“I’m not quite sure how to follow that!” The audience laughed.
Nariaki Sugiura had just finished a virtuoso performance of Alan Jay Kernis’s Superstar Etude No. 1, a rock/classical mashup of a piece, which included Nariaki leaning over and using his (shoeless) left foot on the keyboard. Very theatrical and really energizing. Talk about pianistic athleticism.
The concert began with a solo set by Nariaki. He’d also played a movement of a Haydn sonata and two Cowell pieces. And then this bombastic entertainment, which the audience loved.
So as a kind of transition, I told a couple of stories. How my mother and Laura Sias, the strings teacher at Parker Elementary School in Royal Oak, Michigan, conspired to get me started on cello. How I agreed, with my own eleven-year-old silent conspiracy, to play, knowing that if I refused my mother would be on my case for not trying. If I played for a few months, however, I could then say I didn’t like it, and my mother would be off my back about playing an instrument.
The joke was on me, though. I liked the cello and kept playing.
(Despite several attempts to quit, when I’ve been frustrated with my playing, or with myirregular practice habits, with my performances, with the anxiety attacks before (and occasionally during) performances, with the depression and self-recrimination that has sometimes followed performances . . . I always came back. At some point, I quit quitting.)
Anyway, here I was, almost 43 years later, playing a concert. About to perform the Schumann Five Pieces in Folk Style for the first time. As I wrote about yesterday, as a boy I used to fall asleep listening to the Pablo Casals recording of them.
Nariaki and I started playing. And my mother was suddenly very present for me. A pianist, she was my first accompanist, and we performed together for years. A wonderful mentor and colleague as I became an adult and a college music professor myself. We used to love shop talk.
Now, parts of her brain experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia, she’s in a (lovely) memory-care facility.
Her grandson, my son, visited her Tuesday. At first she started to introduce him to others as her husband, then when Pete interrupted to say he wasn’t her husband, she said he was her son. He tried to explain he was her grandson, but she ignored it. ”She did not want to be corrected twice,” he told me. ”Her social sense is still intact.”
Howard Hanson (a major 20th-century composer who was the head of the Eastman School of Music for years) visited the University of Tampa when she taught there, and she was the piano soloist on a concert he conducted. The poster is on a wall of her room.
Now she conflates him with whatever composer she is playing. So she told Pete about Beethoven visiting her in Florida and the concerts they did together.
I hadn’t played in Greencastle since last summer (I was on sabbatical for the 2010-2011 academic year/concert season). My parents moved to Greencastle about four years ago. I’d taken Mom to every concert I’d played here since–and she’d played a few herself. So this was the first time I’d sat in that church with my cello and not had her there.
And I was playing these pieces that I used to listen to when I started playing the cello. My 11/12 year old self was very present. The music is so beautiful. Memories of how much I loved a particular passage started flashing into my awareness, more strongly than when we rehearsed.
My love and gratitude for my mother, who’d gotten me playing, who’d always supported me, who’d played with me, was so strong.
She was so present for me in her absence.
Somewhere in the first movement, I started to cry. I held it back, but I was on the brink. Teared up, for sure. Afraid I’d lose it.
I didn’t, though. I got through the Schumann, and the rest of the program, just fine. Had an especially good time playing the Saint-Saëns Concerto and Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango.
I’ll see Mom Saturday. I’ll take my cello, the cello she and my father took out a second mortgage to buy, and we’ll play some pieces together. She can tell me about her concerts with Beethoven, or whomever.
I’ll probably go over to my ex-wife’s house and cry after that.
(There’s more to say about the experience of last night’s concert, which a friend not there asked me to write about. When I started to write this post, I didn’t know that it would be about missing my mother. There were many other dimensions, of course–and, writing muse willing, I’ll write about them soon.)