May 11, 2011

Bob Johnston

FINISHED SYMPHONY

My first twenty years I’d never heard an honest-to-God
live symphony, and then I started at the top:
Koussevitsky and his Boston combo,
Carnegie, Wolfgang’s G minor.
When those first notes hit, they lifted me out of my seat,
floated me somewhere above the proscenium,
where I stayed for the next two weeks.
I can still hear those notes.

The slow movement was from Brahms. The violins spun it out
into a single white filament that looped over my head
and back to the stage. I tried to hold onto it,
but it slipped through my fingers.

Instead of a minuet we had Ellington. This was early Ellington,
before he got delusions of grandeur. The mood was indigo
and the stage rocked in rhythm while the brass growled,
the A-train rumbled under the auditorium
and I danced in the aisle
until they put me out.

The last movement capped the climax with Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
Naturally, it was too loud, too long, and out of tune. The violins
begged for mercy, and the concertmaster took a swig of water
or possibly gin. The notes heaped up in weary piles,
waiting for the final
molto ritardando.

It ended, with no applause and no encores. The audience was long gone.
I sat alone in the darkened hall, waiting for the lights to come up.
They never did. The conductor disappeared in a puff of smoke
and the weary musicians filed offstage. I clapped and clapped
for an encore, anything
to break the silence.

from Rattle #26, Winter 2006
Tribute to the Greatest Generation