When I walked in to Davies Symphony Hall for the first concert of the season, like usual, it was glowing with a gold tint. The low yellow lighting, the hanging sound-reflectors that reflected the beige stage and the few scattered musicians’ instruments already warming up, and the golden pillars spread out along the walls accounted for that. Patrons of both sexes were pouring into the hall in a steady stream, mostly coupled.
I arrived at my seat in the middle of the premier orchestra section and sat down next to a bald elderly man with the curled mustache of a connoisseur. As he turned to greet me, my gaze fastened to his large but rimless monocle covering the specimen of his inquisitive eye, like the lid to a petri dish, which it magnified almost double along with forcing what looked like an almost painful contraction of the eyebrow supporting the monocle, giving him the stately refinement of a man-of-the-world.
“A young good-looking man like you, alone at the Symphony! Bah. You should get yourself a young lady at your side for something like this,” said the old man after shaking my hand.
“I don’t know if that’s good or bad advice,” I responded in monotone.
He emitted a snorting laugh while removing his monocle, which shrunk his eye significantly, and while giving the monocle a polish with the square kerchief from his suit jacket pocket said, “Ah you’re young. It’s the best time for heartbreak, boy.”
I feigned a laugh. As the lights started to flash mellowly to signal the start of the concert, the old man’s wife appeared at the end of our aisle and started to make her way to her seat.
“There’s the old lady,” said the old man giving a wink and then turning in her direction before lodging the monocle back into his eye socket.
When she finally, after a long and shaky struggle, reached her seat, beads of sweat were quivering below the high hairline on her forehead under the overhead lighting. The old man turned towards his wife.
“Hey honey I just met a nice young man who’s here alone. Without a lady. Bah. Can you believe that?”
“What’d you say, Horace?” she said in a rickety voice.
“I said ‘this young man next to me is here alone,’” even louder this time.
“You said ‘he is here alone?’”
“Well, that’s a shame,” she said just before the lights went out.
The concert that night was called “French Connection” and featured works exclusively by French composers. The first piece was Debussy’s Clair de Lune. The pianist—a young Asian girl in a light blue sequined dress—stepped out to modest applause. The soft opening chord echoed faintly, like gently placing your fingertip in a pond, creating an almost imperceptible ripple, and was followed by the liquid rippling of two or three even lighter notes that almost seemed lost from the chord. But following the second chord—which was still pianissimo but a little louder than at first—the lost notes harmonized with it in a quiet, nostalgic melody of lament. As the quiet opening melody progressed it made me want to go lay down on moist grass in the middle of nowhere and close my eyes. The same melody was repeated but this time the soft chords accompanying it were replaced by a more tumultuous string of broken chords in opposition to it, until finally the melody joined the broken chords in their dissonance. I looked to my left and saw the old man’s eye glistening behind his monocle. And in the dim light from the stage I could vaguely see he and his wife’s veiny hands embraced. When I turned back towards the pianist, the dissonant melody of the left hand was being charmed into consonance by the ascending scale of light, quick, notes from the right. Then, the whole thing turned into a cascade of sound that transformed back into the soft opening melody, which seemed even more powerful now in contrast to the loud climax, before the pianist gave one last surge of a stream of ascending and descending scales only to stop mid flow and pinpoint one last echoing golden chord that dissolved into loud applause.
While standing up in honor of the ovation, I heard, next to me, under the applause, “Bah!” I looked to my left and the old man was bent over—almost on all fours but not quite—looking under the seat in front of him. When he reemerged, his monocle was missing and his face was bright red. The overhead lights were back on so the symphony could make their way on stage for the next piece—Saint-Saens 2nd Piano Concerto—which was my favorite being played that night.
“Ah, dammit boy, that damn monocle fell down there somewhere…Mary…Mary…Mary!”
“What Horace?” said the old lady, being interrupted in her conversation with the young girl to her left.
“My damn monocle fell down there” said Horace pointing under the seat in front of him.
“This happens at least twice a year,” she said looking towards me, “but you can tell it’s a good piece when Horace is so overwhelmed that that monocle slips right out. Well, anyway honey, it looks like it’s gone now. We’ll just have to get you another one tomorrow.”
