Tonight had been the final concert of the season. His little orchestra in the college town had played to a sold-out house. The last two concerts of the season were usually simple affairs, playing light classics and featuring a student soloist from the college. The college had a music department, offering degrees in music education. Some of the students were quite good. In fact, as of late, all of the students had become quite good. Tonight the orchestra played the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, by Haydn. The young trumpet player did a fine job, struggling a little in the slow and contemplative second movement, but other than that, he did well. All in all, a quite good concert.
William slowed his pace, savoring the evening’s triumph and the late night-early morning spring air. He felt good. It had been seven long years of hard work, and it was finally paying off. He had every reason, as he walked home after the concert, to be proud. No one could take it away from him.
William slowed his pace and began to think back. Back to the beginning, seven years ago, when he took over the orchestra. He frowned a little, then brightened. The orchestra had come such a very long way. And it was mostly his doing.
Seven years ago, the orchestra was twenty-nine players. It was roughly fifty-fifty between professional and amateur. It sounded weak, and thin, and pinched. It performed in a concert hall that seated 1200. William’s first season, the orchestra, doing two concerts per month between October and April, averaged thirty to forty in attendance. And then William went to work.
After the first season, he reshaped the orchestra in his own image. He increased the size to thirty-six. He gutted the string section, replacing old and failing amateurs with professionals. In fact, he increased the number of professionals to sixty percent and put most of them in the string section. He filled out the woodwinds, brass, and percussion with mostly amateurs, and he managed to get some very good players. Where did he find them? The local college offered a degree in music education. Most of the instrumentalists were band-trained. William convinced some of them to play in the orchestra, and convinced the college to give them credit for the experience. The students responded. William had a decent brass and woodwind section.
He cut the programming, playing the music the orchestra could handle and not what some people wanted to hear. He stepped on the toes of some of the donors. But something was happening. By January of his second season, the orchestra was drawing between 200 and 300 to concerts.
He pushed even more. In the third season, he began to feature soloists. Of course, they were college students. When he needed a chorus, guess what? Of course, the college was happy to send its students. He moved to three concerts per week in January, February, and December. He added two Christmas concerts, complete with a children’s choir.
Oh, the Christmas concerts sold out. And attendance kept climbing. The traditionalists, who had been burnt when he took over and began reshaping the orchestra, were getting ignored. William had improved the sound quality, and the orchestra had started drawing, and drawing well. And a small sense of civic pride was emerging. “We’ve got an orchestra,” the mayor would say. “And, I don’t know much about music, but I’ve been told our little orchestra is pretty good. Pretty God-damned good, I’ve been told. Yesirree!”
The sixth and seventh seasons that William conducted, the orchestra sold out almost every concert. “Going to the Tuesday concert?” “No, the Friday one. There is a young soprano from the college, a choral major, who will be singing some Mozart.” “Ah, I bet that will be divine! Enjoy!” This was common conversation around the water cooler and at Starbuck’s. And people began to criticize William’s style and interpretation. “His Mozart is too quick. Not nearly sensitive enough.” “His concert overtures are taken to excess. Far too dramatic.” “His style in the Holst hymn looked as if he were chopping wood! Apalling!” William grinned. When your audience criticizes you, you know that they are listening. And that was really all he wanted.
And now, tonight, a representative from the record company approached him. They wanted to record the orchestra. Nothing complex, some simple and pleasant classics. Stay within the orchestra’s skill set. They had already approached the board of directors. The meeting was set for two weeks. William would, of course, attend. William slowly headed down the hill toward the college and his tiny apartment. And then a foul smell interrupted his reverie and brought him back to earth. He knew that smell. It was the smell given off by a cheap, bad cigar.
William turned the corner to his apartment house and a man was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, smoking. The man was portly, wearing an ill-fitting and poorly-kept black suit. The white shirt had a grey tinge to it. The tie was dirty, showing a lot of soup spills. The man’s grey beard was long and unkempt. And his hair, black and turning grey, looked as if it had not been brushed or combed in weeks. The man took another puff on his cigar and smiled at William.
“I know you,” William said, softly, but keeping his guard up. “We have met once before.”
“Indeed, we have,” the man responded, grinning. He took two more puffs on the cigar and tossed it away. “I believe we had a most interesting conversation.”
“Yes, something about my ability to be a conductor,” William stated. “If you had attended the concert tonight, you would know about my abilities.”
“The soloist struggled a bit in the second movement, and the strings went out of tune about a third of the way into the Rossini overture, but other than that, I found it quite enjoyable.”
“I still have more work to do on the orchestra, but it is getting there,” William said. “I am pleased with what I have done.”
“As you should be,” the man said. “But, if you remember our conversation, I never questioned your ability.”
“No, that is true,” William said. “You questioned my understanding.”
“And where is your level of understanding now?” the man asked.
William turned and looked away. After some contemplation, he spoke. “I think I am beginning to understand. I really do.” But when he turned and looked back, the old man was gone.
William shrugged and continued on down the street to his small, second-floor apartment. He entered and took off his tux. He put on his favorite comfort outfit, an old sweat suit. He was still full of energy, so he decided to have a drink and read a bit. It was good way to wind down, an then he would head to bed. He would sleep in tomorrow.
William poured a tumbler of Irish whiskey that he liked to sip, and added two ice cubes. He placed the drink on a small table he kept next to his easy chair. He moved to the bookcase and removed a large volume entitled “The Encyclopedia of Great Romantic Composers.” It was really a coffee table book, but William had no coffee table. He sat in the chair and propped his feet on the ottoman. He took a sip of whiskey and opened the book to a random page. Two photos looked out at him.
The photo on the left was of a young man. The man was good-looking, with dark hair, neatly combed and pulled back from his face. He wore a plain black suit, neatly pressed, a grey vest, white shirt, and proper tie. He sat in a chair, feet flat on the floor. His expression was contemplative and serene. The photo on the left, however, was what intrigued him.
The man was much older. His full grey beard was unkempt. His black hair, turning grey, was uncombed. His suit was black and poorly kept. His vest and tie were covered with a great many soup stains. His white shirt had a grey tinge to it. He was sitting in a comfortable chair with his legs crossed. In his left hand a small, black cigar was burning. Twinkling eyes and a sly smile looked out at the reader. It was the expression of a man who had lived, and had enjoyed his life.
The photo was a twin for the man who had spoken with William that day on the bridge and tonight, on his walk home from the concert.
William looked at the entry for the composer. It read: “Johannes Brahms: 1833 – 1897.”
But Brahms had been dead for a long time.
William closed the book, took a sip of whisky, and laughed softly. He knew he was beginning, no, more than beginning, to understand.