The Music of the Spheres

It is Friday and Christopher and I are traveling up I-45 to Jones Hall for the Houston Symphony.  Although it is 6:30, it doesn’t feel like evening, and although it is May, it doesn’t feel like Houston.  It isn’t hot, it isn’t humid. The regulations of daylight savings time make evening feel like a lingering afternoon, and the chaos of cooler spring weather in Texas makes May feel like March.  We are going to hear Stravinsky and Mozart, but we listen to pop music on the way, until Christopher whips out the iPad and starts playing all of the James Bond themes that he has bought off the internet.  It is great music if you are planning on dressing up and having an adventure.

We arrive and a string quartet is playing in the lobby, and while I am buying Sprites at the bar, Christopher, who is eleven, has already gravitated to a group of boys who are all in matching burnt orange shirts. They are from Austin–a prize winning junior high band–and they are staying at the Hilton for this field trip.  Christopher is chatting them up like he has known them forever, and I am glad to see this. I like that Houston is a friendly town, and that Christopher, who is an only child, doesn’t need me to force him to talk to others. The boys are laughing, and I almost hate to tell him to say goodbye when we have to leave to reach our seats.

Our seats, I must say, are 50 yard line orchestra section perfection, and I am thanking my lucky stars that when I bought them I told the ticket person that Christopher was studying the violin, as she said without hesitation, “Great, I will fix you up.”  She really did, and I am so thrilled that we are where we are, as the 23 year old internationally-known violinist Eugene Ugorski is performing, and I want Christopher to see everything.

Ugorski is performing Stravinsky’s “Violin Concerto in D,” and I joke with Christopher and say, “What a relief.  At least there won’t be rioting in the streets.”  We are listening to Stravinsky in his neoclassical stage, but it still feels pretty modern to me, even though it is melodic.  But what is striking is the violinist: he performs this as if it is a walk in the park, he is so calm, so self-possessed.  Watching him, he seems so experienced, I don’t want to say jaded, but he must have done this thousands of times before.  Yet he looks so young to me, he looks 23, maybe even younger.  It is like the day itself: how can it be so light at 7:30 outside?  How can it be so cool in May?  How can Eugene Ugorski look so young, yet play as if he is so much older?  He is completely at one with the piece, yet this dissonance between his ability and his youth makes me so happy I really could riot in the streets.  But, I don’t.  Instead, I listen.

I watch Christopher watching him, and I know he is impressed.  Even though Mr. Ugorski has lived in San Diego since he was 5, Christopher cannot let go of the fact that he was born in St. Petersburg.  Nothing is more far flung or exotic to a Houstonian than Russia, and I understand Christopher’s fascination.  I wasn’t much older than Christopher when I was obsessed with Russian novels, with their sullen characters and impossible names, who were witty while being sad about everything, and I thought that was admirable if not slightly incomprehensible.  After all, I was from Texas.

Tonight is special as the music commentator for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Miles Hoffman, discusses the pieces for the audience before they are played. For Mozart’s famous “Symphony No. 40 in G minor,”  Mr. Hoffman explains the structure of the Sonata Form, with its exposition, development, and recapitulation.  I make a note to myself to tell my many music students at the university that this is not a bad way to think about every paper you will ever write in college.  There can be an introduction and a coda, but one gets the idea.  I ask Christopher if he is following, and he starts to roll his eyes, but then thinks better of it.  He just says, “Yes, we are learning these things in orchestra.”  I think hearing Eugene Ugorski might have made him reassess his level of expertise, and he seems more like the Christopher before junior high, before all the pressures to act as if you are somehow already in high school, even though you are only eleven.

We feel lucky to be here, as it is conductor and music director Hans Graf’s final season. When the Mozart begins, I am excited because I have heard this piece many times, and it is hard to resist.  Christopher has not heard it many times, but maybe parts of it out of context or only in pieces, and I can tell when the recognition hits him, but glad that he can hear it as it should be, in its entirety.  It is a beautiful piece. Almost everyone stands when it is over.

After the performance, there is a question and answer session. It is open to the public, and Christopher tells me that he wants to ask the musicians what it is like to perform in front of thousands of people.  But when we get there, and it is his turn to ask a question, he asks Maestro Hans Graf what it felt like to be asked to conduct for the Houston Symphony, and whether or not he had ever been involved in, or seen, a Houston metrorail crash, which, in Christopher’s defense, does happen frequently.  This was an unexpected juxtaposition of questions, and elicited a little laugh from the audience, but I could see the wheels turning, and I could see how it made perfect sense to Christopher–as perfect as pairing Stravinsky with Mozart.  For Christopher, Houston is the best city in the best state in the best country in the world, so what could be more thrilling than to conduct its symphony?  Hans Graf was charmingly gracious, and explained that it wasn’t his first appointment, not his “first love,” as he had been conductor of many other prestigious orchestras.

