The Prelude and Fugue sounded magnificent – God, how Charles Ives knew how to write!
He knew every trick in the business … an object lesson in musicianship, which
every composition student should be made to learn by heart.
--Sir Eugene Goosens, composer and conductor
Curses flew around in the overheated shed where the musicians changed for the Fourth of July concert. The usual people forgot their cufflinks; the usual people had an extra pair to loan.
A noisy air-conditioner gamely tried to lower the temperature, but so many people slammed in and out that it was hopeless.
Despite the grumbling, the day wasn’t as hot as most Independence Days. When they emerged from the tin-roofed shed (one of two shacks nestled behind the stage), a few players noted a light breeze in the air. The sky had thick cumulus clouds to give them an occasional break from the brilliant sun.
The program was to open the afternoon concert with a half-hour of Pops music --John Philip Sousa and the like-- and to close with the 1812 Overture that most people expected that evening. It was then that they’d be surprised by the Tchaikovsky's absence.
They were surprised now: by the players' appearance.
The orchestra walked onstage, slowly and with halting tread; they were all wearing racy sunglasses. A few of the older players were grumbling a bit as they stumbled around, trying not to look like they needed seeing-eye dogs as they felt for their stands and chairs. Members of the audience were laughing and applauding.
Mary Medli had copped a rare coup at the beginning of the season. She managed to sign an agreement with a large chain-store that sold nothing but sunglasses. The whole orchestra posed for an advertisement under which the legend ran, "Anyone can be cool with SunStrokeã glasses." This was plastered on billboards across the northeast.
Despite many in the orchestra muttering darkly that they already quite capable of being 'cool' without enlisting the aid of pretentious eyewear, thank you very much, the ads proved popular. The sunglasses company gave a sizeable donation to the orchestra's endowment. There was muttering here, too; now we can afford the racecar eyewear, players said; but not the racecar.
Besides the sunglasses, the orchestra onstage was wearing cool-toned colors --Mary's doing again, asking them to add clothes of blue, green, or purple to their optional black attire. The cool colors complemented each other, without giving any sign of intentional formality.
There was no pause between the orchestra's entrance and Mark. He had always felt that the conductor should come on right after the players; anything beyond that was begging for applause. But he also approved of Artur Schnabel's quoted disdain for encores: "Applause is a receipt, not a bill."
Mark strode on, carrying and holding aloft his "trademark". This was a beautifully carved wooden music stand dating from 1865, and built in Videntia. It had belonged to the first conductor of the Videntians, and Mark spent several months trying to track it down. He finally cornered it (with one leg missing) in an antique store north of Philadelphia.
He took the sunglasses off, winked at the audience, and cocked a thumb at the orchestra, as if to say, "I can't wear these dark things. I have to keep my eye on this bunch every minute."
The musicians looked at each other and shook their heads. What a ham.
Mark turned around and after a second's delay, lead the first downbeat and the orchestra began to play.
Mark was an old hand at these outdoor concerts. He had started his career with his high school band, but he relied on his wife to strengthen the forces.
It was she who recruited a half-dozen extra brass players from nearby colleges to underline the lower strings, which tended to get lost in any outdoor performance. It was she who drilled the extra players, sometimes using the rough side of her tongue, until they played softly enough to give the impression that they, too, were part of the strings. The whole thing worked like a charm: the additional lungpower that propelled the music's lower harmonies seemed to energize the other sections as well.
The music that began the hour was the Explosion-Polka of Johann Strauss. It began with an explosion coming from the bass drum, and ended with a cannon shot from the rear of the stage. It was punctuated throughout with the sound of rifle shots, coming from a percussionist more noted for eagerness than accuracy.
It only took three minutes, but an extraordinary thing happened during it.
The outside podium was uncomfortably small, with the stage wider than it was deep. Mark, who knew this score well, had put his venerated music stand to one side.
Halfway through the polka, the music stand decided to take on a life of its own. As if suddenly waking up after a long sleep, the top of the stand slapped back, seemingly of its own accord, and the whole, heavy wood-and-metal apparatus lifted itself nearly a foot off the ground before toppling over into the violins.
No one had touched it. No one was near it. It just decided to imitate the birds of the air and fly.
After their part of the concert, the orchestra went into the shed, and some putting on T-shirts to go out for a long walk around William Rogers park. They were due back at eight o'clock for the evening performance of the Ives.
