The last time I heard the Eroica symphony was in July 2012: the Minnesota Orchestra playing in Winona for the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. My mom wanted to bring me. Her daughter had no money. She had no money. But together we had some money, and so we went.
In those days, Erin Keefe was the new concertmaster. In fact, in the first half of the Eroica concert, she made her concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra in the Beethoven violin concerto. A man named Osmo Vänskä was conducting. That performance marked the beginning of a very promising musical relationship.
The Orchestra’s Eroica that day was thrilling. Every pitch was hit, every jarring accent pounded. But looking back, there was not much joy to it. There was fire, conviction, energy, passion – but not much joy. It was an Eroica that intimidated in its hard-edged perfection, like a diamond you’d admire breathlessly but be afraid to wear. And I have a recording off MPR of that July weekend’s concerts, so I’m not reconstructing this entirely by memory.
I remember talking briefly to one musician after the show and somehow intuitively understanding that he was very, very distracted. In fact, there was a distant look in all the players’ eyes that scared me. I remember fretting. I felt I had seen something very important without understanding why it was very important, and I drove home with Mom feeling blown away and very, very uneasy.
Turns out negotiations for the musicians’ new contract had begun that spring. They were going badly. To the best of my knowledge, that performance – in a middle school auditorium in Winona, Minnesota – was the last time that Osmo Vänskä conducted the Minnesota Orchestra before the sixteen month lockout broke everything apart.
My mother was never a violinist. (Although she played viola briefly in middle school. Her orchestra teacher had a prosthetic bow hand. She enjoyed telling this story. Especially to violists.) But she supported my musical studies without question, even when she probably should have questioned. Over the years those studies became ever more intense, ever more consuming, emotionally, physically, and financially. But as I grew, and as her identity was subsumed ever further into mine, and as mine was subsumed ever further into orchestral music, she became just as fascinated by the violin as I was.
There was a point not too long ago when she picked up the violin and played a really very lovely scale for me, despite never having played before. She had watched so many concerts and sat in on so many lessons that she had absorbed it by osmosis. She knew more about the violin than any non-violinist I’ve ever met.
We discovered the repertoire together, starting with the big flashy romantic warhorses and scouting our way out. She became obsessed with Ravel’s Sad Birds. She loved Judd Greenstein’s Acadia even more than I did. She listened to a particular Brahms intermezzo over and over again. We would lie down together and listen to the Fauré Requiem.
At one point in our exploration, we came across Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Every summer we would take drives on the Mississippi River while listening to it. The soaring music became the backdrop to the eagles’ high and silent flight out the windshield.
Eventually she started musing: “Wouldn’t this be amazing to have played at a memorial service? Just this and nothing else?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Will you do that for me?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
I was content in the knowledge that this theoretical unconventional memorial service would happen around 2050, so I didn’t feel I needed to take the request particularly seriously. I just said sure, and our conversation would invariably drift into other channels, to other pieces and other performances.
If you read this blog during the lockout, and ever found any of what I wrote to be useful, please know that I would not have written anything without her support and encouragement. Whenever I would express my doubts to her that the lockout nightmare would end, she was invariably the one to convince me it would. She refused to believe our Minnesota Orchestra would end in the way that, in December 2013, it looked like it was going to. At the time, her faith seemed naive, but she was vindicated in the end.
When the Minnesota Orchestra season of resurrection was announced, we could not get over the idea of Erin Keefe and Osmo and the Orchestra doing The Lark Ascending…on Easter weekend. In a season of jaw-dropping concerts, we both agreed that this one performance would be the pinnacle, the one we just had to go to. So on Black Friday we bought our Christmas presents for one another: tickets in the front row for that Saturday night.
Mom was injured at the time. She had shoveled a few weeks before and had strained something in her back. Except the pain was a little different from what she’d had before; it was in her stomach a bit, too. It was hard to tell what interior muscles were what. But obviously the shoveling injury would be healed by Easter. We talked about how this concert was something to look forward to. The thought of it pulled her through some truly exhausting pain.
