THE word floated around our campus that we would do Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The chorus was exultant, gay as larks, but the orchestra was dubious. I could tell that from my listening post of third stand violas, inside. The orchestra is mostly students - brilliant, many faceted - honors programs, research, drama, ballet, even athletics. Once I stopped a rehearsal by discreetly waving to a second violin who walked in late, and when the conductor asked me why, I said my friend had just pitched a brilliant shutout.
Of course with differing degrees of dedication we all play music - some superbly, some only aspiring. There's a sprinkling of faculty in back, such as my husband and me - young only in the shared hope of a moment's lovely sound despite fading technique. And we had had some beautiful moments - Tchaikovsky's Pathetique for one. But the Ninth is a sustained, enormous succession of moments - a gargantuan effort.
Our conductor, a thin, frail figure growing bent like a tree over his violin, had inner qualms. He was new to conducting and though the music consumed his mind, to convey it by a stick was a challenge needing equilibrium of spirit. Sometimes he would grab a violin from the first concertmaster and play what he meant - the notes so beautiful that they hung in the air like a shining. But as he felt the weight of the Ninth approaching - he had lifted the score which was almost too much - he was fearful for his strength and our technique.
Before the first rehearsal I listened to a record, part in hand. The tempi were manic - bar lines sweeping by like fence posts seen from a racing car. I could not even keep my place. The last movement was a torrent. At rehearsal the conductor, looking worn, managed a smile and said he was encouraged that with each repeat we improved. We could hardly tell - the scramble was like a tornado strike. And he was taking it under speed.
The weeks crept by. The chorus, we heard, was almost ready. We labored on. The basses and celli struggled with their lovely recitatives singing out of the brilliant cacophony of the winds at the beginning of the last movement. Over and over again like tired troops facing the ``valley of the six hundred,'' they marshaled their forces. Once the conductor ran half way up the aisle, holding his head, crying, ``For God's sake! Don't moon around!''
Slowly we were catching the passion engulfing him as the Ninth burned in his mind - each note - each phrase - each abrupt pianissimo - each entrance. In the slow movement with its pages of pizzicato, he told us to set each note as though we were placing the stars - ping - just right for eternity.
Concert night the chorus was all over, chattering in our private nooks, taking over our practice room, leaving no place to warm up or stash our cases save the furnace room, cramped with its pipes and showing signs of a drain backup. We drifted nervously on stage, finding a precision of chairs and stands with little room for performers.
The ringers and new instruments had arrived - timpani bulging round us, a bassoon so deep it was balanced on a toe. The player ahead of me spread as broad as she was high, and she was at least six feet, totally eclipsing the conductor. Only by bumping against timpani, and wedging my chair firmly into the trombones, did I manage a squeak view on the baton.
The basses plowed in like knights-errant, their instruments held high, knocking over a stand, growling at the bass drum and percussion, ``Squeeze into the wall - we gotta play, you know,'' as they flexed their bow arms. And at last the chorus came marching down the aisle two by two, cool and collected, as they circled around us on their risers; and I looked up and saw the house was a sea of faces - every space taken, even the stairwells and railings.
Only once before had we played the Ninth through without stopping. This time we were steady - moving through the clear beauty of the first movement like a whisper from the earth - then into the terrifying rush of the scherzo. A pause and the slow movement sang - lovely, haunting , sustained - and into the cascading power of the last, driving on as though all the fires of heaven were loosed in glorious exaltation.
We had survived - triumphant, giving of our precarious best. The applause and the standing ovation were instant like a cannon booming into the night.
Afterward when the lights were dimmed and the stray notes swept into corners, and the chatter around the cookies and pale punch had stilled, I went back to pick up my instrument. On the blackboard in the practice room the conductor had written on one side:
``Orchestra: Please observe all pianissimos and hold out your quarters.'' And on the other board he had scrawled in big letters - ``NOW THE MIGHTY NINTH IS AT HAND.''
Outside I saw the conductor walking to his car, tired and more bent, solitary with his thoughts. And I ran up to him and said out of my heart, ``Your conception of the Ninth was magnificent,'' and for a second, his face glistened in the moonlight.