A year ago today my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and six weeks later she was dead. I try to hold her hand in my memory, but it’s not working; it’s not working. Every day she becomes less human, more ethereal. I signed a lease on an apartment in St. Paul recently. It has bay windows and French doors and a glass porch. A young person’s first place has no right to be so beautiful.
The juxtaposition of the two events is jolting and sad. Numbing.
I hear you’re not supposed to “put a timeline” on grief. But I want to. Because grief hurts and whips and drains like a motherfucker, and I want to be done with it. Or at least be able to regard it knowingly, and from a great distance.
Sometimes I feel like I’m making progress. Like I’ve come through intact. But then every time I’ve caught my balance, I trip on something else.
Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m feeling until it’s too late. Then I realize I’ve been putting on a facade for other people.
Or, more likely, putting on a facade for myself.
I moved to St. Paul to escape Eau Claire. In part. But I also wanted to be near culture, and near the Minnesota Orchestra. The Minnesota Orchestra is burning with purpose and intensity these days, and it’s a privilege to draw up a chair to its fire.
The orchestra rang in January 2016 by performing an ambitious Beethoven marathon. Nine symphonies, five piano concertos, five programs, eight performances, seventeen days. I’m hungry for this; I’m famished for this; because distraction, please. Any distraction from the perpetually dawning realization that I’ll never find a love like hers again. That each night I’ll be the only one here to turn the lamp off.
For months beforehand, I obsessed over the orchestra’s New Year’s Eve performance of Beethoven 1 and 9. I unpacked my clothes and chose a dress and hung it in my little dressing room tucked under the stairs. Every time I went in and out, I’d take down a necklace and hang up a wrap, indecisive as to every detail.
That night, in the moment, I was sure I was happy, and maybe I was. I entertained friends. I wore the dress. I sat in Balcony B. I watched every performer onstage, the gentlemen in crisp tuxes and the ladies in colorful gowns.
But as the performance began, I felt unsteady. I usually don’t sit that far back, that high up, and something about the new acoustic threw me off. By the middle of the first movement, I was realizing – slowly – that I wasn’t touching the electricity I wanted to. Tonight was supposed to be a grand night of catharsis that I could write something beautiful about. Why didn’t I feel anything? When the house lights came up at intermission, I had to swallow my frustration and glance at the floor. It wasn’t the orchestra, I don’t think. I think it was the new perspective. And the ache of sadness.
The ninth fared better somehow, maybe because of the larger forces assembled onstage. The opening was especially breathtaking; it was like a sonic sunrise flaring across the stage. The cellos’ first whisper of the Ode to Joy theme sounded as if it was played on a single hair.
By the fourth movement I felt near to catharsis. I felt near to embracing the affirmation that love and happiness and joy do indeed triumph in the end. Beethoven was deaf and he believed that, so why shouldn’t I? There’s hope after all! The Minnesota Chorale thundered away like a force from God. They outshone the orchestra.
English subtitles were projected above the stage. I’ve never been to a performance where this was done.
Whoever has been lucky enough
To become a friend to a friend,
Whoever has found a beloved wife,
Let him join our songs of praise!
Yes, and anyone who can call one soul
his own on this earth!
Any who cannot, let them slink away
from this gathering in tears!
I blinked at that text, which I’ve read but never…read. Is the Ode to Joy – the paean to universal brotherhood that we’ve all sung since childhood – actually not about universal brotherhood?
I felt a rush of confusion, which was immediately followed by a rush of shame, that I hadn’t ever considered the idea.
What was Schiller aiming at? What was Beethoven?
When the piece finished in its blaze of glory, I watched the dark cheering crowd below. And I whooped and applauded and hollered with the rest of them.
But I was chastised. It was dumb to think that such a big thing could be so simple. And it was dumb to think that any night of music, no matter how transcendent, could wipe clean a slate of grief. Changing a calendar page doesn’t change anything. There are no simple endings, in music or real life. I’m twenty-six, and I should know that by now.
One ticket used. Four left. I was awake until two, talking and visiting and buzzing, then I went home to collapse in bed. And I slept and I slept.
The following week, a friend and I were driving down Summit Avenue. We were talking Beethoven. I was trying to explain how frustrated I was that my concentration had lapsed on New Year’s Eve. “I mean, I kept telling myself, there’s one of the great Beethoven orchestras up there, and I – ” I said.
“Some people call us one of the great Beethoven orchestras,” violist Sam Bergman said. “But we aren’t. The reason being, we haven’t played yet.”
