Life-Changing Music

When a concert changes one’s life, it is not larger circles of life that shift, not the shape of the buildings or the direction of one’s life, but the very small circles, the inner gears themselves.  The air feels different, the sky less cold, one’s heart a different timbre.  Using the lessons learned from falling in love, one knows one need not shout the moment to the stars, open one’s lungs to the night. Instead, there is a quiet reserve that has been filled, and with each breath it seems possible to feel once again the velvet, hear again the tangible silence of three thousand people waiting for the first sound to emerge, almost to see once again the sound as it blooms in the air, matures, explodes and dies in ecstasy upon one’s ears.

Life-Changing Music:
The Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, November 2003


So much has happened in the past six years, since I wrote these words. I was accepted as a master’s student at Mannes for the following fall; and graduated in 2006. I did write for orchestra, not once but several times. I’ve had some success as a composer, some wonderful commissions, have worked with many of the top players in New York. I’ve traveled to Lucerne for the Luzerner Festival, to Salzburg for the Österfestspiel, and for two years following that concert, virtually lived at Carnegie Hall, attending more than 50 performances a year for three years in a row.

For the past three years, part of my teaching work has been with Carnegie Hall, and my first job for them was, in fact, with the Zukunft@BerlinPhil-the Berlin Philharmonic’s music education program, widely renowned for their innovative curricula.

Finally, I’ve begun to study conducting myself, attending workshops and taking private lessons, arranging readings for my education and taking auditions for master’s programs. I’m sure in another four or six years to look back on this time in my life will seems distant, but with my publication of blogs, with this newly formed resolve to share my written thoughts in words as well as music, this seemed the best time to publish this essay on my website.

I can read in this work my naivite, shocking to me now-to not know Ligeti; to never have been to a working rehearsal; to not know Carnegie Hall! But it is also the case for most normal human beings; it is important to remember just how rich and extraordinary the orchestra is, and the effect it can have on a human being. And it is also important to remember that one act of great generosity can quite simply change someone’s life forever. Carlos, thank you again.

J.B., 17th August, 2009, en route to Lucerne, Switzerland


Life-Changing Music

For Carlos
with gratitude and inspiration

When a concert changes one’s life, it is not the larger circles of life that shift, not the shape of the buildings or the direction of one’s career, but the very small circles, the inner gears themselves. The air feels different, the sky less cold, one’s heart a different timbre. Using the lessons learned from falling in love, one knows one need not shout the moment to the stars, open one’s lungs to the night. Instead, there is a quiet reserve that has been filled, and with each breath it seems possible to feel once again the velvet, hear again the tangible silence of three thousand people waiting for the first sound to emerge, almost to see once again the sound as it blooms in the air, matures, explodes and dies in ecstasy upon one’s ears.

There are physical structures that transform us as human beings, buildings which by their very existence bring a sense of awe and humility. When one first enters a Gothic cathedral, or when one first looks up from the base at the former World Trade Center, there is a moment when it is impossible to believe that human beings created what one is experiencing. The space is too large, the proportions too startling. Such a building can thus stretch us internally, augment a perception of what is possible, of what humanity is capable.

That sound can similarly shift the very boundaries of perception is an idea with which the Berlin Philharmonic is familiar. They are in the business of making music on the very highest level in the world, consistently, with intensity, joy and passion, and it is inevitable that along the trajectory of their excellence will be a few awed spectators for whom the simple vision of their orbit is enough to revive hope and a belief in the divine.

I didn’t know any of this, of course, when a Swiss friend of mine invited me to watch a dress rehearsal on Wednesday the 12th of November. I hadn’t been out to see music in a long time, because I’d been working nights more often than not, and didn’t have any money to spend on entertainment, but we had been out the night before to see Noche Flamenca, a show that held at its core the idea that flamenco is an art form of sadness, of a lament. It was a powerful work, one that had the audience enthralled and actively involved; the lead dancer, Soledad Barrio, drew a standing ovation with every solo. We had walked on the street afterward holding our fists, closing our eyes and trying to capture the llanto of the singers, the attitude of the dancers, the seriousness of the guitars. I can get excited by music, especially music strongly entrenched in a culture, and during one of my attempts to imitate the art we had seen, a group of teenage boys stopped me. “Excuse me, but man, what are you talking about?” I told him Flamenco, and he said, “Damn, I got to get me some of that!”

At a sake bar that night, my friend mentioned that he was going to Carnegie Hall the next day. “Would you like to come?” he asked me innocently. “It is the best orchestra in the world, and they are playing Bartok. I know some members of the orchestra, and they can get us in.” I didn’t have to hesitate. “Of course, Francisco,” I said. “You know that to write for orchestra is my dream.”

