Listening, I Hear Differently

Prelude, Act 3, Lohengrin

September 1975

I was a freshman music student at a small teacher’s college in the panhandle of Texas.  I had spent my time in high school immersed in the humanities and the performing arts, but the small farming community of Vernon, Texas had little to offer in the way of culture.  I had not merely, “gone off to college.”  No, I had “expressed mailed” myself to a land of ideas, thoughts and experiences bigger than the world I had grown-up in.

     No surprise then to find myself at my first, live symphony orchestra concert with the Amarillo Symphony.  A decent orchestra, the Amarillo Symphony employed most of the faculty members from the university where I attended school, and was the only cultural icon for hundreds of miles.  The $5.00 ticket was easy to come by, but finding someone to go with me was not.  As it turned out, none of my music school chums wanted to go.  Their reluctance was mysterious to me, but I went ahead with plans to attend.

     The Amarillo Convention Center had a large performing arts hall. I remember being awed as I entered the lobby for the first time.  In those days, attending the symphony was a formal event. Many of the men wore tuxedos, and the women had fancy party dresses with furs and jewelry.  The lobby bars made the conversation lively, and the droll of noise was hypnotic.  As I entered the hall, I recall the experience as if it happened only a moment ago: One large, rectangular box with red-carpeted aisles paved the way to the stage.  The running lights looked like small runways where Lilliputian aircraft could soon take flight.  Though no aircraft flew or landed that night, there were to be soaring ideas birthed and a new vision of the world would be launched.

     The orchestra entered the hall.  I was struck by the beauty of the black and white tuxes against the polished wood of the string section.  The conductor entered, and the perfunctory Star Spangled Banner began.  The audience rose to their feet and began to sing. Though a patriotic overture to ritual, the musical effect was more muddled, and left me a bit disappointed with such a lack-luster opening for the evening.  West Texas-drawl did little to enhance the musical ambiance, and I was beginning to think my friends understood something about this I was only now learning.

     I didn’t know the literature programmed for the evening.  The only composers I knew were the ones who wrote the music my high school band and choir had performed, and I assure you, Richard Wagner was not on the list!  “Prelude to Act 3, Lohengrin,” sounded pretentious and boring. I didn’t even realize it was from an opera!  At this point, my life was pretty small. I had big ideas, and felt inner stirrings that had been coached into life by the English Department of Vernon High School, but these were inner, private stirrings I had not yet fully discovered, much less exposed.  Pat Miller and Lois Jo Selman had  sculpted us into writers with meticulous style, creativity, and form.  As a result, ideas were no stranger to me, but they had come mostly in the form of the written word:  essay, novel, or poem.  Imagine my surprise and delight as the opening strains to this monumental work began.  A flourish of brass, winds, and strings combined to mark the beginning of the concert. I was shocked.  What was only a moment ago a social event for wealthy people had transformed itself into an Idea.

The conductor was smart, precise, and eloquent. His arms lifted and we were transported; they fell, and the orchestra responded with the gentle thunder only Wagner could bring to mankind.  By the second phrase, I noticed my heart racing, and my face flushed. My palms were sweating:  my mind a blur.  Overcome with emotion, feeling, and the rush one gets when in the presence of a powerful lover, tears gently rained from my eyes .  At this moment, they were the only part of me capable of expression; the totality of my being now locked in a spiritually-choreographed ballet of Wonder.

It took another two phrases for me to realize that I was weeping. Not from sadness, but pure joy.  As Wagner hammered my reason and intellect, the molecular structure of my artistic voice was reshaped by this joy now planted into my soul.  I remember the feeling of being separated into many beings. Floating, swimming, creating…these entities channelled me into a world I had anticipated, but until now, had never experienced.  By the time the oboe solo came, I realized I had been standing for quite sometime.  Completely absorbed in the passion and fire of the moment, I had stood: trying to get closer to the orchestra, I guess.  Alone…standing…among the myriad patrons of a sold-out gala, there was no thought for concert etiquette or ritual. I was in pure ecstasy.  The moment became a lifetime, even as my future was condensed into the black hole of this singular event.

     The remainder of the three-minute piece I remember as a single recollection.  There was no time, no cadence, just an experience of floating on sound.  The orchestra neared the end of the piece as thundering percussion hit me in the gut of my soul.  It was as if Wagner wrote the piece for this moment, for me, for my pleasure and inspiration.  Transfixed, this last explosion of sound brought me back into consciousness while the entire audience joined me in a standing ovation.  Four stage calls, and a solo bow for the oboist brought the applause to an end, and the audience to their seats;  but a door had been opened for me to a world of beauty, passion, creativity, and delight.  On that September night, among the panhandle-prairie grasses of Texas, I stepped through the looking-glass of that door and down the rabbit-hole to countless adventures, ideas, experiences, and emotions strung together in the tapestry that is my life.  Still weaving….

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