Few events are as provocative as performing a piece of music in adulthood that one first played as a child. I began my career as a professional musician only a year after switching to the oboe from unsuccessful attempts with the violin and clarinet. I joined the Northwestern Michigan Symphony Orchestra as second oboe to my teacher, Nancy Brammer. At the age of 16, I was confronted with the great works of the orchestral canon almost entirely without cultural reference. I can remember distinctly my maiden voyages with Brahms symphonies and especially the second piano concerto, with Tchaikovsky symphonies, Mozart "Linz," Rachmaninoff piano concerti, and especially with Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. The NMSO accompanied Joffery II when their national tour brought them to northern Michigan.
Before the dancers arrived in town, our English hornist, Lynn Hansen (now principal of Traverse City's West Junior High School) had some of the younger orchestra members over to her house to watch a video of Joffery dancing to Prokofiev's score. We gathered around the television, excited about what we were about to discover and what we were about to perform. No work of art more perfectly expressed the emotional complexity of the teenage protagonists' love-confused story, their self-deception and the multi-layered ambivalence of the outside world's dealings with their tragic end. No work of art spoke more directly to my emotional world at the age of 16, dealing both with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of Prokofiev's score and the difficult emotional truths the music itself kept revealing.
So it is little wonder that two and a half decades later, when performing this work with the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, I should slip back in time. The notes themselves becoming Proust's cookie crumbs dissolving in warm tea. My fingers trace the very same motifs, and the logic of the body returns to me the emotional mysteries, long buried but somehow potent as ever.
"An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? . . . . What an abyss of uncertainty, whenever the mind feels overtaken by itself; when it, the seeker, is at the same time the dark region through which it must go seeking and where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not yet exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day."
And so, as I sit in the orchestra, the mind wonders over and through waves of sound, of memory, emotion. Lost loves, potent now in different guises, step up and offer invitations to tangled dances. Tripping, spectral visions, at once past's dreams, and the present's wonders, seduce the mind from the printed score. The notes are the same today as they were when I was young. Middle "C" still requires three fingers from my left hand and four from my right. And so that "C" exists in two centuries and all the possibilities dreamt between. If Wallace Stevens in Esthétique du Mal finds both the physical and non-physical worlds sprawling in fields of green corn, overcome in the gleaming richness, so he suggests what it means for one musical phrase to split time and carry us careening between ourselves and ourselves. Gratitude and fearsomeness form the forms that rift and shift the shape of our lives.
Esthétique du Mal by Wallace Stevens
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel. The adventurer
In humanity has not conceived of a race
Completely physical in a physical world.
The green corn gleams and the metaphysicals
Lie sprawling in majors of the August heat,
The rotund emotions, paradise unknown.
This is the thesis scrivened in delight,
The reverberating psalm, the right chorale.
One might have thought of sight, but who could think
Of what it sees, for all the ill it sees:
Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound,
But the dark italics it could not propound.
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.