When I showed up on Wednesday morning, the air was cold. I waited with coffee in my hand for Francisco to show, and he did, carrying an enormous suitcase. He was flying later that afternoon, he said, back to Europe. The giant suitcase didn’t cause any trouble at the door; my friend had played at Lucerne the summer before, and knew many of the musicians. Martin Löhr, the principal cellist, let us in with his backstage passes. Francisco left his suitcase in the dressing room, and we walked out to the hall.

“Have you ever been here before, Francisco?” I asked him as we walked into the orchestra section of Carnegie. “No, never. Is it a good hall?” he said. “It is a miracle of nature,” I told him. “A wonder of the world. Sound in here is like magic. Let’s sit right in the middle of the hall, behind the conductor. We won’t see many of the players, but the sound will be excellent.” I had been able to sit down in the orchestra only once before, to hear the St. Matthew Passion played by the BSO, and remembered how thick the sound had felt in the 20th row.

“Did you say that this is the best orchestra in the world?” I asked him as we watched the orchestra warm up and the stage-hands adjust the podium. “Yes,” he said. “At Lucerne there was a big joke because one of the papers wrote a review about how the Lucerne Festival Orchestra was the best orchestra in the world, and all the Berlin players just laughed, because they knew that it was not a real orchestra, just a honeymoon. When you talk about an orchestra, it has to be one with a real schedule and this one has more of a legacy than any other.” And at that point Sir Simon motioned for silence.

The Carnegie Hall liaison spoke, standing next to the podium, with Maestro Rattle leaning with one leg on the podium, visibly itching to get up and start working. “We at Carnegie Hall are honored to have back with us the Berlin Philharmonic,” he said, and there was a quiet applause from the orchestra. “We have not seen you since your moving series in September 2001,” and he paused while we all thought about exactly when that was, what we had been doing, “and we want to thank you once again for that meaningful visit. We are here to make your life easier, so please, don’t hesitate to ask us for anything.” It was civilized and appropriate, not only the speech but the attention with which the orchestra listened; Sir Simon said a few words about the Bartok, that they would attacca the second movement “…but for you, no problem…,” and they were off.

The first thing that struck me was the degree to which the orchestra was able to play pianissimo and still be one solid texture. The opening moment of the first movement of Music for Percussion, Strings and Celeste begins with the softest of fugal statements played by each section of the orchestra, and even at that time of day, when half of the members were not fully awake, the sound was lush, full—and almost imperceptibly quiet.

I’ve heard the piece many times, and played it several more, but I felt I was able to hear it for the first time that day as an entire structure. The first movement takes on the form of a long crescendo and a shorter decrescendo, something like a horizontal diamond, and this larger form was not just possibly observable—it was undeniable. At the climax of the movement, I turned to Francisco. “Can you feel it?” I asked my friend. “The ground is shaking even out here from the bassi.” We could feel the music shaking the ground.

Sir Simon did not interrupt very often, and for the most part simply ran through the movements, but when he stopped, it was always with something important to change. The second movement involves a good deal of pizzicato, and he paused at a transitional passage. “I like all of these tempi very much, and I will follow any one of them, but only one,” he said, and the next time through, everyone was listening as if with radar. Somehow just reminding the orchestra to listen allowed the music to flow. But the fact that he had offered to follow the orchestra, rather than to lead it, was striking: clearly, something different was happening on that stage.

From his two small comments a mutual relationship of deep respect was apparent. Every once in a while, a player would approach him at the stand and ask a question. He most usually nodded his head, flipped incredibly rapidly through his score, found the part in question, and gave his opinion. Both players and conductor usually smiled the whole time, and they seemed more like fellow architects going over a blueprint than like musicians discussing a fine point. This in itself was interesting; I had usually observed conductors, even ones that work regularly with a given orchestra, needing to prove their dominance, keeping players reprimanded as a matter of course, giving musical examples to prove their knowledge, singing parts in solfège purely to demonstrate that they knew everyone’s parts. All of a sudden, those tactics seemed incredibly silly.

In the fourth movement, Simon began picking apart the rhythm, focusing on the smallest minutiae, working the orchestra hard. I had turned to Francisco several times in a frenzy over something I had heard—some rich harmony or a musical gesture I had never heard before—and he turned to me and said, “yes, but right now they are sleeping. When this animal emerges from slumber, its voice is transcendental.” Simon asked the violins to use more bow, and all of a sudden the canvas of the piece opened up; with one comment, he had shifted the timbre, the tempo, the texture, the color. With every comment, I wondered if he were not merely getting their minds working again. Unable to resist the temptation, I began writing in my notebook. I wrote: he is, in effect, re-building his instrument with this rehearsal, something like constructing a new stage set in this foreign city, brushing off the cobwebs.

In between each piece there was a decent break of ten or twenty minutes, and during this time Francisco introduced me to several players, all of whom he had known in Lucerne. He pointed out Albrecht Mayer, a very young oboist who came in during the Bartok wearing a very large red shirt. “He,” Francisco said, “is out of this world.”

