In my upstairs hallway, underneath a skylight, a large frame hangs on the wall next to our bedroom door. It’s one of those display pieces you’ll find in a framing shop, demonstrating what they’re capable of: the multiple rectangular cutouts in the matting contain photos, a theater ticket, several playbill clippings and even a pink baby onesie.
It’s a shrine to one of the greatest moments in my life.
Six weeks shy of her birth day, Natalie protrudes from my midsection like a beach ball in one of the photos. It was snapped on an old cell phone, illegally smuggled onto the stage at Carnegie Hall. There are dozens, hundreds of us on stage, but in this shot, the only ones of us in focus are Natalie, in utero, and me, beaming brighter than the house lights. We were about to make our Carnegie Hall debut, together with the rest of the onstage army, sharing blood and adrenaline and oxygen and joy with a sold out house as we performed Mahler’s Second (and, the following day, his Eighth) Symphony.
(The pink onesie in the frame reads “Got Mahler?” and bears the autographs of everyone who led us that week: our beloved Norman Scribner, august chormeister Simon Halsey, and maestro Valery Gergiev, who famously conducted us all with a toothpick. The ticket was &’s. The playbills spell my name correctly.)
There’s nothing like good Mahler done right, all in, full tilt. The Second will always be my favorite; my aforementioned greatest moment consisted of Natalie and me nailing the B-flat, together, at the crescendo of the Resurrection chorus. But the Eighth has been much on my mind in recent weeks as we mustered a fresh army to perform it, in Philadelphia, in a four-concert series celebrating the centennial of the piece’s North American premiere. Singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, commonly acknowledged as one of the best in the world, is a rare treat. Singing Mahler 8 with the orchestra that introduced the piece to this country, exactly one hundred years ago this week, in the city (and next door to the historic venue) where it happened? That is the stuff of legend.
As a purely musical matter, we’ve improved since 2010. The Mariinsky was no slouch, but the Philadelphia Orchestra commits to this piece to a degree that you won’t often see in life. This is how you make art. You go all in. Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin gets this, and gives the audience, the performers, and the piece everything he’s got. The Philadelphia Orchestra has graduated from its 1916 venue, the still-extant Academy of Music, to a sparkling new concert hall a block away, and these performances have been blowing the doors off the place. Good Mahler done right overwhelms. And it has.
But for me, something is missing this time. Not musically — God, not musically. We are owning this and it is glorious and I’m so fortunate to be part of something unique that is happening now, for the only time, and never will again.
But this time, in the middle of the onstage army, surrounded by hundreds caught up in the Symphony of a Thousand, I’m singing alone.
From Philadelphia I connect with Natalie, and now Genevieve with her, once a day or so on Facetime. They’re home, with their daddy, going to school and having playdates and modeling their clothing choices and showing me how they’ve cleaned their breakfast plates. & is solo-parenting all this week. I’m staying in a hotel, subdued by the constraints of Lent, eating little and drinking nothing stronger than tea, working to stay focused and keep that pencil just as sharp as I can. It’s huge, to do a gig like this. It’s wonderful, and magical, and I would not trade it; yet there’s no one here inside me to stream the experience in real time. My body is now untenanted, vacant of any souls save my own. My daughters — freestanding souls now — and I must settle for a download, for asynchrony, a thing stored up and saved before it can be shared.
There is tremendous joy to be found in Great Moments, in snapshots and freeze-frames, which will always be salient peaks in the landscape of memory. But a different, perhaps greater joy persists in the flow state — the rivers in the landscape — where you are pure purpose, one with your work, and living in the moment, which ceases to be a measure of time passing. Flow is the elusive source of all-nighters, revelations out of time. It is essential to making art. It’s what we sing about in Mahler 8. Fons vivus, ignis, caritas. And it’s what I shared with Natalie, the last time we performed Mahler 8, together.
The symphony finishes on a different theme: not flow, but das Ewigweibliche, the eternal feminine. A singer brings every previous performance of a work along to a concert, every time the work is performed afresh: and this is my missing piece. Last Mahler 8, my daughter and I stood together, concentric, in the heart of the goddess. This time, I’m . . . what? Disjunct, attenuated, an absent workaholic mom? True, I’m on stage, not at the office. But to the five-year-old smooching my pixellated face on the iPad, is there much difference?
Natalie — Genevieve — I sing for you. Flesh no longer connects us, but blood still does, and the silver thread that spans the ether between my heart and yours. Das Ewigweibliche does not end when a woman gives birth. Mommy is still here and I will still take you along with me to the flow state whenever I can. Hang on tight. You’ll see. And maybe some day you’ll feel something like déjà vu when you discover it for yourself.