"What music will be on the program?" I inquired when a friend called to ask if I would play in a benefit concert.
He began by mentioning "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" ("a little night music"), the first quartet I played in during a chamber music class. Although I have performed this piece several times since that summer in 1959, one time was especially memorable.
I had arrived earlier that day in Hanoi, Vietnam, although my cello was at home in the United States. All during dinner, the hotel restaurant had been quiet. As the waiter arrived with dragon fruit and pineapple slices, my ears pricked up. Hearing familiar intervals – fifths – I looked around.
On the other side of the dining room, three young women were tuning their string instruments, getting ready to perform. Impulsively, I got up from the table and approached the cellist.
Slowly and distinctly, I said, "I have played the cello for over a half century. May I play in your string trio for awhile?"
"Would you really like that?"
She smiled, then without hesitation checked with the others. Graciously, they all agreed to let me.
This was not the first time I (cello-less) had made such a request to be part of a musical group, but it was the only time my offer has ever been accepted – so far.
I suggested that we play something relatively easy and not too technically difficult for our debut.
"Perhaps Mozart or Haydn?" the violinist responded, looking through her folder of music.
I nodded, and she handed me the cello part. Glancing only at the opening measure, I immediately recognized – and my fingers remembered – the notes in the first movement of Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik." Though this was a trio arrangement, the cello part was identical to the one in the quartet almost 50 years ago.
A major requirement of playing chamber music is good listening. What players are wearing matters rather less. While each of the slender and stylish young women wore a long-sleeved black silk ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese long dress (slit high on both sides), I had on a casual traveling outfit – slacks and a sleeveless top. They wore black nylons and very pointed black high heels; I sported white ankle socks and white aerobic Reeboks with hot-pink trim. In spite of such sartorial divergences, we managed to play all the notes together!
The string players' English was limited, and my only Vietnamese was the simple greeting, "xin chào." But the spontaneous, joyous collaboration that evening broke through language barriers. The music spoke heart-to-heart and transcended philosophical and political ideology; neither Buddhism nor Communism nor Americanism had any part in our performance.
Although I could have "played all night," I returned the cello to its owner after the repeat in the opening section of the first movement of the piece. Then I walked back to my table to listen to these local conservatory graduates.
By the time I got there, not even one slice of dessert remained on the table, but I didn't mind. I'd finished my meal with a much more lasting treat.
And when I play the melodic "dum, da dum, da dum da da da dum" in the benefit concert next month, I'll be wearing the black silk ao dai I purchased in Vietnam and thinking about my colleagues there and our impromptu performance of a little night music.