For the second piece, the Beethoven Pastoral symphony, we moved up to the first tier boxes. We found that the only doors open were those directly over the stage: the best seats in the house. From that vantage point, we could see Simon’s face clearly, could see every instrument, and best of all, sitting next to me was a conductor with a score which she allowed me to follow. Every time I saw an oboe entrance coming up, I would cue Francisco, and he would lean over to watch Albrecht Mayer. It was amazing to hear. The american oboe sound is entirely different from that of Germany, or of Europe. I had heard of this many times, but I could hear, in his sound, a more biting, nasal quality that still sounded so rich, at times, that I had trouble once or twice distinguishing it from the clarinet. From those box seats, in fact, all of the woodwinds came to life; they seemed to float up to us unimpeded by the stage and we could hear every nuance.

The brass, meanwhile, were of course not doing much; they aren’t used for quite some time in the second movement. But instead of looking bored, or reading a newspaper or checking their email, as I’ve so often seen, the players were actively discussing the score, pointing and writing things in and obviously listening carefully to the rehearsal. They seemed invested in the music; they were part of a whole, not just the hired guns or mercenaries that came in from time to time and cut through the texture.

Once again, the form of the piece was transparent, and I began to wonder if perhaps it was because the players themselves were more aware of the form. Each gesture seemed to have not just its own integrity but a particular context in which it functioned. The storm scenes evolved slowly but inevitably; the orchestra grew together, not in fits and starts, but all like a school of fish, responding at the same time to move in a new direction of one accord. It was really like this watching them: it was hard to determine the origin of the change, and they moved as one body, seemingly with one shared consciousness.

At one point in the second movement Maestro Rattle jumped off the stage and walked to the back of the hall. The orchestra continued along just fine, of course, and when Simon came back he did not stop them for several minutes. When he did, he mentioned that from the hall, the strings were able to overpower too easily the woodwinds. “It is a very friendly hall for the strings,” he said, “and it is too easy to lose the wind entrances. It is especially friendly to the high strings—it is lovely how it blooms—but if we are not careful you can bury the celli-bass.” Several violinists said, “well, good!” and everyone laughed a bit, and they continued on, but from that moment forward, the strings were universally aware of the wind entrances and always allowed them their space.

Later on, in the third movement, Simon stopped the orchestra to say “we have to find a new color for our pianissimo. Right now it is just a beautiful piano, but it could be much more.” Francisco turned to me, his eyes excited. “Did you hear that?” he asked. “In this orchestra, it is not enough to be simply beautiful; it has to go beyond that.”

After the Beethoven, Francisco wanted to go downstairs, and I was forced to decide whether to stay, though I knew no one there, or to follow him out and have lunch with him and a violist named Martin Stegner. It was not a very important decision, on the surface, and I thought I might as well see them off and head back to work, to get practicing, because the day had been overwhelming already and I was swimming in the music. But something at the pit of my stomach made me stay, and I ended up shaking hands with him there. We’re good friends, and I knew it wouldn’t matter to him if I stayed or not. For me, though, it was the opportunity to prolong the ultimate fantasy: I was inside Carnegie Hall listening to the Berlin Philharmonic, and I could sit anywhere I wanted to.

I stayed exactly where I was. The next piece was Ligeti’s violin concerto, and while we didn’t have programs, one of the women in the box was a violinist and recognized the soloist, Tasmin Little, who was warming up at the top of the stage. “That would be wonderful,” Maria, the woman in our box, said, looking at the soloist and where she stood. At that point, it was just the three of us there, looking over the orchestra. No one looked up or acknowledged that we were there, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were receiving a private performance. Throughout the rest of the hall there were perhaps ten other people, all of them scattered along the orchestra.

The Ligeti was even more fascinating than the other pieces because I didn’t know it as well and because it showed the orchestra in a completely different light. While most orchestras seem to treat new music as a necessary burden to bear, a chore to get through as best as possible, the BP had obviously made the piece their own. The percussionists looked at each other frequently and checked up on how they were doing; after a good passage, they would smile at each other and laugh; after a poor execution, they would exchange a look acknowledging it. Simon kept the mood light through the piece, at times mentioning casually that at certain points the only way they could get through the piece was to follow him. “And I know you all don’t believe it, but I can be clear sometimes if you will just let me.”

When the rehearsal was finished, Simon told the players, “go with joy until I see you tonight,” and everyone split to different directions. I was famished, and asked the girls if they might want to get some lunch. They said they would, but they wanted to thank the percussionist, Franz Schnindlbeck, who had let them in that morning. So we waited backstage, smiling involuntarily at the players. I was of a mind to leave the building, but on our way out we fell into a conversation with one of the horn players, Fergus McWilliam. “wait here a minute,” he said, and disappeared backstage. We went out in the air, unsure whether to stay or leave, and once again I felt the pit of my stomach tell me to stay, even though I intellectually knew I had to get back home if I were to get any writing done that day. I simply couldn’t leave.

