Maestro Keys — Chapter 39
He wasn’t ready.
His heart pounded. He couldn’t talk for the lump in his throat. He was certain anything that could go wrong would. The players would miss their cues. Reeds would screech. Bows would snap. The balcony would collapse. The San Andreas fault would shake from Acapulco to Anchorage, sunder Symphony Hall, and swallow him up like Don Giovanni.
Why don’t you start with the second piece on the program and forget me, he wanted to suggest. But before he could the concertmaster, bearing a violin once owned by Jascha Heifetz, strode by without looking at him. The stage master, a tall, thin man with a gray beard and curly brown hair, pulled open the grand wood door in front of them, and without breaking step the concertmaster jaunted through.
The hall erupted in applause. As the oboist tuned the orchestra to the customary A, sweat soaked the top of Arnold’s collar.
“You’re next,” the stage master smiled after he closed the door. “It’s a big orchestra tonight and there’s only two feet of clearance between the risers and the edge of the stage, so watch your step as you walk to the podium. Better to look down and reach center stage safely than to look up and take a fall.”
The strings finished tuning and the orchestra fell silent. The house lights dimmed. Audience members coughed expectantly.
Arnold’s heart beat so fast he felt light-headed.
The stage master was unhurried. “Did you see that Kurt Masur fell from the podium in Paris a few years ago? He was 84 and had Parkinson’s, but he wasn’t even scratched. He could have gone right back to work. But they took him to the hospital just in case. You can never be too sure.” He looked at his watch. “All right, we’ve made your fans wait long enough. Break a femur!”
He put one hand across Arnold’s back and with the other opened the stage door. A gentle push, and there Arnold was, all but naked in front of two thousand people.
Grinning more from fear than joy, clutching his baton so tightly the handle bruised his palm, Arnold stepped into the lights. He was politely applauded as he minced past the first violins and climbed the podium. Bowing in acknowledgement, he showed his teeth in a wide smile.
His first mistake! Hadn’t he done this enough at home to know a conductor never showed pleasure when walking onstage, only solemn respect for the awesome task at hand? Grinning was for romantics like Bernstein and Rostropovich.
Maybe he could salvage the situation with a clever remark, as Bernstein did before leading a piece by the modernist composer Iannis Xenakis that had independent parts for eighty strings. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Bernstein announced, “tonight the orchestra is on the honor system.” Ladies and gentlemen, tonight the City Symphony is on the honor system — not because of the piece’s complexity, but because the conductor is a pea-brained boob.
But it was better to keep one’s mouth shut and let people think one a fool than to open one’s mouth and prove it. Arnold turned his back to the crowd and tried to forget it, focusing on the orchestra. A hundred and five sets of eyes looked toward him, waiting. He hunched over the stand on which his score lay open to the first page. Souplesse. You waited for the perfect moment, when the audience, orchestra, and you were ready.
But what if that moment never came? How long would the audience wait before it started fidgeting and whispering and giggling? Lord was he ever not ready! What a bad idea this was! He thought how much safer he’d be in his study and sniffled with longing, raising his right hand to dab at his eyes with the cuff of his sleeve.
Taking that as his cue, the cornet player sounded the opening call of Lieutenant Kije.
[The reader is invited to follow Arnold through the score here at the times indicated]
Once the lonesome call ended, Arnold began beating time. This was the biggest moment of his life except for his wedding and the birth of his child. He would hate himself forever if he didn’t play it to the hilt. So when the flute, with help from the piccolo, announced the sprightly first theme, he started to dance. [0:35] Nothing too demonstrative; just a tiny bounce in his hips and a shuffle to his left foot. But the players picked up on it. Their notes took on a more lilting quality.
Hey, if that worked, to hell with technique! Instead of robotically beating time, he went with the flow of the music. When the horns came in for that first thundering fortissimo [1:32] he balled his left hand into a fist and flicked the baton like a jabbing prizefighter. The orchestra responded with a deep yet stinging sound, punctuated by the bass drum on the beat.
In came the entire string contingent, flying up and down the middle octaves in a sustained series of sixteenth notes. [1:55] Arnold slashed at the air a millisecond ahead of their bowing. He was riding the piece now, knee dipping on the downbeat, arms pumping to the brisk rhythm he himself was setting.
The concentration of the violinists was so intense it intimidated him. What was he doing up here with such serious people? Then he remembered: he was serious too. And he was leading them!
