The working class couple at their first symphonic concert did not realize that they were paying to see a man dressed like a penguin dance with the upper half of his body. The woman likes it; the man isn’t so sure. “The music is always a half-second too slow,” he will complain during the intermission. What neither of them needs to say is that dancing is a thing for couples. During the slow movements, he puts an arm around her shoulders. When the tempo picks up, he folds his arms across his chest.
No talking or even whispering is allowed, and who the hell can tell when you’re supposed to clap? This is like being in an art museum – you don’t know how to act and everyone can tell that you don’t belong. If it’s not about feeling good and having fun, what’s the point, then? This whole thing is obviously enormously complex and requires something beyond a 12th-grade education to understand, he thinks. But the woman is impressed by the sense of something handed down essentially intact from the days when men dressed up for an ordinary night out on the town and women piled their hair on top of their heads and wore fancy gowns and all theaters looked just like this – dark green walls and gold leaf gleaming like an endless summer. She likes the quiet parts, the silences where no one claps, the lack of amplification. She is used to listening for what’s down deep, rather than simply paying attention to the ripples on the surface.
It’s like the way church used to be when she was a kid. She understands that the conductor is not performing for them; he is a servant to the music, which he merely shapes and draws out of the orchestra, out of the score in front of him the same way the priest used to pull meaning out of the Bible when it was all still in Latin. Every movement of his hand means something different. Watching him, she feels as if she can see a little ways into the future – a timeless place where nothing happens until we arrive, which we never quite manage to do this side of the grave. Something holy and even magical is taking place, like with the wine and the wafers.
When the on-stage lights go out three minutes into the third movement of the first piece on the program, no one seems especially upset. The conductor lowers his arms and the music stops almost immediately. He bows his head. The audience is absolutely silent with the surprise of it, staring into the darkness where the black-suited musicians have virtually disappeared. The light from the exits catches the polished wood of violins and violas dropping from chins to laps, like fish glimpsed at the bottom of a pond moments after you realize that something has taken the bait cleanly off the hook.