Simultaneously, for Christopher, who was named for the patron saint of travelers, and conveniently enough is thoroughly obsessed with all modes of transportation, nothing could be more exciting than thinking of Hans Graf’s reaction to the drama of a metrorail crash.  What could be more compelling than the conductor of an orchestra witnessing the drama of the conducting of transportation in the greatest city, in the greatest state, in the greatest nation?  His question was the recapitulation of the primary exposition that had been developing in his mind for his eleven short years.  Transport, through travel or music, is his dominant theme, and so I am sure you can do the math:  it is inevitable that Hans Graf is one of his heros, and so naturally, he wanted to know what the famous Austrian conductor thought of the Houston metrorail, particularly if there was a climax or a crash involved.  Christopher still thinks it is amazing that he came here all the way from Austria, yet also thinks, upon further reflection, that there is no other place that he would want to be.  “We love that you are here in Houston,” Christopher says, and I am glad he says it, because he really means it.  He has not practiced any of this, it is just spoken because it is what he feels, and I am happy that he has said this now, at age 11, the last glimmering moment before you are too self-conscious to express your sincere love for something without artifice or self-doubt.

When Eugene Ugorski is questioned by the audience, it is revealed that he practices anywhere from four to seven hours a day, depending on his touring schedule.  Christopher gives me a huge grin, as if he knows his 30 minute practice sessions are so over.  He says, “He must have had a tiger mom,” as if this is the explanation for everything.  We smile because now there is proof of what it takes to be that good, and I know it, and Christopher knows it, and there is no denying it. It is so moving to me that Eugene Ugorski knew from such an early age what he was meant to do on this earth.  His debut with the San Diego Symphony occurred when he was only eight.  I can tell that Christopher has a hard time wrapping his mind around this, and who wouldn’t? It helps when Hans Graf answers a question about inspiration and “favorite” pieces by explaining that they are professionals:  they cannot wait for inspiration, they must bring it themselves to every piece, no matter what.  I like it when the panel disagrees with each other.  That is why they are all so great: they don’t necessarily abide by some theoretical “consensus.”  Instead, they each think and do things their own way.  This is an important lesson that I am grateful is demonstrated on the stage, because no one believes it when it is explained, it must be dramatized.  They are all right, even if they cannot be all right at the same time.

When we leave, we are exhilirated, thrilled to have been in the company of so much talent.  In a dismissive world, it feels good to walk down the red velvet cake stairs of Jones Hall, and be a little starry-eyed.  I think of how many society pictures Hans Graf has had to pose for in the last 12 years in Houston, and so I am infinitely charmed when he is so gracious and allows me to take a picture of Christopher with him.  Even Eugene Ugorski, after walking outside, finishes his cell phone call and replaces his serious look with a smile in a picture with my son.  He probably didn’t really want to pose in that picture, but he did it anyway.

Christopher and I have dinner at a restaurant.  We are flushed from the cooler air and the breeze.  We talk about music, and how it was amazing to have people from so many corners of the globe sitting on the same stage, producing such striking sounds.  But when the music was heard, there were no separate spheres, just a kind of perfect ratio of sound and emotion, but no single place could be said to dominate.

The next morning, it is cool, but not cold, and sunny.  Mozart’s symphony is still in my head, it is easy to remember, and I spend most of the day outside.  Keats was right: the poetry of earth is never ceasing.  I hear the breeze, a wasp, a bee.  But also the music from last night.  It stays in my head, but I don’t want it to leave.  I am reading outside and Christopher is practicing, longer than usual.  A lady bug crawls on my hand.  I haven’t seen one in years.  The black pattern of spots is familiar, but I realize it is really burnt orange, not red.  I hadn’t realized this.  I had been remembering pictures and cartoons, not the real thing.  Christopher says he is finished practicing.  He is sounding better every day.  He says when he plays, he wants it to sound “real,” and I think I know what he means.

Christopher with Houston Symphony Music Director and Conductor Hans Graf


15 responses to “The Music of the Spheres”

  1. Doni, you created a marvelous essay that demonstrates a technique that Thomas Lynch taught me…take three separate items and fund their common denominator…music, transportation,the weather..a youth maturing and bind them together. The crash of the railcar and the explosion of notes. I love it. As Lynch says, “Write on!”

  2. It works better when we show, not tell, our kids excellence and what it entails – work, mindfulness, discipline, time – and the rewards it can bring. Lovely story, Doni.

  3. Wonderful, Doni. I love the realization that each member of the panel has their own way, and I think that’s true in all creative pursuits–we can learn from others, but ultimately we’ve got to figure out what works for us.

  4. My friend Toni Andrukaitis lent me Snow Patrol to listen to. I will definitely pay attention to your music choices. One thing I notice in your work is a thirst for enjoying every moment as life passes swiftly by. The meaningful messages are non-cheesily deposited oh so enjoyably in the reader’s mind.

  5. I will never forget when, during the first class I took from you, Christopher walked in one day, introduced himself, and said, “I’ll just be in the hall if you need me.” Grin. He has always had a little something extra, in the best possible way.

    So glad y’all got to experience this together!

  6. Thank you all for your kind comments! I have the best readers in the world. Thanks so much for reading!

  7. I’ll never forget when, during the first class I took from you, Christopher walked in one day, introduced himself, and added, “I’ll just be in the hall if anyone needs me.” Grin. He’s always had a little something extra–in the best possible way.

    So glad y’all got to experience this together!

  8. I love this and so wish I could meet you in Lauren Gant’s June class — my 7th grade son and I have had many experiences like that and he, too, plays the violin. It’s such a joy to spend time with my son, enjoying great talent and immersing ourselves in some of the best culture Houston has to offer. you detailed this experience and drew so much out of it so BEAUTIFULLY. Thanks for sharing it with all of us!

  9. Sarah, thank you so much for the kind words! I will be speaking in the class on June 11–would love to meet you and your son. Thanks so much for reading.

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