In late January, after she was diagnosed with a rare cancer of unknown origin that was ravaging her abdomen, my mother was referred to the fabulous oncologist Dr. Keith Bible in Rochester. His devotion to his work and to healing is holy in its intensity. We got a business card with five phone numbers on it and were told to call if anything changed. If one number didn’t get through to him, we were to call the next, and then the next, and so on. It was very important that I, as her caretaker, keep in close contact with him. The responsibility of it was stomach-turning.
At a certain point after the chemotherapy started, she began to get very confused. It became increasingly difficult for her to even take her medications. It would take a couple of hours of counseling for her to get six pills down.
“Take this one,” I said, sitting on the bed next to her and pointing to her open palm where I had set the pill.
“That one,” I said, and I pointed again.
“But there’s two,” she said, and the implication of what she’d just said made me nauseous.
“Something’s wrong,” my aunt finally said, and although I was having a hard time admitting it, she was right. So while my mom was sleeping, my aunt and I went into the spare bedroom. She called Dr. Bible’s office, turned the phone to speaker, and set it on the bed between us. We were put on hold while Dr. Bible was paged. I took a deep shuddering breath, and after I let it out recognized The Lark Ascending was the hold music. A chill went through my body.
“This is what Mom wanted at her memorial service,” I blurted out, and my aunt and I looked at each other, and there was an uneasy silence.
Dr. Bible said to get her into emergency right away; he thought the obvious, that she might have a tumor in her brain. It made a sickening amount of sense. There were tumors everywhere else in her body, so why not there, too? She was so weak and disoriented it took several hours to get her dressed and from the bedroom into the car. It was one of the coldest nights of the year. The air outside was physically painful.
Once she had some fluids in her, she started joking. The edge of the disorientation disappeared. She could talk again. I sat on the plastic emergency room chair and watched her interact with the hospital staff. They asked her who the president was. She didn’t know. They asked her what year it was. “2008,” she said. They ordered a CT scan.
While we were waiting for the results, I thought desperately of something to engage her.
“When we called Dr. Bible, the hold music was The Lark Ascending,” I told her, not knowing what else to offer, or if she’d even understand what The Lark Ascending was. Earlier she’d forgotten Dr. Bible, so I wasn’t hopeful.
She immediately perked up. “It was?”
“Yes,” I said, “it was.”
“I love that piece,” she said.
And in the midst of all this terror, I started laughing, because I found it darkly darkly hilarious that despite all the confusion, she was still retaining knowledge of and passion for early twentieth century English music. God, I hope that’s the last thing that goes for me, too.
“I wish I had better news,” the doctor said after she came in the room to share the results of the scan.
Radiation and steroids helped reduce the swelling, and that helped the confusion. There was actually a period of time when she was back to her old self.
Then we had to take another trip to the emergency room, and there we found out she would be dying in a few days. Complications had developed and sepsis was inevitable. Surgery was pointless. Nothing more could be done. Suddenly a group of people was congregating around her bed. I broke down screaming as she lay there, so beautiful and content and radiant. As my panic grew, her serenity blossomed. That juxtaposition was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen. The chaplain appeared, and she said in her gentle chaplain voice, “Your mother’s calm may be upsetting to you now, but in time you will be grateful, and it will be a great gift to you.” I stared at them all, completely dumbstruck.
“Come here, honey,” Mom said, and she motioned to me, and suddenly I was clambering over the bedrail and clinging to her. She pet my hair, as she’d done since I was a very little girl. “Don’t leave me,” I screamed over and over.
“I will never leave you,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“You’ll know what to do.”
“Where do I go?” She didn’t answer. A phrase came into my mind. “Do I go where I’m loved?”
“Yes. Go where you’re loved,” she agreed. And then: “We still have a few more days. Rest here.” And she patted her shoulder.
Nurses were hovering us, changing medications, asking about pain levels. They upped her morphine even more. They told us she would become sleepier and sleepier and would become more and more uncommunicative.