“No goddammit. It couldn’t have got too far. I’ll find it,” he said as he nudged his way past me.
To give myself a distracted air so I didn’t get pulled into Horace’s search, I turned around and began to scan the audience. Most everyone was over fifty. Here and there one of them was standing up. The usher was wheeling an octogenarian down the aisle. And in the next instant, right where the octogenarian had just passed in front of me, I saw my former girlfriend. I lowered my gaze at once, turned around, and rested my hand on my right temple, covering my face from her view. The lights started flashing. My face looked like an Impressionist painting in the reflection of my polished shoe. At the end of the aisle I heard a grumbling. Horace had returned, still monocle-less. While I stood up to let him through I turned my head back towards her. This time a young man was sitting at her side. I felt pressure on my foot as Horace passed me. I turned back around as the lights dimmed.
“Bah. Goddammit. Might as well give it up for lost,” he said nudging me on the shoulder, “it isn’t as bad as it seems though boy, when this happens I can close my eyes and really concentrate on the music.”
The opening chords of Saint-Saen’s concerto sound like a composer who has just lost everything, and build an almost chaotic tension. At the end of this piano prelude, there’s one last light note, followed by a second of silence, and then, an eruption from the symphony like that of the first notes of Beethoven’s 5th “Fate” Symphony. Suddenly, it seemed as if, deep inside me, two hands grabbed hold of my heart and started shaking it, like a thief shakes a cash register into his bag during a robbery. I made a quick turn of my head around to see her in the dark. In the faint light I just made out part of her face before quickly turning back around. Her face had the same faraway expression as the times I’d used to take her here and, in the middle of a powerful piece, look over at her. I had a strong urge to move. Nervously, I turned towards Horace. His head was tucked away in the crevice of two cupped hands. I thought it a good idea to do the same to compose myself. At this time a year ago, she and I were in love sitting on the swinging bench under the porch of her parents’ cottage in Tahoe in the night, watching the rain pour down so hard we could barely see in front of us. And, the next morning, waking up earlier than her to the chirping of birds and seeing a lock of hair, right where it should be, straying over her dainty nose. As I watched the rain drip from the leaves and gather in droplets on the railing, I heard a rustling beside me. I turned around quickly, before she could fully wake up, to kiss her lips, and when I moved back to savor my treat of seeing her awake to this new, transmogrified world from last night’s heavy rain, I could see the effect of my kiss—her face lit up in my favorite smile of hers where she would bite her lip after. I remember on one morning a group of deer capered past us but one of the deer stopped, didn’t run ahead with the others, and just stood there, looking at us. When, hand in hand, we made a subtle move to approach it, it galloped away into the woods.
I was awoken by the crashing chords of the last movement of Saint-Saen’s concerto. I had missed the second, pleasant, pastoral movement of the piece. I turned my head to get another glance at her but she was covered by the young man’s body leaning forwards, just enough. I turned back around towards the stage. She was gone now. I haven’t spoken to her in months, since her confession of love for him.
Until this piece was over, and after intermission, during the final Berlioz piece, we’d both sit, twenty paces apart, unaware of each other while both listening to the symphony. The final phrase of Saint-Saen’s concerto was crashing and churning. The orchestra was playing a dark, calamitous melody in triple-time while the piano continued the soft, pleasant melody from the second movement under it, like a dark stormy sea about to engulf a lone skiff. Then the orchestra stopped and the pianist started pounding the piano as hard as he could, banging out something angry, almost cruel sounding, only to eventually fade away while simultaneously the storming orchestra rose and drowned it out. The piece was over. Another standing ovation.
I looked at Horace clapping powerfully, shouting, “Bravo.” He turned to me, squinting without his monocle, and said, “See, that’s what I’m talking about boy.”
Without responding, I nudged my way down the aisle, keeping my head down, and noticed a scuff on my shoe. I finally made it to the center aisle and with as much speed as walking allowed, made my way towards the exit, neglecting Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
This story is about an experience I had at a concert at the Symphony, and, specifically, a reflection on a lost past replaced by a present-time I find vulgar but also exciting.