He was appearing at Friday night’s pre-concert talk ahead of the next program (the first two piano concertos and the seventh symphony). He reminded us that it has been a decade since the orchestra and Osmo made their acclaimed Beethoven recordings for BIS. He rattled off every principal position that has changed hands over the intervening years. (The list is a sobering one, and it didn’t even include section players.) He described how the Minnesota Orchestra isn’t a static entity. How Osmo isn’t a static entity. How they all adapt together to arrivals and departures. How they’ve always evolved, and how they won’t ever stop evolving, and how their Beethoven that night would be different from the Beethoven of ten years ago. How it had to be different.
Well. Yes. So I guess that begs more questions: is there such a thing as a great Beethoven orchestra? Or a great orchestra, period? If there is, what makes it? Everyone would have their own answer. I think mine, in a nutshell, would be technique and passion and chemistry. And I didn’t need to hear the Minnesota Orchestra play to know they’ve got all that.
Tickets are cheaper at the front of the house. The balance there is heavy on the strings, and your neck will crick looking up. But those seats give the best view of the bows and the glances and the breaths, and the maestro stomping and lunging. Sitting there is the closest I’ll ever get to fulfilling a childhood dream of playing in a great orchestra.
For this second program, Yevgeny Sudbin took the stage to play the first two Beethoven concertos. He looks like a Russian Van Cliburn. He’s tall and bony, and he inspires elderly women to remark during his bows that he should eat soup. My seat was in the front and center, slightly to stage left. I couldn’t see Sudbin’s hands, but I could see the resonant wooden underbelly of the piano. My mother was a pianist. My first memory of ever listening to anything dates from when I was young and lying beneath our grand piano. I didn’t realize this was my first memory until after she died and I was looking through old pictures and I saw a photo of her there and I thought – oh my God. I should have known she gave me that. She gave me everything else.
Sudbin played beautifully. The notes were liquid silver, with dozens of gradations of dynamics. I understand the kinship between Vänskä and Sudbin. If Osmo was a concert pianist, I think he’d play very much like him.
New Year’s Eve I’d met a new friend. A reader, actually. It was my first time talking to her, but I’ve known of her a long time, and we’ve been messaging on Facebook. She has a sarcastic sense of humor, so of course we get along.
During intermission, before the seventh, she came to say hello. There was a spare seat next to me. “Have you ever sat this close before?” I asked as we chatted.
“No; I’m usually up in the cheap seats.”
“Take this one,” I said.
“But what if someone comes?”
“They’d come before intermission,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure. I tried to put on an air of bravado about this.
She sat, maybe a little tentatively. I think we both avoided making eye contact with anyone around us, on the off chance our sham would be discovered.
“I’ve never been this close to them before,” she said. She was excited. She laughed. I laughed.
But no one came to claim the seats, and the house lights dimmed. The woman next to me leaned in over her drink. “Are you two together?” she asked.
“I -” I said, suddenly giggling again, and Osmo trotted onstage and waved his arm and the musicians stood, and there was no time to answer.
Beethoven’s seventh symphony is the key to my heart. Years ago, it was one of the first pieces I heard Osmo conduct these players in. They are so assured in Osmo’s approach to this repertoire, and yet they also create every page, every phrase anew. This is orchestral Beethoven at his realest and rawest. In this performance, in the first movement, inner voices were emphasized with a thrilling mad violence. There were times when the second violins tore away at their open Es, and it created a magic manic ringing sound in the midst of the cacophony. The second movement was all poetry, an andante seduction, hushed string sounds brushing against the skin and leaving little goosebumps. The third was a jolly, sarcastic, repetitious little dance. The dotted rhythms and sforzandos in the finale created a wave of sound that slammed against the walls again and again. Osmo was jumping out of his skin, pointing this way then that way, curling fingers to entice sounds in, spreading them out to hush.
The players grinned at each other. I grinned at them. I glanced next to me. My new friend was laughing. I was laughing. They were all on fire, and they knew they were all on fire, and we all knew they were all on fire…and it was like some kind of electric feedback loop. I don’t know what it was. I’ve seen the Minnesota Orchestra many times. But on a sheerly musical level, this may be my favorite performance that I’ve ever seen them give. I can’t describe why. This is why I live, I kept thinking to myself, tucking the justification away for when I have none. This is what makes everything else worthwhile.
My friend and I were still up at one o’ clock. We were in my dining room having tea. We were talking about the players, the gossip, the Beethoven. We were talking about death, family, love, sex. We were talking about our deep mutual love for this orchestra. The tea grew cold. I told her too much about some things, I think. But I also don’t think I’ll regret it.