The fortissimo ended. The first violins and oboes carried the melody forward. He took a deep breath, smiled at his players, and slowed them down through a two-bar transition to a moody rendition of the second theme. [2:27] It was essential to fix this theme in listeners’ minds, since it would recur in the third and fifth movements. The principal flutist, silver-haired and red-faced, was up to the task, effortlessly hitting her marks in the topmost register and finishing with an exquisitely prolonged, one-octave glissando. As the first of the two-four measures approached, Arnold ignored it to beam appreciation to the flutist, who smiled ever so slightly.
Leaning forward and looking straight at the piccolo player to the flutist’s right, Arnold raised his body and waved his baton faster. With the first violins playing that plinking pizzicato beneath, the piccoloist chirped out a smart, staccato recapitulation of the first theme exactly as Arnold wanted. [3:19] Then lifting his baton so the trumpet player in back could see, he slowed to an andante assai, one beat per second (one one-thousand, two one-thousand!), and wound down the repeat of the cornet salute until its last note, supported by a tremolo from the violas, faded into thin air.
The first movement was over.
The second movement was Arnold’s favorite. Not only did its slow pace make it easy for him to conduct, but the principal melody was flat-out gorgeous. Setting the tempo a smidgen faster than the andante assai that closed the first movement, he took the violas into their dirge-like ostinato, with flutes, clarinets, cellos, basses, and harp discreetly adding highlights. Two bars in, the principal bassist entered with that heavenly theme, sounding plaintive yet supremely dignified. [4:20] At bar seven the principal violist joined the bass. [4:37] They played to one another like lovers. Arnold closed his eyes and opened his mouth as if to sing along.
The tenor saxophone, bassoon, and French horn came in next, repeating the main phrase. [4:56] In the score Prokofiev had encouraged them to play expressively but loudly. One measure before they were to begin Arnold closed his left hand, letting them know that though he wanted satire, he didn’t want garishness. They muted themselves enough to preserve the beauty of the line while providing a stout contrast to the solo strings.
Now it was the celesta’s turn. [5:12] An ethereal instrument — keyboard of the gods! After two measures the celesta handed the theme to the principal cellist, who played for less than three measures before handing the theme back. But it was dangerous to stay with the celesta long; it threatened to obliterate the piece’s ironic distance. And so the tenor sax was given the mocking last word. [5:47]
Over those same measures the flutes introduced the livelier, jocose second melody. After the flutes backed off, Arnold picked up the pace for the saxophone’s part. Wanting staccato phrasing, he moved his baton stiffly, in imitation of a toy soldier. The saxophonist readily adapted, giving Arnold the comically mechanical overtones he desired. [6:04]
He surmounted his next two-four challenge, a solo oboe glissando, and moved his gaze to the back of the stage, prompting the bassoons and trombones to lead the rest of the orchestra in an earthy response to the second theme, sounding like peasants snickering at the ungainly soldier’s courtship. [6:35] The violins finished in a melodramatic two-measure flourish — did you see that, she let him kiss her! [6:43] But the unashamed sax came back with blustery confidence. The horns waited out another two-four oboe solo before exclaiming their astonishment. [7:05]
They yielded to the principal flutist. [7:14] Arnold was getting fond of this red-faced woman, who sensed the tempo just from his downbeat and proceeded to spin an elaborate variation on the first theme. Leaving his heels on the second and fourth beat of each measure, he exulted in her deft mingling of high and low, complex and simple, fine and coarse. As she finished, the sax came back for one last blow. [7:38] The violins and violas cried out plangently. And then, in the hands of the flutist, clarinetist, and solo strings, “Kije’s Romance” faded to silence.
Time for “Kije’s Wedding.” This was the hardest movement technically, but the easiest artistically. Arnold wanted the satire played to the hilt, so right from the opening flourish, punctuated by five mighty crashes of the cymbals, he gestured wildly. Got the message, players? Spare no subtleties! [8:20]
It was most important that the trumpeter understand, for he was the movement’s star player. He caught Arnold’s intent right away. With the same skill that he handled the cornet solo in the opening movement, he carried the slightly grotesque wedding theme over oom-pahing woodwinds and horns. [8:40] He quit only after a roll of the bass drum marked the transition to the faux-melancholy second theme, identical to the second theme from the opening movement. [9:10]
Arnold beckoned the saxophonist to play slightly louder. A burly, younger man with slicked-back hair, the sax player raised his eyebrows with each buffoonish phrase. A quick two-octave flight on the violins silenced the sax and brought back the trumpet with the main theme. [9:30] It glided through a modulation from E flat major to D major, where the first violins and violas joined in. [9:38] The theme modulated back to E flat major for two bars, then bam! Out of the blue, the opening flourish again. [9:47] Arnold laughed as the orchestra crashed out the obnoxious little tune; they sounded like drunks trying to convince the audience of their sobriety.
