a subscription. For the victims. As we should. Right away. For the fire victims." An argument ensues. "Yes. I must look a fright. They say I've put on weight. Well. [That's ]not true." It's the sister-in-law, Natalya. Somewhere between Act I and Act III she's married the hapless brother of the three sisters. Once so insecure, so pitiful, she's now a monster. She wants to get rid of the nanny, an old woman who raised the sisters and their brother from birth. "I have a maid," Natalya argues with Olga. "I have a [nanny ] ... I have a wet nurse ... why in the world would we need this old woman....?"

AT SYMPHONY Hall, the Berlin Philharmonic was playing two symphonies by Beethoven. People wore evening dress, black tie. An event. The man next to me, sitting in his tuxedo and red cummerbund, read a paperback in his lap during the Fifth Symphony. Not so unusual, I thought. Some people like to read the program notes during the music - perhaps to follow the synopsis of the music's narrative, perhaps just to let their minds alone. The critic and composer Virgil Thomson found reading the program notes a useful distraction, and was even known to nap occasionally at the concerts he reviewed. "At musical performances I sleep lightly, and only so long as nothing in any way abnormal, for good or ill, takes place on the stage," he answered one complaining letter-writer. The man next to me read his paperback. He chuckled quietly along with his reading, and stirred happily as his reading and the Fifth gained momentum. During the finale he looked up, his attention finally drawn entirely into the music. I looked at his book - Noam Chomsky.

After the intermission, many in the expensive seats around us - the people in evening dress - were late returning. The conductor took the podium. The crowd continued to file in. Then more. The rest of the audience began to hiss, then boo, the latecomers. The conductor pretended to look in the inside pocket of his cutaway, turned to the first violin and made a joke, folded his arms, and laughed. The latecomers continued to pour in. Again the conductor folded his arms and laughed. Then, when he heard the crowd quiet behind him, he lifted his baton.

I'd once seen this conductor - Claudio Abbado, with this very orchestra - await latecomers between movements of a piano concerto. He looked at the soloist, said something and smiled; the pianist smiled and nodded back. They were both Italians, in front of a German orchestra. Conference on the pitcher's mound. I imagined Abbado talking to Pollini, both men in their white ties and tails, ready to perform Schumann's piano concerto. Abbado saying to Pollini, "It's drafty in here." And Pollini answering, "Tell me about it."

ONLY ONE block lost," says the character played by my friend in the Chekhov play. The character is a foolish husband. His wife is unfaithful. He's a teacher, a subordinate at the academy, constantly sucking up to authority. "Only one block lost," he says. "What a wind, though. We thought the whole town would go." "A house must run on [order]," says Natalya, complaining about the nanny. "Like a [machine]. Do you understand? It cannot have a superfluous part."

Jon Garelick can be reached at

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