The high-school band --which one? Ben couldn't tell-- that replaced them, was playing a ill-winded, raucous medley called "A Tribute To Sitcoms".
Ben was in too good a mood to wince at the music. Besides, he remembered the music of the older TV shows when, badly dubbed into Portuguese, they played in the small-town bars of Brazil. To him, the hokey tunes brought their own oddly nostalgic flavor. That he didn't hear the Banana Splits theme, he thought, must mean he was getting old.
Ben walked toward one of the two ramshackle shacks for the bands. The other shack had groups of high schoolers who should have been practicing but weren't. A few were smoking and trying not to cough their lungs out.
Despite his short stature, Ben hopped up the steps two at a time, and took a moment to let his eyes adjust to the darkness inside. The shack was empty except for a lone figure, Mark slowly defrocking himself from his tux. He also wanted to take a walk through the park; last year it’d been too hot.
Ben sauntered over. "Where’s the Ives score? I'd like to re-check some viola bowings."
Mark motioned towards a stack of paper near his bag. Ben picked it up, rifled through the mess and shook his head. "Honestly, Mark. This orchestra wouldn't last an hour without Mary arranging everything for you. Look at this score. No, come over here: there's two pages from the second movement tucked into the Finale."
"So fix it. Wait a minute, Ben. You've got part of the Johann Strauss stuff there. The Ives is over there, in my bag." He stopped short. Ben was inspecting a corner of one of the pages. "What are you looking at?"
"No, Mark, seriously," Ben complained. "I know the Strauss isn't rented, and we've been playing this piece for years, but look at these holes. Don't you even know how to use a hole puncher correctly?" Ben waved two pages at him with holes in the upper-right hand corner.
Mark walked over and inspected the pages. "That's not my work. I don't know how those got there." He gave a slight smile. "Maybe it's Mary's work: she's a demon with the hole puncher."
Ben was not smiling. He took a breath and said quietly, " I hate to break bad news, but that …looks … like a bullet …did it. See the way there are rips around the edge of the holes? "
"Oh… go on…"
"Mark. I'm not joking. See for yourself."
The two men looked at each other.
There was a long and painfully loud silence in the shed. Outside, a few leaves rustled. As the high-school band had finished playing, there was distant applause, and even some cheering.
"Someone … in the orchestra, do you think?" Mark whispered, and then immediately dismissed it. "No. That's ridiculous. I'm not loved by everyone, God knows, but there's no one in the group who hates my guts that much."
"Some of the 'celli think Connie still hasn't forgiven you for firing her husband," Ben reminded him.
"Connie,” Mark muttered. Connie, the first 'cellist, retiring that year to marry the wealthy Vice-President of a small but profitable Cruise Line. Well. Perhaps she had not forgiven him after all. Everyone in the string section had steered clear of her bitter temper, which had only gotten worse over the past year… until her engagement to a man she'd only known for a couple of weeks.
"Her husband was a drunken lout and a liar. I did her a favor, and she knows it, and she's getting married again, anyway."
"Stop shouting, Mark. I'm trying to help."
"Sorry. What … what are you looking for?"
"The music stand. Where's your so-called lucky music stand? Oh. Here it is." Ben brought it forward and slammed it down in front of them both. He leaned down and looked the stand over, rubbing his chin with one hand and feeling the wood of the stand with the other. Looking up at Mark he asked, "It jumped up and fell over while you were playing the Explosion Galop, right?"
"Right. But … oh, come on. Those were cap guns they were letting loose."
"And a cannon," Ben reminded him.
"And a cannon," Mark admitted, "which could hardly make a little bitty hole like that. Are you saying the caps from that toy rifle made this hole?"
Ben knelt down and inspected the stand. Soon he found what he was looking for. "Well, your 1865 stand looks like it's been through Shiloh now. See? Look. Here's the bullethole." He felt for the hole in the stand, and put his finger up against it. He showed it to Mark and asked quietly. "Satisfied?"
Mark looked at it dolefully. "Not really, no." He looked at Ben. "Oh, man. You've answered one question, and opened up a hundred others."
Ben left Mark so he could examine the stage, empty for a half-hour; sound people were setting things up for a pop group in love with decibels. There was an orchestra pit that wasn't being used in front of the stage -- since the orchestra itself was on the stage. Ben climbed down the stairs and looked around to see if he could find any evidence -- a wet shoe mark, a bullet shell. There was nothing down there. He climbed up the stairs and made a mental note to tell Tom about it; pity he wasn't playing with the orchestra today. Tom was covering another 4th of July event on the other side of town.
