We were inches from the stage. If I sat on the edge of my seat and reached
forward, the tips of my fingers would touch the chair of the principle violinist. His hair
was white and wild, his eyes fixed on the music. Before the performance, he stood and turned his back to the audience, coattails swaying. He tucked his violin under his chin and played a note so sweet and rich that the audience fell silent. That was his role. He played; the others followed and tuned their oboes, bassoons, violas, clarinets, and cellos. Matched his one strong, lasting note.
He shifted his position often throughout Messiah. He paused to turn the page of the music, taking an extra moment to smooth down the binding and flatten the sheet. The trumpet player sat behind him, waiting, holding his instrument upright on his knee. The timpanist stood motionless amidst the orchestra and choir, holding the drumsticks across his chest. He scratched his nose. It was coming soon. After the countertenor’s Air, Hallelujah would break loose from the chorus, and we would be on our feet.
I watched the faces of the choir members for the arrival of the exact moment. On the right side of the stage, the tenor lifted his arm as he held the final note. The conductor leaned forward, raising his baton; the chorus members held the same note in a strong vibrato. The violinist drew the bow slowly across the strings. The trumpeter raised the brass to his lips. The chorus members lifted their songbooks into the air and inhaled and I sat back, ready to rise to my feet.
“This is my favorite part,” my father said, pointing to the playbill at “The Trumpets Shall Sound,” an Air sung by the Bass. It was intermission and we had decided to stay in our seats and read more about the performance, the soloists and the Philharmonic.
“The trumpet is loud and clear against the strings,” he said. “Like a breath of fresh air.”
“The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed,” I read from the Playbill. I turned to face him. “What’s it about?”
“I think it’s about new beginnings,” he said. “Things to come.”
An hour before the performance, my father and I were enjoying stir fry at a small Thai restaurant near Lincoln Center.
“King George was the first to stand,” my father said.
“Why did he?” I asked.
My father held his fork and knife over his plate and looked out the window. On the sidewalk just outside the restaurant on 9th Avenue, a man, woman and little boy were buying a Christmas tree. We watched as the father hoisted the tree on his shoulders and led his family up the street.
“He was just so astonished by the Hallelujah chorus he just rose to his feet,” he said as he continued eating. “And because he was the King, everyone else followed.”
The first time I saw the Messiah, it was a frigid December day, and after I told my father I thought my ankles would freeze, he put me on his shoulders. We walked through midtown, through Rockefeller Center. The store windows exploded, each bright with the glow of lights and Christmas colors folding together. Sparkling gold ribbons and polished silver bells dangled over heaps of garland strung together with red velvet bows. A sea of singing Santas waving handfuls of bells skipped by us on Broadway, their boots striking the pavement together, like soldiers.
We drifted towards the street corners, where we watched quiet men fish hot dogs out of steaming trays of water. It was the scent of evergreen that pulled us back towards the sidewalks, where we passed by rows of trimmed trees propped against a fence waiting to be towed away.
I fell asleep for most of the Messiah. I have scattered memories of arriving in the balcony seats, smoothing my dress before I sat down, watching people file into Carnegie Hall. Later, I awoke when the choir boomed, and my father put his hand on my back and asked me to stand up.
In the car on the way home, my father listened to his favorite sections of the Messiah. We sat in traffic for a long time and I fell asleep. I woke up some time later as we were driving over the George Washington Bridge. I rubbed my eyes, turned around in my seat and looked back at the city. From the middle of the bridge I could see cars backed up in both directions along the West Side Highway, a string of red and white.
“Don’t they look like Christmas lights?” my father said, catching my eye in the rear view mirror.
After the performance, my father left the city and I arrived at J’s apartment to find him already asleep. The next morning, I woke up shivering; his side was empty, the sheets pushed to the foot of the bed. The radiator had stopped hissing. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and turned to face the window. It was just before dawn, and outside, piles of fresh snow lined the curb and the steps of the brownstones across the street. The fire escape was covered in a smooth, pristine layer; the banister on the stoop coated with rows of icicles. A cab rolled by slowly, crunching the packed snow beneath the tires.
On the sidewalk I saw someone approaching and I knew — it was his red scarf, one end fluttering behind him; his old brown coat; his hurried stride, head down into the wind. Two coffees in hand. I watched as he stopped just before the steps and turned to look at the street. He then exhaled a short, cold breath, continued up the steps and disappeared into the building. I pulled my knees up to my chest, snug under the blanket. Just as I heard the sound of heavy boots approaching, keys dangling, door opening, I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed and waited, my bare toes hovering over the ice cold floor.