The stage lights of the Meyerson Symphony Center blinded my vision as I stared into the sea of audiences before me. Rows upon rows of seats were stacked on top of one another, curving in a gracious arc to surround the orchestra on stage. I cast my eyes toward the ceiling above and saw glowing orbs like the brilliant stars that dotted the vast night sky. The grandeur of my surroundings made me feel so small, so insignificant. Yet I was awed. I was elated.
My heart was thumping so wildly that I barely heard the thunderous applause that brought the concert master, followed by the conductor, onto the stage. The lights dimmed. The cheers dissipated. Our conductor raised his baton, and the woodwinds broke into melancholy chords that resonated across the magnificent hall.
It was my last concert with the GDYO Philharmonic Orchestra.
We were playing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet - a poetic tribute to fervent, star-crossed, teenage love. It was the romantic composer’s first masterpiece. It was ten years of passion and dedication condensed into five pages of lines and dots.
The music grew more agitated, its mood more tense, and its atmosphere more foreboding. A tragedy was brewing. The ominous lower strings gave way to the lament from the flutes, echoed by the harp’s ascending arpeggios, this time quieter and more peaceful. Then, with the pizzicato from the first violins, the theme from the beginning returned. More forceful. More distressed. Suddenly, the music melted away the world before me.
I was 11, on my way to 6th grade. I was supposed to choose an instrument to learn next year. That day, in the middle school’s large orchestra room, I stared into the face of that delicate creature. I was first struck by how small the violin was. Having been accustomed to the 88 keys on the piano, I wondered how four short strings could possibly play such an instrumental role in the world of music. Then, I admired the craft - the elegant curve of the violin’s body, the way the scroll was carved, or the intricacy of the f-holes. An image floated in my mind - dozens of violinists playing away furiously on their tiny instruments; there were lush melodies, shrill cries, mournful lamentations; there were Mozart’s sonatas, Beethoven’s symphonies, Bach’s minuets, and Tchaikovsky’s overtures… The violin felt like a fragile piece of wood that could fit the palm of my hand, but its little body held torrents of feelings and oceans of emotions. At that moment, I made a decision.
I want to play the violin.
The woodwinds echoed the strings. The music was growing faster, louder, faster, louder. Bam! A new theme emerged. It was the intense hatred and the deep feud that divided Verona - the Montagues fighting the Capulets. Suddenly, the violinists were digging into their instruments with lightning-fast bow strokes, playing furious sixteenth-notes that symbolized the height of tension. In the distance I heard the clash of swords that shook the streets of Verona. Enemies to peace in their pernicious rage!
That day when I returned home, I pulled up some violin solos. I became entranced by Jules Massenet's Meditation from Thais. It was Maxim Vengerov on his violin. He played it with his eyes closed, as if in deep thought. His hand trembled with the movement of the music. His lips were curved in a faint smile. The serene piece opened slowly, but it progressed towards agitation that bordered despair. Yet as the rousing sentiments culminated in a climactic peak, calmness returned, and the music faded on a note of eternal tranquility. I was awestruck - such a moving melody created from that delicate instrument not much bigger than the artist’s hand! It was a masterpiece.
The conflict died, and with it the energy of the music. Then, the English horn and the violas struck up a new theme - the one that we heard so often that represented the fiery passion of true love - love that vanquished even the deepest hatred. It represented the budding romance of Juliet and her Romeo.
I was a freshman sitting in the humanities classroom, a little book laid open in front of me. We were reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but I thought we were reading French or Latin or something. The play, riddled with fancy metaphors and esoteric vocabulary, perplexed me at every turn.
“So, who wants to read Romeo’s part?” Our teacher asked.
Several of my classmates spoke up for me: “Alex should do it!”
Great, I thought. Conveniently, we were about to read the famous balcony scene. It could not have been more awkward.
With no other way out, I cleared my throat and began.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound … But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon…”
A few lines later, “Juliet” echoed back: “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
Our monotone and awkward voices exchanged this passionate dialogue as if the lovers have been replaced with mechanical robots, transforming Shakespeare’s heartbreaking romance into immature comedy.
The whole class roared with laughter.
