Yesterday, after an overwhelmingly busy work week and conducting a Havdalah / Rosh Hodesh book event and writing workshop for a group from Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom, I decided to treat myself to a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at Walt Disney Hall. The program featured the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, performed by the Finnish pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, and selections from Wagner's Ring Cycle. I knew that the concert, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, would be nearly sold out, but since I needed only one seat, I thought I'd try my luck. The most I could lose was a few gallons of gas (not a small consideration in Los Angeles these days, however) and the price of parking.
I was also motivated by the fact that Fanny Neuda might very well have heard both of these pieces of music performed live in Vienna. Knowing that Fanny's daughter-in-law, Rosa Neuda-Bernstein, studied piano with Brahms has made me listen to his music—which I've always loved—with even greater attention and enjoyment.
I arrived only 15 minutes before curtain. A thin, intense woman immediately approached me, surreptitiously hawking a ticket. We agreed on a price, but she kept jacking up the price the longer we spoke, so after a few minutes of this, I walked away and decided to try the box office instead. The best-price seat was $96, a bit too high for my budget.
As I left the box office feeling dejected, a gentle and dignified woman who had been standing there for a while caught my eye. She appeared to be waiting for someone but must have seen the disappointment on my face and asked me if I was looking for a single seat. I told her I was, and she promptly offered me one of the tickets she was holding. When I asked her how much it was, she said, "Oh, it's free. My husband couldn't make it, and I was just looking for someone who might need one." I glanced at the ticket and read the price: $142—more than I've ever spent on a single concert ticket in my entire life! I immediately reached out and gave her a giant hug, thanking her for her generosity and offering her whatever gifts I could think of in return, including a complimentary copy of my book. She seemed pleased just to be able to offer the ticket to someone who appreciated it.
My impromptu benefactor, Margaret, and I sat together in the third row, just steps from the stage, and began an animated conversation about classical music and European travel. She even gave me specific tips on my forthcoming trip to Vienna, where I plan to do further research on Fanny Neuda's life there.
The hall grew quiet as the concert was about to begin. Because we were opposite the keyboard side, I had the unusual experience of being within the line of sight of the pianist, which was such an intimate experience, I often needed to look away. He played the Brahms concerto with such a depth of understanding, precision, and contained emotion, it may have been the most moving experience I've ever had at a concert. This feeling was made even more profound by the exquisite cello solo in the third movement, which literally brought me to tears.
Sitting there, feeling so enormously blessed and moved, I felt convinced that life—a real, authentic, lived life—was essentially a delicate balance between joy and sorrow, that both were essential, and that to make art from this place had to be the highest form of human expression. I also decided once and for all that I needed to spend less time on promotion and more time writing poems. When I come to the end of my life, I will certainly never regret not doing more speaking engagements, but I certainly might regret not writing more.
As Margaret and I parted company, I felt grateful on so many levels—for the generosity of this stranger, for Brahms' musical genius, and for the insights that had come from being in a place to receive them both.
I returned home that afternoon to an e-mail message from Ludek Stipl, director of the Respect and Tolerance foundation in the Czech Republic, giving me the contact information for Celia Male, the genealogical researcher who had found the place in Vienna where Fanny Neuda once lived. I had hoped that Celia and I might meet when I travel to Vienna in September. I wrote to Celia immediately and decided to share with her the information I had gathered about Fanny's descendants, including the interesting fact that Fanny's daughter-in-law had studied piano with Brahms (see my post 003: Einstein and Relative-ity). Celia responded by telling me that her own grandmother actually sang to Brahms on his deathbed. "I have quite a few Brahms song manuscripts with blue markings," she writes, "which experts tell me was his pencil."
Our mystical tradition teaches that the divine force operates within and through us to continually create and repair the world. If this is true, then connections of this sort are taking place everywhere and at all moments. Most of the time, we're hardly aware of these threads, but sometimes—just sometimes—they penetrate our very beings like a concerto by Brahms.