The minutes were ticking past perilously quickly and I didn’t know what else to say. Either there was too much to say or everything had already been said. Maybe both.
So I found myself talking about the most meaningful thing we had ever shared together, which was music. “The musicians will play Lark Ascending for you,” I blurted, blindly promising something I absolutely could in no way whatsoever guarantee. “Osmo and Erin and everyone. They’ll play it for you.”
“Will they?” she asked, dreamily, and I think by that point the higher morphine dose was taking effect. She closed her eyes and drifted. “That would be wonderful.”
I don’t want to describe what exactly happened during the final days; doing so feels like describing the nitty-gritty of a birth. (Which her death was.) But it was hugely painful for everyone. She did not retain that preternatural calm for the entire few days, although thankfully she ended her life with it.
During one of the rough patches, I took out my phone and played The Lark Ascending for her. Maybe it was my imagination, but after the agitation, the corners of her lips twitched: a superhuman effort at a smile, I hope. So this was the last piece of music we shared, and maybe the last she ever heard.
After the piece finished, it was getting late. Family had arrived, congregated in a hushed vigil. I watched her sleeping. She wasn’t talking any more. “Good night,” I said, and I kissed her forehead. I realized I was consciously choosing my words. And then I stood up and put my coat on and scarf on and put my phone away and left the hospital with my best friend.
In the hallway I verbalized my instinct. “I don’t know if I’m going to go back,” I said. My friend and I talked about this on the drive back to the house. I finally said, “I just feel like society would say, you aren’t a good daughter unless you stay with her until the very end.”
“Fuck society,” my best friend said.
And that was it; I knew I wouldn’t see my mother again. And I don’t regret that decision, and I never will. I needed to let go to let her go.
Thankfully we’d talked many times about funerals, long before she ever got sick. How neither of us wanted one. How unnecessary we think they are. How revulsive we found the idea of our bodies lying in wake, with friends and family crying over open coffins. There’s no there there.
So haha, funny story, it turns out the Minnesota Orchestra’s Easter performance of The Lark Ascending would be the closest thing to a funeral she’d ever have. I never asked, but the musicians knew enough of the story I’ve just described, and so they dedicated their Friday night performance to her memory. I cried the night I found this out, both because I was so unspeakably moved by the gesture, and also because my first instinct was to share moving news with her, and I – couldn’t.
I went both Friday and Saturday nights. Friday I was perched in a balcony, like a bird in a tree.
This group of beloved musicians gave the greatest performance of the piece I have ever heard. I cannot describe it. It defies description. More than that, description cheapens the memory, because description will always fail. But suffice it to say, one could hear the raptness in the hall on top of the hush of the strings. And I’ve never heard anyone draw a bow the way that Erin did in the last few solo measures, as Osmo clasped his hands together and hung his head. I could see the musicians’ faces as they all put their instruments down and listened. The lark’s final notes were weak whispers that nonetheless were strong enough to project to the very corners of the hall.
Then – silence.
Such a long, long silence.
The applause began tentatively. The audience was stunned. There were gasps of air. I felt like everyone in that great cathedral of a hall touched a great mystery, and I don’t know what it was. I’ll probably chase after the mystery for the rest of my life. The pursuit sounds appealing.
After intermission, Erin was back onstage in concert black to kick some ass in the Eroica. She and her colleagues are bringing it on the road to Cuba next month for a historic concert in Havana. After being completely broken during the lockout…after dying and coming back to life…the Minnesota Orchestra is ready to take its place back on the international stage.
Also, as a side note, Erin’s fiance was on the podium. In fact, she and Osmo got married after their performances this weekend. A promising partnership indeed.
I hadn’t heard Beethoven 3 since that electric concert in Winona. Where the Winona Eroica had been intimidating in its exacting fury, the Minneapolis one had a much greater emotional range. It had a relaxed confidence to it, a swagger, a lyric quality, a playfulness, a relief, a spontaneity, a wisdom, that the earlier performance simply did not – could not – have. In it I heard an unbridled joy in resurrection and new beginnings. It was exactly what I needed to hear.