Summer arrived this week. The pollen-laden air is already dry, bringing some discomfort to the old man who is breathing laboriously like an asthma sufferer. He is swatting at humongous blowflies that instead of fearing the sight of a human being are relishing in disturbing his peace. They are buzzing with glee at what he is holding, a lilac biodegradable bag of smelly chicken bones and pork fat that he had spat out onto his dinner plate. It is only a short walk to the green bin behind his garage that the garbo will come to collect on Thursday but he is already wheezing from the effort. The sky is a lot higher up from earth, its cheery colour of light blue absent of any threat to the laundry hanging on the creaking Hills Hoist. It is also almost absent of clouds except for a smattering of light fluffy ones that are fighting a losing battle against the sun’s domineering rays. In a distant corner, the remnants of a cloud left a faint trail, waved goodbye and disappeared. The roses are in full bloom again replacing the ones decimated during the recent storm with even more vigour and colour. The fish in the pond next door are resting and not eating after a tumultuous week of uncontrolled sex. They are a spent force leaving a messy trail of wrecked water plants in their habitat and undeniable evidence of their mating prowess – trails of thick foamy sperm and clusters of fertilised eggs which they will devour once they recover from their orgy of spawning.
“What happened to spring?” the old man asked his Mrs as he rinsed his hands from the kitchen sink. It certainly felt like they went from the depressing grey and cold of winter straight into summer.
“We didn’t get spring,” the Mrs said.
“We have a right to many things these days, surely we have a right to spring!” he croaked in a hoarse squeaky voice.
The winter had been long and punishing on the old couple. Both had bragged to their neighbours from KL about ‘never being sick for over twenty years.’ The Chap and His Lady arrived a couple of months earlier to experience their first spring in Adelaide. The Chap, an avid golfer whose single digit handicap made him even more driven about the game, played (or practised) golf, rain or shine. The Lady loved the spring here – she thought the wintry weather was simply perfect. Any day without the scorching sun imprinting black spots on her pink skin was a wonderful day. She was the first to succumb to the coughing, a gift from their daughter and son-in-law, both oncologists, who had arrived from Toronto to attend their graduation ceremony. The Lady proved that wearing masks did not prevent the spread of germs. The old man had long suspected the mask mandate during Covid was simply a ruse to get the people to become obedient and learn to relinquish their right to movement as they saw fit, with or without a mask. His Mrs caught the same bug from The Lady and both sisters were soon coughing like wounded frogs. The old man, a long term user of Armaforce, held the misplaced confidence that the andrographis, olive leaf and echinacea mix would continue to protect him from bacterial infections, especially after learning that doctors in Victoria were being asked to prescribe Armaforce for post-Covid treatment. He would go on to be immune to their coughing fits for two weeks before he too began to splutter violently and lose his voice.
The lingering cold air and dampness did them no favours either. By the time he was close to finding his voice again, the Mrs caught a second round of the germs. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime for some reason. But, when night came, the coughing returned with a vengeance. In their bedroom, the couple sound like frogs and toads quarrelling all night. The pent-up mixture of air and yellowish phlegm from their bruised lungs only helped to make the vibrations of their vocal cords sound dissonant and coarse. Their neighbours would not be mistaken to think those were the sounds of frogs mating. All night they took turns to disturb each other’s sleep in their attempts to spit out stubborn phlegm from the depths of their throats. “Kawwww, Phooooi!” “Kaaaaaaa, Phooooi!”
The Lady was either riddled with guilt for being generous with her germs or born with extreme kindness. She was seen plying an assortment of traditional Chinese medicines and cough syrups to her next door neighbours. When those proved to be less effective than how she ‘marketed’ them like a professional chemist, she made regular home visits to check on her patients, each time bringing concoctions of ginger, honey, turmeric and pipa fruit (loquat). Into the third week, a sudden inspiration from her produced soups containing azuki beans, mung beans and barley. She insisted that they took her liquid concoction of chuan bei and nashi pear with honey “just before you go to bed.” The old man, a long term adherent of Intermittent Fasting, could not bring himself to break his discipline by consuming the tendrilleaf fritillary bulbs late at night. “All we need is a few days of warm spring weather,” the old man. “Where is spring?” he demanded.
Two months ago, the old man’s nieces finally persuaded him to join their local orchestra, the Burnside Symphony Orchestra. Both Stephanie and Corinne have been members for a few years already. They knew their uncle would love it. Formed in 1956, the orchestra is two years older than the old man. Back in those days, the orchestra, being one of the oldest amateur orchestras in the country, attracted a lot of support. Its concerts were regularly reviewed by critics who wrote for the South Australian newspapers. https://bso.org.au/
All three of them had commissioned their instruments from the same luthier in Florence, Paolo Vettori. The sound from a Paolo Vettori instrument is sensational and the fine craftsmanship shows the maker in his prime. To produce the geometry and symmetry of such beautiful scrolls and C-bouts, the spontaneity and flare can only come from a hand that has a masterful control to cut and shape with such finesse and boldness.
The old man had agreed to join his nieces earlier in the year but Covid had provided him with a good excuse to delay fronting up for rehearsals. When they prodded him again to give it a go, he said he would, “but let me see what’s in the programme.” He did not elaborate and they did not ask why that was relevant. If they are playing The Rite of Spring, then I am not joining. When his nieces left, I asked him, “So, what have you got against The Rite of Spring? I know it’s awful music to listen to – must be awful to play it too,” I said, showing off I have heard of Igor Stravinsky’s music.
