Author Archives: HB

Episode 870: A single ticket, to a singular performance.

chamber

Buying single occasionally affords the luxury of a seat that would ordinarily be unavailable when purchasing mere days before the concert. A pair of tickets on the front row? Impossible. But a single ticket… well… a single ticket can linger, passed over by pairs and partners, awaiting purchase by the solitary concertgoer.

It was through a single ticket purchase that I ended up on the front row of an incredible performance tonight. It began with a Mozart oboe quartet. Three musicians in black. One musician, the oboist, in a sapphire blue, floor-length gown. Her blond hair and fair skin offset by the brilliant blue of her dress, she was at once both elegant and powerful. Out of thin air with her breath and fingers, she created one beautiful, soaring line after another. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand after each movement, handling this little necessity with grace and precision. The purity of the music stood out in stark contrast to the mechanics of its creation—that human imperfection that ultimately underlies all great art.

Brandenburg #5 was played by seven musicians. Six with black shoes, one with brown. Five pairs of black shoes had wide, flat soles. One pair of black shoes had pointy ends. The shoes had their own conversations throughout the music. Sometimes they were quiet and still. Sometimes one shoe would move with a nervous energy, half tapping with the beat. The brown shoes lifted up onto the toes throughout the piece, the heels rising up off the floor in parallel with the musical line. At the end, all the shoes lined up together, a job well done. The audience applauded.

After intermission, a Brahms piano quintet. Specifically, the Brahms piano quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. This is a piece that’s special to me. I played the fourth movement as a young (but still older than everybody else) musician during the Sacramento Youth Symphony’s summer chamber music camp. It was an incredible experience, and one that I still remember. I believe the violinist in my group was about 10 years old, and the cellist was maybe 11. As a 17-year-old I remember feeling like I stuck out a little bit, being so much older than the others… but they were wonderful musicians. And we played together brilliantly. That experience, that odd little group of kids who came together to play some of the most incredible music on earth, that was special. And to hear it tonight, played by my professor, felt like a kind of a “return”. A return to something, somewhere near the center… this part of me that was there when I was 17 and is still there now. After all this time, after all these years. A gift to be shared and strengthened, a light in the dark night and a compass that calls me home… I felt it tonight. I carry it with me always. I have carried it and I carry it still. It will be with me when I drift off to sleep tonight, and it will be there when I wake. Because it’s part of me.

“Don’t take this the wrong way…”

I’m working on a piece right now that I just love. It’s the Romance by Max Bruch. It’s an enchanting piece—a warm, romantic, dynamic viola rises up over a rich orchestral backdrop for about ten minutes of awesome. It brings everything that’s great about the viola right to the surface. The sensuality, the richness and depth and sensitivity. In a way, I’ve been preparing for this ten minutes for about 25 years. In a more immediate way, I’ve been preparing the piece for about 5 or 6 weeks now, and it has quickly become one of my absolute favorites.

Those of you who know me well (all three of you who are reading this), will know that I’ve been working with a master viola teacher—truly, a master—for the past three years. (See this post.) As much as I enjoy writing, I honestly don’t have words to express what it means to me that this man was willing to take me on as a student, to believe in me, to push me past what I thought were my limits, until I’m playing music that I never in a hundred, hundred years would have believed I could play. Incredible. What an amazing thing it has been and continues to be. This week, after playing the first page, he stopped me, smiled, and said these words:

“Don’t take this the wrong way… but you sound like a damned viola player.”

I can’t think of any other comment that I’ve ever received that has meant as much to me as that one. After all these years, after the meandering, wandering, winding path I’ve taken to find my way back to this instrument that I started playing when I was 10 years old… hearing those words made me want to sit on the floor and cry, in a good way. For years, deep down inside me, there has been this dark terror—a terrible fear that I won’t make it. That I will never be a “real” musician, that I had my chance and I missed it, and I might as well quit now before I embarrass myself. I’ve been with my teacher for three years now, and the dark places in the back of my mind are still terrified that I won’t be able to make any more progress, or that I’ll be too slow, or too weak, and that one day he won’t want to teach me anymore… that thought is crushing. For the most part, I’m able to shut out those voices in my head, and practice anyway, and get on with the work. But the fear is real—and letting go of fear is hard. Those words, “you sound like a damned viola player”, unlocked something inside me. It felt like I was able to let the light in for a minute, to allow the idea that maybe, just maybe, I really can do this. And all those voices in my head are wrong.

Making great music, great art of any kind, is hard. You put so much of yourself into it, and then you kneel and bow your head, and hold your arms out and offer your art to the world. Sometimes, the world is cruel. Comments and criticism can cut deep, and it can be hard to keep going. Good criticism is vital to making great art, but it takes patience, kindness, and a keen mind to offer the kind of commentary that can actually make someone’s art better instead of tearing it down. It’s Thanksgiving this week. And this Sunday evening, I’m feeling thankful that for three years now, not only have I had a voice telling me the kinds of things I need to hear in order to make great music, but that voice has also been telling me that my music is worth making. I’m almost starting to believe it. And that is worth more to me than I can say. Honestly.

Sweet

I just bit into a plum. I’ve eaten several plums in the past few days, but when I bit into this one, it was special. It’s sweet and delicious in this very specific way. When I tasted it, I was immediately transported to a time when the leaves of the walnut tree blew in the wind, when sunshine seemed brighter and fresh berries grew in the backyard. I ate a lot of plums when I was a kid. And for some reason, this plum today tastes just like those plums used to. I see my best friend’s face. Not her current face—her young face. I feel her backyard around me. Shady because of the giant tree. I see her front yard—sunny. No tree there. I hear my mom. I hear my family. Time has not yet become a precious and scarce resource. The hours stretch on endlessly, punctuated by occasional trips to the grocery store. Time to sit and let the sun shine on your face and listen to the breeze blow in the walnut leaves.

I miss that walnut tree. And that friend. And my family. I’m so tired these days.

What a good plum.

On trees.

The mighty trees and the tiny plants don’t know their names, that they have been classified into taxonomies, ordered, organized. They only know to grow up toward the sun. To sink roots deep in the earth. To be.

Help

There’s a homeless man in a wheelchair who has been outside of the McDonald’s for the past few days. He has a sign that just says: “Help”. I’ve handed him a few bucks each time I see him, but it never feels like enough.

Yesterday, I got into the shower. It was a little bit cold, so when my cold feet hit the warm water, I felt that delicious burning feeling, as my feet warmed up. It’s one of those sensations that makes me aware of how alive I am—how firmly my body is grounded in this physical reality. As I put my feet in the water, and I felt that lovely feeling spread from my toes, up through my ankles, I flexed my toes and I thought of that homeless guy. He doesn’t have feet. Just these prosthetic legs below the knees. And I thought, “I wish I could give him this instead.”