|"Commission"||Transformation Contest 2, Category 7||"Giving Anything"|
by J. T. MartenTaur
The theatre grows quiet as the lights dimmed and the musicians finished tuning. A spotlight focuses on the stagea violinist squeaks out a few hurried last notes quietly, trying to get that obstinate E string singing as it should.
Someone in the audience, far back and to stage right, coughs. The sound echoes and dies, bouncing from acoustically proper walls lined with velvetty red cloth. The walls themselves are illuminated with small fans of light that spread downward from inconspicuous black boxes, open only at the bottom.
>From stage left appears the conductor, elegantly suited in bow tie and tux, his black shoes gleaming like a night filled with stars. His grey curls fall neatly around his shoulders. His arrival is met by polite applause. Those who know him clap because they appreciate his abilities and are eager to see him practice his skill; those who do not know him clap because everyone else is, and they don't want to seem petty or impolite.
The latecomers straggle in, bustling about with their uncomfortable shoes or their long gowns or their umbrellas. The conductor stands at the center of the stage and bows deeply to the audience, his coat-tails rising up, and the locks of grey falling down about his face. His movements are absurdly mirrored by the latecomers, who have pushed past everyone else's knees, mumbling endless apologies, and sitting down in their seats, pushing the folding part down, and relaxing gratefully in their chairs, breathing heavily to let those about them know that while they may have been late, at least they were hurrying.
The conductor turns about and faces his orchestra, and the applause dies quickly. He looks them over. They are all his, all but one of them. They have rehearsed with him night and day. They have played their notes over and over until the music seemed absurd. They have sounded every chord to the best of their ability, knowing that the next time, they must sound it even truer. And the conductor smiles at them all, for he knows that even when they are not here, they are still his. They must practice when they are at home, practice until their fingers bleed, practice until their lips are raw and numb. They must play their notes over and over until perfection is exceeded and the music becomes divine. And when his players sleep, he knows that they are playing in their dreams, that the music will haunt them, haunt them like a banshee's wail, and never give them peace. Not until it is played in the final performance, and the last curtain drops, will they rest.
And then they will begin to rehearse anew.
All but one are his. He waits for the exception. It is the soloist. A violin player, visiting tonight. The soloist is the reason that the house is full, that the theatre was sold out well over a month before opening night.
Visiting for Two Nights Only! announced the signs outside, the advertisements in the newspapers, the radio spots.
He is visiting for two nights only. He is the greatest violin player in the world. Visiting for two nights only. And the conductor is afraid. The orchestra about him is afraid. They are trying to forget that they are afraid, but they are. They are afraid that they will fail in their performances, that they will slip on their notes, play too fast, too slow, and everyone will know that they failed on the night when the world's greatest violinist played for their own state's Symphony Orchestra. They are sweating inside their tuxedos; the water dripping from their backs and their pits feels like a never ending stream. Their guts are clenched like vices as they stifle the insane feeling that someone is gently stroking their insides with a feather. Butterflies in the stomach.
A second spotlight refocuses on stage left. The already silent audience becomes even quieter, so quiet that it seems to obliterate noise elsewhere. The members of the audience can hear the wind rush past their ears. Somewhere in the house there is the noise of a coin falling to the floor.
Then the violinist comes on stage, and the audience applauds wildly, a silly gesture of noise that carries all the human capacity of appreciation. But some of them, having never seen this violinist, gasp. They gasp because the violinist enters, and he reaches center stage, but he does not bow. And the reason that he does not bow is because he is in a wheelchair. He cannot walk.
The violinist wheels to face the audience. He looks incredibly pale and old. His body seems very frail, and it is hunched with fatigue.
The conductor has turned around and is applauding for the violinist. None of the nervousness he feels is showing on his face, except in the ruddiness of his cheeks and brow, and the thin trickle of sweat running down one side.
The violinist turns his chair around and takes his place to the conductor's immediate right, aided by the concertmaster, who has abandoned his spot as first chair violinist in honor of their guest soloist.
The audience slowly quiets down.
The conductor raises his baton.
As the baton is raised, the strings players lift their bows, the winds take a deep breath, and angle their instruments upward.
The audience waits, most eager, some bored, some indifferent.
The techsthe lighting engineers, the sound technicians, tense, waiting for the moment of music.
The ushers stand by the doors, their hands formally crossed in front of them.
The whole house holds its breath, waiting for some moment of thunder, counting the seconds... all but the solo violinist, who seemingly has no breath to hold. His instrument sits limply in his lap. He stares out into vacant space with his head tilted to one side. The audience wonders silently if he is dead. He blinksit is enough.
Then the conductor brings down his baton like a white streak of lighting. Violin bows draw silk across steel, oboes and clarinets hum their resonance in sweet vanilla tones, and in the chest of every member of the orchestra bursts a tiny bright bubble of relief: the note is perfect.
The audience leans back as the music lilts into their ears and dances in their eyesand it seems a shame, a terrible shame that its beauty is contained in carpeted walls. It should dance out into the night sky, it should soothe the world. It should smile into the lives of the broken-hearted and make them laugh; it should slip into the hospitals and heal the sick; it should wrap up the cold in its warmth and fill the hungry. Such a crime, for this music to be hidden so!