“It’s not awful music!” he replied loudly, almost choking himself with his thick sputum. “It is just too difficult to play,” he said. “Too fast, too many rhythm changes and too many notes!” he added.
“Not awful?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. I had tried to listen to it many times, in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But, Stravinsky was “too modern” for me. Heavy metal music sounds tame by comparison! Manic, head-banging, dissonant and weird. “No beautiful melody,” I said, revealing my bias for classical and romantic music by the great composers, Beethoven and Rachmaninov. “It’s awful music,” I repeated. “It’s no surprise the audience in Paris rioted on the night of the premiere in 1913.”
That an audience attending a classical music concert could riot in the streets showed how bad the music was. It was actually a ballet, but no difference. Generally, audiences who know how to appreciate the fine arts think of themselves as intellectuals, highbrow and knowledgeable in high culture. It had to be the music that turned them into raging lunatics. For such “elite” people to be so outraged by the avant-garde score and Nijinky’s choreography that they turned violent in the streets and protested by throwing tomatoes at the composer, their primal emotions had to be stoked by a madman. Stravinsky broke every rule about what music should be. His music was atonal, coarse, harsh and raw. Even scary.
The old man vehemently disagreed. “In The Adoration of the Earth, when the cellos and double basses come on, the sounds conjure up Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. Amazing! They all copied him!” he said. “Terrifying music that was used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia to signal the arrival of a menacing T-Rex was actually music from Glorification of the Chosen One in Part 2 of the ballet,” he added. “In Evocation of the Ancestors, you could hear the passages of the music in John Williams’ Dune Sea of Tatooine in Star Wars. It would not be wrong to say that every Hollywood composer was, in one way or another, inspired by Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring,” the old man said, whilst giving me the look that I did not know what I was talking about.
The old man had harboured a dream that one day he would join an orchestra and relive the joy he felt when playing classical music with a group of friends during his formative years in his hometown, Penang. “The last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said to Athalie who sat next to him on his first night with the BSO. Athalie Scholefield, a tutti second violin in the orchestra for some 50 years, was very welcoming and encouraging. Long retired and free to enjoy her passion for music, the old lady with short straw-like hair and a wrinkled face looked young compared to her violin. It looks ancient and in bad nick, the old man thought to himself as he inspected her instrument. Always wearing a sweet smile, the diminutive woman who is often invisible behind her music stand said, “You’ll be alright, luv.”
Who raises himself on tiptoe, stands not firm
Who strains his stride, walks not far.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The old man reminded himself not to be unfair to himself. After all, he had no expectations to play in an orchestra so soon. His dream was to play the popular adagios and romantic melodies that he loved. Easy listening music that is at the same time easy to play. But, he would apply himself to the challenge of being a worthy tutti player. Inspired by his own children, he welcomed the opportunity to work hard so that he could make good music from his violin.
“It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect,” he said. “I clocked in the hours, averaging two hours daily,” he told Stephanie.
“I always say practice makes progress!” she replied.
In total, there were nine rehearsals before concert night on 30 November. The old man missed one rehearsal due to a birthday party he did not wish to miss. The first night was a disaster – he knew the music well but he could hardly play the notes. So, like any tutti player in an orchestra, if you can’t play it, just pretend you can. His fingers moved with agility, his bow cut the air like a knife cutting a birthday cake, up and down, swiftly or slowly, as willed by the conductor, but all the time, he was squeaking like a poor church mouse barely audible even to himself. The final rehearsal was also a disaster. During the day, he had been able to suppress his cough but when night came, he became tired and agitated. He miscounted in the Vaughan Williams, unable to rejoin the orchestra for a full page. He was heard spluttering loudly behind his mask, his body visibly shaking with every violent cough as the night wore on. The next morning, he said to his Mrs, “I don’t know if I should attend the concert tonight. I don’t feel I’m ready.”
“You’ll be right,” she said. “Just fake it if you’re lost,” she said, matter-of-factly, with no emotion.
Suddenly, he remembered Athalie’s words to him on the first night. You’ll be alright, luv.
The concert was a sell-out. Everyone played to their best ability. The Mrs and The Lady were there to lend their support. Both were quite chuffed after the concert. “Not bad at all,” both chirped in unison. Reminding the sisters that they were all amateur players, the old man said pleasingly, “We were fantastic!” Suddenly, his cough had disappeared. Although wearing the now familiar light blue medical-grade disposable mask, he was hard to miss. His straight shoulder-length hair reminded me of the famous violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, whom I heard live in Prague. His nieces were glowing with excitement also as they congratulated him for taking part in the concert. “See, we said it would be fun, right?!” one of them screamed with delight. “Actually, Philip Paine was fantastic,” he said to his Mrs. The conductor of BSO was superb in holding the orchestra together. A horn player in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, his professionalism and strong leadership shown through the night.
The old man was still pumped up and a high dose of adrenalin was still rushing through his veins even after he had helped move the chairs and music stands from the stage.
“I am really pleased with my playing,” he said, beaming a huge smile behind his mask.
“Told you you’d be alright,” the Mrs said.
“Now, I can no longer say the last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said with a chuckle.