Eventually Fergus came out, and I tried to make an excuse to go home, but he would have nothing of it. “I’ve got a break from now until four. Let’s all get Japanese food,” he said, and so we did. Witihin a few minutes, we were seated on tatami mats with our shoes off trying to decide what to order. Fergus told us that he had seen us all from the orchestra. “We all saw you up there, and we were struck by how intently you were listening. It was an amazing feeling to play for a near empty hall and have it feel like a real performance,” he said, “and we wanted to let you know we appreciated the focus you gave to the music.”

“You know,” he said, “we were all your age once, with impossible dreams and crazy fantasies. What is so remarkable about this orchestra is that we have all realized those dreams. We’ve all made it.” We listened over our sushi and miso soup to Fergus talk about the process that the orchestra has developed to become what it was.

It is largely the legacy, he says; he knows some very old subscribers in Berlin who have been coming to see the orchestra since Furtwängler, and they insist that everything that Karajan is famous for developing was already in the orchestra, the sound, the intensity. And he told us what it was like to play under Karajan, under Abbado, under Rattle. “You see that there are no clear beats in Rattle,” he said, “but it has always been this way, from the beginning. You can’t beat time for the Berlin Philharmonic: they’ll take you apart. You have to let the orchestra play itself, and the analogy I always use is that of a traffic cop. This one person stands in the middle of a dangerous intersection, and everyone obeys him or her because they know that if they don’t, they put their life on the line. There are conductors that think their purpose is to be taskmasters in rehearsal and then they just beat time for the performance. Those conductors never work for Berlin. What you need is someone who will let the orchestra play itself, listen to each other. Abbado used to say, ‘don’t you hear it?’ and everyone would listen for what he was hearing. He developed the sense of communication you see in the orchestra today, this way of listening to each other through the sections.

“But you see also what comes along with that: a very perceptive orchestra is also very noisy. We are always having discussions with each other. One famous story is that when Abbado was conducting a rehearsal, he put his baton out and gave a down beat, and no one came in. They were all talking between themselves. ‘You hear that?’ he asked them. ‘That is the sound that a conductor makes.’ Simon when he first came in was shocked by the way we talked. He would raise his hand and say, ‘excuse me—can I offer a suggestion here?’ Now he knows how to politely make a comment, and we will take it within a section, talk it over and say, ‘yes, this is a good idea. We will do this.’

“It may seem that we are a group that has a very good time, and we do, when we are not working. But we need to relax, to take a break, because we work incredibly hard. We challenge each other constantly, and we work this hard because for us hard work is fun.”

I interrupted at one point: he was talking about how wonderful it was to see us excited about the orchestra, and I said, “for me the sparkle of the music is in the consciousness of the musicians.” It had struck me that the musicians not only listened to each other, they each thought deeply about what the music meant, on many levels. Fergus confirmed this; he said that in the entire orchestra, only fifteen members were not conductors of some sort in their own right.

We all parted ways shortly before four, having sat on the tatami for several hours. We vowed to see each other every day for the rest of the week, though I wasn’t sure I could come back; I have class on Thursday mornings, and I felt conflicted about missing it. That night, though, I couldn’t sleep. The images of the day kept flashing through my mind: Rattle in his white turtleneck conducting Beethoven, the feeling of the red velvet in the box, the smiles of the percussionists playing Ligeti, the way Simon said, “go with joy until we meet again.” A musical world had opened up to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The next morning I was there at a quarter to ten with no way to get into the hall. Outside the stage entrance I saw a number of people talking, smoking cigarettes. I decided to walk in, to answer only those questions posed to me. No one stopped me, and soon I was in the hall. I went straight to the tier boxes, and met Fergus on the way. “They’re on the other side,” he said. “Same place, over the stage, but the other side.” As I walked to box 1, I whispered to myself, unable to control the excitement, “I’m in!”

The second day featured Haydn. I had heard that Berlin sells out regularly, but when they play Haydn, it is impossible to find a seat. Shortly into the first symphony on the program, No. 88 in G major, it was clear why. The music came alive, the unexpected turns always surprising and exciting. I am interested in historical performance, and I was shocked at how many of the period-instrument techniques the orchestra had assimilated. The flutes used an alternate Grenadilla wooden flute to warm up the sound; the phrasing was all superb, the notes light off the bow, not too heavy, all with a nimble, confident nature that I’ve never heard an orchestra accomplish. The oboist and flutist actually improvised the repeated Minuet sections: this was music!

Most of the excitement came during the rehearsal. Rattle said, “this is fine, but everyone is going like this,” and he showed a bow going always the same, back and forth. “Let’s try to be more interesting than that.” And from then on, the articulations of the bowings was perhaps what most impressed me; no two notes were alike, and the sections were almost buzzing with the interactions going on between players of how to play certain passages. Some were curt and concise, and others were flitting, others very legato, but they all sounded different, and made the symphony exciting to listen to. Rattle is known as a Haydn specialist, and the rehearsal showed why: he seemed entirely in his element, as if his calling on the planet is to realize the music’s ultimate potential.

