Mahler 9, Not to Be?

14 March 2013 in Heather, Music

I wrote this piece two weeks ago in anticipation of tomorrow’s SFSymphony performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony at Davies Hall. The orchestra musicians went on strike yesterday, and I half expect that Friday’s concert will be cancelled. All is not lost if it is, however, as I’ll be able to join my fellow Grotto writers at the Book Passage in the Ferry Building for an evening of three minute readings.

Mahler in March reminds me of Mahler in September and the last time anyone wanted to see the symphony with me. In all honesty, the symphony is best à seule. No one talking through the warmup. No one asking pressing questions at intermission.

I will wear blue silk and the olive green heels and a vintage bracelet Friday night. In the half hour before the concert, I will climb the grand staircase, prowl the red carpet, and likely run into people I know: the old people, my surrogate grandparents. They always want to know what’s new, and I pull colorful stories from the past few weeks of my life. The bonus at work. The afternoon playing Gershwin in Piedmont. A recent day trip to Los Angeles.

But my favorite part of the symphony is the illicit act of watching the musicians onstage as they prepare for the concert. The wind players blow air through their instruments and tones escape like runaways. The string players fiddle lightly through tricky passages. Some musicians lean toward each other, chatting about their day, their students, the hike they took in Marin, or the great new coffee house over on 7th Street. Bass players navigate the forest of music stands like cows among saplings.

I scan the hall, amazed that no one else seems aware of this private prelude. Watching the musicians warming up is like watching a woman in the bath from an adjacent room through a door not quite closed. I view fractured phrases of her body: unclothed, then cloaked in a towel, then unwrapped again. With the oboe’s long “A,” the door shuts, and when it opens, she stands there confident and whole in a silk robe.

Under the conductor’s baton, the symphony musicians transform from individuals with specialized interests into a singular body moving in purposeful, choreographed motion. The string section’s bows ripple back and forth like a lace fan, stage right. The horn section, so long at rest, casts a unison sunrise as they finally bring their golden instruments to their lips. My eyes seem to compose the music.

At the end of the concert, the old people and I will applaud and fill the hall with the sound of rain and kissing. I will stop for a Sazerac in Hayes Valley and sit alone at the bar, reconciling my life, aware of slowly being returned to my own stage. I am again a lone individual player, sometimes warming up, noodling virtuosically, and sometimes enthusing about yesterday’s lunch to the person sitting beside me. But I am always waiting, in some regard, for the oboe’s long “A” to signal that I might soon be made whole.