Playing the Music of Our Lives
A Lenten Offering as we begin Holy Week.
I am called to a meeting where a musical score is introduced. It is the story of our lives, I am told, complete with movements, arrangements, duets, concertos and one solo performance. It will premiere in a new concert hall, currently under construction. Many of us are gathered. Everyone present who desires to play will be given their time on stage, but we will not all play at the same time. We will be able to watch the performance before and after our time on stage.
In preparation we gather often with the conductor, who reviews the genesis of the music, the exposition, development and recapitulation of the two dominant themes. I am instructed in the specific details of my segment, as are others, but we do not know the details of the other movements in which we are not playing. We will experience it together during the performance. The conductor is most unusual. I am drawn to him and his enthusiasm for the score.
The day of the performance I enter through the foyer and join others in orchestra level seating, facing the stage. The conductor enters to our applause. He invites those still in the foyer to enter. He thanks us for our preparation and steps up to the platform.
I follow a soft spotlight to find a couple seated at a grand piano. I recognize them from rehearsals. The conductor signals with the baton. They begin, playing the same line of music tentatively. Then they separate into parts, playing in harmony, eagerly looking to each other and the conductor. Their music is playful and inquisitive in a major key of happiness.
Another musician enters and attempts to join the couple at the piano, inserting tension in a minor key. The trio’s music seems strained and halted. They appear distracted from the conductor’s direction. The conductor stops the music, and directs the third player off stage. I was not expecting this but am secretly excited by the unforeseen nature of his conducting style.
The conductor returns to the platform. He summons the couple forward from the piano to new instruments. I watch a scrim descend behind them, obscuring the piano from sight. These musicians, now violinists, take their seats to begin a new melody. The conductor gently guides them as they play their violins. Their music increases in complexity. I observe more musicians enter and take their place on stage. Viola, cello, bass, harp, flute, piccolo, oboe, bassoon clarinet, french horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, and timpani musicians join the violinists.
I feel the light and joy of the score, but oft times a darker, more menacing melody entwines. I look to the stage anticipating my time with excitement and a bit of apprehension. The original couple has completed their time. They bow. I applaud as they exit stage, taking seats in the balcony.
Musicians enter and exit on cue. The music continues, telling the stories of peace and war, love and loss, hope and despair, joy and pain, loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice and redemption. Though it all the conductor leads, directing the score confidently.
One scene is played in beautiful unison. How do these players achieve one accord? Will I play as harmoniously? It’s sublime. This orchestra receives a standing ovation before exiting to the balcony.
Another scene is tumultuous, like tsunamis of unrest. Brass and percussion dominate, as the stage rolls in waves of turbulence. It continues even as players drop out and exit stage. At last the swells of sound recede as soft strings and woodwinds return like birds in spring. This orchestra that began with a full corps of musicians now finishes with a tiny crew of players. The small ensemble bow, seemingly in stunned shock, then exit stage and enter the balcony.
What was that about? I feel sadness. I hear the crowd in the foyer and am distracted as the next movement begins. I hear grating, jarring opposition among the musicians. The woodwinds offer a melody as the strings drown it out. They are competing with no clear winner. I remember, this isn’t a competition. What are they doing? There is noise but no music. The conductor silences the orchestra with a wave of the baton. Thank goodness, I welcome the relief.
From stage left a flautist enters; from stage right a piccoloist. I watch them greet at center stage, embracing. I see their instruments seemingly leap from their hands in anticipation. They play a dulcet duet reflecting an inner happiness they share. The melody is both meek and magnificent. The other musicians, in stunned silence, observe the pair.
They finish their offering and separate. The piccoloist joins the orchestra. An oboist escorts the flautist stage right, stopping just in front of the curtain. The flautist begins sweetly while the oboist supports her melody. Their song is gentle and humble, yet noble and sacred. Just as the flautist plays her high note they are joined by a chorus of French horns and trumpets. The joy cannot be contained. The entire assembly erupts in joyful affirmation.
One by one each musician on stage approaches the flautist and oboist, quietly speaking with them. I cannot hear their conversations, but the flautist seems surprised, shedding tears of joy as she takes in the scene. The lights dim.
At intermission I ponder what has happened. I recall the two dominant themes, hearing them in my memory. I glance up to see the piano couple seated in the balcony surrounded by musicians who have had their turn on stage. We on the main floor have yet to experience the stage. What will it be like? Are the lights bright enough or blinding? Will the noise in the foyer still distract me? Will I be able to see the conductor? How will I handle my instrument?