After a brief break was Debussy’s La Mer. If the rest of the rehearsals had been wonderful, this was on an entirely different level. From the box seats, the music seemed almost deafening at times. At the dramatic entrance of the cellos that sweeps high on the A string, the 1st principal cellist was asking about a timbrical nuance. “I don’t know,” Rattle said. “I’m accustomed to cellists being nervous about that move, but you seem to have no fear.” The cellist merely smiled and shook his head. The solos were all exquisite, each wind player making the music individually expressive. It really felt like chamber music.

There seemed to be a significant problem with the harps matching the basses’ very forward-moving tempo, and Rattle said, “we’ll move you for tonight so you can be side by side and hear each other.” But the problem persisted and he decided to move the instruments. This took at least fifteen minutes, but he was nonplussed. It was a necessary move, it seemed. They rehearsed the section again, and the instruments were still sharply divided, the bassi taking a faster the tempo, the harps a slower one. But Simon didn’t go back over it; he knew that the musicians would work it out in the performance.

At the end of the first movement, De l’aube a midi sur la mer, there is an enormous swell, and for more than a minute, the music sweeps up into a wave, a wall of sound. It was at this moment that I started to weep. The music had overpowered me, the orchestra which had won me over now caused me to shake. I let my head fall back, opened my eyes to a blurry circle of lights on the white ceiling, the musicians pausing between movements. I wondered if these were tears of joy, or of grief, of inspiration or of emotion. I do not know. But it was at that point that I began to wonder if I was going to come back to these rehearsals at every opportunity, that I would be back that night if I could, the next day, the next night. It had ceased to be a choice, and now seemed merely a fate. Could I avoid it? I attempted to avoid it; I tried to leave before the Dutilleux, to catch the last hour of class. I said goodbye to Fergus, to Maria and Elise, and made it as far as the door before I stopped in my tracks.

Am I going to leave this? Am I going to leave Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic playing the United States premier of Dutilleux? I could not. A minute later, I was back in the box, sitting beside Fergus and Maria once more. “I couldn’t leave,” I told him. “Maria can’t leave, either,” Fergus said. “She has a class and can’t get herself to go to it.”

Henri Dutilleux, it so happened, was in the audience. And after Simon introduced Valdine Anderson (“we are ridiculously grateful and honored and humbled to have with us”), Fergus began to smile. “I love this piece,” he said, and with that thought, they began to play it. At first the language didn’t make sense; I was unaccustomed to his sense of timbre, the way that he worked with sounds. But after hearing the piece twice, it began to fall into place. I was once again grateful to be in rehearsal, where a few pitches were corrected, where I could hear the piece played several times in order to get a chance to hear it more than once, to get used to the new techniques. Fergus couldn’t stop raving about the piece, and it kept my attention riveted. “Valdine only gets this one rehearsal,” he told us. “Just this, that you are seeing, and she is on tonight.”

After she sang, Dutilleux approached the stage. It was moving to see this man, 87 years old, having finished only this year this great work for orchestra that had been commissioned more than ten years previous. “We were afraid he was going to die before he finished it,” Fergus said. “Thank God he didn’t, because it is a masterpiece. Every note, every sound is there for a reason, and one cannot imagine it being anywhere else. It is genius.” If I make it to 87, I thought to myself, and live to see my great work played by the Berlin Philharmonic…

The final piece was another Haydn symphony, No. 90 in C major, and the rehearsal was very brief. Rattle touched some spots, but left most of the music for the evening. Everyone wanted to go to lunch, and the hard work had been done.

That afternoon I came home and wrote for several hours, then tried to change my appointment for the evening. It was impossible to do so, and so I missed the performance. I thought that perhaps I was done, that perhaps my premonition during La Mer was over-blown, that I would after all be able to go on with my life. But that night, after checking the message machine, I couldn’t sleep once more. The night previous (Wednesday) I had slept perhaps three hours; that evening I couldn’t have been asleep more than a single hour. I finally fell into dreams at seven a.m., and by eight, I was waiting for the alarm to sound. It was like Christmas morning as a young child: the time seemed to stand still, the covers still warm, the room cold, and the prospects for the day overwhelmingly exciting.

I was still nervous going in the stage entrance. The possibility of not getting in seemed just as real this time as before, but as it turned out, it was even easier that day than on Thursday. When I entered the hall, it became clear why. There were some hundred-odd Manhattan School of Music students in the seats, almost all of them in the orchestra. I went to the tiers and saw Maria and Elise, smiled and sat down. That morning, they began from the back of the program, with the Schubert “Great.”

