Fortissimo

Loud music filled the theater. Stentorian music, reverberating, with no bodies, suits or coats in the audience to absorb any of the sound. Standing in the back, waiting his turn to rehearse, Jonathan was afraid that his oboe would be swallowed up by a permanent maelstrom of sound: It seemed suddenly as puny as a tin whistle.

The orchestra’s sound — harmonic, gorgeous, but overwhelming — did more than fill the hall. It filled his head, driving out Richard Strauss.

Make it stop! Which was silly, he knew. If you were a 15-year-old woodwind prodigy invited to play with the state symphony orchestra, it was hard to imagine the din’s ceasing just for little old you.

There was a brief lull, and then the brass and timpani came thundering in, along with all three soloists and the full chorus: Hallelujah unto God’s almighty Son— but in German, of course.

It was deafeningly Beethoven. The oratorio, “Christ on the Mount of Olives”, was one that Jonathan might never have known if he hadn’t been programmed to appear as a kind of warm-up act.

He scowled, furrowing his brow as he tried to hear in his head the Strauss oboe concerto he would soon be rehearsing with this orchestra.

His mind refused to summon up even the opening cadenza.

A humiliating lapse. He glanced at the glass door he’d just come through, wondering if Gretchen would arrive to witness his failure. There he was, mirrored in the door, a tall skinny kid with buzz-cut blond hair, horn rimmed glasses and a prominent Adam’s apple. She, on the other hand, was as pretty and well-built as one would expect of the school’s most popular cheerleader. He wondered what she saw in him.

Never mind that: He had to get the reverberating Gospels—dem erhab’nen Gottessohn, the chorus was fairly shouting— out of his head. He tried to summon Strauss. Nothing came.

He should have brought the sheet music; foolish pride to think he had flawlessly and unforgettably memorized a 25-minute piece.

It wouldn’t be exactly silent out in the hallway, but he pushed the door and stepped out. Beethoven diminished ever so slightly as it swung shut. He opened the case to take out his gossamer instrument, slender black with silver keys. He tongued the reeds to moisten them, and played a scale in D-major, the key in which the concerto opened.

All right! The bright, scintillating notes of the oboe floated in the empty hallway, a delicate tessitura over the muffled oratorio.

He paused, waiting for Richard Strauss to come back.

It ought to be easy. Each movement had a pretty, almost filmy melody, with little of the dissonance of some Strauss works. In learning the piece, he had listened to a recording: The oboe was echoed by two flutes and two clarinets. He remembered imagining overripe dandelions being blown, the fluff exploding into bright sunshine, with a darker echo in bassoons and cellos and a low-voiced woodwind, a rarely-used cor anglais, whose notes seemed like the heavier dandelion seeds falling to the ground.

Beautiful — ethereal — which was why he had loved memorizing the work.

But he still couldn’t hear the tune; brawny Beethoven was blocking the way to his brain. The gauzy chiffon of Strauss’ melodies wasn’t coming through.

He felt cold sweat in his armpits. Great: Can’t remember the music, and, to boot, smell like a gym class locker room. He walked purposefully down the hall, the orchestral tumult diminishing behind him, and paused just inside the outer door, bringing his oboe to his lips again, trying to remember the opening notes.

And then, suddenly, here came Gretchen, escorting Mom and Dad. “Oh, Jonathan, you haven’t played your piece yet, I hope!” Mom gave him a hug, and Dad gave him a manly thump on the back.

“No, not yet. I was just going to practice a bit, and my mind has gone blank.”

“What do you mean, gone blank?” Mom asked.

“Can’t remember the score.”

“You see?” Gretchen said. “I told you we should bring the music, just in case!” She reached into the Go Central High canvas bag slung over one shoulder.

“You have it?”

She started to hand it to him, then instead opened up the first pages and held them up across her chest, hands at her shoulders.

“At last!” He brought the oboe to his lips again, peering at the music, and began. He hadn’t played two bars when it all came back; he closed his eyes and played on.

Played so intently, in fact, the notes tumbling into the air, that he didn’t notice when the now-distant Beethoven came to an end.

“That other music has stopped, son.” Dad’s voice broke into his consciousness. “Does that mean they’re ready for you?”

“Oh, dear Jonathan!” Gretchen said. “You didn’t really need the music. You’re a musical genius!” And right there, in front of Mom and Dad, she leaned over and planted a moist kiss right on his cheek.

It was almost enough to drive Richard Strauss right out of his head again. Feeling himself warm, he closed his eyes and made the notes appear again.

“Come on,” he said. “I feel a concerto coming on.”

Dad was reaching into his pocket. “Let me give you a Kleenex, son. You don’t want them to think you’re blushing.”

-End-

 

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