Maestro Keys — Chapter 33

Andy Goldblatt
10 min readFeb 26, 2023

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Previously when Arnold came to Symphony Hall it was with Linda for their subscription concerts. They’d trudge up the wide, red-carpeted stairway to the cheap seats in the second tier, a promontory affording an unexcelled view of the baffles, curtains, and reflecting panels the acoustical engineers hung from the rafters to give the hall a better sound. The stage was so distant they needed binoculars to make out the musicians’ faces.

Today was different. He came alone and didn’t make that breath-ripping climb. Instead he strode through the padded double doors at ground level and walked toward the stage. Many musicians were already at their chairs, in street clothes rather than concert attire, chatting, notating their scores, and running through riffs, some from Lieutenant Kije. As he approached, the Symphony president recognized him (how she did was a mystery, since they’d never met) and smoothly broke away from a claque of well-dressed high society types (board members maybe?) to shake his hand.

“Maestro Keys! Right on time.” She was taller than him, a thin black woman in a dark gray pinstriped pant suit, and she regarded him with a steady gaze that both calmed and mildly intimidated him. She introduced the assistant conductor, as short as she was tall and as contemptuous as she was kind. “I’ve already seen to the orchestra’s seating arrangement and coordinated the bowing with the concertmaster and principal strings,” he informed curtly in an accent that sounded Australian. “All you need to do is wave the baton.”

Arnold felt for the little fellow. Old conductors never died, and they didn’t fade away either. Leopold Stokowski signed a five-year recording contract at the age of ninety-four and fulfilled much of it. Herbert von Karajan, bedeviled in old age by spinal discs that dug into his nerves, overcame an eight-hour operation and lengthy convalescence to conduct again; three years later he collapsed, causing even more damage to his spine, and overcame that too. Neville Marriner conducted a BBC Proms concert at ninety, and Herbert Blomstedt, the pre-eminent interpreter of Scandinavian music, was still shuffling to the podium at that age with no intention of retiring. So this poor assistant, stuck in his post for twenty years, had reason to despair of ever calling an orchestra his own. He got barely more opportunity to perform in a year than Arnold would get in one night.

“Madame President, is there anything we can do to extend my rehearsal time? I don’t think forty-five minutes is enough.”

“It’s enough to run the piece through twice,” sniped the assistant conductor.

Arnold wanted to like the man, but that attitude wasn’t helping. He ignored the remark and continued addressing the Symphony president.

“It’s as much for the orchestra’s sake as my own. To give the best performance we can.”

She smiled warmly, then took him by the crook of the elbow and pulled him aside. “I’d like very much to give you more time. It increases the value of the prize and gives people an incentive to bid even higher next year. But,” she leaned closer so she could reduce her voice to a whisper, “the union contract limits rehearsal time, and our guest conductor this week is, shall we say, mercurial.”

Arnold nodded knowingly.

She held out her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “If we don’t accommodate him there’ll be repercussions all the way to Europe. The classical music industry is a small one, as I’m sure you realize. Everybody knows each other. If he badmouths us, other conductors and soloists may decline to work with us. That’ll hurt our reputation, which means fewer tours, fewer recording contracts — you get the idea. We’ve worked too hard building the orchestra to risk that.” She sighed. “There are no bland virtuosos, Maestro Keys. They’re either the most charming and delightful people in the world, or terrors. Or both.”

Arnold had paid tens of thousands of dollars so the orchestra could continue building itself, and here it was squeezing his rehearsal time. “Even an extra ten minutes would help,” he pleaded.

“You could get lucky. The really temperamental maestros demand extra rehearsal time, then don’t show up for it.”

The assistant conductor intruded. “The orchestra is ready. Here’s a baton, Mister Keys.”

“I brought my own,” Arnold said, opening his briefcase.

“Ah, and I see you’ve brought a score as well. All right then. You’re on the clock.”