Ben looked over the audience, to see if anyone was watching him look for evidence. By all appearances, it was an average holidays crowd, with the usual panoply of children's strollers, their parents trying to negotiate them over the bumpy mounds of grass.
Ben went off to find Beatrice and Mrs. Dupique, who said they'd be sunning themselves in the audience. With some difficulty he found them. He had decided not to mention anything about what had just taken place. Better not to alarm the two women.
Mrs. Dupique had settled down on the green lawn next to Bea, and waved at Ben as he sauntered up the hill. He had to smile; the blanket Beatrice had bought last month resembled the violently colored bathrobe he'd just given her. A year ago she would have chosen something in a noncommittal gray. She was loosening up in all sorts of ways, he thought.
The older woman had taken off her shoes with an inarticulate gasp of pleasure, and was now wiggling her toes in the grass. Bea and Ben noticed, at about the same time, that Mrs. Dupique --Vera, as she kept begging them to call her -- had adopted them for the present, as two people that could steer her outwardly shy self into the orchestra's society. This was fine, Bea reflected, so long as she left their personal lives alone. And Mrs. D's conversation, surprisingly, was not at all dull. In the end, that was all that mattered.
The three of them had chosen a spot on the lawn off to one side, shaded by a long row of maple trees. Other couples laid out on their own blankets surrounding her. They were close enough to the high school bands to follow the outlines of music, but far enough to overlook the band’s mistakes. The three of them were discussing that evening's program as a gentle breeze stirred the top of the trees.
"Aren't you going to take your shoes off?" Ben asked Bea.
"No," she answered, and turned to the older woman. "What do you think of tonight's program?"
"I have played Ives' Second before," Mrs. Dupique said. "Why has Mark been so adamant about playing it tonight?"
"It's one of Mark's hobby horses. He insists that the 1812 Overture is an insult to American orchestras playing it on July Fourth."
Mrs. D looked shocked. "But why?"
"Because the 1812 Overture is a Russian work about their victory over the French, who were eventually knocked out … by the English. And that's not exactly the best piece to play when you're celebrating your own country’s independence from England."
"Why don't you want to take your shoes off?" Ben insisted.
"Because I don't," she said, and turned back to the other woman. "I like the Ives better, anyway. I certainly haven't played it anywhere near so often. It's a charming work. Odd, but charming…."
"You'd enjoy the grass more with your shoes off." Ben suggested.
"Ben. I don't want to take my damned shoes off," Bea snapped at Ben.
"They wouldn't be damned shoes, if you took them off," he reasoned.
"All right, all right," she yelled, getting to her feet. A few of the folks near her turned and stared. "I'm taking my shoes off. There. One's off. Do you see? Look. Here goes the other one."
And she stood on the grass, and she felt how cool and soft the grass was. A slow smile escaped her. And she stood there, wiggling her toes.
Ben turned to Mrs. D and whispered, "What children discover in nature is nothing to what they forget as adults."
"Is that a Brazilian saying?" she asked.
Ben shrugged. "It could be."
It was three hours later for everyone except Mark, who felt a decade older. He was still trying to guess who wanted him dead.
He nodded in apparent agreement to comments or questions while getting into his tuxedo. He tried to look attentive. His mind in a filmy haze, and he tried connecting with his players’ questions while meditating on this dilemma . He wasn’t having success in either direction.
This state of panic was somehow familiar; it was like the despair he felt before his very first appearance as a conductor. Still, something cold and icy in was circling in his chest this time. At any moment in tonight's concert, he might be shot down in front of everyone, creating a scandal that rivaled the death of the Videntia Bill's first conductor nearly a century ago. (The poor man had been a Berlin transplant, unwillingly plucked by an American millionairess who wanted to bring Culture to Videntia. Near the end of World War One, a virulent German-hater in the audience shot him.)
As he examined his features in the mirror and adjusted his black tie, some arch part of him was perfectly calm, even bored. The diffident part was impatient to take the baton and leap onto the stage.
He smiled to himself. This was insane. He was about to go out and lead a work that he'd been fighting to conduct ever since he'd come to town. Now he might not even live to complete it. He often joked about dying on the podium. Some joke. He had meant dying of old age, not as a metronomic target.
He double-checked his cufflinks and saw that his hands weren't shaking. Perhaps he wasn't surprised after all; he knew a number of American artists who'd had success swiped from them at their moment of victory.
