April 25, 2019 | Narrative
reflections from revisiting symphony hall
As the audience lights dimmed and the stage lights brightened, I quickly flipped through the concert program to remind myself of the pieces’ names. A tuning note from the first oboist broke through the silence of the concert hall. Different timbres of sound emerged slowly underneath this steady note, soon weaving into a comforting harmony.
Having been on both sides of the stage, I’ve become very familiar with the “concert A,” the pitch universally used for tuning orchestras and concert bands. This time, the note was even more special because I knew the oboist playing it; she was one of the people I had befriended when I participated in the same music festival before.
Earlier that morning, on a slightly snowy Saturday this past March, I took a train north to Boston Symphony Hall. The concert didn’t feature any renowned soloists or guest conductors; instead, the performers were high-school students. They had come from different towns in Massachusetts for the annual three-day high-school music conference, whose final performance takes place at Symphony Hall.
I participated in this music festival during my last two years of high school. Thankfully, Brown is close enough to Boston that I could at least attend the concert again this year. I always lament over how I attend school near Symphony Hall, one of the most stunning concert venues in the country, but seldom have the chance to see a concert there. Going to this one was an effort to change that.
I sat through the choir, jazz band, and orchestra performances before the concert band—the group that I had been part of—came on. Before the concert band musicians arrived onstage, the concert hall staff had to rearrange the stage setup, so I took this time to walk around in the corridor outside. Last year, I waited in this same corridor with the rest of the band before heading onstage. I had leaned against the wall then, looking forward to my group’s performance. Our conductor had added a short choral introduction to the opening piece so that the entire band sang before we started playing. I couldn’t wait for the ensemble to surprise the audience with this, but I also knew that when we hit our last chord, my four years of high-school music festivals would conclude. I wasn’t sure how dedicated I would be to music once college started, so the thought that the festival could be the last time I would play with an ensemble made me a little uneasy.
I certainly did not imagine then that I would be back in the same corridor a year later. Noticing that the concert band musicians had gone onstage, I snuck back into the concert hall and sat in a seat near the entrance. From past experience, I knew that these musicians must have woken up before five that morning to prepare for their dress rehearsal. The concert band always went first during dress rehearsals but last in the actual performance so that the staff could set up the chorus risers after the instrumental group rehearsals and leave the risers onstage until the chorus finished performing.
The tiring rehearsal schedule always posed a challenge for me and my fellow band members, but our successful performance made the 4:30 a.m. alarm acceptable. I tried to hide my chuckle as I remembered the long hours of spare time I had between our dress rehearsal and our afternoon performance. Sitting among our instrument cases, I had chatted with other musicians, sharing anecdotes about practice while trying to finish a James Joyce novel for my English class.
In the middle of the concert band’s first piece, a sonorous trumpet melody brightened the golden tones of the concert hall. Surrounded by the layers of harmonies reflecting off the hall’s acoustically ideally wooden architecture, I forgot where I was. I was suddenly sitting under stage lights, slightly sweating, my clarinet in my left hand, my sore right hand resting on my lap while counting the number of rests I had so I wouldn’t get lost. The trumpet melody continued behind me.
Then, I was back in my seat in the audience, looking at the musicians onstage. The melody surrounding me had softened the boundary of time. I smiled at my old self.
When I walked out of Symphony Hall into a quiet, ordinary Boston afternoon, I realized that my return to this festival was more necessary than I had originally thought. Before I left Symphony Hall last year, I was aware that a part of me would be staying behind. Now, walking through the same corridors again gave me the chance to address the worries I didn’t know how to deal with a year ago.
An afternoon at Symphony Hall reassured me that, despite any emotions that may overwhelm and confuse me in the moment, I will be able to make more sense of them in the future. If I leave such thoughts in the back of my mind, maybe someday, a familiar place or another time-blurring melody will reunite me with them and bring clarity.
Before I walked down the stairs leading into Green Line station, I looked behind me at Symphony Hall just across the avenue, searching for a glimpse of myself standing at the hall’s door last year. Given the chance to speak to my younger self, I would let her know that everything would turn out fine. That I’m still playing in music ensembles in college, and that every concert A still gives me chills. Most of all, I look forward to each and every performance, just as before.