Halfway through the symphony, students started to swarm into the boxes. I felt violated, like something had been taken away. I retreated to the orchestra section, sitting alone. I calmed down; I realized I had been conflicted all along about the nature of the rehearsals. They were too good to be true: to be virtually alone in that hall had been the stuff of dreams. Why should I not desire that many others, other students, other composers, conductors, instrumentalists, get to witness that miracle? Of course, it was better this way. There was something unfair about the scarcity of people in the audience before, knowing that the seats were all sold out and that there would be standing room only for hundreds that evening.

With the new crowd, however, the rehearsal took on a new character. It was not quite so intimate, and Simon seemed to be more on stage than he had before, more conscious of the fact that people were watching, perhaps especially that students were watching. Nothing in essence changed, but the pacing was different. He moved things along quicker, and less time was spent between sections for discussion. A doubling between solo cello and oboe was particularly poignant, but for the most part I sat quietly drinking in the scene again, the unfathomable richness of the seats, the orchestra, the calm direction of Simon Rattle, the masterful compositions.

For the Sibelius, I decided to climb up as far as I could go. I had mentioned the experience I had been having to several people, half hoping they would try to come along, half hoping they would not, and a good friend of mine told me that his favorite place to sit was way at the very top of the hall, far away from the stage, where the sound has spent the most time in the hall, getting richer, it seemed, by the foot.

There were painters working up there, and they would not let me to the Balcony, which is the very highest section of seats, but they did allow me to sit first row dead center of the Dress Circle. From that height, the seats down below were dizzying, distant, and Simon seemed small compared to the enormous orchestra with its fourteen brass and eight bassi. I found that the sound of the low strings was much more perceptible than down below; details of bow-strokes were much more present, and the winds were even richer than before, seeming to be amplified compared to the strings. Again, the oboe cut through it all more than any other instrument. The brass were a soft pillow, and throughout the symphony I was struck by the elastic nature of the music, the pulling and stretching of chords to their peak, letting the horns enter on a pad of suspended strings. It was truly tactile to hear that symphony from way up on high.

From that far away, I could not hear Simon at all, and I found some calm and peace, far removed from anyone else. I wrote in my notebook, how vivid the sound is up here! It seems to only bloom more and more as it rises higher… I began to imagine the sound in the center of the hall as if it were a substance, like a bird rising in the air, or a mixture of fragrances. I imagined being able to live in that air in the hall, being able to hover there as the sound surrounded me. It was not hard to imagine, being so close to the edge, the music in my ears like a watery substance.

When it came time for the Goebbels, what was to be the first piece on the program that evening, I was treating it as my last moments in the hall. The music was fascinating, with a synthesizer on stage and a series of different textures demarcated by a piano chord that defined the sections easily. Sounds emerged from the orchestra that were innovative, exciting, and that matched the caliber of the orchestra. Should I try to come back tonight?

I had the vague notion of coming back that evening, but I didn’t know who I would talk to, whether it would be possible to ask an orchestra member to help me through the back door. Somehow it didn’t seem likely, and I didn’t anticipate being able to get out of my Friday appointment, either. I had promised friends I was going to go to a dance with traditional Serbian music, and I didn’t think I could turn it down. So for every moment of the last piece, I tried to drink it all in again, the ceiling, the walls, the impossibly rich sound, all the faces of the audience lit up with excitement watching this magnificent orchestra play.

I was sitting hundreds of feet above the theater, with the red sumptuous velvet of Carnegie Hall, my writing notebook beside me, an orchestra on stage that had taken control of my life, that had left me breathless and unable to think. This time is not my own, I wrote. For the past three days, I had not slept, I had not been able to think of any of my projects, my compositions, letters to write, homework, books to read, phone calls to make. Even now, trying desperately to find a way to portray this feeling in writing (a hopeless task!), I am unable to move forward in my life; I stay up late, I skip meals. Really it is about the music, I wrote. To be alone with the music in the hall is what makes the magic.

I saw the two flutes hit a fast run in perfect unison, so synchronized that they turned to each other afterwards as if to say, “did that just happen?” I watched the man who yesterday was sitting concertmaster sitting in the back of the 1st violins, content in his new role. This orchestra is filled with young people and with life, I wrote. They have so many innovative ideas, they bring the music to a place I did not know existed.

My friends had asked me the day before, “Did you tell Simon what you thought?” I had not, of course: why would he need to hear about another young person crazy about the orchestra? But then I thought of my own performances, and how meaningful it was when someone actually said something, instead of “I really loved your playing.” I had been transformed by the orchestra; it had turned something inside of me, given me a sense of hope that had withered, and I thought that he might appreciate knowing that. “Can I write you a letter?” I thought of asking as I made my way down the seven staircases.

Down on the orchestra level, Simon was giving a small motivational speech to the Manhattan students. “Don’t give up, and always remember your dreams,” he was saying. I waited for him at the back of the stage, by the door. He was talking to first this student, then the other, and each of whom when they approached him seemed to forget promptly what they were going to say. He would say something smart, shake their hand, and then he would move on, smiling the while, his hair impossibly silver. Would I lose my ability to speak in the same way?

