There was the Doctor, whom I met that first night while waiting nervously for Papa to pick us up. The place was beginning to be deserted, and this sweet old man toted his cello over to where Mikaela and I stood. “Do you have a ride?” he asked, and then waited gallantly with us almost ten minutes until Papa arrived (we didn’t yet have the pick-up time down to a science). During that ten minutes, I discovered that he was one of the founders of the symphony forty years earlier: he played trombone, but when he learned the cello he had to have a place to play, so he and some others started up the symphony. Then they had to have a place to perform, so they did the logical thing and refurbished the vintage theater in town. But of course! Every middle-aged man should start a symphony and a theater in his lifetime. We said good night when our suburban pulled up to the curb, but over the years I’ve discovered other interesting facts about the Doctor: he also experiments with creating new varieties of rhododendrons on his vast acreage. “It takes about seven years from seed before they flower, though, so I create the variety and then have to wait years before I can even see what it looks like,” he told me. A dear man, from his always-handy handkerchief to his small cello and black bow-hair, everything is just perfectly him!
And then there’s the Lady, as we used to call her before we discovered her real name. In the days before we discovered her name, we also had some misconceptions about her. For example, we somehow had the idea that she was strict. Mama was trying to get through the back door of the concert hall to see us, but a man warned her, “No, I just tried, and the Lady is guarding the door, so you can’t get in. Here’s how I’ll smuggle you in, though…” (-: An honorary member, the Lady doesn’t even play an instrument, but she recently won a statewide award for “Friend of Music in Washington State.” Her daughter plays in the symphony, and the Lady comes faithfully to every single rehearsal and concert with a smile of delight as she listens to the music and busily crochets fabulous creations.
Not all the symphony members are older—there are a few kids our age, but they usually cycle through before going off to college. One, a young man with well-gelled hair whom I had known for years since playing with him in a youth symphony, told me he couldn’t wait to get out of our town—he would never want to live here. I looked around at all the lovely people, instruments in hand, and couldn’t help feeling he was so focused he was blind: he didn’t know what he was missing!
The Mayor (currently a city council member) was a man I talked with frequently, without even being aware of this title, and when I discovered it, my eyes widened just a little. It’s handy, however, having a direct line to the Mayor every week, as evidenced by those who would voice concerns to him during the break. Once, the stand partner of the Concertmaster was gone, and the Concertmaster invited the Mayor to move up and sit with him. Despite the fact that the Mayor had played in the symphony since its founding, he shook his head vehemently and whispered, only half-jokingly, “No—I’m too afraid!” So, brave Mikaela took the spot instead. Speaking of the Concertmaster, he’s a lovely man, impeccable violinist, and just happens to be a gastroenterologist. Mmmhmm, that’s what I said. It took him quite a while to be able to tell Mikaela and I apart, and he would noticeably pause and say, “Um, the, uh, [insert last name here] Sisters…” Something with bangs finally did the trick, and he either fakes it really well now, or really can tell us apart, but I’ll never quite be sure which!
The Conductor is another man you really must meet. Always clad in some shade of black, grey, or purple, he is one of the rare breed of conductors who can actually sing the instruments’ parts beautifully (for all conductors try, but only a few succeed). French horn missing? No problem, Conductor sings away. Just last week he came to rehearsal a bit stiff, however, and revealed a huge white bandage around his middle. “So,” he says, by way of explanation, “I was conducting a 140-woman choir in Spokane last week, and they couldn’t all see me. So I stood on a chair, but they still couldn’t quite see me. So I stacked a chair on top of a chair, and that was perfect…until the end of the concert when I tipped my weight forward, crashed down, and the chairs toppled over on top of me.” He rubbed his bruised ribs with a grimace and promised to do a lot of conducting with his pinky finger. In pain halfway through the rehearsal, he pulled up a stool for himself when a wise-cracking bass player shouted: “No! Please don’t stand on the stool!”
With all these wonderful people, how could you not have fun? We naturally split into groups, sort of like Facebook except with real people, not virtual pictures. The baldheaded men always have an alliance and a running joke. The strings and winds, of course, tend not to associate with each other, for who could imagine such a thing? And the Concertmaster is always the most popular man of the day, with a circle of people wondering about bowings, sectionals, dress code, call time, parking, comp tickets, and too much more.
So there you have it: Vignettes of a Symphony. Which, when you come right down to it, is really just an Anne Shirley-esque way of saying: Confessions of a People Watcher. But in my mind, these vignettes are also etched in the sepia picture I once saw, one that was taken in the founding year. Each of these people were about forty years younger, with less gray in their hair and wisdom in their eyes, wearing circle skirts, cat-eye glasses, and slick suits; the men sported sleek, glossy hair, and the women a bouffant. The Doctor and the Mayor and many others I could mention were all standing tall, instruments in hand, smiles adorning each face in a familiar “is-this-the-last-one?” expression, their vignettes captured forever by camera.