He looked across the room at Mary. She had spent the morning tirelessly handing out the orchestra's brochures among the concession stands. Now she was chatting with one of the younger wind members. She listened to them, with her head cocked to one side, like a little bird.
Of course he couldn't tell her about the bullethole. He quickly assessed their financial holdings.
– Let’s see, he thought. The will is written. Our insurance is paid through end of summer, our house half paid for.
What would an insurance agent file a cultural shooting under? "An act of God"? No. Considering what the Videntian music critic Bill Engels usually wrote about their concert when it was over, the insurance company might write his death off as a "Justifiable Homicide."
It wasn't the orchestra he faced down now: "his" orchestra no longer a hundred-eyed monster to be tamed. The Videntian newspaper’s nastiness supplanted any conflict: both he and the orchestra now had a common enemy. Reviews were one thing, but the Videntian ran articles on the unimportance of all the arts, enraging the orchestra’s supporters. The Videntian’s hostility also galvanized the town's cultural groups into establishing a joint internet site that guided people stuck in cubicles all day to events they could e-mail each other about and go to. Mark used this to his advantage.
– Well, he thought.
– Except for the player who’s trying to kill you.
– Stop it. You should be thinking about the music.
Mark glanced at the ancient electric clock on the wall; it had once been illuminated, and the bulb on the left half of it flickered on and off unexpectedly.. Ten minutes to eight, for better or worse. The dusk outside the dressing room was settling into a deep, rich blue. The increasing noise of his fellow musicians brought him back to reality.
He clapped his hands together, and his assistant Michael called for quiet. There was a reluctant dip in conversation. He climbed uncertainly on what was once a sturdy orange crate. It creaked ominously.
"Okay, folks," Mark called out. "I don't think I need to tell you how important this concert is to me as well as to the orchestra's future. The next hour decides whether we're going to do the same old chestnuts next year, and the year after that; or whether we're going to branch out, and attract new listeners to our community. Whether we're going to do Dvořák's Eighth yet again (groans and boos from the percussion) or try out some needed Shostakovich or Peiko ("Who?" someone in the back asked.)
"But just because we have a lot to do in the Ives, don't think you can just take it easy in the Strauss waltzes, either. It should lilt; it should swing; and I want to see at least one old couple on the lawn out there get up in waltz. Or try to.
"As for the Ives. Remember that the slow movement started out as a religious piece, but don’t let it sag. Violas, it's inner voices that tell here, just as it did when Ives played it in an organ loft in Manhattan a century ago. In a way, the slow movement Ives wrote may have been a memorial to his father."
Mark paused. He hated creating "pictures" or "meaning" for his players, and he knew some of them hated it as well. For certain pieces it did seem to save time, somehow. Besides, he knew that some players enjoyed doing their own research. He added, "I've conducted a few orchestras that were bored to tears with their repertoire. As a result, they bored the audience as well. Every one of you knows the strength of our little group is: that we know more about the music than the notes."
There was a timid attempt at applause by someone in the middle of the group. A few of the other players chuckled, but it stopped Mark cold.
There was so much he wanted to tell this dedicated group of people. He had spent so many waking hours among them these last few years. He’d gotten to like them all (though the grumpy ones he liked rather less.) If only there was a way of letting them know this, without his looking foolish. Here he was, teetering on a splintering crate in a rundown woodshed that passed for a dressing room, summoning his middling forces to outdo themselves for an audience that might not care less.
He cleared his throat and recovered. He would not allow himself to slip into sentimentality.
"Whatever happens," he said, "even if I fall off the podium--"
"Or if your music stand decides to fly again!" a deep basso profundo bellowed, launching laughter and lessening the tension. Mark continued, "Yes, even that, I want you to keep on playing. Concertmaster Bea knows the score as well as I do. She'll keep you going. Ives wanted accuracy, yes, but he wanted enthusiasm, too, more than most composers. Remember, at the very end of Ives 2nd, All Hell Breaks Loose; and, just like the end of the 1812 Overture, you're going to hear explosions and fireworks above you like war's been declared. But you're to keep going. Your audience paid nothing today to hear us. We don't want 'em to feel they've been overcharged.
"That's it. I'm done. Remember: work hard, enjoy yourself, and --"
Everybody intoned at once: "--believe in the music." They scattered to get their instruments.
