“Ken, we’ve had a few personnel issues while you were away and were down several string players. We’ve filled most of the places, but there are two violinists who can only come Saturday to the dress rehearsal, but they are very good.”
”Also, I should point out the woman in the dark shirt in the 2nds”
“Yes” I recognized her. She’d played in other programs I’d done with this orchestra, but hadn’t been to rehearsals for this concert.
“She won’t be there on Saturday.”
“You see she’s dying of cancer.”
I’ve seen so much cancer in the last three years, I could quickly tell exactly where she was in the grim progression of the disease. She didn’t look sick, just a little tired and very sad. There’s that long phase when you know that the body is being slowly, relentlessly devoured and dismantled from within, where the only visual evidence is that look of fatigue and sadness. In some weeks, there would be a crisis of some kind as the body reached a breaking point- that could be the end or the beginning of the end.
“Well, she’d hoped to come for some rehearsals in September, just to play for fun, but it looks like she won’t make it till then, so I encouraged her to come tonight just to play a bit and see everyone, but I didn’t want you to be worried if she wasn’t there for the concert.”
“No that’s, fine. Of course”
“Then there is the……” My colleague continued updating me on the logistics and dramas surrounding the concert this week, but my mind was elsewhere. I was thinking about what to do in a rehearsal when you know it might be someone’s last. Suddenly, drilling this program to the highest possible level didn’t seem like such an important goal. What could I… what could we give her in this rehearsal- would she enjoy playing through big chunks of things, or exploring a few interesting corners in the music in a bit of detail? Could I help work the band up to a good tingly-sensation moment? Should we just keep everything low-key?
We got down to work, and I looked over at her during the first tutti passage. She seemed tentative, obviously sight reading, and a little frail.
And then the next thing I knew, it was the break. My rehearsal instinct is so strong, I think I’m no longer capable of keeping anything in my head during a rehearsal except the work at hand. Whatever issues I mean to keep track of during the session, I usually forget as soon as I start working. Sometimes I feel more like an animal in rehearsals, in the sense that everything I do is so driven by instinct, habit and training.
As I stepped away from my stand, I remembered her, and looked over. She was loosening her bow, but stayed seated as I left the room. I went outside, made some small talk with other players. My mind was still elsewhere. I wanted somehow for this rehearsal to give her a bit of comfort or pleasure. It’s funny, but once you leave school and start working with orchestras, you learn that death is a regular presence in orchestral life, as it is in all life. I’ve lost quite a few colleagues over the last 15 years. The long-term projection for everyone involved in an orchestra is a 100% mortality rate. However, knowing that this random week will likely be the last for someone is different- and I guess it hit me more because of the fact that I didn’t have any other connection to this player other than the orchestra. I’d never have noticed she was ill, and I’m sure she was previous times she played. She surely deserved a rehearsal with a conductor who knew her better, and here she was, stuck with this intense American she’s never really met.
I could hope that she’d enjoyed the first half, but I’d been too much in my rehearsal trance to observe her reactions. I was determined to watch more carefully and to try and make that last hour as fun and satisfying as possible. Fuck the concert.
But, as we started to tune, I could see she wasn’t returning to her seat. She looked very tired now. She found a chair behind the orchestra and sat and listened until the end of the rehearsal.
When we finished, she was talking to someone as I walked by. I tapped her gently, extra gently, on the shoulder. “Thank you so much for coming in tonight,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”