Four quick measures of oom-pah music followed from the horns. [10:03] Arnold remembered to set the pace by conducting the tuba, which played on the downbeat. After the tuba’s eighth blat, the trumpet returned with the first theme. But figuring the trumpet player knew his entrance, Arnold cued the first violins instead. [10:07] They passed off a one-measure descending figure to the second violins, who passed it to the violas, who passed it to the cellos, who sent it right back to the first violins for another, slightly altered go-round. It made Arnold laugh again, but because the orchestra wasn’t playing loudly he made sure to keep silent.
A short interlude of the trumpet playing with the woodwind section, a repeat of the little joke with the string sections, and then the flourish came back a third time. [10:35] Arnold saved the most exaggerated effect for the last two notes: the entire woodwind section, led by the piccolos, screeched out a high B flat and A flat in a drawn-out mezzoforte. [10:47] Now if that wasn’t abrasively satiric, nothing was!
After the movement ended he gave the players an extra few seconds to relax. His jitters had disappeared. He felt calm and at peace with the world. Even when he remembered that Linda, Rudy, and two thousand total strangers were watching him, and heard them coughing and shifting, it didn’t unnerve him.
The fourth movement opened with a dissonant introduction that ended on the same shrill note Arnold had emphasized moments ago. The difference was that this time the shrieking piccolos and flutes were followed by a deep echo from the French horns, trombones, tuba, and bass drum. [11:15] Arnold had them bellow so loudly he felt the vibration in his feet.
But there was such a thing as laying it on too thick. After the harsh introduction came that Christmasy allegro con brio. Arnold decided to play it with pure joy. Up came the violins and violas in merry pizzicato, with a harp, piano, triangle, tambourine, and sleigh bells in support. [11:23] The saxophone and bassoons enunciated the first theme, a longer, smoother version of the one played in the intro. [11:26] Arnold encouraged the plucking strings, batting the baton up and down in sharp little strokes, and brought the leads in right on cue. [11:38] It was glorious, like skating on a lake in winter.
But he got too cocky. A two-four measure tripped him up and he lost his place. [11:42] He didn’t let it upset him. He stopped beating (while continuing to bounce in time) and really listened to the rapid-fire notes from the strings. Ah yes, there! He caught up just in time to lead the trombones to the forefront and urge the cellos to play their staccato parts as brightly as possible. [11:46]
The piece was moving quickly now. Arnold dipped his left shoulder every few seconds to flip the page of the score. No need to beat every note; he gave them the idea with his eyes and by striking hard at the downbeat. Following another set of popping pizzicato (he wasn’t thrown off by the two-four bar this time) he held up his hands for just an instant, eyes wide, mouth pursed, telling the strings to mute down while the sax and bassoons played the bumptious second theme. [12:12]
Now came a reprise of the main theme, with the first violins bowing furiously and the second violins and violas busily plucking out D majors two octaves apart. [12:27] Arnold allowed himself one quick moment to admire the string players’ ability to play such intricate skeins on such tiny instruments, then refocused on the score. The pizzicato was repeated yet again, only this time the horns and trombones erupted in a crassly dissonant outburst near the end — a shameless orchestral fart. [12:44] Thankfully they weren’t too loud; Arnold could sense the audience recoiling. These are the jokes, people, roll with it! He wanted to turn around and show off his ear-to-ear smile.
A couple of quick bars for the trombones to huff out a snippet of the second theme, then the sax and ‘soons returned to reclaim the melody for themselves. [12:54] The trombones got one last turn before the entire woodwind section, spurred by the piccolo, reprised the main theme. [13:10] Arnold held his arms wide and led the entire orchestra in a gradually slowing coda. The horns belched out the last eight notes in an emphatic fortissimo.
And that was it for movement four. One movement to go.
“Kije’s Burial” began with the cornet call that opened the piece. [13:40] Arnold took it so slowly there almost was no beat, and he maintained the glacial pace through the horns’ dissonant introduction to the rest of the movement. [14:08] When the clarinet came in to play a nasal reprise of that old theme from the first and third movements, he raised the tempo to a moderato. [14:20] The first violins followed with four bars of eerie sixteenth notes that would have served as perfect accompaniment to a Fifties science fiction movie. [14:27] The saxophonist echoed the theme, and then the first violins came back, only this time an octave higher, making them sound even more unearthly.
