A Genius Wins a Bet

by Jay Nordlinger

Mona Charen and I have a new podcast up (here). She is gracious, poised, and sensible; I am sour, peevish, and histrionic. In other words, we are both in character.

The show ends with “Tea for Two,” because we have discussed the tea party, among other things. Actually, the version used is the orchestration by Shostakovich, which he called the Tahiti Trot. Do you know the story behind this?

Here’s the lore — and I think it’s pretty accurate. The year is 1927. Shostakovich hears “Tea for Two,” once. The conductor Nikolai Malko challenges him to orchestrate it. He bets Shostakovich he can’t do it in under an hour. The young whiz sits down and does it in 40 minutes.

Shostakovich loved music of virtually every type. He once quipped, “I love all music from Bach to Offenbach.”

Years ago, I wrote about Malko in The New Criterion. I then heard from his son, who lives, or lived, in New York. He had written a play about his parents, and their tumultuous journey. (People in the Soviet Union tended to have tumultuous lives.) I went to see it.

Such an interesting world, now and then.

More lore? Okay. “Tea for Two” was written by Vincent Youmans, for the musical No, No, Nanette. It’s said that the owner of the Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to finance No, No, Nanette.

Probably not true, but fun. And an amazing fact about Shostakovich: He lived a horrific life, preyed on and terrorized by the Soviet state at nearly every turn, but he made room for fun, wherever and whenever he could.

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