The next movement begins. From stage left I watch a trumpeter enter, commanding center stage with a brilliant, bold performance. We are awakened. The musicians take notice and join in. This score is alive with urgency. I am drawn in, carefully observing the interplay between the conductor and trumpeter–the latter totally aligned with the former, following his lead and direction. Then, unexpectedly, the trumpeter lays down the trumpet, bids the orchestra to follow the conductor and exits to the balcony. Why did this section have to end now, just when I was understanding how to take direction?
Together with the orchestra, I am saddened by the trumpeter’s exit. The musicians are silent, beseeching the conductor for direction. I watch him. He beholds them, each of them. He pauses. He lays down the baton and steps off the platform. I see his compassion. I feel their gratitude.
He signals for a tuning note, but they cannot align their instruments. I watch the conductor approach each player, gently touching their instruments, gracefully tuning all to the perfect note. I wish I were on stage now. I want to be there with them–with him.
I see the flautist step forward, presenting the conductor with his violin. He kisses her and moves to center stage. He nods to the musicians and they begin to play together, all eyes on him. With each measure he draws out my private felicity and frailty. He is breathtaking. Who is this man? What is happening to me?
They play on, in harmony. However, gradually the alternate theme of dissension appears. Can’t the harmony continue a bit longer? The percussion increases as if marching towards him, then halts abruptly. I watch the other musicians one by one, moved with emotion, unable to play, silence their instruments. The conductor continues alone, each note exquisitely offered. His range is amazing. He descends incrementally to the lowest octave his instrument will play, lingering there with brief sojourns to higher dyads. Gaining strength he climbs one octave above the tuning note, but falls below again. He climbs, he ascends, bittersweetly reaching the highest note, abiding there at the pinnacle, searing the audience with the intensity of his gift—the clarity of his sacred strain. In that moment I am released from the sorrows and shame that hide in my soul. I watch the pains and sufferings rise up like incense wafting away from me.
Exhausted, he collapses on his violin. The neck breaks, the strings snap. The violin lays in pieces. I can barely watch as he, our conductor, stumbles off stage, pitching and weaving through the orchestra seating. He passes close by as he reaches the foyer doors. With his last drop of sanguine energy, he audibly commands the portal to open. In submission the doors rent as shock waves permeate the concert hall—trembling walls, shuddering people, failing light. The conductor disappears into the foyer. What is happening?
A second intermission gratefully begins. I sit in reverential respect, coupled with fear, contemplating the immensity of the scene played out before me. There is so much I do not understand. Why did the conductor leave? I selfishly wonder about the rest of us who have yet to have our time on stage. I feel guilt for thinking about myself. Where has he gone? I find no answers but gradually the fear is replaced by hope. I remember what he told us during the rehearsals. He said he would be with us.
The bell sounds for the next movement to begin. I turn my attention to the stage. The conductor’s platform is empty. A violinist offers the tuning note. The orchestra begins a simple song reminiscent of the beloved conductor. To stage left, in front of the curtain, out of sight of the orchestra, but clearly visible to me, I see a clarinetist, sitting alone on the stage floor, crying. She looks up and unexpectedly finds the conductor standing before her, with his restored violin and baton. He signals her to stay silent. They embrace. He takes his leave of her, silently stepping to the conductor’s stand. He is recognized, quickly encompassed about with musicians. They clamor about him, inspecting his violin and baton. A great rushing wind blows through the concert hall, showering divine light. Joy has returned.
The conductor signals the musicians to take their seats. The note is given. They align in unison. The conductor turns, facing the audience. He is splendid, full of light and life. He explains there is room for more on stage and beckons others up.
His eyes meet mine, his arms extended. I propel myself forward from orchestra seating, through the back stage, excited and apprehensive. I find my mother waiting, just offstage, veiled in the side curtain. She touches me, bestowing a beautiful blessing befitting my time on stage. She offers me my instrument. I feel her love.
I enter. My focus on the conductor. It is my turn.
Which instrument best represents you? or Christ? or other musicians in the symphony?
Which movement or dispensation would you like to play in or observe?
Can you think of specific music that speaks to you of Christ?
I gratefully acknowledge help from the musicians in my life (M, R, J) and Ed, my friendly spiritual sounding board Artwork by Meaghan Clark