She actually blushed. Even at this distance, I could see her face change color as she stood, smiling awkwardly, her trumpet visible in her hand behind all the other players. I turned to grin at Judith, who was standing beside me, clapping enthusiastically along with the entire house. "Sheís blushing!" I shouted in her ear.
The audience was on its feet, and the visiting conductor was alternately bowing and gesturing toward the orchestra. But I kept watching the young trumpeter. The conductor had singled her out, along with the low string sections, for their work in the Sebelius Second before motioning the entire orchestra to stand and receive the ovation.
I first noticed the blond young woman when she burbled a note. It wasnít bad, actually, and she subsequently made up for her slip during the fanfare. But even as she finished the segment, her face changed color noticeably. I donít usually pick up on such things. But maybe the combination of young, blond and female drew my eye. The female part, in particular. It used to be that the trumpet was mostly a male instrument. Iíve seen a number of female trumpetersómaybe the first was in Phil Spitalnyís all-girl orchestra back in the fortiesóbut you have to admit, theyíre not as common as female flutists. Mashing oneís lips into a brass mouthpiece is a rather aggressive thing for a lady to do. This one (and I was not close enough to see what she did with her lips) certainly did the instrument justice. She deserved the bow.
Since Judith and I have had season tickets to the Toledo Symphony, maybe four or five years now, the orchestra has improved noticeably. They do have their bad nights, relatively, but when the announcement material arrives for the next season, thereís no question about our decision. Weíve found that music in Ann Arbor is moving out of our financial reach. Not only classical: I just read a promo for a country singer/guitarist playing at the Ark (that ex-coffee house), with a ticket price of $35. For the most part, the only orchestral events in Ann Arbor we consider attending are the free ones put on by the School of Music. Our income hasnít kept up with the increases in ticket prices at Hill Auditorium, where twenty years ago we heard Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whose string section truly set a standard for our ears.
The Toledo orchestra feels a little bit home-towny, even though their playing has improved and their selection of soloists has expanded to include a lot more world class musicians. It seems, and justifiably, in my mind, that the audience rises to its feet more in recent years. Still, we recognize many of the players, even those not often selected for solo parts. Thereís a violist that Judith pointed out to me once, a young fellow with a grand shock of hair, whom she thought was made up like a hustler, but now seems more relaxed in his appearance. And we miss those who move on, even though we never know their names. I always watch the timpanist (again unusually female), who has an unerring sense of time and mood. She has performed in solo with the orchestra, and is often selected by the conductor for extra applause. But the timpanist is noticeable, both because of the prominence of percussion in most pieces and because of her extra height at the rear of the orchestra. We can almost never see the woodwind players just because they are hidden behind the violas. And the trumpeters arenít in much clearer display. You can always see the bigger horns, however, even when they are not playing at the moment. So it was unusual that I noticed the little blond woman in the first place. She just happened to be sitting so that I could see between other players.
Her blushing caught my attention, and naturally my sympathy. A musician, almost by definition, is apt to attract attention. One ought not become a professional musician if one doesnít like the spotlight, at least a little. Thatís not to say that she doesnít dream of performing solo trumpet in somebodyís concerto, dressed in flowing white or red, standing next to the conductor and dabbing her handkerchief occasionally to her lips or her instrument. (Or, if one is like Louis Armstrong or Harry James, wiping oneís dripping brow just as frequently.) The little slip of her lip at the beginning of her passage was excusable to most people who caught it, except, no doubt, to herself. I can understand that. It probably has something to do with why Iíve never learned to play any instrumentóIím afraid of the humiliation Iíd inevitably bring upon myself. So Iím doubly impressed by musicians; that they can learn how to make real music, and that they can handle the occasional public flubs.
Writing is safe. Itís only when I have to read my words aloud to someone am I aware of my vulnerability to shame, or whatever. I can take my clothes off when I sit at my keyboard, and always have the chance to hideóor hit deleteóbefore Iím really exposed.
Sebelius writes big, dramatic music, and I like that. Even though his melodies get truncated, even though he draws his chords out interminably sometimes, I find myself remembering them for days, playing them over and over in my head. I canít remember the little fanfare that the blond trumpeter burbled. Maybe if it had been a double bass player missing the beat in the momentous, slow pizzicato of the third movement, Iíd still be bothered by it. But her own, very human, reaction to the mistake bought my sympathy. And my hands stung after the conductor had left the stage and the echoes of the final chords of the symphony had faded from the Peristyle Auditorium.
Donald Skiff, November 16, 2001