Arnold climbed the stairs to the stage. The assistant conductor introduced him to the concertmaster and the principals of the string sections. After that the orchestra’s chatting and shifting halted. The oboe sounded an A. The woodwind and brass players tuned to it.

Arnold mounted the conductor’s podium, which, though only a foot high, felt like Everest. His breath came in gulps. His legs turned rubbery. He opened his score while the concertmaster led the strings through their tuning. This was incredible! He was about to conduct a real orchestra! Men, women, young, old, white, Asian, even a few black and Latino — a hundred and five world-class musicians. His heart pumped hard enough to burst through his chest. So what if he died on the spot? He’d go happy.

The conductor Charles Munch stressed the importance of souplesse. You had to relax yourself, slow your breathing and loosen your joints, before your ears opened fully and you could lead. So Arnold took several deep breaths (in . . . out. In . . . now out) while the players eyed him expectantly. “Sorry, I’ve only done this in front of my stereo,” he apologized. They laughed — with him, not at him, which put him at ease. He was as ready as he’d ever be. “All right, let’s take it from the top,” he said, and, looking to the cornet player sitting all the way in back to the right, flicked his baton. Precisely on the downbeat came the lonesome call that opened the suite.

The last note needed more tension, but Arnold hesitated to tell an elite musician how to play a solo. Even the most finicky conductors gave players room to interpret their starring moments. So he let it pass and turned to the percussion section, also in back but to the left, where a kindly-looking, white-haired gentleman had four measures to himself to play the snare drum. “A little softer, please,” Arnold requested, overcoming his reticence and deciding it was better to assert himself sooner than later.

The percussionist needed to be told only once. He did the four bars over and they were quiet as could be. In came the piccolo player, chirping along in perfect time with the snare drum, and then the flutist. Unbelievable! They hadn’t played the piece in years, this was their first run-through as an ensemble, and they sounded performance ready. This must be what it’s like in heaven, Arnold flushed. His heart got thumpy again and made him light-headed. He lowered his baton.

“Is everything all right?” the Symphony president inquired from the first row of seats.

“Fine. More than fine,” he assured. “Now remember, horns, that’s a pianissimo on your entrance at rehearsal number two. [The score was marked with seventy-three reference points, called rehearsal numbers.] We don’t want to wake up anybody napping.” He set his legs squarely on the podium and raised both hands. “All right. From number one.”

The snare drummer drummed again. The piccolo and flute joined in, and then, at Arnold’s cue, in came the cornet, trombones, tuba, and bass drum, so delicately that if Arnold whispered he’d be heard over them. “Yes!” he encouraged, waving his baton as softly as they sounded.

The first violins raised their bow hands, preparing to play pizzicato. They were so close he could reach out and touch them. He only had to look their way for them to know their entrance. Plink plink plink, plink plink plink-plink! The notes popped off the strings and hit him like hail.

This was too much! But he had to stop getting lost in the sound. Every conductor talked about finding the groove between control and abandon. If you’re too controlling the performance goes flat. Let yourself be carried away and the performance turns sloppy. He checked his score to make sure where he was, then looked up.

What a rush. All the strings were gearing up. He opened his arms wide to embrace them. Mezzoforte! Two bars of absolute glory.

“All right!” he stopped once they’d reached rehearsal number five. “Tempo change here. Piu animato.” He tried to remember exactly the rate the metronome clicked at a hundred and twenty-eight beats per minute. Pretty damn fast. “Ready? Strings, last measure of four, take us into number five.”

They followed his downbeat. In came the woodwinds and horns. He beat frantically. The trombones and tuba entered as the oboes and bassoons started to crescendo. The bass drum boomed! The noise was so loud that if he shouted no one would hear.

“Hold it, hold it!” came a cry from behind. And not a moment too soon. Arnold hadn’t been able to keep pace. In a matter of seconds he’d fallen two pages behind in the score.

“That was rubbish,” the assistant conductor chided the musicians. He began giving instructions to the various sections.