The first movement ends before it begins, and the second movement, the solo, is next. The violinist wheels out of his place and sits center stage, still looking very lifeless.
The conductor raises his baton again, the instruments rise, breath is held, and the second movement begins, slower and quieter than the first. It barely has begun when it seems to be drawing to a close, but no! The violinist raises his violin and places it beneath his chin. The bow is perched in his hand so delicately that it might be a feather, and the wind might catch it and carry it away.
The final notes before the solo are played, and the members of the orchestra turn toward the tired violinist.
And fire leaps into his eyes. His arm and the bow spring up like the leap of a cat. They come down across the string as smooth as chocolate. The audience stares. This is not the same man who wheeled in here twenty minutes before. That man was old and frail, but look at the life in this, this energetic creature that could play a note like this! They scarcely hear the sound.
The violinist plays, his right arm carrying the bow up and down, his hand bending to keep it straight, and the movement is amazingly graceful. The notes are sweet and pure. They woo the audience like the most romantic of lovers, drawing them into the music with smooth, beautiful fingertips.
And then the music speeds into a wild dance. It leaps back and forth, cavorts, prances. The lover is not a tame lover. The audience feels themselves moving with the music; they cannot help themselves. They are the rats of Hamelin being led to a watery grave by the piper, they are the serpents charmed by the Indian flute player, they are the beasts whose wild whispers in the night are soothed by a music more savage than they.
And then they start in disbelief. This energetic musician, who had sat lifelessly in his chair not a moment before, has stretched out his legs and they are strong. The hunch has vanished from his shoulders, the wrinkles smoothed from his face. He lifts himself upon his own music and he is standing! The violinist, crippled for years, stands healthy and cured before them. The music moves faster.
The violinist moves to the very front of the stage, standing just above the audience as his bow draws back and forth in perfect calculation. The fingers of his left hand dance upon the strings at impossible speed. The music moves up in dramatic scales; it hits tricky harmonics in flawless touches. And all the while the crippled violinist strides back and forth across the stage, caught up in the rush of his music, forgetting all else, forgetting the grey world outside with all its grey people. The music bleeds color into the lives around.
The violinist begins to dance across the stage. The grey has drained out of his hair. It is a rich brown, and is drawing up into curls, the shape of its past remembered. The muscles of his body firm. And how he dances! He spins and leaps but never misses a single noteno, they become sweeter.
He is young now, in his twenties. Life flows through him and through his instrument. The tails of his tuxedo twirl outward as he spins, his shoes flash in the lights. His violin is no longer stuck awkwardly under his chin, it is a part of him. It is how he sings.
He moves back to the center of the stage and stands taller as he reaches the climax of the solo. The notes are victorious now, they sing of triumph, of accomplishment, of joy. There is a tearing sound beneath them. Great wings tear through the musicians tuxedo in the backhuge, white wings. They unfold slowly.
The audience reels dizzilythis is impossible! They begin to convince themselves that they are imagining, that they are asleep, or hallucinating. But there are the wings, glorious white, unfolding and fanning slowly. The violinist does not notice as he continues to play, searing out his notes with white fire. The notes cut through the walls and crackle over the city, burning the night sky with frantic glory.
And he does not notice as his wings, extending from above his head to his heels, absurdly parodied against his tuxedo, move forward once, twice. He lifts into the air, but does not stop playing. The wind from the wings smooths over the audience, it blows their hair back. Several programs and other papers are caughtthey rustle and blow all around the room like leaves in a gale, but the sound is lost under the music.
There is more than one instrument playing now, the audience dimly realizes. The violinist's mouth is open, and the music of a thousand years flies from his mouth and mingles with his own playing. It is not one symphony. It is all of them.
He sings and plays, hovering in midair above the audience, and then a tremendous white light emanates from his being. The audience covers their faces to protect their eyes. The music and light fill everything, and the people can feel themselves being lifted out of their seats to fly through the air.
And then it is over. The house is still dark. They are still sitting in their seats, their papers and persons undisturbed. The violinist lowers his instrument to his lap and it sits there, very ordinary and plain, on his fragile, shattered legs. A look of sheer exhaustion is on his face. The audience can see the light reflecting from his sweat. He is panting with exertion. The wheelchair gleams cruelly.
The people should applaud.
But they cannot.
They should give a standing ovation, all rising to their feet like a mass of appreciative idiots belching out their meaningless, uninformed approval, slapping meaty hands together.
But they are too awestruck.
And the highest commendation ever given anyone for musical performance is sheer and utter silence. The violinist needs no applause to tell him he has performed. He was not performing for the audience. He was filling the stage with life so that he could walk, so that he could dance, so that he could fly. So that he could live.
The audience does not dare breathe, for fear that the sound of their breath will make them forget the music, forget what life is.
The violinist does it for them, his wheelchair squeaking as he rolls across the stage.
The conductor turns about and raises his baton, and the orchestra members prepare to play again, despairing, knowing it is pointless, for all the music has already been played. But they continue, droning out their flat notes.
And throughout the theater, a thousand people stare with silent eyes while a million symphonies sing in their souls.
For Itzhak Perlman
Copyright 1997: "J.T. MartenTaur" <email@example.com> . If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask the author for permission first. Thank you.
|"Commission"||Transformation Contest 2, Category 7||"Giving Anything"|