ONE of the singular pleasures of being an exchange student in Germany was the opportunity to play clarinet in one of the myriad orchestras that are spread across the country in even the smallest Bavarian villages.
Music is the lifeblood of Germany, and it's more democratic than politics. In the land of Beethoven and Brahms, I never lacked for an opportunity to play with other students - almost none of whom were music majors. It is as second nature for a German to play an instrument as it is for an Indian to speak more than his local dialect. There were times when I had a music evening every day of the week. Clarinet in hand, I would go from door to door, availing myself of duets, trios, and quartets. When no clarinet part was called for, I simply transposed the viola part, happy to be there.
While chamber music is an exercise in egalitarianism and partnership, where everyone gets a chance to shine as well as support the efforts of one's fellow players, an orchestra offers one a chance to be part of something much bigger. But foreign clarinetists have a peculiar problem playing in German orchestras: Most clarinets in the world feature an arrangement of keys called the ``Boehm'' system, developed in the 1840s in France. Germany, however, went its own way with the ``Oehler'' system.
The two clarinets - French and German - really do look quite different. They also sound a bit different, the German clarinet to most ears being ``darker,'' and the French clarinet ``brighter.'' The Germans are orthodox about this difference. Ads for clarinetists in German newspapers often carry the caveat: Kein Boehm - No Boehm!
UNDETERRED, I answered a call for a first-chair clarinet in one of Gottingen's several orchestras. As it turned out, I was the only clarinetist who showed up. Without so much as greeting me, the conductor, Herr Weiske, a corpulent, bearded, imposing man, gestured with his baton toward a vacant chair in the rear. He had no reason to assume I wasn't German, and even less reason to suspect that I had just smuggled a Boehm clarinet into his orchestra.
The second-chair clarinetist, a young man studying at the university, nodded toward me and smiled his greeting. When he saw my clarinet, though, his eyebrows took flight. ``This should be interesting!'' he said.
The conductor raised his baton, hardened his eyes, and we began to play the first movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, which contains a clarinet solo in the third measure. After the full orchestra thundered its introduction, I tweedled my brief solo passage against the backdrop of an absolutely silent orchestra, which then returned in full force to echo my solo.
Herr Weiske beat his music stand with the baton. ``Nein! Nein!'' he barked. ``Something is wrong!''
The problem was one that I had forgotten about: German clarinets are pitched a fraction higher than French ones. I was flat, but not so flat that the conductor could pinpoint me as the culprit right off. He raised his baton, shook his head and shoulders as if to dispel a chill, and roused us into the Beethoven again. The orchestra roared and I tweedled, this time biting down on the reed - a maneuver to raise the clarinet's pitch.
No. The conductor beat his podium viciously, raising a whirlwind that sent his pages to the floor. This time he had me in his sights. He pointed the baton at me and looked down its length, as if he were aiming a weapon. The other players turned and fixed their gazes on me. Herr Weiske spoke: ``Clarinetist,'' he said. ``Do we have a problem?''
I suddenly felt like a nine-year-old caught with his hand in the cookie jar. I was surrounded - strings to my left and woodwinds to my right. There was no way out. The conductor repeated his question. ``Do we have a problem, clarinetist?''
I struck a serious expression. ``Ja, Herr Dirigent,'' I said. ``I think the orchestra is sharp.''
Herr Weiske shook out his whole body like an old blanket. He rapped the podium again, but the entire orchestra had fallen into animated discussion. He signaled me to approach him, with my clarinet. I dutifully slunk through the forest of bassoons, French horns, and cellos.
When the conductor saw my clarinet, he was bug-eyed. He reached out to touch it, but quickly pulled back his hand, as if fearing contamination. A flutter of monosyllables erupted in the orchestra. ``Boehm!'' ``Boehm!'' ``Boehm!''
A thousand thoughts ran through my mind as I stood in Herr Weiske's ample shadow, with the players before me murmuring ``Boehm!'' like a Greek chorus. Was this the first time the sainted Beethoven had been intoned on German soil with a French clarinet? Would the conductor break my instrument over his knee? Would I be tossed out with a simple rebuke, or was there a specific punishment reserved for smugglers of Boehm clarinets?
As it turned out, time was my only ally. The concert was in three days - not time enough to find another clarinetist of the proper stripe and key arrangement. Herr Weiske told the second-chair clarinet to switch places with me, but he shook his head, declining the limelight. The bottom of the barrel had already been scraped, and I was it!
The conductor looked at me. ``Can you squeeze that reed a little harder?'' he asked. ``I'll try,'' I said contritely, and for the rest of that evening and during the following rehearsals I bore down on my reed until I was examining my lip for splinters.
On the night of the concert, in an old landmark church in the heart of Gottingen, the conductor looked particularly edgy. When he mounted his podium and glanced my way I realized that it was because of me. He still wasn't satisfied with my pitch. But there was a full house of expectant Germans, so what could we do other than play on?
The oboeist rose to intone his ``A,'' to which the rest of the orchestra would tune. But then a strange - and unprecedented - thing happened. The conductor motioned to him to resume his seat. The oboeist looked about himself, incredulously, convinced that Herr Weiske was pointing to somebody else with his baton. But he gestured more vigorously to the oboeist, and the message was clear: Sit down!
And then Herr Weiske turned to me, motioning me to my feet. I rose, with the eyes of my fellow players upon me, wondering what was going on. Herr Weiske called me forward, and I stumbled through the orchestra, clarinet in hand. The conductor rapped on his podium. The orchestra fell silent, as did the audience. ``Play your `A','' he said. I pointed to myself and threw him a questioning look. ``Me?'' I asked. Herr Weiske nodded.
And so I inhaled deeply, slipped the mouthpiece between my lips, and expressed the most soulful ``A'' I could muster. Herr Weiske signaled to the orchestra, and each and every member busily tuned down until their pitch was even with mine. I have said this often and it has thus far gone uncontested: I believe this was the first, and perhaps only, instance of a German orchestra ever tuning down to accommodate a Boehm clarinet - an ugly duckling - in their ranks.
We played Beethoven's Eighth, my clarinet sang, and I distinctly recall that an elderly woman in the first row of the audience wept.
Even in a land of musical orthodoxy, it is possible to bend a little, or a lot, and still give Beethoven his due.