The Story Of Rosario
(extracted from The Art Of Possibility)
The New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra was on tour in Chile, and it was a day in which we had a recording session in the afternoon and a concert in the evening. I thought it was better not to have a rehearsal in the morning as well, but I was also wary of how exhausted the young players might become if they were let loose on the town. So I gathered the entire orchestra, eighty-eight strong, in a large reception room on the top floor of the Carrera Hotel in Santiago. I asked them to bring their individual parts so that we could go through the music together. Instead of assuming the role of instructor, I invited them to comment about the performances we had been giving on the tour, especially questions of interpretation. They responded to the invitation magnificently, as though they had been waiting patiently for me to ask. They did not need me to conduct the session, they took it over themselves, and about half of them spoke up during the nearly three-hour session. They didn't confine their observations to things that related to their own parts: a trumpeter offered an insight about a viola passage, and a woodwind player discussed the tuba part as though he were about to perform it. I felt honored to be their conductor.
A couple of days later, we found ourselves on what was sup-posed to be a twelve-hour bus trip-but that stretched out, as a result of various mishaps, to be a seventeen-hour journey through Argentina. We had performed the night before in the world famous Teatro Communale in Santiago and were now making our way through Argentina to our engagement in the hallowed Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, stopping off to give concerts in a couple of smaller towns along the way. Although no complaint was heard from any member of the orchestra during the lengthy bus ride, I was concerned that general fatigue would cause a perfunctory performance in the less-than-prestigious hall in the small town of Rosario.
Looking for a new way of rehearsing the by-now excessively familiar New World Symphony of Dvorak, I asked the orchestra to reseat itself on the stage, so that as many players as possible were placed next to an unfamiliar instrument. A first violinist stood next to the timpani, an oboe player amongst the violas, a horn in the cello section. One of the double bass players even put himself between the concertmistress and me. The purpose was to reveal new sounds and textures that the musicians could not hear from within their own sections.
In addition, as was our custom on each day of the tour, I read aloud a quotation to serve as a point of inquiry for the rehearsal. "Never a door closes, but another one opens" was the thought for the day. I asked the players to imagine they were completely blind. They began to play the Dvorak with eyes shut tight. After a few moments, I stopped them. It was clear to all of us that the special flexibility and freedom we had worked so hard over the many months to create had been lost, leaving only a square rigid beat that they clung to in the absence of a visible leader. "When the door of eyesight closes," I said, "what door is likely to open?" "Listening," was the immediate response from several members of the group. We started again.
I walked to the back of the hall as they played, and was astonished to find that a new kind of music-making was emerging in that rehearsal hall like a landscape revealed at last by the dawn. Eighty-eight musicians, none of whom had intentionally memorized the score, were playing not by memory, but by heart, the entire first movement of Dvorak's New World, with an elasticity of timing rare in an orchestra of seeing musicians, unfathomable in an orchestra of blind ones. I saw that several of the visitors in the hall, teachers and music students from Rosario, were weeping, moved as I was by the connections present on stage and in the hall, and by something like a new voice, a true one, audible for the first time.
Uplifted, I returned to the stage and asked the young players to imagine that they had miraculously recovered their eyesight and still found themselves on the shores of this New World of listening. As we performed the first movement of the Dvorak once more, all eyes fully open and ears tuned to the finest nuance, I had the experience, so often sought, of wholeness of spirit. There was no leader, and there were no ones being led. Harmony was present. It was a high point not only of the tour, but also of the year, and it took place in a small town between the major engagements, where nothing of importance was likely to happen.