Mary came up to him and straightened his tie, as she always did before he went on. Even back when they were dating, he reflected. He watched her serious face, occupied with arranging the square black cloth under his neck.
"I wish there was a piano part for me to play in the Ives," she sighed.
"There is in his short piece In the Inn," he suggested. "Maybe we can do that next year." She smiled, though not up at him. He cupped her chin in his hand (something he knew she hated), and kissed her on the nose. "I'll be back," he said.
"Of course you will," she said, naturally, lightly, and added, "you'd better be. There's Apple Bread for breakfast tomorrow."
Yes. Of course he would. At her implied disapproval, his fears vanished. He would be all right. He would be fine. As she started to move away, he grabbed her and gave her a hug. He let her go, and she shot him a look, a little puzzled, a little pleased.
The Strauss was a pacifier for the audience to sit still for the longer, winding landscapes of the American symphony. Using the Viennese Master as a seducer seemed to work through Gold and Silver and the Blue Danube.
Applause. Now the Ives.
Mark held up the baton for the downbeat on the Ives before the audience stopped clapping. The symphony began.
Though in part composed of American melodies that the composer kept together through sheer ingenuity and willpower, the first movement began with beautiful dark sounds in the low strings.
Mark and Mary's alteration in the score worked. The low strings' volume was helped by bass trombones in the 'cello and bass lines, and two tenor saxophones to the violas. This "underpinning" helped to solve the problem, and even the purists in the audience hardly noticed the addition.
Mark kept the pulse of the first movement steadily moving --faster, in fact, than most of the recordings he'd managed to track down of it.
The second movement was faster with familiar tunes, and Mark sensed that the audience was with them, without his turning to see them. The bouncing figures led up to a sudden surprise ending and snap of the "scherzo" --the fast movement of the symphony that, usually translated, means "joke".
Halfway through. He could tell from the orchestra's demeanor, that, aside from the crying of one distant child, the audience was attentive, and had for the most part stayed. A partial victory. A few older players seemed almost smug, and Mark shot them a look that wiped the self-satisfaction from their faces.
The slips into Americana that critics derided Ives for were overwhelmed by the gravitas of the slow, third movement. It expressed nostalgia for a time that really had been lived through. Conducting in the gathering dusk, Mark watched the river flowing gently behind the orchestra's platform, mirroring the ebb and flow of melody. Time was suspended, and he was back in the Midwest of his youth, in his grandmother's house, its tall ceilings and old photographs of men and women reflecting, through their eyes, trials and tribulations.
Mark bit his lip and wiped his forehead. Perhaps this was the last piece of music he’d conduct. Here goes, he thought. He raised his white baton for the downbeat.
The brass intoned the same melody that started the symphony, bringing in a majesty its first articulation in the strings only hinted at.
The movement was difficult technically, with dense counterpoint and even a fugue; it all had to be stated clearly if the Finale would work at all.
It did. In music that steadily rose in circling, ever more elaborate patterns, the conductor became yet another instrument in the hands of a master.
After the first rush, the music settled back into a momentary, pastoral mode, a reflective horn pensively sailing over the strings figurations. Then an even faster rush of ideas, tunes tumbling one after each other. Mark beamed as he heard patriotic motives coming at him from all corners of the stage; he saw the musicians' version of joy as they played furiously, with their eyebrows working overtime to express exclamation points… Another moment of contemplation, and a pause in which the a sole violoncello threaded its way through a New England memory. It was Connie's last solo with the orchestra, and she played it simply and well.
A collective intake of breath; another austere announcement, and the orchestra was off again, flying headlong into the storm of counterpoint at an even faster pace: the winds chattering like birds raised on Vermont Hymnals, the strings rushing in, the horns lagging by a beat, yet cheering the others on.
When the brass, all together now, restated the jubilant opening to the second movement, there was the tremendous sound of an explosion, and Mark half-ducked. A burst of light had opened up above him, and the audience cheered. Suddenly he found himself laughing and waving his stick like a madman as fireworks exploded overhead, and the Ives, with three of its best tunes going full force and all at the same time, came to a manic close.
He turned around. The audience was at his feet; not everyone was cheering, but he could hear yells of pleasure.
Mark suddenly felt faint, as if his knees turned to water. He clutched the wooden stand behind him for support. One of his fingers touched the spot where the bullet-hole was. He quickly bowed, motioned the players to stand, and ran off the stage.
copyright 2005, 2007 by Robert Bonotto. All rights reserved.