New World Symphony by Anne E. Johnson



Anne E. Johnson

The Beethoven sounded fine. Maria set her cello on its side in front of her chair and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. She’d been practicing for two hours already, but the concert was tonight and she wanted to feel confident.

Her husband, Steve, was at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and staring at his laptop. He didn’t look up when he spoke to her. “Sounds nice, babe. A real toe-tapper.”

Kissing his ear, Maria laughed. “That Louie Beethoven. He’s hot at all the clubs these days.”

Steve raised his mug in a toast, favoring Maria with a grin. “Leave it to the Little Falls Symphony Orchestra to play the biggest hits.”

“And you’ve only heard the cello part.”

He raised his eyebrows and put his hand to his heart. “You’re not the soloist?”

“In Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto? Um, no.” She sighed. “I gotta get back to work. The Dvorák is giving me trouble.”

New World Symphony?’

“That’s the one. I keep getting stuck on a passage in the first movement.” Maria set her water glass down hard. She was more stressed than she cared to admit.

“Honey.” Steve spoke in a somber voice that made Maria turn to meet his gaze. “You’ll do great tonight. I can’t wait to hear the concert. I’m so proud of you.” He kissed her goodbye and left for an afternoon appointment.

Her heart calmed by Steve’s kind words, Maria went back to the living room, put her cello between her knees, and opened the score of Antonin Dvorák’s Symphony Number 9, From the New World. The cello part was tough, and she knew she’d sounded pretty ragged in dress rehearsal the night before. But she was sure she could do better.

“We might not be the New York Philharmonic,” Maestra Czerny had said, smacking her baton on the music stand and glowering right at Maria, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be in tune and in rhythm, eh?”

Maria repeated those words in her memory as she squinted at the score. “Why is this so hard?” she asked the empty house. She found the toughest passage in the first movement and turned on her metronome to an embarrassingly slow sixty beats per minute. Tick-tick-tick-tick.

As she lifted her bow above the bridge and positioned her left hand on the neck, the cello seemed to protest. All four strings suddenly buzzed so hard that they blurred, and the wooden body gave out a creak like a ship’s timbers. Where they touched the cello, her knees and the left side of her collarbone buzzed, too, and a strange heat flowed through her.

“What the hell?” she cried, pushing the cello away from her shoulder so it was upright on its end pin. The buzzing reached a squealing pitch, then stopped abruptly. Panting, Maria cautiously drew the instrument back toward her and leaned over it to look for fractures in its front and back. Her left hand had been gripping the neck so hard, her fingers ached.

Fighting down panic, she pulled the endpin loose and laid the instrument across her lap, examining it like a mother might a child who’d fallen on the sidewalk. Everything looked normal, but in her twenty-five years of playing the cello, she’d never even heard of anything like that. “Maybe it was a little earthquake,” she told herself. She didn’t really believe it, though: the only thing that had shaken was the cello.

Despite Maria’s rattled nerves, Dvorák still waited on her music stand and the concert loomed ever closer. For half an hour she tried to play those few bars correctly. At first, it was just frustrating. But her playing got worse, and not in the usual way her playing might weaken after a night of partying or if she had the flu or something distracting on her mind. She was putting her left-hand fingers in the correct place on the fingerboard, and moving her bow in the written patterns. But the sound was coming out weirdly diffuse, as if someone else were playing music in the next room, and not on a cello.

She examined her instrument again, although she couldn’t imagine any type of damage that could cause these sounds. There were no cracks that she could see. The sound post inside was upright. The bridge was flush with the top. Everything seemed fine, so she tried again. Her tone wobbled. The pitch shot up incredibly high, as if she were playing a violin. A couple of measures even sounded like the electronic wail of a Theramin in an old horror movie soundtrack.

“What the hell?” Maria repeated. She started to hurl her bow across the room in frustration, but remembered just in time that it was worth twenty-five grand and had just been re-haired. Instead, she buried her nose in the shoulder of her cello and moaned into it, making the wood vibrate, breathing in the calming scent of wood and rosin. “Why, why, why?”

Tears weren’t good for the varnish on her cello, so she quickly wiped off the wood with a kerchief she always had nearby. I should call Steve, she thought. But, no. It was time to pull herself together. Everything’s fine, she told herself. Just pre-concert jitters.

Maria packed up her cello and heated some soup for dinner. She listened to the radio while she ate, tuning to some kitchy pop music, as far from Beethoven and Dvorák as possible. By the time she’d eaten, showered, and dressed in her long black gown, Maria was feeling calm and confident. “Okay, Dvorák,” she said to the score as she zipped it into her shoulder bag, “let’s do this thing.”

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