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(Apologies for the rather tinny and reedy audio. Entirely my fault. It was a spontaneous reaction, emotion not a bit recollected in tranquility [h/t William Wordsworth]. I used the voice recorder of my iPhone, and I was w-a-a-y in the back of the audience. I just wanted you to hear my neighbors and friends, children and grown-ups all.)
In the interests of accuracy, I should probably refine the title of this post along the lines of “Hallelujah! Our Long, Dark Winter, Fall, Summer, Spring, Winter, Fall, Summer, Spring, Winter Night Is Over!” Nine seasons (I’m whatever-is-the-opposite-of-grandfathering-in winter 2021, because it sure feels as if it’s here already) and 630 days since the announcement of “15 days to slow the spread” on March 16, 2020. Forty-two iterations of those “15 days.” And here we still are, with a president and the majority of our elected officials and (it appears) all of the mainstream media to all intents and purposes cowering before the newest (inevitable) variant and doing their best to crank up our fear factor to DEFCON 1 over what sounds a lot like the common cold. (Can you even imagine the pan-demic-o-monium that would ensue if they tracked every case of the common cold [also caused by a virus, BTW] and quarantined and locked down every person who’d come into contact with anyone who had one? Somehow, right now, that doesn’t seem like an impossible scenario, and perhaps it is one that is becoming less improbable by the day … )
In short, as Auntie Pat said of the continuation of war-footing privations and rationing in the U.K. following World War II, after “We’d already won,” those people I mentioned seem to be cheering on our “miserable slog.”
I think the main difference between COVID and World War II in this respect is that with COVID, and as our putative leaders would have us believe, there is no winning. They would like our lives to be a miserable slog from now until forever. See: “Oregon Set to Enforce Permanent Mask Mandate for Indoor Public Spaces.” Now, before you get your knickers in a knot, get your mind right (if you can manage to do such a thing in such a contortionist position) and adjust your expectations to understand that the word “permanent” really means “indefinite.” Because the geniuses in Salem — Oregon, not Massachusetts, TBC — can lift the spell anytime they like and repeal the law. So, it’ll be just like all those other permanent — umm, indefinite — umm, temporary laws that get enacted and then repealed all the time, right?
This past weekend, the people of Washington County, Pennsylvania, home of the Washington Symphony Orchestra, declared the “Dark Night of the COVID Soul” (h/t St. John of the Cross) officially over.
Now, no one is clearer than I that the WSO isn’t the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, or even the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In the pantheon of unlikelihood, it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preaching and dogs walking on their hind legs.
Except that it is done pretty well. It really is the little orchestra that could. Founded 20 seasons ago by a guy who thought this rural county, just southwest of Pittsburgh, should have its own orchestra — and who talked to his friends, put out some press releases, and built a small website to spread the word — it has grown to an ensemble of almost 70 (mostly volunteer) dedicated musicians offering a reasonably priced, family-oriented (children under 12 are free to attend, as are all music students) four-concert performance season year in and year out. It enjoys tremendous community and local business support. And, under the direction of its general manager and music director — both of whom I’ve concluded are geniuses in their field — it’s not only managed to stay afloat, it’s managed to prosper.
That is, until COVID. For over a year, the WSO increased its digital presence, reprised its greatest hits on its website, and — finally — as we began to emerge from our cocoons, offered a couple of open-air performances in the summer and fall.
This past weekend, the symphony performed its first indoor full concert for the public since March 2020. It was a leap of faith for those of us on the board (I was a board member for years, went on hiatus, and — as often happens with this very community-focused organization — have been invited back). We didn’t know if an audience would show up. We didn’t know if the venue — a new one — would work. We didn’t know if the weather would cooperate (that, uniquely, is a decades-long ongoing worry for the winter concerts and nothing to do with COVID). We didn’t know if we could sign up guest performers. We didn’t know if all the orchestra members (many of whom are not what you might call “spring chickens,” in line with the general demographics of the county) would be fully on board.
We didn’t know if we’d lose our shirts.
As it turned out, we needn’t have worried about any of that. We took some rational precautions. We moved the concert to the county fairgrounds. (Did I mention we’re not the Vienna Philharmonic?) One of the things I like about this group is that we would even contemplate performing in what is, when all’s said and done, an agricultural arena. The acoustics are surprisingly good, there are acres of room, and there’s movable seating and what seems like unlimited parking.
Except that the Saturday night performance ran out of parking space.
And we decided that rather than offer trays of cookies and treats for people to choose from at intermission, and lemonade and punch, which would usually be dispersed into cups by smiling board members and volunteers, we’d offer cookies and treats in prepackaged snack bags and small bottles of water. Both of those things went over quite well too.
Hundreds — and hundreds — of people of all ages showed up for both the Saturday night and the Sunday afternoon performance. Almost none of us were masked. We didn’t bother the people who were, and they didn’t bother us. We co-mingled in the seating, side by side. Most of us didn’t seem concerned about “distancing,” although I noticed several people who moved their seats a little further away from the rest of us and formed their own bubbles. A few of them are my friends, and I know their serious health issues and concerns. That’s fine. They came. And they enjoyed themselves. It was nice to see them out and about.
The symphony has, over the years, developed a formula that works well for this community, offering an eclectic blend of music that is neither too highbrow nor too lowbrow for its audience. The Christmas concert (which was put together in about a month), once it began to look as if such an event would be possible at all, is no exception. And so we had a pleasant blend of classical, pops, and jazz, and the religious and the secular. Some Leroy Anderson. A very enjoyable “faceoff” between the WSO and the Washington Jazz Orchestra (yes, there’s one of those too!) playing selections from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and Duke Ellington’s jazz “The Nutcracker Suite.” Some Trans-Siberian Orchestra arrangements featuring graduates of a local university who now play professionally and who are good and loud, excelling in both areas. Gustav Holst’s arrangement of traditional carols, “Christmas Day.” A carol singalong in which people actually sang, led by a choir made up from local high schools, middle schools, and parishes.
And we ended (hallelujah!) with the chorus from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.” For me, it brought some closure for every missed Easter, every missed Christmas, every lonely death and forbidden funeral, every frowned upon or locked down birthday, anniversary, or wedding, every proscribed bit of contact with friends I hadn’t seen for almost two years. The couple whose house actually did — unlike my own — fall in the coal mine when it came underneath and who had to move, and I didn’t even know. The pairs (more than one) who got married, and I didn’t even know. The woman who got divorced, and I didn’t even know. The people who missed Mr. She, asked where he was, and didn’t even know that he’d died. The children who each seem to have grown about a foot since March of last year.
All the smiling faces.
And some of the missing businesses, supporters of the symphony for years. I’m guessing that they’re struggling a bit right now, trying to keep their companies, their families, and their employees together and whole. Taking care of their priorities as they should. Gosh, I hope they come back, as businesses, pillars of the community, and supporters of the orchestra.
I noticed that — by the end of the concert — I was not the only one shedding a tear for everyone, and everything, that has been lost over the past 20 months.
Welcome back the light, Washington County. Thanks for reminding me that I don’t need to mask up, quarantine, test, and otherwise inconvenience myself just so I can enjoy some good music and fellowship with my friends. I don’t need to fume with frustration about being “stuck” at home. I don’t need to run off to New York, Europe, or any other magical faraway place — at the same time as I worry if I’ll ever be able to come home — to find myself centered and whole again.
Hang tough folks, and perhaps that same light will shine everywhere soon. I hope so.
Season’s greetings, and happy end-of-year festivities to my dear Ricochetti, wherever and whoever you are, and however you celebrate. I love you all. Merry Christmas!Published in