Fundraising can be a bruising experience. The latest no was particularly hard, coming in the final round as it did. My husband remained unfazed. It’s a numbers game, he says. You can’t take it personally. Don’t get stressed!
This is not just good, but necessary advice, something that was brought home in simple, hard hitting fashion at the symphony the other evening, where guest conductor Roberto Abbado led Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony No. 3, with violinist Veronika Eberle soloing Schumann’s Violin Concerto.
Going to the symphony Wednesday nights has been our tradition for ten plus years. I’ve returned to Row B, seat 112, next to my husband and daughter for so long, I have a nodding acquaintance with the second chair cellist and the fourth chair violinist. I feel like I know the viola player who looks like a Greek goddess as she plays, shining wings of light brown hair framing her classically lovely face. I’ve watched the second chair cellist go from a super young looking guy with prematurely gray hair to a young looking middle aged guy with prematurely gray hair. I’ve watched the first chair cellist go from an old man, to a very old man with liver-spotted bald pate and a cane.
We’ve gone so long I’ve noticed that that in the string section married people wear their wedding bands on their right hand rather than the left, and that slightly more than half of the players are married. I’ve also noticed many conductors are lefties and Roberto Abbado is no exception, he was a lefty leading a sea of musical righties — I scanned them all and there wasn’t a left hand holding a bow, which I find intriguing. I’ve always thought lefties were predominant in the creative arts.
We’ve gone long enough to know that after the performance, the symphony players will empty onto the sidewalk from the building in a sudden surf, so that as an audience member walking to your car or to a nearby restaurant (say, Absinthe, with it’s pretty bar and it’s excellent pommes frittes served in a tall paper cone), you may find yourself suddenly bumping amongst them in their patent leather shoes and their bulky black instrument cases.
We’ve gone so long that the symphony players know us too, smiling if I should catch their eye during the chaotic but oddly beautiful sounding warm-up. Once, on a Halloween performance, we dressed in red lined vampire capes over our formal black tie attire, with whitened faces and red eyes and fangy, faintly bloodied mouths. We slicked our hair back like we were in an Anne Rice novel and while the violinists were warming up the second chair leaned over and whispered to the fourth chair and then they were all looking at us, smiling and tapping their bows on their strings in elegant ovation. Later, when conductor Michael Tillson Thomas turned to face the audience to take a bow he gave us a wink and little gesture of hand and head in acknowledgement of our vampiric splendor.
We’ve gone so long that the software start-up me in year one would widen her eyes in surprise at the bakery owning me in year nine, and both would shake their heads in wonder at nonprofit working me. Each of these versions of me have sat before the orchestra in different forms of exhaustion and elation, listening with eyes closed, my quietly folded hands giving no sign of my mind galloping with stories that seem to bloom directly from the notes.
We’ve gone so long that my husband’s hair has begun to gray (though not as much or as fast as mine). We’ve gone so long a garden of tattoos has sprung up along my shoulders and down my arms, and across my husband’s back.
We’ve gone so long our high school-aged violin playing daughter holding my hand and whispering excitedly “that’s a Stradivarius” while nodding at the Russian first chair has somehow morphed into a Standford graduate, fashion-model tall and traveling the world as a newly minted career woman.
We’ve gone so long I’ve wondered if our absence this year has been noticed. I know my husband finds the sudden symphony sized gap in our lives a sad one, and I wonder if we were right to snip the musical thread that’s run through so much of our lives. The choice to pay for surgery or pay for a season of Wednesday night music is not really a choice, but sometimes I wish I’d worked harder to find a solution, any solution.
I cried over it once or twice but my husband just smiles. You can’t get stressed, he says, though I know he regrets the loss of this creative force in our lives as much – even more – than I. Mathematical people, I’ve noticed, often have a mystical affinity to music, and the husband, an engineer, is no exception.
My pitiless memory reminds me that in the book “The Year of Sand and Fog” the husband, a former diplomatic man, takes secret extra jobs – the night counter at a convenience stores, weekend construction sites – so his wife can keep living in their nice house. He is calm and seemingly unstressed but appearances can be deceiving, and the mortal solution he chooses to their problems is the choice of a man who, in trying to bear the stress of the lives breaking around him, is himself broken.
We’ve gone so long that returning felt like coming home as much as my real home in southern Illinois has ever felt, so much so that when we took our seats it took some effort not to shout “Way to go honey!”….. for our seats were just one row behind our old season ticket seats, something I’m not sure how the husband managed. Sitting there I felt my happiness like a physical thing, like a shiny light; I half expected the usher to tell me to tone it down a little, would you, ma’am, we don’t allow bright lights, it distracts the orchestra.
Wednesdays are not usually sold out but this night the house was packed, with few empty seats visible. I wondered if they were here for the Mendelssohn or the soloist, who I could not tear my eyes from. Her glimmering golden gown fell in classic pleats to the floor. The New York Times has written that she brings an “introverted intensity and interpretive boldness” to the concerto and it’s a good description of her as she plays, seeming to thrum with an energy that swishes her golden gown around her feet. Her slender body bent and bowed like a reed in an invisible wind generated by the orchestra; the violin seemed to hold her to the ground; had she set it gently on the conductor’s podium , given us a dignified nod and sprouted great filmy wings and flown off, I would not have been surprised. I half expected our hair to lift from our foreheads in the sympathetic breeze of her music.
During the intermission we huddled together outside on the balcony among the smokers and the cell phone conversations and watched the jewel-like lights of traffic below. It felt good to stand in the chilly spring air, a chance to shake errant notes of music from one’s hair and lap, to return to our seats ready to be covered again. We heard the dulcet bonging sound warning the Mendelssohn was about to begin and quickly finished our coffee and cookies. I would rather have had wine, but tonight’s outing was only a caesura, not a celebration as there were more grant applications to be written later.
And then, as we headed back to our seats, there came rushing up the aisle four men, straining to hurry as they carried an unconscious older gentleman who hung limply, heavily between them, his eyelids in purplish contrast to his waxy pallor.
We stood by to let them pass and a fifth man rushed past, pushing a folded up wheelchair. I considered the implications – too ill to sit in his wheelchair, carried out feet first by strangers holding him under his arms, his back only inches from the floor as they strained to carry his weight, his suit jacket fallen open. I ached at the sight of his white shirt untucked, the flash of belly skin going by. How fragile we all are.
People edged back into the aisles, looking wide-eyed at each other; there was little or no talking, which didn’t really surprise me. The average age of the symphony audience is 70+ and most, I imagined, were familiar with the hem of mortality’s cloak brushing past; they knew there was nothing to be said.
We took our seats silently and soon the opening strains of the Scottish filled the room. The No. 3 is a musical landscape of the stormy Scottish countryside, the brooding violins sounding almost funereal at the start. My husband took my hand, and I knew he was thinking, as I was, of the unconscious man and his terrible, human vulnerability. That’s all of us, someday he whispered. We’re all going to get there, one way or another. Do you see?
He squeezed my hand and I knew what he meant by his question – Do you see why you can’t be stressed? – and nodded. The violins soared and I thought of the old man, who was probably being loaded into an ambulance, which would have lights flashing but no siren. We held hands throughout the performance, almost as if we’d never been gone at all.