Right before she left, she hesitated. “I should have followed my instincts,” she said as she was putting on her coat in the hall. She was joking, partially, but I didn’t know how much.
“Well.” I hesitated. “Maybe,” and I was joking, partially, but I didn’t know how much.
I closed the door, smiling. I curled up in bed. And I slept and I slept.
Two tickets used; three left.
The following night’s performance of the Eroica got a tepid review from the Pioneer Press. “Something’s missing from Minnesota Orchestra’s Beethoven marathon,” the headline read.
“So this three-week “Beethoven Marathon” presents an opportunity to ask the question: Does the orchestra still have it when it comes to Beethoven? Or perhaps: Does it have it back?
After attending Saturday evening’s third program of this three-week mini-fest at Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, my impression is: Not quite yet. Vanska and the orchestra did some fine things with Beethoven’s Third and Eighth Symphonies and Third Piano Concerto, but there were two key elements that weren’t up to pre-lockout levels: crispness and contrast. Phrases that used to be intensely tight were sometimes sluggish Saturday, attacks lacking the pop of old. And dynamics that were once so varied in volume and mood as to feel like a roller-coaster ride were pleasant instead of breathtaking…
I agree, somewhat. I went to the Sunday matinee, the third performance of the weekend. The third concerto was lovely, albeit with the occasional clipped note from Sudbin. The eighth symphony sparkled and chattered; it had a brilliant, contagious good humor. The Eroica was played beautifully, although maybe it wanted a little more edge.
But I took away a different lesson than the Pioneer Press did. My theory is that the electricity had burned so intensely on Friday night, there wasn’t much left for the rest of the weekend proper. The players may be superhuman, but they’re still human. I don’t think the lockout had anything to do with it.
And maybe it’s just me, but the Eroica is verging on wearing out its welcome. It was the last thing Osmo conducted before the lockout; it was the first thing conducted after the lockout; it was the symphony they played Easter weekend 2015; it was the symphony they brought to Havana. That’s a lot of Eroica, and in way more emotionally charged times. I’m from a small town, so I’m never going to argue against playing the warhorses. And of course the third needed to be part of the marathon. But I think the score and parts deserve a bit of a rest now.
After the Eroica program, there were three tickets used; two left. I got home that evening and smiled at all the ticket and program detritus accumulating on my parlor floor. I pulled up the blankets. And I slept and slept.
The next weekend was the grand finale. It was my first time going to the orchestra three weekends in a row. Two years after it opened, the remodeled lobby is finally starting to feel like home. Ushers recognize me. You guys, my readers, stop me and say hello to me and tell me sweet and lovely things, and you talk to me about things like Amy Beach and tea and what neighborhood I’ve moved to. I was trotting up the main staircase before one concert – I can’t remember which – when I passed Orchestra CEO Kevin Smith talking earnestly to someone. And I smiled to myself, comforted that he was there.
I was enjoying it all, but grief also has its own schedule. That Thursday I was very sad. And I was too lonely to want to see anybody. So Friday afternoon I took the train into Minneapolis. I got off, picked a random office building, and walked in. My aunt called in the late afternoon to discuss some loose ends of the family estate. I stood by the glass on a skyway and talked to her. I was vague about how I was feeling. “I’ve been talking with my counselor,” she said, “and I think the worst grief happens now. When the shock wears off.”
I don’t particularly want to believe this.
I ambled around the US Bancorp building. I took a picture of the stagecoach in the Wells Fargo building. I didn’t make eye contact with the security guards.
At five, I found a Taco John’s in the rat maze of the skyway. I ordered and sat and ate. There was a fiddler outside the door. Business hours were over and the corridor was almost abandoned, but he kept playing the same tune over and over again, only with phrases of it missing, as if by repeating himself he could find them. I fought the urge to talk to myself as the staff started lifting chairs onto the tables. Maybe I should talk to myself. Maybe it would make me feel better. I don’t know. Nearly a year later, and I’m still getting used to the rhythms of solitude.
I checked the time. It was humiliatingly early. I finally realized there was nothing else to do…or at least nothing else I wanted to do. I pulled up my collar and walked into the wind down Nicollet Mall and got to the hall two hours early, and I sat by a window on a bench to watch the bustle on Marquette. An hour or so before the concert started, I saw a tall thin figure who I think was Sudbin stride up to the stage door. He needed to be buzzed in.
