I’m not a great maker of practical jokes, although I appreciate a good one (my definition: maximum surprise, minimal harm). Recently, I heard from my old friend Amy Hazelrigg, which reminded me of one of my two best practical jokes ever.

Imagine the scene: it was a balmy summer evening in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was attending summer school. I was having a picnic with Amy in the yard outside the house I was renting with my violinist uncle Lenny and two of his friends. They were all doing graduate studies. I was picking up a few extra credits before going home to Brooklyn College. Amy and her family lived right around the corner from us. They were very musical people and had become friends of my uncle’s.

Earlier that week, I had managed to get hold of a very obscure 78 rpm recording of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony, made in Germany in the late 1920s by the composer-conductor Hans Pfitzner and the Berlin State Opera Orchestra. (It’s now on CD.) My friend Harry Warner had wanted to hear this recording, so I had transferred it to open reel tape for him. I hadn’t sent the tape off yet, and the music seemed ideal for a summer picnic, so I had brought the tape recorder and an extension cord outside and was playing the tape as Amy and I ate sandwiches.

“It’s so clear this evening,” Amy said, “and it’s so quiet here. I wonder if you could hear this music up at Prof. White’s house. He’d probably be able to recognize the recording!” The house was two blocks up our street.

John Reeves White, whose contemporary music class I was auditing, was indeed a formidable musicologist. But there was nothing stiff or formal about him. One day, in his class, he gave us a talk about the Soviet musical system with particular emphasis on “Socialist Realism,” that vague term which the Soviet musical establishment used to contrast with the decadent “formalism” of the West. About 2/3 of the class members were nuns, in habits, all accumulating credits to renew their teaching licenses around the state. White told us he would play for us the winner of the 1951 Stalin Prize in Music, the “Heroic Ballad” by Arno Babajanian. It was a ludicrously poor, splashy piece of movie music, one of those “so bad it’s good” things. He let it play until finally one of the nuns started laughing, which released the rest of the class to collapse in laughter. That was typical of him. (Incidentally, the piece was apparently written as a cynical attempt to get in good favor with the Soviet authorities. The other works of Babajanian I’ve heard are much better music.)

I waited about ten minutes. Then I excused myself to go to the bathroom, went into the house, and called White. He didn’t know me well but “I’m Lenny Felberg’s nephew” identified me quickly. He also knew the Hazelriggs. I told him what Amy had said. He laughed and said he’d be right over.

I went back outside and sat down. About five minutes later, we heard a booming, “Boy, that’s really old!” It was Prof. White, sticking his head over the fence. Amy was startled. White played it like a professional comedian, pretending to figure out each detail as he was listening. “Listen to those horns. They have to be German. But the strings don’t sound good enough to be the Berlin Philharmonic. Must be the State Opera Orchestra.” Then he “figured out” the age of the recording, and finally, from interpretive details, the conductor. Amy was properly amazed. I didn’t confess to the setup until about a week later.

White, incidentally, left Indiana U. to become the successor to Noah Greenberg as music director of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua. He stayed in New York, taught at Hunter College, and died regrettably young, at 60, from a heart attack.

My other best practical joke is more quickly summarized. It was an April Fool’s joke, only last year (2011). I had gone to a poetry reading at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, where one of the two featured readers was a fine poet named Barbara Adams. I had heard Barbara read several times before, and I had one of her books of poems. At this Calling All Poets Series, the featured poets read first, with the open mic following. When my turn came, I got up and told the audience that I had a brand new poem I had just written and I thought it was the best one I’d ever written. Then I read one of Barbara’s poems, from a copy I had typed out. When I finished, I heard Barbara’s stricken voice saying, “Leslie!” At that point, of course, I had to confess. “April Fool’s, everyone. That was one of Barbara’s poems, not mine.” She’s still talking about it. And, obviously, so am I.

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