September 2006

Spending the Day With Sibelius

September 14, 2006 11:24

Saturday afternoon. I am in the living room, watching David Oistrakh perform the Sibelius violin concerto on DVD. The music has swept me away, like it always does. “Mom, come here,” my son Jonathan shouts from the office.

“Can’t. I’m watching this performance. It’s important.”

“But I need you. Come here.”

This time I offer no reply. I’m at an electric place within the Sibelius, cerebrally and emotionally. Three days earlier, I’d played the concerto nonstop on the computer while I worked on three crucial scenes in my novel. The protagonist has reached her darkest hour, so to speak. She has a terrible argument with her beloved mentor, goes and does something unspeakable, then, two days later, plays her heart out in the finals of an international competition. She performs the Sibelius as if her life depended on it, and in a sense, it does. She’s a scrappy survivor type who doesn’t have a lot going for her except for the way she can play the violin.

Fourteen hours of this immersion—interspersed with only short, terse breaks—caused both story and music to merge and seep into every nook and cranny of my consciousness. A most draining experience to record. The next day I had an artistic hangover.

You’d think I’d have gotten my fill. Apparently not. Watching the David Oistrakh DVD on Saturday afternoon, I am sucked right back inside that intense place. But my son is insistent. It finally crosses his mind to get off his butt, leave the office, and come to the living room, where he can stare at me accusingly, hands on his hips. “I need help on the computer.”

“What is it?”

“A game.”

“Later.” David’s playing the adagio now. I’m so inside it, it hurts.

Jonathan’s face scrunches. He can’t wait. He will expire if he has to wait. I tell him, my eyes focused on the television, that I'll help after the movement is finished and not before. His shoulders collapse. Tears fill his eyes. “You love that music more than you love me,” he cries. Then he turns and runs down the hall. Cue for Mommy to leap up, follow him, gather him up in her arms and tell him no, that’s not possible, it’s only a dumb piece of music, how could she love anyone or anything more than her son?

I don’t rise to the bait. I don’t leave the Sibelius. I can’t. My son will never understand this. Even I have trouble understanding this lion inside me. I hear him stomp into the office and slam the door and I sit there, inside the Sibelius, in this frozen state—but not frozen, because my heart’s on fire. Or my soul. One of those intense places. The music has gripped me. I would let dinner on the stove burn at moments like this. I would ignore a ringing phone, a shout from my husband, a fire alarm.

Only the music matters. This message springs up inside me from a place beyond ego, beyond words and justifications, beyond even guilt. It feels timeless and pure. Right then, music has elevated me far above the grind of daily life. It feels more important, certainly more significant, than life. One man, one piece of music from his head—how is it a mere nugget of mortal sensory stimulation can expand to feel bigger than even the night sky? And how can I listen to this concerto hundreds of times and still get sucked up into its wintery, haunting intensity within seconds? Maybe even more so, after our fourteen-hour marathon together.

What did it feel like to be Sibelius, composing this, all that fire in his heart? Or how about when a soloist performs it, immersed in the spirit of the music -- or does that not happen? When I performed onstage as a ballet dancer, a performance rarely swept me away. I was too busy focusing on technique and presentation, responding to cues from audience, stage surface, my body, the lights in my eye, the other dancers. I’d get flashes of transcendence from time to time, but not much more.

What is it like to perform the Sibelius? I’d love to hear your comments, or even simply your experiences as a listener. Does this, or any other piece, haunt you eternally?

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