The intrusion nettled Arnold. Control of the rehearsal belonged to him. He considered stalking off but decided instead to cast a stern glance in the assistant’s direction. “Are you finished?” he asked.

“You’d be better off to beat in one,” the assistant advised. “You beat in four through this section and not only will you lose the orchestra, your arm will fall off. And we wouldn’t want that.”

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” Arnold agreed. He had to admit that his shoulder did hurt. “All right, I’ll give you just the downbeat from here — ” he flipped ahead in the score “ — to number ten, the andante.”

The second time out they handled the fortissimo flawlessly. “Keep going!” he commanded, slowing the beat drastically and taking them into the andante. The first of those pesky two-four measures loomed. Arnold set his feet for it, hit the downbeat dead on — and muffed the return. He fell out of sync, indicating the first beat of every measure as the third.

The orchestra picked up the mistake and played through the next five bars in tight formation, allowing him to catch up when the piccolo, flute, and snare drum, accompanied by pizzicato from the strings, reprised the first theme.

And that wasn’t the only time they covered for him. Over the next half-hour Arnold missed cues, lost his place, and confused the beat more often than he wanted to admit. He learned a horrible lesson: real conducting was way beyond him.

After the cornet and violas sounded the closing note of the piece, Arnold wanted to tell the musicians they were guardian angels, rescuing him over and over, but he knew they would snort. So he took a deep breath, raised his baton, and said, “Okay, let’s play it through from the beginning.”

“Maestro Keys!” called the Symphony president from the foot of the stage. “I’m afraid there isn’t time.”

“How much do I have left?”

The assistant conductor checked his watch. “Five minutes. You can’t accomplish anything with that.”

Had it really taken so long? Now that he thought back on it, yes. All that starting and stopping and repeating. But he wouldn’t be cheated out of what was his. “You gave me forty-five minutes. I intend to use them all.”

He took the orchestra back to the middle movement, “Kije’s Wedding.” He’d made a lot of mistakes there and wanted a second crack. It moved so quickly (allegro fastoso) that he could play it through in less than three minutes.

He did better this time, but still made boo-boos. The problem was definitely his; he knew the trouble spots were coming but was never ready for them. “One more time,” he said. The Symphony president and assistant conductor shouted objections. But when Arnold hit the downbeat, the orchestra went with him. Nothing could have given him more satisfaction.

When the third try at “Kije’s Wedding” was over he went directly into the next movement, the “Troika Song.” He loved being swallowed up in the Christmasy melody. When he closed his eyes he could imagine himself a child in a horse-drawn sleigh whooshing through the snowy Russian countryside.

“All right, all right, that’s it!” clapped the assistant conductor, rushing the stage. The music abruptly ceased. “The maestro has arrived.”

The maestro is right here, Arnold wanted to say. But everyone knew better, including himself.

“I have just one thing to say before I go,” he addressed the musicians. “You are superb. You rescued me a dozen times today — “

“Four dozen,” cracked the white-haired percussionist. He didn’t say it meanly, though, and even Arnold laughed.

“I know I’m unworthy to lead you. But if I may? This piece is satire. In your solos and as an ensemble you played it straight, which adds to the pleasure for those who know it’s satire. But those who don’t might miss the point and wonder what it’s all about — or worse, think there’s nothing going on behind the notes. So please think about where you can play more broadly without compromising your integrity. You know, in a way the novices in the cheap seats will understand.”

“Not to mention the novice on stage,” Arnold heard not so sotto voce behind him. “Pieter!” hushed the Symphony president.

He wouldn’t give the assistant conductor the satisfaction of knowing he’d heard. He thanked the musicians again, shook a few hands, and left while the guest conductor upbraided the Symphony president about the unreliable Wi-Fi in the green room.

Next Chapter

© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.

Conductor and master of souplesse Charles Munch in 1966. (Photo: FORTEPAN / Zoltán Szalay)



Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four printed books and one e-novel on Medium, ectomorphic introvert.