This is an entry in which I am going to talk about thoughts and feelings I do not understand. To do so is always dangerous. But here I am.
This past weekend I had the good fortune of taking a brief trip to Chicago. It was the kind of impulsive thing I should do more of. James Ehnes was soloing with the CSO in Shostakovich 1. Longtime readers will know that I love James’s work. I owe that work a lot. Plus, there were some Minnesota refugees subbing in Chicago, and it’s always exciting to see friends in new places. It feels delightfully conspiratorial.
I haven’t been to a non-Minnesota-Orchestra-Musician concert since the lockout began. And accordingly, I felt completely disoriented. The audience was completely noncommittal. My fellow patrons weren’t talking about the orchestra or the repertoire or the soloist…or the CSO board or the CEO or the latest financials. Nobody waved to one another. Nobody hugged. Nobody laughed. Nobody cried. The manic electricity I’ve unconsciously grown used to in Minnesota was nowhere to be felt. It was a concert: one great big concert in a never-ending, centuries-long lineup of great big concerts.
The extraordinary had become routine.
Of necessity, maybe, but…
When the lights dimmed, there was a quiet faraway droning sound. It turned out to be applause. I joined in, distracted. In Minnesota, we whoop, we holler, we stamp. This sounded so meek, so anemic. So perfunctory. But – it’s normal. I had to remind myself: this is what people do when their orchestras aren’t in crisis. When they aren’t in danger of disintegrating before your very eyes. Heck, this is what we did, a couple years ago. I felt a churlish wave of homesickness. I only felt better once I looked up at the couple of familiar faces onstage.
I prepared myself to be blown away. But I – I wasn’t, and not by a long shot. I felt like everyone onstage was thinking of things like grocery lists and mortgage payments. Whether they left their curling irons plugged in. What they might cook for dinner tomorrow. Not whether the very future of the art of orchestral music was in their hands. They sounded like a disparate group of the greatest virtuosos on earth…and accordingly, they played as if they had nothing to prove. Then I thought: well, when you play so many concerts a year, how can you leave your soul on the stage every night? You can’t, can you? That’s nobody’s fault, is it? There are only so many times in a week you can tear your own heart out. Or even pretend to. But I missed the electricity. And the manic, sacred sense of purpose.
Polite applause again. A great orchestra – what a miracle! – and yet nobody really seemed to care, particularly.
Then James came onstage. James was a miracle. Any intensity the CSO may have lacked, he brought onstage fivefold. His concentration was, bluntly, terrifying. I had to bite my lip to keep from crying aloud.
As I wept, the woman next to me placidly paged through the month’s program notes, serenely disinterested, oblivious.
During the third movement passacaglia, various instruments gradually disappeared until the only sound in the hall was a solo violin, charged with expressing all the fear and sorrow of the world. It began slowly, quietly…the most haunting sound imaginable, a cold wind of sound sprinkling goosebumps on the backs of bare arms. What enables a musician to descend to such depths at will? The pace was very slow. Very unyielding. The cadenza was a screw tightening, tightening, tightening. Each second that passed, I knew another level of intensity simply could not be reached – but then came another chord, another gradation of dynamics, another whirlwind of notes. Screams of fear and sorrow gave way to manic, frenzied, laser-focused determination. Bow hair cracked apart and then fell limp in the air.
I skipped out on the second half’s Fantastique. There is a passage in Cather’s The Song of the Lark that explains why:
If Thea had had much experience in concert-going, and had known her own capacity, she would have left the hall when the symphony was over. But she sat still, scarcely knowing where she was, because her mind had been far away and had not yet come back to her.
After ten years of extraordinary concerts, I know my own capacity.
So after intermission, I walked back to the hotel. The wind was cold, and I held my collar to guard my throat against any blowing snow. Well. That was The Great American Orchestra, right there. That was what we’re working to achieve, basically. That or something like it. A stable world-renowned orchestra. If I hadn’t had the last two years to look back on, maintaining a stable world-renowned orchestra would seem a noble, fulfilling goal. But in the second year of lockout, that alone seemed a dreadfully shallow, horribly useless thing to work for. Over the last year especially, we’ve been made aware of even more thrilling goals and achievements.
