In his Symphony No. 9, an extended shuffling off his mortal coil, Mahler dispels the commonly held notion that death arrives too soon. The first movement alone is over a half hour long. To be sure there are touchingly poignant moments of sublime beauty in the Ninth. And then there are other moments. Many of them. But I suppose it was the former that the audience clung to, because their response truly seemed heartfelt. The performance, performed by the Boston Symphony and conducted by Maestro Nelsons, was beautiful in all ways. What was particularly gratifying was that after the last note disappeared into the ether, there was a reflective silence for at least a minute before the applause started. As we took our bows, my colleague Jennie and I recounted other memorable BSO performances with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa. Jennie is a wholehearted Mahler lover. My preference for symphonic farewells, however, tends toward Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Patetique. To me it’s an equally compelling narrative and makes more sense as a piece of music, which, after all, it is.
Other powerful autobiographic good-byes to this world are Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss, which, amazingly enough, he composed more than a half century before he actually died! (Never a shrinking violet, Strauss on his deathbed said to his daughter-in-law: “It’s a funny thing, Alice, dying is just the way I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.“) My favorite, though, is the string quartet, From My Life, by Bedrich Smetana. Late in life, Smetana suffered from deafness, mental collapse, hallucinations, and depression. In the last movement, in the midst of jubilant music representing his lifelong dream of creating a national Czech music, a piercing high E, the very pitch Smetana heard in his own ear as the result of incurable syphilis, signals the sudden beginning of the end. That he was able to compose a masterpiece of incredible beauty which also describes his own mental and physical disintegration while it was happening is a supreme testament to the power of one’s will.
An orchestra for a Mahler symphony needs to be very large, and fortunately the BSO provides a formidable array of instrumental forces. Just think about this statistic: When I joined the BSO in 1975 there were already five other Jerrys alone! There was Gelbloom, Rosen, Lipson, Patterson, and Gauguin preceding me. Sadly, I am the only Jerry left still playing with the BSO, even on a part-time basis. Poignant? Perhaps I shall compose a symphony. (This is totally beside the point, but has anyone noticed no one born west of the Mississippi is named Jerry? There are some Jerrods and Jeremes, but I think they all come from Montana. So when I arrived in Boston a couple days ago and heard strangers call out the name Jerry I got whiplash turning around, only to find that there still are others out there like me.)
Where was I? Ah, yes. The BSO has 29 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, and 9 string basses. I think that adds up to 58, or more than half the orchestra. With such impressive numbers, it’s to be expected that from time to time there will be empty seats due to illness, unpaid leave, sabbatical leave, retirement, parental leave, or, with its large component of women musicians, an occasional pregnancy.
To fill in for missing musicians, the BSO hires substitute players, or as we call them in show biz: subs. They are typically local musicians whose caliber of playing holds their own with the full-time members. That means they are very good. The main difference is contractual. Full-time players have won a grueling audition to enter the orchestra, and as members of one of the world’s premier orchestras, are appropriately rewarded with a benefits package above and beyond salary that includes things like paid vacation, sick pay, pension, seniority, health care, and above all, tenure. (I know about these things because, though many of the younger BSO members might not be aware, I was chair of the BSO negotiating committee back in 1980. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but if anyone’s interested, check out that particular contract.) Subs are hired on an as-needed basis.
So after 13 years in the BSO, and 23 more as associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, I am now a sub when I play with the BSO. “Ich bin ein substitute!” As per BSO policy, the string subs, including yours truly, sit in the back of the section. If the lay person thinks that this is a sort of demotion, think again. The pressure’s not nearly as great as sitting under the conductor’s baton, we’re not involved in any of the orchestra politics, we can converse with impunity about the best ramen joints in Boston, and when the concert’s over, we’re the closest to the stage door. It’s all good.
Not too many people in the audience are aware of the existence of subs. Their names are typically not in the program book, which are printed long in advance of performances. But let me assure the reader, they are getting a good thing. Because there’s no guarantee of being hired (or rehired), subs always have to be on top of their game. They show up rain or shine, whether or not they’re feeling a hundred percent, or whether they’re playing a single program or an entire season, and are ready to go. I’m proud to be one of the current contingent of subs in the violin section. They’re first-rate musicians who complement my BSO colleagues literally without missing a beat.
Growing up in New York, we had a different name for subs. We called them heroes.
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