Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2005 | Features

Musical Chairs

By Rosanna Klepper

My bare chapped hands grip the handle of my green violin case and my music folder.

“You know,” I say, “it’s cold out here.…”

Cindy just giggles. After all, it’s only mid-February in Elmhurst, Illinois, and I think we’ve noted this irrefutable under-statement every Wednesday night, from January to at least late March, for the past few years.

Once inside, the warmth of the chapel fogs my glasses as we trundle over to the side pews, accompanied by the random bleats, blats, squawks, and drones of our compatriots already warming up their instruments.

I unzip my case. Who knew when I started violin in the fourth grade that I would still be playing and learning 30 years later? Of course, many people study an instrument in grade school and a tiny percentage may even launch orchestral or soloist careers. But just as rare are the ones who keep playing. We go on to other fields but retain music as our cherished friend.

Violin in hand, bow in the other, I head for the stage. Pulling the black metal music stand closer, I put my folder on the stand and settle into the metal folding chair. Cindy sits down to my right. At 7:30 p.m. our concertmaster stands and gestures with her bow to the oboist. The pure, piercing wail of an A-440 quiets all the extraneous noise and we begin tuning. There is a magical transformation: for a precious two-and-a-half hours a week, in addition to being students, doctors, engineers, teachers, retired folks, and working moms, we become a symphony.

Bounding up to the podium, our conductor smiles.

“Good evening, everybody. Franck, please, first movement.”

A hush descends. We wait and watch his poised baton for the subtle downbeat. A low, quiet theme begins in the cellos and basses. Next, the violins enter, adding to the pathos of the melody. Violas play a creepy, sinister line. Our conductor stops us.

“OK, violas, not bad. Let’s try it again and make it more stealthy, but like you know exactly what you are doing.”

The violas oblige. I glance around. For nearly every Wednesday since 1983, I have been in a folding chair from 7:30 to 10 p.m. Over all these years, the problems of the day—cranky bosses, bad traffic, fussy children—all melt away as we unite to create the sonic vision of the human condition depicted by someone who came before us.

“That was good, but can the violins use more bow? Can we have a more sweeping line? Let’s try again.”

The conductor’s broad gestures spark the strings. What was bland, small, and indifferent now becomes expansive, focused, and glorious. Our bows flash up and down as one and it seems like we’re flying. Warm, lush sound envelops the stage. Bristly string tremolos build up the harmonies. The brasses blast their motives. An English horn solo blossoms from the pizzicato framework presented by the strings. We go over another tricky passage.

“You’ve got to watch. The pulse must remain steady. We need to have rhythmic integrity here.”

Seventy pairs of eyes lock on the conductor’s hands. Unblinking, we concentrate, concentrate, concentrate. The musical line is passed from section to section. Cellos, violas, and then the violins. It’s seamless—and underpinning it all is the confident “poom, poom, poom” of the basses and tympani. We are as regular as a grandfather clock. The movement comes to a close. Our conductor beams.

“OK, after break, the third movement.”

We scatter off the stage. Knots of people talk in and around the pews. I sit down and turn towards Matt, another violinist.

“Long week?” I ask.

“Man, yes. And I was so tired before I came tonight, but now I’ve perked up. You know what else? I get the best night’s sleep on Wednesdays. I sleep like a log. It’s great.”

I tell him it’s probably all the counting and concentrating—it just plain wears us out. He chuckles as we go back to the stage. Cindy joins us after she finishes looking at a cellist’s vacation pictures. Before we tune for the second half of the rehearsal, our orchestra manager has a few announcements.

“I’d like to thank all our subs tonight. Michael Chapman, violin, Stan Philips, French horn, Amy Brown, flute. Congratulations to Tom and his wife, Maria, who just had a baby girl. Eight pounds, six ounces. Everyone’s fine.” With each introduction and each bit of good news the orchestra members “clap” by politely tapping their bows on the stands or shuffling their feet on the floor. Smiles all around.

Our conductor reclaims the podium. We launch into the third movement.

After a while, he stops us.

“For the opening, the strings have to be energetic and driven. You have to give me as much sound as is humanly possible for the first four bars, and then you have to drop down to nothing so the winds and cellos can be heard.”

Sawing away like mad, we loudly drive and pulse the first four bars and then, as directed, we disappear into the sound to let our friends be heard. Supporting roles and leadership roles are part of life, and they are part of an orchestra as well. The trick is to accept each role gracefully. For the next 45 minutes we work on the rest of the final movement, shaping and defining the highly melodic passages and the dissonant ones. Music parallels life with joys and sorrows, but, just like the music before us, those emotions too are fleeting. With less than a minute of rehearsal time left, our conductor asks us to play the last 16 bars of the symphony. “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I’ll have you out of here by 10 p.m., Elmhurst Symphony Standard Time.”

The last 16 bars fly by. A delicious chord floats in the air. Silence. No one moves. The chapel bells begin chiming ten times. I look around. A folding chair can take you anywhere. And we are so lucky.