A War Story

Fortunately, I’ve never been in a “real” war. I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, especially during my time at Juilliard interacting with various musicians and teachers who’d really been through it, some barely escaping and somehow not only surviving, but flourishing as artists in the aftermath of some horror. Now here we are. I keep hearing we’re in a “war”, and of course we are in a certain way. Who could’ve imagined a month ago how different our lives would be today (and in the foreseeable future)? Quarantines, food deliveries (if you’re lucky), online concerts (or events) all of it so disorienting and confusing. And yet we still try to be creative, stay healthy, practice our craft (hopefully) and do all those things we can to keep going.

Yesterday I remembered an experience from long ago that always stuck with me. In 1991, the Royal Ballet had a run at the Metropolitan Opera, in June or July I think. The orchestra was local, but made up of some of the finest musicians in New York City, in retrospect probably one of the best orchestras I’ve ever played with. The repertory included Swan Lake (complete, even with those violin solos you never hear). The conductor was the legendary John (Jack) Lanchbery.  A few weeks before, I was called to play Concertmaster; I was incredibly green and always suspected someone must’ve backed out. But there I was, rehearsing at the Met surrounded by these fantastic musicians, most of whom had played Swan Lake numerous times. I hadn’t, but knew most of the solos pretty well at least. Most of them….

If memory serves, we were in the middle of the second or third orchestra rehearsal and we got to a certain point in the score about 75 minutes in, coming up to a break. I sensed (and saw) Mr. Lanchbery get incredibly emotional as he was conducting, and suddenly he put his baton down and there was a very awkward, lengthy silence as he stared at the score. Finally, he looked up and (with his impeccable English) said something along the lines of:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you all sound fabulous and I apologize for stopping during one of the most beautiful sections of this great ballet. But to this day I always struggle at this point in the score, even in performance. You see, I was in school studying Swan Lake early in the war and I’d recently met a wonderful young woman who was obsessed with this part of the story and music. We’d seen each other a few times and agreed to meet on a certain morning. When I arrived a few days later I found her building to have been flattened by an air raid during the night; she hadn’t made it out. I’m not sure I ever got over that”.

A very long pause. It was 50 years later. He was visibly shaken, you could hear a pin drop, and we took a break. I sat in my chair for awhile, hoping I’d never have to go through anything like that.

I have a house and essentials at the moment and I consider myself incredibly fortunate. But we’re all in a war now, very much a different kind; our lives will be changed forever and perhaps some will never really “get past it”, whatever that means. We’re all going to lose people (or have already), suffer hardships we can’t imagine, but are also developing a different sort of empathy and connectedness, helping each other as we can in every way possible. That’s my hope anyway.

Please stay home, safe, and healthy.


Painting credit: Gaby Almond ©2017

6 thoughts on “A War Story”

  1. Nicely stated, Mr. Almond. (Nice to have you posting again.) If there’s one possible glimmer of hope in all of this, it is the resourcefulness and ingenuity so many performers are now using to reach out to audiences. I imagine many of them had previously never even tried streaming or downloads or other forms of new technology. One assumes (hopes) that this will continue once the “all clear” sign is given, by whomever gives such a sign. Of course there’s no substitute for a live performance but we now all know that there’s more than one way to share our music. To paraphrase Kevin Costner: “If you stream it, they will listen.”

  2. Thank you for sharing this profound story. I learned the lessons of empathy and connectedness you mentioned, as well as a shift in personal priorities, on 9/11, when I almost lost my mother. It completely refocused my world view, which I carry with me today.

    Blessings to our family – our global family.

  3. Frank, Great writing and story. It’s so important to keep these experiences alive by retelling them. It makes us feel more human and part of something bigger. Also, the painting is so expressive. Compliments to Gaby.

  4. I pray you’re right about enhanced connectedness and empathy as a result of this, Frank. Beautiful painting Gaby!


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