Perhaps our instruments didn't quite agree. Our swift move from the ultra-air-conditioned office space/musicians' green room into the still tangible outdoor humidity was promptly followed by a thud from Mai's viola: a broken string! "Better now than on stage," I said to Liz and Maria while Mai ran back inside to change her string.
While my true head-banging days belong to the past – the videos with the long hair are revived from the archive coffin for my cello band's reunions only – there still runs a little bit of heavy metal through my veins. On occasion, my warm-up may include the guitar solos from Metallica's Creeping Death or Enter Sandman, executed with a dependability of muscle memory that belies the fact that our last performance of these songs occurred over a decade ago. Our heroes were the Finnish cello-band Apocalyptica. I must say I've been disappointed with their work since they went commercial, moving from good original songs with a raw live cello sound to collaborations with mediocre pop singers and a distorted sound world just as easily created by electric guitars (if you'd like to discuss further, please be in touch!). But there are two things you can never take away from these guys: they are top-notch (classically trained) cellists, and they know how to put on a good live show. Following them around to indie-festivals in Southern Germany during their Early Period, I saw them pounce around on stage, playing their duct-taped cellos while standing on top of skull-shaped chairs in tight leather pants, and once even with a broken index finger of the bow hand. My strongest memory however, is of lead-cellist Eicca breaking his string. No: of Eicca replacing his string. It only took him about 20 (twenty) seconds, while the rest of the band played on. Now that is true artistry!
Lasoń's “Of Tarnowskie Góry” is first on the program, a beautiful way to warm up and enjoy the masterful amplification resonating through the atmosphere of the garden. Next is Elinor Armer's String Quartet 2011, a journey based on circularity of human experience. The middle portion of the work gives each of us a moment to shine: during Maria's extensive introspective solo I gaze up and around, figuratively pinching myself: Is this real? I'm making music in a wondrous garden in the middle of New York City, surrounded by skyscrapers! Mai's next, taking over in increasingly mischievous fashion, and I start to think about what is about to follow: the cello solo, marked irregular and lurking, an outburst of impatience and increasing insanity. Bartok-pizz followed by a string of frenzied glissandi, non-vibrato sforzandi and oscillating augmented octaves. And now, approaching the climax, triple-stop pizzicati glissandi, higher and higher, up into the stratosphere and finally: sffz col legno battuto tremolo...
CRACK! My A-string snaps right at the bridge, where I just heavy-handedly assaulted it, just like back in the good old head-banging days. In a brief moment of consternation I wipe the broken string out of my face as it frees itself from the bondage of the cello. Just keep going! Just a few more measures, a few more gestures to complete this solo! I start the ensuing, quasi-improvisatory descent on the D string – the highest one left – and internally thank Elinor profusely for composing the end of the solo on the bottom two strings. I can't stop now! I play the next few tutti interjections, perhaps slightly out of tune, up high on the D string. As Liz begins her glistening solo, a daydream of Cello-Superhero-dom flashes in front of my eyes. Man of Steel Strings!!! If I were Eicca, I could replace my A string on the spot in 20 seconds flat. I would still have seven or eight seconds to tune before Liz's solo was over. I would come in with my next pizzicato as though nothing had ever happened.
Instead, I'm sprinting through MoMA's hallways with my three-stringed cello, when a moment of panic overcomes me: Did I bring any spare strings?! If I didn't, the concert is over! I can't finish the Armer, and Mr. Annunziata came all the way from Rome in vein! Fortunately, the panic is thoroughly unfounded: the night before, I very consciously put my rosin in my string bag, my string bag in my backpack, and my backpack is here. I work as quickly as I can, but the peg won't nudge. The used spare string won't untangle. The end of the string won't stay in the peg. As I sprint back up the steps and on stage, I am greeted by a special round of applause and three beautiful and beautifully soothing smiles. I am told later that Dr. Sachs elegantly bridged the gap: "There goes string 2 of 16 - let's see what happens next!"
The rest of the show unfolds without further incidents, though I should mention Maria's elegant way of holding down fluttering pages of music with the end of her scroll while playing harmonics. Mr. Annunziata appreciates it, as we manage to perform his beautiful, varied and passionate quartet without any unpremeditated interruptions. When all is said and done, we have pulled off an exhilarating, gratifying and well-received concert, with happy performers and composers all around. For me, two simple yet crucial lessons (re-)learned, but fortunately not the really hard way:
1. Always have (at least) an extra set of strings with you at all times.
2. Practice changing your strings.
Many thanks to Liz, Maria and Mai for the intensive three-week rehearsal process and an inspired performance, and to Elinor Armer and Alessandro Annunziata for coming to NYC and helping us with their wonderful string quartets!