There needs to be more. Yes, a world-class orchestra as a starting point, but something else, in addition. The kind of commitment James brought to the stage, maybe. The kind of desperate affection the audience expresses in Minnesota. The kind of camaraderie that only happens in a fierce battle for high standards. The high-wire thrill and risk of self-governance? … I don’t know.
What is a great performance without a hugely committed audience to appreciate it? What kind of commitment is fair to expect or desire?
What exactly does commitment from a great orchestra look and sound like, and how realistic – and how healthy – is it to expect it every night?
Is every other orchestra and every other audience besides Minnesota’s now going to disappoint? Will I ever feel at home again anywhere else? … The thought I might not is going to haunt me now.
Deep down, am I grateful this lockout happened, so that I might learn these things – and meet these people – and have these experiences?
What do I really want to have?
Here is the paragraph I would insert my neat conclusion into, if I had one. But I don’t. I said at the beginning: I’m talking about thoughts and feelings I do not completely understand.
Before I flew home, I went to the Art Institute to pay my respects to the painting The Song of the Lark. I named the blog that in 2011 because I liked the idea of a blog named for a book about music named for a painting. Over the last hundred years there have no doubt been thousands of people just like Thea Kronberg who have ascended the big staircase and drifted past the Renoirs and Corots to the sentimental Breton, to greet the woman in the dawn transfixed by a beauty we the viewers cannot see or hear. Maybe she is even singing herself. We don’t know, and the painting doesn’t tell us. I said hello to it, then wandered around the gallery, always conscious of it behind me.
Just as I was about to leave, a group of women flocked to and sat down around the Breton. An informal lecture was just beginning on The Song of the Lark and the work the painting has influenced. So I sat down on a bench and listened and learned.
I was acutely aware I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t going to even come to Chicago until I decided to a couple weeks earlier. My flight home had been canceled the night before; I was there by a total fluke. Heck, if I’d spent five fewer minutes in front of the Van Gogh or Seurat, I would have missed the discussion entirely. When real-life plot twists like this occur, it becomes increasingly difficult for sentimentalists like me to write off the completely absurd idea that – at least occasionally, and for whatever crazy reason – we’re dropped into situations that, for lack of a better term, are simply meant to be.
Yesterday I stumbled upon a passage from the novel that, in the midst of this tired bleary-eyed post-trip confusion, made me cry. Thea Kronberg has just been to see the Chicago Symphony. People, just by the nature of their existing, are bothering her, because they are taking her out of the sacred memory of great performance:
Thea came back to the corner and stood there irresolutely. An old man approached her. He, too, seemed to be waiting for a car. He wore an overcoat with a black fur collar, his gray mustache was waxed into little points, and his eyes were watery. He kept thrusting his face up near hers. Her hat blew off and he ran after it—a stiff, pitiful skip he had—and brought it back to her. Then, while she was pinning her hat on, her cape blew up, and he held it down for her, looking at her intently. His face worked as if he were going to cry or were frightened. He leaned over and whispered something to her. It struck her as curious that he was really quite timid, like an old beggar. “Oh, let me ALONE!” she cried miserably between her teeth. He vanished, disappeared like the Devil in a play. But in the mean time something had got away from her; she could not remember how the violins came in after the horns, just there. When her cape blew up, perhaps—Why did these men torment her? A cloud of dust blew in her face and blinded her. There was some power abroad in the world bent upon taking away from her that feeling with which she had come out of the concert hall. Everything seemed to sweep down on her to tear it out from under her cape. If one had that, the world became one’s enemy; people, buildings, wagons, cars, rushed at one to crush it under, to make one let go of it. Thea glared round her at the crowds, the ugly, sprawling streets, the long lines of lights, and she was not crying now. Her eyes were brighter than even Harsanyi had ever seen them. All these things and people were no longer remote and negligible; they had to be met, they were lined up against her, they were there to take something from her. Very well; they should never have it. They might trample her to death, but they should never have it. As long as she lived that ecstasy was going to be hers. She would live for it, work for it, die for it; but she was going to have it, time after time, height after height. She could hear the crash of the orchestra again, and she rose on the brasses. She would have it, what the trumpets were singing! She would have it, have it,—it! Under the old cape she pressed her hands upon her heaving bosom, that was a little girl’s no longer.
No matter the cost to them, Thea would have it – Cather would have it – and apparently so will we.
Here is the musicians’ new season. See you there.