Freedom's just another word when nothin's left to lose,
And nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free...
The next to the last chair of the second violin section of the symphony was mine. The city high school's underground bomb shelter was our practice room, and my chair was located at the direct center of that large, low ceilinged, basement room. It was a gray, dank, sparsely lit room, it's corners lost in shadow, its unadorned walls a blank testament to the room's intended purpose.
Books in one hand, instrument cases in the other, the legion of musicians would silently file in and set up. Shoes on concrete floor, the opening and closing of the heavy door at the top of the stairs and the snapping clicks of case clasps turned into the cacophony of tuning instruments within a few, scant minutes. From my perch in the center of the room, I could watch, and marvel.
Over the top of my music stand, just to the right of the conductor's podium, the tall, lithe, beautiful girl that was the concert mistress barely sat at the edge of her chair. Her body swayed to accent the thrusts of her bow across the violin's strings, her long hair danced down her straight back while her left arm almost savagely jerked her fingers on the fingerboard. The sound that reached my ear was a full, woodsy, haunting gypsy melody I recognized; Czardas!
A reedy, sharp yet full sound of an oboe cut through the chaos, this time from my left. Here again, the beautiful sound belied the visual. A long face topped with curly hair was distorted by sharply distended cheeks, a tightly pursed mouth and a bright red face pocked with the yellow bumps of acne.
No one talked; there wasn't time. The instruments had to be tuned, warmed up, then tuned again. Like cramming before a huge exam, difficult passages were run through over and over; there can never be enough practice.
When the conductor arrived, the noise dimmed. His round face topped with a hat, his scarf draped around his neck did not soften the glare of his sharp eyes, nor did his moustache hide his unsmiling lips. He slowly scanned the room, then slid into his office. Not everyone had arrived yet.
At the click of the shutting office door, the room erupted into chaotic sound again; only now it was louder, urgent and frantic. In only a few minutes, we would all be under that glaringly critical stare.
Behind me, the tympani boomed next to the xylophone's rings. The muted trumpets cut through the trombone sliding in woe. The French horns sent out a royal crescendo over the almost sub aural sounds of the bassoons and bass violins.
As if by magic, the most beautiful sound of all caught everyone's attention over the maddening chaos and the volume dropped to listen. A tall, handsome man with straight long hair was the source of that rapturous beauty. Just to the left of the podium he sat with his head lovingly cradling the neck of the cello held between his splayed thighs. With eyes shut and body still, only his arms moved to paint a tapestry of sound. He didn't notice that we had all stopped to listen to his unearthly music.
But, the conductor noticed from inside his office and the door swung wide as he strode through. That beautiful cello meant that we were all here. With the conductor's foot stepping onto the riser, the cellist lifted his bow and empty silence fell.
An opened score, a lifted wand, a quick glance around checking for everyone's eyes came before the two sharp snaps leading into the gesture that would set the whole symphony into tandem to create exponentially what the cellist gave out on his own.
This, this is Heaven.
Bernard Shiffrin, conductor of the Binghamton Youth Symphony, died in March, 2009. While stern, he coaxed perfection out of one of the most talented, largest group of youth assembled in one place for many years of his career.
With well over 100 instruments playing, his sharp ear could pick out that one out-of-tune note, and he often caught me looking around the room in wonder instead of playing my part. Only once did he stop the symphony to have my stand play the offending passage, thinking that I was the offender. I played my part well, despite being put “on the spot,” and from then on, he let me revel in my joy.
Mr. Shiffrin was a key figure in my music career as he was a great inspiration. Years later, I ran into him at an ice cream store, my son well into his teen years by then. He recognized me immediately and asked of my music career. He didn’t know my name, even back then, but he knew the position I played. When I told him of my long career as a singer, he beamed and smiled ear to ear. I think he knew he touched my life.
The world will be a much quieter place without him.