When I became a volunteer usher at Symphony Hall in Salt Lake City, I followed the veterans' advice and worked the main floor. Other ushers had warned me that the tiers had a confusing seat-numbering system, and they much preferred ground-level assignments. I thought the main floor was bad enough, with odd-numbered seats on one side and even-numbered on the other, counting out from the middle. No wonder they needed so many ushers.
I was on the Friday shift. Two or three Fridays a month we would show up an hour and a half before the concert in our white shirts and black skirts or pants. The first stop was a small storage room where the dark green blazers hung on a rack. There were never enough jackets in the smaller sizes, and many of us would be tucking our sleeves under as we made our way to the back of the auditorium.
We would meet for instructions and assignments. The supervisor would tell us how long the first piece ran and when to let in latecomers. I sometimes worked the Saturday afternoon children's concert, where the instructions were to "just keep them from falling off the balconies."
Finally we received our station assignments, picked up the boxes of programs, and headed for our stations. After directing everyone to the proper seats and letting in latecomers, we were free to find an empty seat and enjoy the concert.
At one benefit concert, actor David Ogden Stiers (of "M*A*S*H" fame) served as guest conductor. He came to our ushers' meeting to thank us all for our support of the local symphony. I hadn't realized I was being generous; I thought I had just found a way to hear a lot of great music for free.
But the evening finally arrived when I was asked to work First Tier Right. Hesitantly, I made my way up the stairs.
First Tier consisted of a few rows of seats stretching around three sides of the hall above the main floor. I walked along the seats to familiarize myself with the numbering system and soon discovered that once you associated the right numbers with the right doors, it was easy.
I took my place at the "A" door, the most expensive seats in the house. The guests here were big donors, important visitors, or well-to-do regulars. Many of them knew their way around better than I did. I offered to help only when someone looked lost or confused. I soon realized that because there were fewer seats in the tiers, the crowd was smaller and the work not as hectic.
Once everyone was seated and the concert began, I discovered another advantage of First Tier: I could look down on the stage and see every member of the orchestra.
Although the sound is great from any seat in the house, my view from the main floor had consisted mostly of the backs of hairdos and rows of violin bows rising and falling between them. From First Tier I could watch the timpani player rocking out in the back and the tuba player gasping for air between long passages.
After the concert I let the supervisor know I was willing to take the tiers anytime, and I soon became a regular at First Tier Right. I got to know the regulars and met a few unusual visitors.
One evening a group of Russians came to my station. They were in town to observe the destruction of missiles at a nearby site as part of a treaty agreement. I attempted some of my college Russian and quickly realized how much I had forgotten. We smiled at each other a lot until their interpreter arrived with their tickets. As I showed them to their seats they gave me a small pin with a Russian flag. Then we all sat down to enjoy a Rachmaninoff piano concerto, the Russians listening to Russian music played by Americans and me trying to imagine listening to Rachmaninoff with Russian ears.
I had heard that Maurice Abravanel, retired conductor of the Utah Symphony, attended many of the concerts on Saturday nights. But one Friday evening I saw him coming down the long hallway to my station.
I had attended some of his concerts when I was in college and knew the tremendous role he bad played in the symphony's history. He had shaped up not only the musicians but the less-than-symphony-literate Utah audiences as well. He once stopped a concert in the middle of a piece to remind a concert-goer not to talk during the performance. At another concert he carefully explained that we were not to applaud between a symphony's movements.
Eventually, Symphony Hall would be named Abravanel Hall, and as he approached my station I wished I could tell him of my admiration, but I knew that it would not be proper usher behavior to act like a symphony groupie. I made sure my sleeves were properly tucked up and greeted his party with a smile. He handed me their tickets and I held open the door, assuming he of all people would know where he was going.
He hesitated. "Aren't you going to show me to my seat?" he asked in his musical French accent.
Without thinking, I replied, "Maestro, you could sit anywhere in the house you wanted and nobody would argue with you."
He smiled and gestured toward the door, so I escorted him and his wife to their front-row seats. After the music began, I took a seat near the door behind him. He listened animatedly to each piece and at the end of the symphony, rose to honor an excellent performance. Everyone in the hall followed him to their feet. He had trained us well.
At the next concert, one of the main-floor ushers expressed her sympathy as I was once again assigned to First Tier. I tried to look properly subdued. A free concert and the best seat in the house. Well, we all have to make sacrifices.