Song of the Week: Variations on a Rococo Theme, Var. VII: Andante sostenuto by Tchaikovsky
This week, the cello gave me chills.
After a long weekend of Rocky Horror performances that kept me up until 3 a.m. two nights in a row, I was running low on sleep last Sunday. I was meant to be resting, but instead, I was spending my Halloween going to meetings, doing homework, and trying to get myself ready for eighth week. I had my first meeting from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m., and then I spent a lovely hour in a coffee shop with a friend doing homework together. I had barely gotten halfway through my first reading, however, when I got a text saying my friend Thomas was set to perform 20 minutes earlier than expected.
Thomas had entered a concerto competition to win a solo performance with a full orchestra, and he was set to have his official audition at 2:45 p.m. Sunday afternoon. The week before, he had played me a clip of one of his practice sessions, and after only a few notes, I knew I’d be surprised if he didn’t win.
I had only ever heard him play over recordings and live streams, never in person, so I knew I couldn’t miss his Sunday performance. When I got the text, I scrambled to pack up, then started running down College Ave. to the chapel.
I don’t know if you’ve ever run in Wisconsin in late October in all the heavy layers that a Texan needs to survive up here. Suffice it to say I was out of breath in seconds, and heaving by the time I got to the steps. I tried in vain to quiet my gasps as I shuffled in with my big coat to sit with our group of fans. But I made it. I even had time to catch my breath and drink some water before Thomas came on stage. By the time he was seated, bow raised with the pianist behind him, my heartbeat had slowed back down to normal, and my spirit had settled enough to hold space for the piece.
I don’t always love classical music. I find it can be somewhat stilted, with never enough room to find yourself inside it. The first variation felt this way, but what followed stood all the greater for its simplicity. We began to become acquainted with the melody. Thomas introduced us first to its ups and downs, then gradually pulled us into its darkened corners. In the third variation, we found minor notes, discordant things that would have pulled us out of the trance if they didn’t stand so strikingly next to the rest of the major key.
Perhaps I still hadn’t caught my breath, because I found it then, stuck in my throat. With my hand on my chest, I cried.
I watched Thomas sway with his cello. They were locked in some ancient embrace, some unspoken secret that held them together in this private place. I was a visitor, sitting there in the Chapel, where they welcomed me in to feel what they felt and share in that space with them. I watched the way his eyes closed, the locks of hair on each side of his face fluttering, lifted by a certain presence as his body moved. I watched the instrument rock and sway back and forth, an extension of his limbs which carried and caught it each time it seemed it might fall. There he was, holding our breath and this instrument in his arms, promising, with every seemingly minor note, that he would catch us and bring us back.
I let my breath rise and fall with each stroke of his bow. I let the music hold me up. And I felt grateful for every moment I shared in this intimacy.
It may come as no surprise to you that Thomas won the competition. He brought me both to chills and to tears, and it was exactly what I needed to get through eighth week.