A couple of days ago, I heard about a young woman who was considering suicide and had made some specific plans to carry it out later in the evening, but then she decided to hang on to just one good thing for at least that day. In her case, that one good thing was Disney movies. The innocence and nostalgia were the elixir she needed.
I’m not considering suicide, but I’ve got an elixir of my own to draw on in hard times (or easy, for that matter), and in my case, it’s playing with an orchestra. We performed last night, and the experience was good medicine.
In Small Town, there is a quiet kind of guy named Bob who, with his wife, teaches piano lessons in a private studio. Eustacia took lessons from him for a couple of years when she was much younger, in fact. Bob also composes piano music, which has become beloved with students and teachers around the world. I said he was quiet—he’s also humble and unassuming, and unless someone else takes on the role of trumpet tooter on his behalf, few people around here would know about Bob the Composer. So, last night, the Philharmonic took on the role and celebrated Bob.
We hosted a piano competition for students around the state and narrowed down the selection to two winners. I was fortunate to witness the competition several weeks ago, taking photos of each competitor posing with Bob as he or she performed for judges, and I was impressed with every single one of them. One by one, these little kids walked out on stage in the big empty hall, sat down at the Steinway, and played boldly and confidently. It’s almost as if they didn’t know they should be nervous.
The judges chose two—a 10-year-old girl who stole my heart the minute she began to play, and a 15-year-old boy who I was also rooting for. At our performance last night, the kids each played a concerto composed by Bob, and the audience went nuts, clapping between movements, which they usually don’t do. We repeated the third movement of each piece just to let the kids show their stuff.
Then we all honored Bob with a public declaration from the mayor, and during the intermission, he went out to the lobby to be greeted by an appreciative town. Getting people to go out in the lobby during intermission is tricky, but I peeked, and there seemed to be a crowd out there.
For the second half, we performed Shostakovich’s Piano Concert No. 2 with Donna Lee, a Steinway artist who teaches at Kent State, and she was remarkable. If those kids from the first half were paying attention, they witnessed their potential future. They saw how a musician (and composer) has the ability to take you from being hopeful with the pressing music of the first movement to being contemplative (and even deeply sad) during the second to being absolutely ebullient during the third. That's some mighty power to wield, is it not?
We began the concert with the first three movements of Haydn’s Symphony #88 and finished with the finale. I love playing Haydn (except for the horn solos that seemed to have been written as payback for a horn player Haydn might have disliked), and finishing the concert with those happy, bouncy notes was just right, the elixir I mentioned. But I wonder if the audience got it. They were so pleased with the music in the middle, and they applauded for us at the beginning and the end, but I didn’t sense an outburst of love from them.
Maybe we weren't as brilliant as I felt we were—there is a section in the Haydn finale the conductor referred to as a cat-fight (or maybe he said dog fight, whatever), and he wondered after the fact if we didn't quite pull if off, and it might have sounded more like just a bunch of notes. I don't know. Maybe that's what the audience heard, but for me, I got to play Haydn, doggoneit!
Sometimes we talk about this orchestra as a group that performs for its own enjoyment. There are moments during rehearsal, when we finish a piece, and the corporate satisfaction is such that we feel as though we can go home—audience be damned—because we have made ourselves levitate. That’s enough. So, if the audience didn’t quite float an inch or so off the ground last night, that’s OK, because they had the privilege of witnessing what we do for ourselves.
I should back up here a little bit to say that of course we adore our audience. Keep buying tickets, people, and keep coming to concerts and supporting the group with your words and deeds. My point is, each time the group makes music together, regardless of who else is listening, we do something marvelous. Something remarkably human. Something, for those of us who carry a heavy load, that is good medicine.
I went home last night dosed up and feeling a little lighter. And isn’t that the point?
I have always said that musicians don't look quite photogenic while they're playing, which is why famous players don't put photos of themselves playing on their CD packaging. But I'll humble myself here by posting a photo our principle horn player took of the rest of us prepping before the second half.