A couple of years ago, I was a frequent customer of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. In my work-life, I deal directly and not always pleasantly with the public. After a forty-hour work week, my mind sometimes feels coated with mental sludge, and a weekly DSO concert was like a cleansing wash, refreshing my brain.
I always chose one of the cheap seats in the Meyerson Center– up on the stage, behind the orchestra. From that vantage point, I had a splendid view of the audience, and I could see behind the scenes: musicians and their music. I could not read the sheet music, but I could see the oboist making notes on the pages or the cellist making adjustments, and I could watch the percussionists tuning their drums or whatever it was that they were thumping– before then, I did not know that drums need tuning. Mr. Cherry, now retired, would bend so close to his kettle drum to get it tuned right that he seemed to be kissing it. Also from my cheap seat, I watched the maestro up close. While the rest of the house stared at his back, I saw his face in all its various expressions. For my money, the cheap seats were the best seats in the house.
From my onstage perch, I also noticed the professionalism of the musicians. I saw their courtesies: performers taking bows, moving with grace, making way for each other and acknowledging other musicians. Watching this I realized that the root of “courtesy” is “court” and the animating idea is that of behaving with the well-bred manners of a royal court. One might object and say that this is just play-acting, just for show. I would reply yes, you are right and… so what? Social graces are the lubricant of a smooth-functioning society. I am not sure that “keeping it real” has done much to advance civilization.
Speaking of music, in 1928 Elizabeth Bishop wrote a few lines that appeal to me:
I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow…
There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath…