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I was sitting in the wrong place. It was too much of a strain to talk to everyone I usually talked to; I was too far back in the bus. I was sitting next to a girl I didn't know. She was probably a violinist. Just about everyone was. A few boring, silent hours passed, and we pulled into the college campus.
It was a relatively nice-looking concert hall, and, of course, we cluttered up all the seats with jackets, instrument cases, music, and, in my case, a gargantuan wad of Kleenex. I found Deborah. Her parents had driven her. We talked, and after 20 minutes made it onto the stage.
I looked around and was extremely ticked off. Everyone had a chair except me, the last violist, at a stand by herself, possibly considered one of the least important (and admittedly worst) players in the orchestra. I set up my stand anyway.
I turned around. It was the music director.
"I have no chair."
"We know. Joanna's sick. You play outside, right?"
Third chair? I grinned like I knew I was supposed to and moved up. I can't play third chair! I was usually seventh chair, squeezed in between three oboes, four bassoons and a horde of cellos. Under normal circumstances, nobody could hear me. Now Lilian was going to hear every single wrong note!
I smiled nervously at Lilian. Hi. [breath] Ho boy. I could play most of the Shostakovich and usually didn't get lost, the third movement of the Sibelius was ... less than stable, but I could produce at least a mediocre fourth movement ... I could definitely play the Beethoven, but I wasn't worried about my playing for that one.
Joel came onstage. He hadn't changed yet, but always waited until the last minute. Conductors could afford to wait. They had their own dressing room.
"All right," he said. "Does everyone have a copy of the Wagner?"
There was a shocked silence, and then a low moaning. We had begun to rehearse the Wagner in August and had been beating the dead horse since then. We thought it had finally been put to rest in November. Nuts.
It sounded okay; we only had time to run through it once. The only parts of the Wagner I couldn't play were ones nobody else could either. However, no one was really worried about the Wagner. It was the Beethoven that was the problem.
The orchestral part, in my judgment, was easy, especially in comparison to the Sibelius. We were worried about the soloist. We had rehearsed with her once, and she hadn't known the piece. We knew this because we had played it with Joel's wife, who had been fantastic. Our opinions of this new lady were somewhat different. And I thought she looked remarkably like a man in drag. We began to rehearse. She lost her place.
I think it was at this point that we all started to realize it didn't matter what the pianist did as long as the orchestra sounded all right. Later we found out this woman was the wife of a board member of the society (for which we were giving the concert) which cemented that idea.
Then we were waiting to go onstage. We were no longer plagued by worries of Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto. We were now feeling decidedly sick due to too much food and the inevitable third movement of Sibelius' Second Symphony, which was lightning fast.
Troy was playing it lightning faster. He stood in the hallway, standing his cello on its endpin and zipped and flapped his fingers all over his fingerboard, playing the music at close to twice the speed. It was terrifying. He's the kind of musician who loves to play so much he can't hold his instrument without playing it.
"Troy, if you rush during the concert I'll kill you!" Just about everyone said that at one time or another.
We went onstage. I was sitting directly behind Deborah, the principal violist. (I am not worrrthyyy.)
It's always surprising to see the hall filled with people rather than instrument cases, jackets, and backpacks. The audience never seems to realize much about the people onstage. The same is true for the orchestra. When you look out into the audience, it is a sea of unrecognizable faces. You believe you are playing for the music. This is also what the audience believes. The best concerts are those at which this is true.
I tuned my strings (not that it mattered, we would all tune again "officially") and the winds and brass were making all sorts of noise. I was pretending to practice a passage from the fourth movement of Sibelius when I heard the trombones switch from the same fourth movement to something slightly different.
The Star Wars Imperial March.
I was mortified that they were insane enough to be playing this before a concert, but they shut up soon enough and out came the concertmaster (the first violinist). The audience clapped and we stomped, which means the same thing. We tuned "officially." Then Joel came out, we all stood up, and at that moment I was gone. Joel, in his suit, on his platform, with his baton, set me into performance mode. One of those funny-named glands started pumping out adrenaline.
The Shostakovich Festival Overture. I know it's the kind of piece that is supposed to energize people, but it didn't just energize me, it electrified me. I could feel the music rushing through my veins. There was pure energy running through all of us. And later ... Normally, when a piece is over, the audience pauses to make sure, the clapping starts tentatively and swells. This time, it was there even before Joel cut off our last note, and it washed over us like a wave. Pure energy.
The Beethoven. She did lose her place once, but Joel's wife, who was turning pages, helped her get back in. Standing ovation for the wife of the board director.
Then, of course, there was nothing left but the dreaded Sibelius. I was honestly terrified. I hated it to its core, barely understood half of the rhythms, and on average played 45% correctly. The week before, in rehearsal, even Joel had been worried. In the third chair, with Joel right in front of me, I was petrified. We played.
From what I remember, Troy was nice and didn't rush. The oboes and cello had nice solos, and the trumpets didn't fudge their hard entrance. The violas played the chromatic part right, even though we had no idea of the bowing, and we were so thrilled with relief and anticipation of the fourth movement that the energy was almost there again. I loved the beginning of the fourth movement because I could play it, and when I looked up at Joel, the energy clicked. He was grinning. He had never grinned during the Sibelius before and it made me realize that he felt the energy, too.
We got a standing ovation. We told ourselves that these people didn't know anything about classical music, but it felt wonderful. They gave us carnations. A few flowers didn't even survive the walk to the bus, but most of us were smiling and repeating things like "pretty flower."
Then I was lying on the back seat of the bus, my face pressed against the window, twirling my beautiful blue carnation and singing Broadway songs. It was me, my carnation, and the music of someone I had never met singing through me ...
* * *
It took me a few months to learn to like the Sibelius, but as I write this eight months later, the music begins to run through my head, and I can see Joel grinning, the lights, the bows of the string players whirling around me, and the pure energy circling us all, the orchestra, the audience, the pianist ... and I think someday it will return, rushing through my veins and through everyone else's: the music of somebody we never met singing through us. c