Sunday, March 30, 2008

Palm Springs

Yesterday's surprise unseasonal snow falling on cherry blossoms here in Seattle reminded me of Palm Springs. Not only is it possible to go up from the hot desert to a completely different climate in 15 minutes via the Aerial Tramway, the city itself had a rare snowstorm many years ago. If I remember correctly it happened during or around Christmas. This was much before today's digital cameras and roughly half of the films left for developing magically disappeared. As most of us remember, the companies only promised to replace a lost roll with a fresh one, never mind what treasures had been lost. Obviously many of the better pictures ended up as postcards or in publications in this case. It would have been next to impossible to prove that it was your masterpiece being reproduced. Even if your loved one was in the picture, it could have been taken by someone else than you.

Palm Springs was one of my favorite destinations during all the years I lived in Los Angeles. If I had a free day in the winter, I would leave for the desert early in the morning to make the first run of the Aerial Tramway in Chino Canyon to a winter heaven. There I would rent a pair of cross-country skis and spend a good part of the day under a dark blue sky (unless it was snowing). As the altitude was high and getting enough oxygen was a problem, I couldn't try to break any speed or distance records, but skiing even slowly in the middle of the woods in deep snow was truly exhilarating. It was always humorous to see tourists going up to the 20+ degree weather in their shorts. There they would be freezing in the covered upper terminal, shivering and eagerly awaiting for the next cable car to take them down. These days there are new rotating Swiss funicular cars replacing the trusty old ones I used to ride.

During the summer Palm Springs is a different story: I actually knew a person whose car was parked by the curb with windows closed and the driver's side plastic armrest melted from the heat. This probably wouldn't happen with today's materials but this was then. An air-conditioned shopping mall comes in handy in the 110-120 degree temperatures. I would hate to think what would happen there in case of a power outage during the hot season. For overnights Desert Hot Springs or some other outlying areas are much nicer, and were less expensive at least a couple decades ago. Unlike Palm Springs which has a microclimate of its own due to the pools and irrigated golf courses, the sky is clearer and at night one can see an incredible number of stars and feel one with nature.

That part of Southern California is beautiful and in addition to the Santa Barbara area still remains my favorite. Behind the 8,516 foot high Mountain Station stands the peak of Mt. San Jacinto at 10,834 feet and there is a vast wilderness area reaching Idyllwild, another pretty location. Another favorite drive of mine is from the Palm Springs area, past the Salton Sea, 220 feet below sea level, to San Diego via the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Much of the scenery is simply breathtaking and especially in higher altitudes it is difficult to remember one is so close to a hot desert as the landscape at times totally fools you.

One wouldn't expect to find much culture in a desert vacation destination and for a long time a local school auditorium offered the only venue for performing music. It was that location where I took a colleague in 1983 to hear the Helsinki Philharmonic play during their tour under the Community Concerts umbrella. The Finns were traveling by bus from either Arizona or Las Vegas, I can't remember. The buses were late and arrived an hour before the concert was to begin. The musicians must have been celebrating a bit too much. I can remember a fellow disembarking the bus with considerable difficulty and asking the audience members who were waiting outside, in Finnish yet, where he could buy beer and fast. I guess his hangover was quite severe. Once the orchestra got onto the stage and the show started, "Finlandia" was almost half way through before I recognized the composition. I was entertained watching a middle-aged female first violinist sitting on the outside who also must have had a busy night as she wouldn't tremolo with her bow. Instead she moved it back and forth like a lazy bass player. I felt somewhat embarrassed when the person I had brought with me asked if this indeed was the best my country had to offer.

A similar eyesore happened years later when I was playing in the new McCallum Theater for the Performing Arts with an orchestra. It had been brought there by a wealthy elderly board member. The conductor approached me at the intermission, asking what he should do as the host was unhappy seeing a younger woman not vibrating at all, and seemingly uninterested in trying her best. I told that there was nothing I could do: he had hired her and it was up to him to make sure she was doing what she was paid to do. Did she get into trouble? It was hardly the case; she was soon to be promoted. Testosterone is a powerful hormone and easily can overtake anything resembling logic and common sense.

The desert is a perfect place to learn first-hand the difference between Road Runner, the mighty Warner Brothers creation, and the humble little roadrunner, zooming across the road leading to the Tramway. As often is the case, matters such as people and their egos are easily portrayed larger than life, yet in reality they amount to nothing more than small critters.

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