I spoke to the photographer, who said that he had taken some pictures of me watching the orchestra. Would I like to have a copy? Of course, I said, trying to think of a time when he had been in the 1st tier box at the same time as me. I hoped that it was the Debussy, or perhaps it might have been during the Dutilleux?

And then he was walking towards us, and then he was past us, six or seven conductors pushing each other aside to say something—anything—to him. I didn’t want to be aggressive, but I stood my ground, walked around the fighting bunch, and after he made his move to the elevator, I said, “Sir Simon, I just wanted to thank you.” He turned to me, and I said, in a heartbeat, not thinking of anything at all, “you have revived my faith in music and the orchestra.”

He looked at me, at my eyes, and said, tossing over his shoulder a big smile, “Oh! Well thank you for telling me that. At least they are friendly!” And he was gone, and I was out the door, wondering to myself, did I say what I wanted to say? Yes, and it is true. My faith in music, in the power of music to affect and inspire, my faith in the orchestra to be the zenith of musical expression, of a conductor’s ability to direct and motivate, not to stifle, all of these things were reborn in me. Did it matter to him that I had said this? I wasn’t sure. Whether it did or not, I felt I had been honest.

That night, I caught a ride downtown to go to the Serbian dance. On the highway on our way, I thought about how I had been looking forward to this night for months, for this trio of musicians, the excitement of dancing with dozens of young Serbs, how it feels to have Croats come and dance alongside the Serbs in this small hall on the East Side, how this mingling of cultures made me feel alive, to dance alongside both of them, everyone singing, these songs the only vestiges of a time when Yugoslavia was something more than a precarious idea.

Now, I felt that sink in my stomach. “Could you drop me by the train,” I heard myself say. “I think I have to go back to Carnegie Hall.” I didn’t have a ticket, the concert had been sold out for months, and it was the final night. What were my chances of getting in? I didn’t really care. If I didn’t get in, I said to myself, I would just walk through the night a while. It had been an amazing week, come what may, and it only seemed appropriate to give it a try.

As I walked down 57th Street, my body was shaking, my jaw chattering loudly. I felt freezing cold, though I usually stay quite warm no matter the temperature. I felt like a junkie, like someone so addicted to something that the absence of it makes one shake. Am I addicted to this orchestra? I thought to myself. Perhaps so.

Approaching the hall, I was asked for tickets. “Sir, do you have a ticket?” “No,” I said, “I’m looking for one myself.” There were teams of scalpers, dozens of people asking aggressively, “do you have a ticket?” “Ticket, anyone?” “Extra tickets?” I didn’t have anything else to say, but I had to try, so I too asked someone who seemed likely to have several tickets. “Excuse me, ma’am, but do you happen to have an extra ticket?” “I am sorry,” she said sincerely. “I really wish I did. They are a wonderful orchestra.”

I tried again. “Excuse me, sir, I’m sorry to bother you. I was wondering if you happened to have an extra ticket.” “I’m sorry,” he said, and I turned away. Then he caught me by the eye. “Hold on a second,” he said, and motioned me over. “I’m not positive I have one, but if you wait here for ten minutes or so, I can tell you conclusively.” We began to converse, and I found myself talking rapidly about the week, about coming every day to rehearsals, about how I couldn’t resist the urge to come back. How the orchestra had changed my life, how I didn’t actually think I would be able to get in. He told me about the subscription series at Carnegie, how he used the music at that hall as his therapy. “Instead of going to a shrink, I go to Carnegie Hall. I always leave feeling healed in some way.”

The man I was speaking to was Carlos P–– an executive with Deutsche Bank, the corporation that had sponsored the Berliner’s tour and who were listed in the program as the vitalizing force behind the recent innovations of the orchestra. He pointed out to me several significant donors to Carnegie Hall which, he said, runs with a budget including 16% funding by the patrons, significantly more than the Met, which is funded only 10% by patrons. “That man,” he said showing me someone walking confidently through the door, “donated more than $30 million last year.” My jaw dropped. The sumptuous experience of the week began to take on a different shape. An unfathomable commitment to this building began to take shape, the reality of what is required to keep this musical heaven alive. “What philanthropy!” I said to myself.

We spoke about Venezuela and composing and many other things, and in a few minutes, he received a phone call. Afterwards, he turned to me and said, “Alright. It is settled. This is yours,” and here he handed me a ticket. “Come by at intermission to the Shoron Club. Do you know where this is?” I shook my head, trying to picture a club. He told me where it was, introduced me to a few friends, and I walked in the door, still clutching the ticket, somewhat frightened to look at it. Finally, I did: it was a first tier box seat: 19, 7. I couldn’t believe it: the first tier: the best seats in the house!

