Through conductor Norman Masonson, a true light in my early life, I had met briefly another gay musician, Neal LoMonaco. Neal was an accomplished cellist who was building a career as a soloist, which is quite daring compared to taking a secure job in an orchestra, for which he was completely qualified.
We discovered that Neal lived just a block away from me in Ashbury Heights, and there were the usual let’s-get-togethers. There was no particular sexual chemistry or any other reason to see each other, but Neal was certainly nice enough.
One gentle autumn evening, after work, I smoked some exceptional marijuana before setting out for a walk down toward Haight Street. A few doors onto Masonic I heard a cello though the open windows at the front of a house.
I wonder if that’s Neal, I thought. At the top of the stairs one of the doorbells was labeled LoMonaco, so I pushed it.
I told Neal that I heard him playing and wondered if I could just sit and listen. I’d brought a joint of that great stuff and he got really stoned. Then he returned to his cello and I reclined in a comfy chair across the room.
Neal was about to play when he got an idea. He picked up his chair and his instrument and brought them and sat right in front of me so that my knees were maybe twelve inches from the strings. And for the next hour or so he played Bach, for me. To be closer I’d have had to climb into the soundbox. At that range the music was tactile.
I think that in the days of Bach, chamber music was so called because it was intended for performance in a room, chamber, of some noble person’s living quarters, not for an assembled audience, but for the inhabitants of the house.
Bach wrote the delightful “Goldberg Variations” for a court-harpsichordist friend of his named Goldberg, who had been tasked with helping his insomniac patron fall asleep. You can imagine the grumpy patron tossing and turning, maybe using the chamber pot, while poor Goldberg played in trepidation.
But regardless of rank or riches, no listener in the history of the world has ever been closer to a cello being played by a virtuoso than I was that Indian-summer evening in 1973, an exceptional and unexpected pleasure obtained because I was brave (or stoned) enough to ring a near-stranger’s doorbell.
I doubt if I ever saw Neal again. There was no reason to and soon I was out of that scene. He died at age 41 of AIDS in 1987.