Arnold slowed to something between the moderato he’d been beating and the andante that opened the movement, and in came the lead French horn with a transcendent reprise of the main theme from “Kije’s Romance.” [14:45] Each note trembled with such longing that Arnold held out his left hand, begging for more, more! As the horn player prepared to repeat the melody, Arnold ushered in the first violins, who played in their tear-inducing top register. [15:02] Had he ever heard such achingly beautiful sound?
He wanted to stop everything and have the orchestra play those last fourteen bars again — and again and again, for the rest of his life — but out of respect for the composer and players and audience he didn’t. He slowed the tempo even more, almost down to the opening pace, so the woodwinds could puff out a lovely variation while the tuba continued the theme underneath. [15:23] He led the clarinet, bassoons, and strings through a tranquil transition to B-flat major, and then the strings took up the theme — only in a slightly cockeyed manner to remind the audience that Kije wasn’t about pure beauty. [15:43]
Then came a second reminder, as blunt as a hammer to the head: the trumpet barged in with the loutish main theme from the wedding. [16:05] It chugged along in eighth notes, oblivious to the regal quarter-note pace of the strings. Arnold turned to the violins, violas, and cellos and shook his open left hand, asking for more vibrato to maximize the contrast with the brash and brassy trumpet. The music so lost its moorings that Arnold felt dizzy. He had to take a quick glance at his feet to make sure he wasn’t about to fall off the podium and become another story for the stage master.
He brought in the woodwinds. [16:25] Outrageous, asking skittish piccolos and flutes and oboes to steady the rest of the orchestra! Yet by taking the theme of “Kije’s Romance” from the strings they did precisely that. Arnold beat them more vigorously until they usurped the rhythmic drive from the horns and the keening piccolo became the north star of the ensemble.
The strings returned, jouncing along in a cheerful descending figure while the oboe and clarinet revisited the main theme from the wedding. [16:44] Then the clarinet and saxophone brought up the second theme from the wedding. [17:11] Arnold missed the cue for the bass drum [17:25], but that old pro of a lead percussionist hit his single note dead on.
He turned to the first violins, who sang out the main wedding theme over pizzicato from the other strings and deft counterpoint from the flute. [17:41] Then, putting his head down and squaring his shoulders, he sent the first violins on a tear of staccato sixteenth notes while the trombone took the theme and the horn and other strings filled in. [17:49]
Time for the finale. Arnold wanted the principal flutist to play her last solo as nostalgically as Arnold was starting to feel. As if reading Arnold’s mind, she puffed lachrymosely over the subdued accompaniment of the first violins. [18:30]
That left one last thing to do. Arnold turned to the cornet player, making sure the percussionist at the snare drum was aware of him too. Down came his baton, ever so slowly, and so quietly it sounded embarrassed at itself, the call that heralded Lieutenant Kije’s birth now heralded his passing. [18:56]
After the space of a breath the applause began. What, was it over? Arnold turned and bowed to the audience. Then, not wanting the moment to end, he turned to his players. He pointed to the principal trumpet, who stood. The applause increased. He pointed to the slick-haired saxophonist. To the bassoonist. The oboist. The clarinetist. The red-faced flutist. The piccolo player. The principal cellist. The principal bass. The principal violist. The concertmaster. Had he forgotten anybody? Oh, the lead percussionist! He had the entire orchestra stand and applauded them along with the audience. He shook hands with the concertmaster, who made eyes at the stage door. Arnold understood: exit and come back for more.
He felt cold and nauseous and on the verge of fainting as he wobbled offstage. When he returned after a fifteen-second hiatus there was a fresh peal of applause, even a few bravos. He had the entire orchestra stand again. This time they refused — they applauded him. And why not? He’d paid a month of their health insurance all by himself.
But Arnold thought no further of money. He had finally touched the divine. And now that the epiphany was over, never to be repeated, he couldn’t stop himself: he cried. Hot, loose tears mixed of equal parts joy and sadness fell from his cheeks onto the tuxedo which until that night he’d worn only to conduct in his study. He bowed humbly to the orchestra, then to the audience, and exited again.
The applause ended. “Bravo, Maestro Keys!” congratulated the stage master as he clasped Arnold’s bruised and sweaty palm. “That was the first time in the history of auction performances we didn’t have to resort to Plan Z.”
“Plan Z?” he asked as the stage master led him to the green room and a reception with the Symphony president and board of directors.
“Plan Z. When the guest conductor gets lost, take your cues from the assistant conductor in the first tier box closest to the stage.” He winked. “If you want to see it in action, watch the woodwinds when Mister Hot-Shot European comes on next.”
© 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.