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The Firebird, but of course. Who else could she be? In real life Maria Mosina. Photo via the Colorado Ballet.

Today’s story came out of the blue because about a week ago I stumbled across The Firebird, a narrative by Mariah Mottley in the Tompkins Weekly. (Let me call it “TW” and be done with it.) TW is an obscure little paper in Tompkins County, itself home to Ithaca and Cornell University. My guess: the TW-Cornell connection ends there.

And The Firebird? it’s the score for a ballet: a circa-1910, turn-of-the-last-century sort of thing. Though nearly three years have gone by, a French horn solo flits in and out of mind (my mind) now and then. Three years since… what? This backgrounder might help, posted in September 2016 and six months to the day after my cousin John died in far-off Sao Paulo, Brazil. (marywoodsen.com/2016/09/07/the-day-before-the-day-of/) Page over there for a moment and you’ll know why my emphasis on The Firebird and the horn. Also why, when the local ballet company staged The Firebird (don’t recall just when), I had to go.

But back to Mottley’s story. It was (a:) damn good and (b:) apropos. I was trying to explain the apropos part to my guy the other day. That “trying to” part? Has to do with tears; with the trouble they cause when you’re trying to talk. The horn solo I’d heard was oh, maybe a half-minute long. But I can call it up at a moment’s notice. Each time I remember it; each time I bring to mind the circumstances I heard it in, it’s as if it was yesterday. And each time I weep.

Now for the ballet. I bought my tix and found a seat in Ithaca’s State Theater near the front. Yes, Ithaca has a chamber orchestra and it’s not half-bad, but it lacks some of the requisite instruments for a show like this. So it was a recording that accompanied the ballet. I’d never seen The Firebird; barely recall The Firefly Suite in my family’s collection of old 78 rpm vinyl records five-plus decades gone by. But music runs in my DNA. And I’d listened any number of times between early March and my story in September, followed by that night in the State Theater, to that one lone horn with a new story to tell. (So easy to find these things online. Just go to Stravinsky’s Firebird, Finale Horn Solo – YouTube; if you want a longer version, you can find it online too.)

Like I said. I cried every time. Funny thing is—we weren’t a close family. Didn’t do much in the way of family time—I mean, I grew up all of two country miles from my cousins and danged if I can recall a single Thanksgiving or Christmas together. Doesn’t mean it never happened (our minds, our memories; who knows the delicate point where truth ends and embroidery begins?) but … still. It was only during the last couple of years of John’s life that he and his wife Nanci began bringing chunks of this North American branch of their extended family together, a case where (a:) a key person who drove a wedge in this family had croaked and (b:) she wouldn’t have used email anyway. (So maybe I’ve extrapolated the wrong material in (a:) and (b:); still, I think I’m on the right track.)

Back to business. I’m at the State Theater. The ballet is nearly over. We’ve gotten to the part where Prince Ivan has seduced (my interpretation) the Firebird; the Firebird frees Ivan from the curse of an evil ogre who turns intruders to stone. I’ll provide no more detail than that; look it up yourself. As for the horn? The curtain (translucent) drops. Yet you can still make out the dancers, frozen as if in time. (The ogre, it would seem, still rules the roost.) True, the violins are shimmering lightly; it’s not like the piece is done for. For the audience, though, it might as well be. Because what do you do when a curtain drops? You begin to clap—especially if you’ve no conductor to take your cues from. So they clapped—hesitantly at first, then with conviction. I’m not clapping. I’m listening. I know this part. 

I’m listening. Listening for the horn.

Then collectively the audience begins to realize: something is going on here. The applause came too soon. They are silent now. Listening. The strings—still shimmering, still softer than velvet. (I’d bet dollars to donuts that someone on staff, anticipating this moment, had paused the music; brought the velvety violins back at exactly the right time.) Another heartbeat and at last—that one lone horn with a new story to tell.

And for me, each note a dying man’s heartbeat.

So of course I’m crying, though no one notices because by now the harps, keyboard and strings; the woodwinds, brass and timpani; they’ve all piled in. Really, the main reason I bring this up now is because like I said, I was trying to explain it just last week and choked up. Nearly three years gone by and I still can’t keep the tears out of my voice.