Summer's late, lingering music

It's never easy to say goodbye to summer, least of all when it lasts no more than eight or nine weeks. How much longer can I sit outside in the evening without a sweater? What should I do to get the most out of the dwindling days: Sit in my tiny garden in Boston's South End and listen to the robins and the cardinals in the tall elm, or take a run by the Charles and enjoy being dazzled by the slanting river of sunlight?

Last week, I found a compromise. I decided I'd walk among the gracious Victorian homes of the South End, watch the sunlight soften the maples and chestnuts, and risk having the birds out-voiced by the traffic on Tremont Street.

Everything was right that evening. The sun was golden. The birds were in good voice. I felt that summer would never end.

As I approached the intersection of West Canton and Warren streets, I heard a sound that wasn't songbird, but was just as poignant. It was pure cello, played with the quiet authority of a true professional. Was it Brahms ... or Bach ... or Elgar? - the Elgar who so loved the way late sunlight tumbled across the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire in the English Midlands.

I stood still to listen - to make sure about the composer and to establish where those hauntingly beautiful tones were coming from. I know the Elgar E-minor concerto well.

When I was in college, I was cast as the student in a stage production of J.B. Priestley's 1948 play "The Linden Tree." Evening after evening during many weeks of rehearsals, and later in performance, I never failed to be moved by Elgar's melodies, which the playwright had written into his script as background music.

The music grew sweeter and clearer as I approached the tiny park at the next corner. Then, through the branches of a thinning maple tree, I saw the cello, which every now and again caught the slanting sunlight.

It was held lovingly - as one would a small child - by a middle-aged man with short dark hair and a small black mustache. A butcher, a baker, or a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose home is not more than eight blocks away? I'd never know, and it didn't matter.

He wore faded corduroys and a navy- blue sweatshirt, and he bent over the cello as if to shield it from any intruder. This was no performance. It was something private. A practice session perhaps, or an ode to an early fall day that had pleased many with its benevolence and beauty.

His fingers caressed those sturdy cello strings with a tenderness that carried through Elgar's sweet phrases, and enchanted his audience of rangy pink and white cosmos, undisciplined scarlet roses - and just one robin. Unobtrusively, I joined the floral onlookers, letting the music and the sunlight carry me away.

Elgar wrote the concerto in 1919, just after World War I. Appalled and disillusioned by the suffering caused by the war, he realized that life in Europe would never be the same after such destruction, and this music was his lament for a lost world.

Priestley caught this mood in words he gave to the main character, Robert Linden, an aging history professor who is being pressured to retire. One of his daughters is a cellist, and in Act II she practices the concerto offstage, which Linden describes as "a kind of sad farewell."

In his lines, the professor imagines the circumstances in which Elgar was moved to compose his concerto: "An elderly man [Elgar] remembers his world before the war of 1914 ... being a boy at Worcester ... Germany in the nineties ... long days on the Malvern Hills ... smiling Edwardian afternoons ... all gone, gone, lost for ever. And so he distils his tenderness and regret, drop by drop, and seals the sweet melancholy in a concerto for cello...."

But Elgar's nostalgia, Linden observes, is not the whole story of the music: "What happens? Why a little miracle - young Dinah Linden, who knows and cares nothing about Bavaria in the nineties or the secure and golden Edwardian afternoons, here in [our home], this very afternoon, unseals for us the precious distillation, uncovers the tenderness and regret, which are ours as well as his, and our lives and Elgar's ... are all magically intertwined."

On this fragile fall evening in Boston's South End, the lone cellist on a park bench transported me to all these places and beyond. Suddenly I was back in the wings where, night after night, I had stood listening to the professor's soliloquy and to his daughter's anguished efforts to conjure sweet harmonies from a recalcitrant instrument. I was back in the Malvern Hills, which I love just as much as Priestley and Elgar did - and Professor Linden.

The sunlight is different in the South End. It's not as soft as it is on those rolling hills in England. It doesn't reveal quite so much history - or melancholy. But like its British counterpart, it integrates thought. It obscures the boundaries so that beauty can overtake and transform sadness.

I smile at the thoughts that raced through my mind on an evening of such uncontrived simplicity. Just a man, a cello, a robin, some red roses, and a few luminous shafts of sunlight. But how precious. Unforgettable. I think Professor Linden would have loved the experience, too.

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