Chamber Music

A man’s mind wanders during a musical evening in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday. 


Published in RiverSedge (Volume 23: No.1, Spring 2010). 





Wedged between two strangers on the sofa, I stared up at the soprano, hoping she would be an improvement over the violinist who had just plowed his way through one of Mozart’s sonatas. Imagine turning your apartment into a salon for the evening! A wonderful urban experience? The sort of thing they just don’t do out in the suburbs? Or some sort of Woody Allen joke—pretentious people unaware of their pretensions? Was this woman a good friend of the hosts, or just someone who wormed an invitation out of one of the guests? And what would Wolfgang have thought of all this—strangers in a foreign country, one that barely existed in his day, gathered together 250 years after his birth to perform his work in honor of his birthday?


The soprano flashed a troubled look at the pianist, perhaps fearing that this amateur might not provide the proper support for her performance. Or was she the novice, using the evening as a practice run for other occasions? Her outfit added to my confusion. Weren’t artists supposed to have a heightened sense of style as well as great self-awareness? The tight top, with its patterned sequins, was certainly festive enough, but it bulged in several places, presenting an unwanted distraction, though also promising some comic relief should her performance prove to be unendurable. She nodded to the pianist before turning to the audience, looking heavenward, and closing her eyes while the earnest accompanist labored his way through the introduction to the aria. 


And then I noticed something familiar in the singer’s expression. I thought of my mother, who also seemed transported whenever something momentous was about to occur. At the theater, I would look over at her as the lights were dimming and know by the look on her face—the closed eyes, the sly smile—that this mattered, that being taken to see a Broadway play at the age of twelve, thirteen, fourteen, was something special. As were all our outings. Like our visits to that special place in the Bronx. What was it called? Freedomland—a theme park before that term was ever coined, one set to rival Mr. Disney’s kingdom out in California. With even higher aspirations, this park presented the entire panorama that was—or professed to be—America. 


“Look, son, it’s shaped like the map of the United States,” she declared, holding out the special insert from the Sunday newspaper. I boasted about our impending visit to this wonderful new land to all my neighborhood friends, tirelessly reciting the list of the attractions I intended to visit. Most enticing of all was the horseless carriage ride in Little Old New York. Any child over four feet tall or the age of twelve could drive their own gas-powered vehicle through specially-designed roadways meant to simulate country lanes. Like a cannonball, I raced ahead through the gates of Freedomland, only to be summoned back by my mother.


“Hold it right there! This is a big place. You have to stick with me; otherwise we’ll get separated—and then where will you be?” Did she ever stop to think I might not mind being off on my own in such a splendid setting? Taking my hand, she led me through the streets of Old New York, where I tried to ignore my shackles and imagine myself back in those long-ago days on display all around us. The illusion was shattered when I spotted a candy store selling some of my favorite contemporary candies and broke free to make a selection.


“What are you getting there?”


“Turkish taffy! ‘Oh, oh, oh, it’s Bonomo’s!’” The jingle still brought a smile to my face.  


“You already have a mouth full of fillings. Put it back; I’m not paying for that.”


“But I’ve got my own money!”


“Let me get you a Clark bar. It’s a little better, at least.” I reminded her that she promised we would go to the horseless carriage ride, but she insisted on trying out the Great Lakes Sternwheeler first. Passing the Chicago Fire, the buildings an ashen mess from the previous half-hourly performance, we boarded the steamboat and set off across the mock Lake Michigan—or was it supposed to be Lake Erie? On the shores of what probably should have been Ohio or Pennsylvania, I could already make out the roadways surrounding Little Old New York, reassured by the sight of other boys my age, each the master of his own vehicle.


“How many?” the attendant asked.


“Two cars—one each,” I volunteered, my mind already traveling down imaginary highways at record speed.


“No—just one!” my prisoner insisted. “We’ll share.” In an unusual feat of courage, I insisted on my right to drive, being just over the age of twelve as well as closing in on five feet. She relented, a sign that perhaps it was a new world after all—though, sitting on the sofa now, I cringed at the memory of her constant directions throughout the drive. Not to mention the ones she continued to give me years later as well as everyone in sight at the nursing home right up until the day she died. And then I heard the soprano’s voice. A siren’s voice. The voice of an angel with long blond hair and white veils flowing as if in a wind tunnel or high atop a mountain. Freed from the body with the sequined top and the unsightly bulges, the voice was everything Mozart must have had in mind as he slaved away on his opera.


“Brava!” In a rush to be the first to show my appreciation, I dislodged myself from the sofa and leapt to my feet, discovering too late that no one else in the audience shared my enthusiasm. Finding the singer at the buffet table moments later, I asked her what she was planning to sing next.