The fourth concerto was sheer beauty, but something was missing. In fact, in all three of the later concertos, I felt as if Sudbin was reaching for something that he never quite touched. (The performances of the first and second were my favorite of the marathon.) I mean, of course it was all lovely; that goes without saying. His touch was poetic and thrilled my heart. The slow movement of the fourth was especially ethereal. To play all five over the course of two weeks was a tremendous, tremendous feat. But at times he almost seemed spooked at his own daring.
The fourth symphony was just as lovable as I remembered it, and the performance of the sixth after intermission was on another plane entirely. Adam Kuenzel on flute! The saucy peasant dances, and the relish the violins took in playing it! The shock of the programmatic thunderstorm! The beauty of simple elegant phrases being repeated again and again and again! Such entrancing sweetness.
At intermission one of my dear dear dear dear friends came up to me and wrapped me in her arms. We squealed in excitement to see each other, to be here together.
“How has your day been?” she asked anxiously after she pulled back.
I thought; I hesitated; I didn’t really know how to characterize it. “I’m tired,” I said. “But… It was good. I’ve been so tired. I’m sleeping a lot.”
“You must sleep all you can,” she said encouragingly. “Darling, Mercury is in retrograde.” And I smiled at that and I said okay.
So often I’ve thought myself into a rut, asking why I feel this or why I feel that, wanting justification for every emotion that aches through my chest. Mercury seems just as likely an explanation as any.
One ticket left.
There was a special buzz in the hall the last night of the marathon. I picked up my ticket for the fifth and final time at will call.
“Just the one?” I was asked. Again.
“Just the one,” I said. Again.
I didn’t know whether to sigh or laugh at this, so I kind of did both.
My seat was in Balcony B, just as it had been the first night. The house was completely sold out, but the night was cold – the kind of cold that burns your face – and perhaps consequently there was a stretch of empty seats on the main floor, second row. In youth symphony, I played Beethoven five in the first violins, and I wanted to see up close how it’s supposed to be done. So after a thrilling curtain raiser of a Beethoven two, and a commanding Emperor concerto, I threaded through the chattering crowd and slipped in the side corridor. After oscillating and pretending that I was looking for someone, I sat down in the second row.
I noticed the trial candidate in the principal second violin seat, a familiar gentleman with a smile and kind eyes, and I smiled at him and blushed a little with happiness that he was here.
Osmo strode onstage after intermission, the very picture of strength and vitality. You could argue as to why, but the man is aging in reverse. I could tell right away that he had a fire in his eye. This was a Beethoven “marathon”, after all, and he saw the finish line.
The opening to the fifth hammered, pushed us back into our seats, struck us each across the face. It was savage. The slow movement sang. The bow control of the violas and cellos melted my heart.
The scherzo feels more like a march than a scherzo. I remember playing it myself ten years ago, counting furiously, getting lost in murky tones. Grabbing onto that fugue. Minnesota turned the notes into a whirl of dance, melodies swirling from gruff strings up to twirling woodwinds. Then out of the uneasy mist came promises of future joy, until those shining chords of the finale broke out, and the joy was here.
At which point the players and their maestro went for broke.
I don’t know what it is about these players and this conductor. I don’t know what it is about this hall and this audience and this city. I don’t know what it is about Beethoven, about this collection of rhythms and melodies and sforzandos. I’m not sure how any of it can speak to a lost and broken woman in her mid-twenties, searching for distraction and meaning and love. It doesn’t make sense that any of it speaks…I just know it does.
This will be the distraction, then. Where there is distraction, maybe I can hope for healing. Someday. Right now, that’s about all I know. I went home to my pretty little house that night, and I slept deeply.
The applause began before the final chord of the fifth ended. I don’t think I’ve heard such a loud ovation since the lockout days. After multiple callbacks, Osmo came out beaming and radiant. He held the score to Beethoven 5 above his head, a priest paying tribute to his god. Fittingly, Beethoven got the loudest screams of all.
I hung out with some friends in the lobby afterward, trying to decompress. “So,” one said. “You going to Carnegie?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to sound confident. I still can’t believe I booked a trip to New York just to see the Minnesota Orchestra play. There are several very good reasons why I should not be doing this. And yet here I am, anyway. It’s late January now, so there are six weeks left before our journey begins.
I made reservations recently. I fly back home – to Minnesota – a year to the day we found out she was going to die.
“Don’t leave me,” I begged her that day.
“I will never leave you,” she answered.
I wish I could always believe that. But this new year, in this new life, I’ll try. It’s the best I can do.