Soon it became clear what a box really was: a world unto itself. I was in a box filled with executives from the Deutsche Bank. We all met, shook hands, and took our seats. I gazed around me at the changed hall. It was absolutely filled with people. Every seat was taken, and there were people standing in the balcony all around the perimeter. Programs fluttered white, opening and closing, and the orchestra section was a blur of moving heads, talking to each other.

The first piece was the Goebbels, and I couldn’t contain my excitement, telling those around me what a treat we were in for. There was a sense of energy building, the hall looking expectantly at the stage as the lights dimmed, and out came Sir Simon Rattle. When he got to the podium, he turned around. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “This is terribly embarrassing. They have forgotten my score.” And he turned to walk off. People turned to each other with glee, the moment giddy with a shared sense of absurdity. Here, at Carnegie Hall, for the stage-hands to forget his score-it was a ridiculous idea!

Aus einem Tagebuch, Goebbels’ commission from the Berlin Philharmonic, opens with the sound of tam-tams, like the beginning of a Chinese opera. I watched the faces around me, how surprised they looked, how calm and patient they appeared. They were ready to listen to the entire piece before placing judgment. I turned my attention fully to the music, which seemed to become even more transparent, this third or fourth listening. The sections were obviously demarcated, and each one was a rich experience, always unexpected but logical. The synthesizer took on a larger role for me then, with the sounds of huge machines crunching giving the piece the drive that I had noticed (but could not identify) previously.

The sound of the hall didn’t lose any warmth with the thousands of people; it just became clearer. And the music itself became communication. What had before been a private discussion within the orchestra was now presented on a platter to the audience. The orchestra played generously, holding nothing back, internally communicative, without a doubt, but focusing most of their attention on communicating with the audience. It was spectacular, and once again on a higher level than what I had seen before. I took mental notes throughout the program, listing to myself the fascinating compositional techniques being employed, allowing myself to become lost in a reverie from time to time, looking around at the hall, as I did during the Sibelius, looking openly at the attentive faces turned to the stage and lit by the stage lights, every seat filled with another person having the same experience as was I. Or perhaps not! Perhaps their experience was entirely different, for not having been at the rehearsals. Maybe they were hungry, or bored, or maybe they were thinking about work. That is part of the beauty of music: that we share a moment, a time, an experience of sound–but we each process it differently, and we each have our own experience.

Near the end of the final movement, Sibelius sets up a moment that seemed to me the fulcrum upon which rests the piece: strings suspend, getting longer and longer in their chords. They crescendo, then fall to silence, a grand pause. Soon they soar again, only to fall to silence. Again the same, and then they grow, swell, grow, and the trombones enter, open fifths creating the chord, swelling, a moment of beauty, a cactus flower, and then it fades. This moment had struck me that afternoon, way up high in the Dress Circle, but it only made sense that night, with all of those people around. That moment of beauty, that elaborate preparation, seemed to me this whole experience: a brief moment shared, a minute of ecstasy.

At intermission, I made my way to the Shoron club, met Mr. P–– and was introduced to his wife, to several young Manhattan students that he and others had facilitated getting to the school, to several more Deutsche Bank employees, and to a conductor. It was a swirl of faces and hands to shake, and quickly we were ushered back to our seats.

It seemed only moments before the Schubert was begun and finished, the music so transparent and enjoyable, the sound so satisfying and rich. The orchestra seemed to be saying, “this is what we are here to do. This is easy, delightful: we are here to make music.” Simon Rattle used the most graceful gestures: at a shift in color or tonality, he would turn over his wrists, let the music shift of its own accord, his hands evoking the shift, not forcing it. By the end, we were tired from the effort of concentrating, but not drained; everyone seemed to step lighter as we left and went into the sea of bodies.

I made myself down to the base of the stage, knowing that now, truly, was my final moment in this week-long adventure, that I had had the perfect ending to a perfect week. I looked up at the empty seats, at the hall how it appeared familiar to me now, a building as miraculous as the music that was made on its stage.

As I left, I helped an old woman down the stairs, looking around for Mr. P––, or any of his party, wanting to thank him again for that evening, but unable to find him, I stepped out into the night air. What had seemed cold and had made me shiver now was merely refreshing, and the wind that had chilled my bones on the way to the hall merely fanned an internal fire. I stopped mid-stride and wrote, now the night is not so cold; music warms my bones.

When a concert changes one’s life, it is not larger circles of life that shift, not the shape of the buildings or the direction of one’s life, but the very small circles, the inner gears themselves. The air feels different, the sky less cold, one’s heart a different timbre. Using the lessons learned from falling in love, one knows one need not shout the moment to the stars, open one’s lungs to the night. Instead, there is a quiet reserve that has been filled, and with each breath it seems possible to feel once again the velvet, hear again the tangible silence of three thousand people waiting for the first sound to emerge, almost to see once again the sound as it blooms in the air, matures, explodes and dies in ecstasy upon one’s ears.

New York, 2003