Domed From the Start

April 23, 2015
 

I noticed that there wasn’t much media coverage, even for a 50th anniversary. That’s somewhat sad since for years it stood as a mighty symbol of coverage – though of a different sort. Remember the Astrodome? That was the first multi-use sports stadium with a dome. It opened on April 9, 1965. The Houston Astros played the New York Yankees in an exhibition game. Mickey Mantle hit the 2nd pitch of the game for a base hit. President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird didn’t get to see that. They arrived in the 2nd inning, but well before Mantle hit a solo home run in the top of the 6th. Houston went on to win the game 2-1.

The Astrodome was a popular cultural icon in its time. These days it’s vacant and has been for several years. Whatever celebrating that did take place in Houston on April 9th sounded like a fools golden anniversary. The “landmark” is awaiting a plan to determine its fate. Demolition has been mentioned as an option. Some are suggesting a park. Perhaps they would consider an Astrodome-inspired gazebo somewhere in the park as a token souvenir of the legendary lid. Whatever the outcome, you can’t take away the legacy surrounding the Astrodome.

It brought to mind a lesser-known, but no less legendary, dome from the classical music world: a portable concert hall with a geodesic dome designed by the American cellist Felix Wurman. He was a founding member of the English chamber ensemble Domus. The group was named for the domed portapavilion, just as the Houston Colt .45s changed their name to Astros when they began to play in the Astrodome. (The name Astros, by the way, was chosen to signify Houston’s close association with the space program.)

Pianist Susan Tomes, another of the founding members of Domus, remembers that they wanted to find a way of making music that was less formal and intimidating than in orthodox concert halls.  “When we started discussing how to create our own more intimate concerts, someone jokingly said that we should build a portable concert hall.” It wasn’t the most practical idea, she said, “but the beauty of the white dome galvanised lots of young musicians into helping to make it a reality.”  She added that Felix Wurman was probably the only person in the world who could have gotten her to run about in the rain carrying heavy boxes full of aluminium tubes. “When things got tough, he rallied us all with his heartfelt cry of, ‘It must never not be fun!’”

Domus was founded in 1979. The group specialized in music for piano quartet (piano, violin, viola & cello).  Sometimes its members played works for 2 or 3 players – or for more than 4 with the help of guest performers. Over the years, we have enjoyed Domus’s recording of the “Trout” Quintet by Franz Schubert, in which they’re joined by double bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku (Virgin Classics 82004). We’ve also enjoyed Domus’s recording of the bagatelles by Antonín Dvořák for harmonium, violin, viola and cello (Virgin Classics 61904).  A harmonium is a keyboard instrument that looks like an organ and sounds like an accordion, since it has reeds instead of pipes. Susan Tomes was featured on the harmonium on that recording.

The story is told that eventually they ran out of piano quartet repertoire. Domus disbanded in 1994.  I wasn’t able to find out what happened to the portable dome. Some of the players would re-appear on recordings as The Florestan Trio or simply under their own names as chamber players, with or without their former colleagues. In retrospect, I’m guessing that the idea of “Domus in the Dome,” i.e. the Astrodome, may not have gotten off the ground - even in Houston.

Closer to home, a mischievous concert promoter might have opened a few eyes by staging a music event last week called “Eberlfest.”  No, E-b-e-r-l  is not a misprint of E-b-e-r-t. It could be, intentionally or unintentionally. Otherwise, it’s Eberl – as in Anton Eberl, the 18th century Austrian composer. In his time, some folks spelled his name M-o-z-a-r-t on some of his piano scores. That was a mistake, not a misprint. A number of his piano sonatas were incorrectly attributed to Mozart. But it goes to show you what league Anton Eberl was in back in his time. Who knows? Maybe they had a festival of his music back then. What if somebody had spelled his name E-b-e-r-t by accident?  As history took its course, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Sounds like they both were given “thumbs up” in their time. (By the way, there was a famous Ebert in Germany – Friedrich Ebert, who served as a Chancellor and President during the ill-fated Weimar Republic early in the 20th Century.)

I couldn’t resist the temptation to have fun with the 2 names last week. I played the opening of a symphony by Anton Eberl.  The recording, featuring the ensemble Concerto Köln (Teldec 2564 69889) includes a note by music writer Andrew Stewart about Eberl. Following his death from scarlet fever at age 41, Eberl’s fame and accomplishments were recalled in a newspaper article of the time with the observation that “the early death of an artist has seldom been so universally regretted.” Sort of reminds you of ongoing tributes to Eberl’s near namesake of our time.

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