As the love theme faded, what remained was calmness reminiscent of the passionate romance. I could distinctly hear the harp’s soothing harmony behind me. However, this was the calm before the storm, for tragedy would rise from consequential love.
I was backstage, about to perform the first orchestra concert of the school year. To my own surprise, I had been promoted to concert master. This meant that I had to make an entrance and tune the orchestra. I was terrified.
Our orchestra director gave me an encouraging smile and nudged me into the spotlight.
A round of applause rose and faded. We entered into a lively Dvorak followed by the grief of Grieg. After we launched into our third song and flew through three pages of notes, the excitement of the orchestra calmed and the music slowed. I took a deep breath, raised my bow, and let forth quivering notes from my tiny instrument. I felt myself dissolve with the music, that echoed softly yet confidently across the room.
The orchestra waited for the solo to conclude and finished the song with a flourish. As we stood up, the audience broke into thunderous applause. I caught a glimpse of beaming faces of friends and family, people who watched me grow for the past four years - four years of dedication to the violin, four years of driving from one end of the town to the other for private lessons, four years of tears, sweat, hardship, and perseverance.
I looked in my hand and saw that delicate little instrument. How similar it was to the one I set eyes on in the summer of fifth grade. Yet its meaning to me was so different.
The ominous storm was brewing until the orchestra unleashed all its power, and the Montague and Capulet feud theme returned in full force. Its might filled the hollow concert hall, just like how Romeo and Tybalt’s fight shook the streets of Verona.
The light rain tapped our umbrellas as my family and I headed toward Shakespeare’s Globe on our last day in London. When I saw the theater, I was struck by its size - it was modest, and I noted that it resembled a rather large barnhouse.
“Why are we visiting this place?” I asked. “It’s nothing compared to the Tower Bridge, the Parliament, or the Buckingham Palace.”
“But it’s where they bring Shakespeare’s masterpieces to life.” My parents replied.
Indeed. I remembered our readings and discussions on Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade. I remembered the tiny words on the tiny book. They, just like this humble theater, defined the glory of Elizabethan England; they became the symbols of western literature that are still celebrated everywhere today.
From climatic tensions sprung the most passionate romance. This time, the love theme was played by all the violins. Long and lush bow strokes made the tiny strings vibrate with full force. Finally, all the emotions were let loose, and we saw love in its purest form.
However, the theme symbolizing the warring families made its way into the music, speaking of impending doom. Two melodies, two emotions became intertwined until the powerful brass took the agitation and brought it to a unprecedented, thunderous peak! Romeo had learned of Juliet’s supposed death, and would rush to Verona for a final reunion. The strings echoed Romeo’s despair and accelerated into a series of sixteenth notes, while the brass reflected Friar Lawrence’s distress that his failed plan could unfold an irreversible tragedy. Romeo, in his moment of desolation and disillusionment, killed his bitter rival, Paris. The cymbals crashed as Romeo died by Juliet’s side. Friar Lawrence came too late, and Juliet woke.
She saw her dead lover and plunged a dagger into her body.
The cymbals crashed in the midst of an orchestra roaring with power.
I glanced up at the lights on the ceiling; they glowed like heavenly orbs hanging in the vast night sky. I defy you, stars!
As the cellos finished this rather difficult passage with a flourish, there was a brief moment of silence as the faint echoes of our deafening music lingered in the air.
The orchestra entered a slow but thoughtful conclusion. At that moment, I realized that we had created art. We brought Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare onto one stage. I had united two strands of seemingly unrelated memory - my journey with music and my adventures with English literature. I thought about my toils on the violin and our lessons on Shakespeare. Suddenly, it all made sense together. With delicate instruments and dots on a page inspired by a small book, we had rendered a performance that dwarfed even the grandeur of the surrounding architecture - because we had fused literature and music, the twin beacons of civilization, until they shined as one.
It was a masterpiece.
The resolution was mournful, yet also filled with hope. It was serene, like the rainbow after the thunderstorm. With a series of chords, the orchestra finally closed the piece on a long, thoughtful note.
As the audience applauded, we stood up and bowed. Then, I followed the others, gave the concert hall one last longing look, and left the stage.