In rehearsals, the orchestra had sounded like Jaguar fresh from a tune up- all effortless perfect handling, pure power and explosive speed, and the night was a glamorous one, with one of the great living pianists waiting in the wings for Mozart and Ravel concerti. The usually slightly-too-large hall was packed to capacity.
In those days the orchestra was still hungry, with everything to prove to the slightly more famous ensembles to the North and South, but we knew we could keep up- especially in this repertoire. We were hungry.
The crowd fell silent as the lights came down and the extra 800 or so in attendance gave that first bit of applause at the entrance of the concertmaster an extra bit of depth and power that you could feel sat on the stage. After a long-ish tuning, we fell silent and the maestro let that silence settle into delicious expectation for a moment before entering. I think even the old ladies in the top balcony could have heard that tiny, discreet squeak of the stage door opening and the first footfall of the conductor onto the stage floor.
The auditorium erupted- this was his crowd, he owned the room, and they welcomed him like a hero. Across the stage in what seemed like three steps, he hopped onto the stage and in a moment lifted his hands and gave an up beat- he hadn’t warned us, but we knew to expect the unexpected and were ready, and in one glorious whoosh, we unleashed the torrid opening of Strauss’s Don Juan.
You could almost sense the “wow” in the audience. There are nights when it feels like the audience is clapping during the piece even when they’re silent, when you can feel the ebb and flow of their energy, feel the effort they are making not to cheer.
Our MD could be counted on for a very Italiante Don Juan, and the many urban legends about his own escapades with the ladies only added another wrinkle. Don Juan’s theme out of the way in a single breath, we moved from seduction to seduction, adventure to adventure in ever higher style. Another conductor down the road used to say that maestro had mojo coming out of his mojo, and in this kind of music, it was particularly true.
The orchestra was in the zone, which has a way of making time bend. Like the great baseball hitters who say that on a good day the ball looks a foot wide and seems to be going 10 miles an hour, the treacherous first bar of the piece felt like a slow rehearsal- we all felt like we had plenty of time to grab his upbeat, breathe, look at the concertmaster, place the bow and spring into action with eyes, ears and brains all in synch. Then, as the piece goes and we hit our stride, it is as if time begins to telescope. Minutes feel like seconds, and whole episodes feel like a single phrase. The piece flashes by as if in a dream- there’s no time to be nervous, no time to make mistakes.
All too soon we’re in the amazing, decadent world of the coda- “Out, then, and away after ever-new victories as long as the fiery ardors of youth still soar!” cries Lenau’s Don, and so to do we onstage.
Then comes the moment when, having generated the storm of all storms, “a beautiful storm that drives me on,” the music suddenly stops on a dime- expectant silence hangs in the air. We all look up, unblinking. Three counts- boom, wait, ONE! then a last statement of the opening theme.
But wait, what do we see?!?!? Time bends again and we can see the maestro has forgotten something. Rather than releasing his arm into a neutral, passive flow after BOOM for the “wait” he’s immediately reloading the energy. Oh god…. Is he…
There it is— boom, TWO!
“…but we knew to expect the unexpected and were ready…”
With one mind and one set of eyes the entire string section responds in perfect synchronization to the maestro’s flub. We play those first seven notes with the same effortless ease as the very opening, all that remains is for the woodwinds and brass to join us on the half note and take it home.
And here, disaster strikes. The woodwinds have seen what has happened and joined us at the top of our run, but the brass have just kept counting. They enter on the original schedule, a beat behind the rest of the orchestra. It is impossible to describe the sound that ensues. Suffice it say that it’s greatest merit was it’s brevity. Finally, “it has subsided, and a calm has remained behind.” Yes, a calm, but not calm.
“All my desires and hopes are in suspended animation; perhaps a lightning bolt, from heights that I contemned, mortally struck my amorous powers, and suddenly my world became deserted and benighted.”
Never in any of our careers has a G.P. been so welcomed. Maestro holds it an impossibly long time, waiting for the tremor in his baton to stop. Just before he brings us back in, he mutters the only word I’ve ever head a conductor speak in mid-concert…
We resume our doomed tread to the double bar, hoping that we may yet salvage something of the evening.
“And yet, perhaps no— the fuel is consumed and the hearth has become cold and dark.”
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods