The cycle of seasons in Chicago this year has been a little bit strange, overall. Spring, summer, and fall were all unusually chilly, but then winter stayed (all things considered) practically balmy, with temperatures infrequently dropping below the twenties and not much snow to speak of. I saw more of winter when I went to Arizona in January than I feel like I've seen in the Midwest, which made me laugh at the thought of one of my own stories: when I found out I was coming here I was living in Tucson, and every single person that heard I was moving to Chicago would nod sagely, looking very very serious, and say "Oh, it's cold there." No shit, Sherlock, but not always. I never even bothered to upgrade to my heaviest coat this time around.
I'm not complaining, of course. I personally feel like I needed a nice winter, one where I could appreciate the cold without resenting it; not to start anthropomorphising too much, but it feels like being taken care of, this lack of awfulness. Sometimes I walk to work in the mornings and it's cold but just the right amount of cold and the sun is shining and I feel like, right that moment, I'm incredibly happy to be exactly where I am. That's not to say that February--the great gray beast February, as Clive Barker called it in his cautionary children's book, The Thief of Always--didn't pass without its fair measure of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or that I'm not daydreaming about summertime bicycle rides, but the longing for a new season is almost more habitual than actual. The cold helps me to feel centered, stable, and that's exactly what I crave right now: to desire to be here and not there, now and not then, present and not absent.
I went to my first orchestra rehearsal since probably late August a few days ago. I don't think I've spent that much time away from large-scale ensemble music since I began seriously playing at the age of thirteen or so; I was vaguely worried that, despite my years of almost total immersion, I would have somehow forgotten how to do it, how to read my notes and watch the conductor and my section leader and the concertmaster and still play beautifully and in tempo all at the same time. Luckily, ten years of semi-professional experience still trumps six months of inactivityand my fears were (as far as I know) unfounded. It helps, though, that we're playing music that I love passionately and also, as luck would have it, have played enough times that it is embedded in my fingertips and probably will be until I die or, god forbid, quit playing entirely.
Sibelius' Fifth Symphony is one of my absolute favorite works to learn and perform but unless you're a classical musician or you're just lucky like that, it's entirely likely that you've never heard it or even heard of it. This Monday will mark my fourth performance; I've been living with this music inside of me since I was eighteen, a full decade ago. I well remember my initial skepticism, and I still find that it can be a strange piece to wrap your mind around. The viola part looks absolutely ridiculous, thirty-three pages long and more than half of it repetitive noodley figures with little-to-no melodic content, interspersed with intense rhapsodic lines played in unison with the rest of the string sections. There are huge overarching tempo changes that you just know every orchestral conductor will do slightly differently, massive shifts that take place so slowly that before you know it you've gone from a slow swelling lushness to a frenetic and joyous flurry of flying bows and red-faced violinists. On some levels it's an incredibly strange piece to play, but I find myself seduced again and again by the passion and intensity of the writing. Even at the age of eighteen, I fell in love.
I find that, a decade after my first performance, I'm still smitten. I love this piece so much that if I'm invited to play a concert and it's on the program, I will almost invariably agree. Even knowing that, even after four performances and a lot of rehearsals, as I sat in rehearsal last night I was surprised to be shaken to the core by the final movement. It begins fast and happy, with about a zillion buzzing notes bouncing around the orchestra as we all sweat together and try to play fast enough to keep up, hanging on for dear life as we fly along, but a few pages later a lush melody overtakes all of that and we're all smooth and together, melody and harmony and ringing brass notes and my god, it's beautiful. But this is not where my heart broke; that comes slightly later. After another episode of "oh shit, fast", the orchestra stops dead. There's a pause, and then the strings, in unison, play one of the most heartwrenching lines I think I've ever heard. We are playing loss and beauty and love and pain, stark notes with no underpinning, rhythms that defy their boundaries. It is as different from the rest of the movement as anything I can imagine; my breath caught in my throat and I felt tears inexplicably rising in my eyes.
The piece ends in beauty and full ringing chords, but really it's that moment that keeps me coming back to it with a full and willing heart. On the surface I think it can seem a little bit disjointed--there are so many different textures, moods, tempos, to that last movement in particular--but really it reminds me of what life is really like. One moment you're dancing, the next singing, the next crying, and it has the potential to be beautiful, all of it. It is as it should be, somehow. In the midst of change, starkness, oddness, there is a sense that this, right here, is part of what came before, no matter how unlikely that seems. There's a reason I did what I did for so long and why I'm not letting that part of me go; music can lift my soul above notes on the page and into a completely different realm. It is a feeling of rightness. I feel it there, in rehearsal; I feel it when I'm living my life in a way that makes me happy. Those two things are not unrelated.
Sometimes there is comfort in cold, and a form of joyous exaltation in the expression of despair.I don't entirely understand why this should be so, but it is. All I know how to do is to take my happiness where I can find it, in symphonies and winter sunlight and quiet nights at home alone with a good book. Those are the moments when I say to myself, yes, this is what is important, this feeling, this here-ness, and I go back to what I'm doing and all is as it should be for me.