Sunday, June 26, 2011

Strains of Music

(First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine Sept 27, 1992)
 The lights in the Academy of Music blink a warning, making the crystal chandeliers sparkle and shimmer. The hall buzzes with sounds. Orchestra members are tuning up. Ushers hurry people down the aisle, while the rest of the audience fusses with wraps and fidgets with programs. Then the lights go out. The maestro steps up to the podium and invites us to rise to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As the final chord fades, my five-year-old son Jay says, “Mommy, can we go home now?”
So begins another season of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s children’s concert series. And so begins another season of leading my son to culturally correct activities.
The morning itself had begun in moans. “Mom, why can’t I wear my jeans and a T-shirt?” I am trying to locate a sneaker when we hear the bleat of a car horn in the driveway. Jay rushes out to greet his friend Susie, who has leapt from the mini-van to model her floral sweatshirt from the Gap. Susie’s mom herds the stragglers back to the van while I clamber over the collection of Barbie dolls and old gumballs.
Finally we are strapped up and making our way toward I-95 for the 30-minute drive to Broad and Locust. With the sounds of kids and KYW swirling around me, I stare out the window at the gray clouds over Tinicum Marsh and recall my own trips to “the orchestra” 30 years ago.
Hollidaysburg, PA, did not have an orchestra. Altoona, the closest city, could muster only a community ensemble. To hear a real symphony orchestra required traveling 100 miles west across the Alleghenies to Pittsburgh. My family did this trip with me once a year, and it was a Special Occasion.
On the day of the concert, my mother would pick me up from school at noon, for we needed plenty of time to “get dressed.” For me this meant a maroon velveteen dress with embroidered smoking, white anklets, black patent-leather shoes and a small matching bag, into which my mother would tuck a comb and a handkerchief.
At 4:30 my father would pull into the driveway, gallantly sweep open the car doors, and off we would go to Pittsburgh.
Several hours later, my fingers would grip my father’s hand as we stepped down the aisle. Once securely seated, I would watch the musicians begin to appear from the curtained wings, starkly elegant in black-and-white evening dress. Finally the hall would become still. The conductor would stride onto the stage, acknowledge the audience with a curt nod, raise his baton—and I would be surrounded by Beethoven, full and vibrating, not tinny and flat from the brown box we called the record player. I would almost forget to breathe until intermission.
Jay has never had the rapturous experience of my childhood. For when we arrive the scene at the Academy of Music resembles the gym on the first day of school. Mothers hold on to toddlers with one hand while scanning the crowds for their second-graders. Dads in corduroys and suede bomber jackets try to find the Parquet Circle without having to ask for directions. A little girl cries that her new boat mocs are ruined: “The kid behind me in stepped on the heel and squashed it!”
Somehow, the lovely interior of the Academy of Music loses its glow in the daytime, like a movie star without her makeup. Even the orchestra members are no longer out of the ordinary. In their street clothes, they seem like anybody else, a teacher, a neighbor. In fact, we know one of the viola players. “Hi, Mr. Filosa!” Jay shouts and waves as we struggle into our seats with all our gear, including a full supply of raisins, pencils, and drawing paper to help Jay get through the next 60 minutes.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time something will grab Jay’s attention. The chorus from one of the magnet schools. The young ballet students from Swarthmore. The ten-year-old pianist from Cherry Hill.
My daydream evaporates with one look at the seat beside me. Jay isn’t listening to the Brahms. He is hunched over, carefully making a caterpillar out of a string of C’s all around the edge of the program. Then he tries to draw a chipmunk, and I know he would rather be home watching Chip ‘n’ Dale, Rescue Rangers. I also know that Jay will like the orchestra only when he’s ready to like the orchestra, if ever.
That night at dinner, I tell Jay that he doesn’t have to go to any more orchestra concerts. Our five-year-old veteran of not only the Philadelphia Orchestra but also birthday parties at the zoo, the Academy of Natural Sciences, “play dates” at the Franklin Institute and Christmas at the Brandywine River Museum, puts down his milk. He looks at me, then at his dad, then at me again and says, ”Does that mean we can all stay home and talk together?”


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