A room filled with grey emeritus professors, husbands led by the hand to their seats by wives in sensible shoes. They are the wilting flowers of cultural appreciativeness in this university town. The musicians take their seats, women in long black skirts, and the men tuxedoed. A few minutes of discordant practice and then the disciplined tuning of heirloom instruments. The conductor enters with his usual avuncular bounce, bows, and raises his baton. Mozart. A violin concerto, The Turkish. The pace is nimble, just shy of frenetic. Communication between the soloist and the conductor is impeccable, and the first movement comes to an end with the classical resolution of dominant to the tonic, the five to the one. In a less culturally trained audience, this finality always brings applause and the embarrassed disapproval of the cognoscenti. I hold back my applause, but I admit it takes restraint. I wonder every time if this polite self-discipline is what Mozart expected. It always feels like a Puritan church service. Tonight, we are a good audience and keep our impulses under control.
This evening the protocols of concert etiquette irritate me. Trump decreed his ban on Muslims from seven countries only yesterday, and this afternoon I found myself at a spontaneous demonstration at San Francisco airport, yelling slogans again. Yet my husband and I got home in time for our subscription concert.
This audience of elders has most likely done their share of yelling slogans and carrying placards. Some of them survived McCarthy, loyalty oaths, and the Reagan years. Some of them, no doubt, risked their lives during Mississippi Summer or were hauled out of the administration building by police during the Free Speech Movement. They are frail. Getting to their assigned seats is a stressful effort.
The soloist injects sensitivity and humor into her playing. She has a joyful affect. I know that with music you must give yourself over to a mental state that is more than just mindful or meditative. In practice or performance, you must be present in every muscle and nerve ending. If you split your concentration, you will lose the ineffable. I have had a split-screen feeling ever since the election. I need to compartmentalize and focus on the music, but I am overwhelmed.
These days, middle class everyday life is encased in the complexity of danger: an aunt goes into a nursing home, a friend has a knee replacement, a daughter plans a wedding, we calendar a trip abroad, negotiate conflicts with siblings, buy new shoes. The supermarket stays open and the shelves are stocked with products. The homeless man who is always outside the drugstore needs to plaster himself under an awning to stay out of the winter rain. Everyday life doesn’t change, but the splitting penetrates all its strata.
History feels like an extra sense. “What would I do?” “What would I have done?” “What should I do, now?” Ideological platitudes don’t reassure though it would be comforting to have those explanations now. My arthritic knee longs to jerk in that direction.
The graceful audience for Mozart slowly dies out. I had a piano teacher who used to say, “When you play Mozart, remember, you’re in Five-one Land.” But scapegoats have been chosen. The survival of the earth is threatened by greed and subterfuge. Mozartian resolution clashes with atonal vigilance. We’re not in Five-one Land now.
About the Author: Wendy Breuer lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and cats. She’s been a waitress, office temp, visiting nurse, and has an MPH and a late-life MFA. She fights feelings of political despair by practicing the piano and teaching English to adult immigrants who affectionately tolerate her pedagogical improvisations. Her prose and poetry have appeared in print and online in Literary Mama, Inkwell Journal, Rattle, NOÖ Journal, and Calyx Journal.