My retinas were kissed by the amber-hue of the concert hall as I came out onto the stage. The house lights revealed the more-than-two-thousand seats that environ the orchestral “pit.” Soon, they all would be filled with over-enthused patrons, who have waited years for the return of the maestro. The first show since his… hiatus. People coming from all over the country, as well as Europe, China, Japan, India, to see the opening night of his return. Tickets were sold out in less than ten minutes. I had to personally tell several offices of presidents and kings that there were no more tickets available. Consequently, I am now banned from several of these countries.
The concert hall’s undulating fluidity of walls and ceiling, bleeding concave into convex and back, illustrates a visually inverse reflection of the sound, trapping the acoustics in their place so that no matter where one sits in the hall the experience is audibly the same. When he first stepped out onto the stage (the first time not only on that one, but any in fifteen years) he remarked: “Das Paradox ist im Spiel.” When the chairman and other board of directors asked what he meant, I took it upon myself to translate: “He is thinking about the interplay between the music that will be animating outward and the constructed pieces designed to keep it inward. That struggle is like a playful wrestling.” They looked around the hall and back at me, a hint of confusion in their smiling dumb faces, looking to me for more. So I added: “He likes it.”
Tonight, he’ll be playing Dmitri Shostakovich’s “5th Symphony,” portions of Sergei Prokofiev’s “The Tale of the Stone Flower,” and selected works from Jules Massenet’s “Eve” and Hans Rott’s “Symphony in E-Major” plus, as a surprise encore performance, his latest composition. He wants to “break their hearts, then slowly put them back together after the intermission,” to “show them the whole breadth of the human element.” He is excited. “Oh Camille,” he said the night before last over dinner. “They again have returned. Those wonderful butterflies.” Diese wunderbaren Schmetterlinge. Ich sehe sie wieder.
He was out on the stage. In two hours the doors would open. He was sitting in the third cellist’s wooden chair. He looked concerned, perplexed even, swaying from one side of the seat to the other. Scratching his hair, listening carefully to nothing, he leaned left, then right, back again, looked as if he was almost inspecting the air underneath the seat.
Last night he called me in a panic. “Camille! Darling! It’s impossible. Just simply impossible!” What? I asked. What was the matter? I was trying to remain focused while simultaneously tearing myself from the grips of a deep sleep. “The chairs! They’re simply awful!” Then he proceeded to tell me how he needs to replace all of the orchestra’s chairs. But it was three in the morning. “I don’t care! We can’t have a show with those shit chairs!” He instructed me on what he needed. Wooden chairs. Handcrafted. Preferably with at least ten years of use, and possibly birch wood, but under no circumstances oak.
The board members were not too pleased when in the morning they witnessed the maestro (gently) tossing the concert hall’s chairs out from the pit and placing the wooden replacements down. One looked at me with eyes that seemed to say: “Again?” Various staff at the concert hall were standing about watching the maestro along with the delivery men who had the wooden chairs I was able to find—they came gratis from a local school that was preparing to throw them out.
It was easy to understand the board members frustration, and confusion. The new chairs were ugly, worn, some had crude graffiti written on the seats and sides in marker or etched with pen or pencil: the most common unsavories were the word “Fuck” and phallic images—quite remarkable detail when considering these came from a 4th grade classroom. They were by far inferior to the usual ones. The president came up to me: “You can’t possibly allow this to happen! Those chairs he’s throwing around cost us more than two-hundred dollars each.” They were quite nice to sit in. Padded, stainless steal, coated in a black matte paint, heavy. The maestro was humming Ravel as he picked one chair, then another, and dropped them off the stage into the front row. “Will he stop doing that!?” the president raged. A scuffle broke out between the maestro and an employee of the hall who was following orders. The maestro’s mood changed like a flash as he struggled for control over a chair from the employee. “Du Idiot! Du widerliches Arschloch! Lass los!” An ugliness reverberated throughout the hall for the next minute, so arresting it doubled as a vacuum afterwards leaving the open space as a new muted environment. I did my best to calm all parties, though I was staunchly defending my mentor. After the president made a rather uncouth comment about the maestro’s behavior, I had no other option but to take it upon myself to explain that if the two-hundred dollar chairs were so important to her, she could have them, but there would be no maestro.
After the fight, he disappeared. We were searching for him for more than six hours, but he was nowhere to be found in the building or surrounding area. (I later learned the president had called several conductors in that timeframe to see if they would fill in, but to no avail.) I was in my room, in a state of melancholy, when one of the interns informed me the maestro had returned. He brought me through the back to the stage, and surely there the man of the hour was.
I slowly came upon the maestro while he moved from the cellist’s chair to the first oboist’s. He was in full composer regalia. I wondered how he managed to change, as my room and his were connected and I left the separating door open. How did he sneak in without me knowing? “Maestro,” I called in a gentle manner so as not to startle him. He turned to me with a smile, then back to the matter at hand of sitting in the chair, turning from one side to the other and back, listening, scrutinizing nothing. My heart began to jump. The thought of that board member’s eyes returned. “Again?” I asked him what he was doing. He smiled at me in a sort of paternal affability. “I’m listening.” To what? The reverberation? The silence? The hall? “No, Camille,” he laughed. “To the chair.” I was near tears as he moved to the second oboist’s seat. But why? Why in the name of the heavens would he need to listen to the chairs?
He stopped and briefly sighed. He understood now that I could not see just like the others.
“My darling. The chairs are important. I need the right ones to sing out just a little, so that when Mary,” he pointed to the violinist’s empty spot, “or Henry,” he motioned back to where the tam-tam player sits, “when they move in their chairs the slightest creak will sound. And with any luck, it will happen in the lulls between the triumphs of music.” But what was wrong with the previous chairs? “They were too good. They made no sound. In all the practices, something was amiss. I couldn’t understand why the music felt so hollow to me. Because when I would see these players shift in their seats, no sound would produce. It was haunting. Like I was trapped in some nightmare. Every single sound is part of the orchestra. The beauty is lost if the entirety is not realized. All of this,” he motioned around him, “means nothing if when Yoshino,” he pointed down at his lap, “squirms in her chair as she does, the audience does not hear it.” He smiled at me, so pleased by current events. “Do you see now?” Siehst du jetzt? Siehst du die kleiner Schmetterlinge?
… I smiled back in silence. What else could I do?