When the applause died down the maestro turned to face the audience. Like them we assumed he would introduce the next piece, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. From the stage we noticed a few people retrieve their programs and flip to the page as if to follow the description.
In his most solemn voice, von Aldenberg said, “A change in plan, ladies and gentlemen.” He looked up for a few moments at the ornate ceiling, its intricate pattern of carved wood so often unnoticed by the crowd, but critical to the near perfect acoustics of the hall. We had no idea what he had in mind—we’d rehearsed the overture every day for more than a month. Any deviation would invite disaster.
“This next piece shall be about silence,” he said. “A pure and simple quietude. For the next seven minutes we—the orchestra and the audience—shall observe strict silence.”
What was this? We looked at each other, the violinists and cellists, the woodwind and brass performers, the percussionists and the cannoneer, all of us so ready to fill the hall with sound, now straining to understand, hoping he might turn around and wink at us, as though this was all a huge joke and tipping us off to play even louder than we had practiced. But he stared ahead and raised his baton. There were murmurs from the house. We looked to the concertmaster, but she only shrugged her shoulders and motioned for us to place our instruments at rest.
“We shall wait until all is quiet,” von Aldenberg said. “If you do not believe you can comply, please leave now and return when the movement is finished.”
No one in the audience rose, although we noticed a few people whispering to their neighbors.
“Very well, then.” He tapped the baton three times against his music stand, and then turned back to us. He held his hands the way he would before the first beat, but then stood still.
We sat, frozen, but within a minute someone in the crowd coughed. von Aldenberg turned and spoke: “The silence must be absolute. We will begin again.” And he tapped the baton once more.
Almost immediately someone else coughed. An old man in the front rows, directly in front of von Aldenberg. Then another. Then a thump, as though someone had dropped something. Soon the sounds of people squirming in their seats seemed to be everywhere.
“I ask you again,” he said. “If you cannot do this, please excuse yourself.”
This time many dozens of people headed for the exits. Some of us looked as though we wanted to join them, but we all stayed, perhaps out of loyalty to the man—he had been our conductor and music director for a decade—but more likely from curiosity about whether he could pull this off. And he just stood there, watching those people depart. We sensed he held no malice toward them, in the same way he never made his criticisms of our rehearsals personal. A missed cue, an incorrect emphasis—he would stop and make us play the passage again from the beginning, but he didn’t call anyone out by name. We understood, even from our first rehearsal all those years ago, that the music was not about us as performers, or as an orchestra, or even about him as conductor, but about the sound, that it had to be perfect and uncompromising, honoring its intent. As he once said to us, prayerful. We respected him for that. In a way, we revered him for it. And as we watched him watch the people filing out we renewed our perception of his total resolve, the same approach he had brought to every composition we performed. He would make this happen, no matter what it took, no matter who in the crowd was offended.
The sound of feet scuffling along the carpet, of bodies in contact with each other; the swinging of the theater doors, their metal handles compressed over and over, became a cacophony. When John Cage premiered his infamous 4?33? he relied on the ambient sounds of the audience to become his score; he made a statement that sound is the music of the world, that any sound may constitute music. What then, would this silence say? von Aldenberg did not speak or move again until the noise of the crowd reduced to nothing. We looked past the lighting to see that only half the audience remained. And it was quiet. Strangely quiet. Eerily quiet. But not a total quiet. von Aldenberg looked up again and pointed skyward. Yes, we heard it too. A rush of air, an almost imperceptible mechanical hum. The air conditioning system.
“You must turn that off,” von Aldenberg said to no one in particular.
Instantly we heard someone running, and then a door open and slam closed.
“We will wait.”
Whoever it was managed to have the system shut down.
“Let us begin once more.”
But the quiet lasted only a few seconds before someone in the crowd whispered to a companion.
“You there,” von Aldenberg said. “If you are not serious, then please leave us.”
He pointed to the woman, a gray-haired socialite in a stole. Embarrassed and angered, she took her friend’s hand and led her noisily across the aisle and into the walkway. While von Aldenberg stared, dozens, then hundreds more concertgoers joined their exodus, as if in recognition that they wouldn’t be able to keep quiet to his satisfaction. It took a good ten minutes for them to clear out. Over the noise of their migration we heard grumblings that they had been cheated out of their evening’s performance, that they would demand refunds.
“Fine,” the maestro said when they were finally gone. About fifty of the original thousand in the audience remained. He raised his baton.
From the stage we saw the few left in the hall frozen in place, as if not daring to breathe lest von Aldenberg notice. Some gripped the arms of their seats to keep from moving. Others closed their eyes. We emulated them—fingers choked violin necks, backs held straight to chairs. We looked away, to the doors, to the glare of the exit signs, to the sophisticated ceiling. Finding little on which to focus, one by one we too closed our eyes.
In such absence of sound the mind strains to hear the aural input that backgrounds our days—the whoosh of movement, the drone of machinery, the patter of conversation—unacknowledged until it goes missing. Then it turns inward, seeking out soundtracks stored in memory to fill the gap. Rhythms, snippets of things we have recently heard. Thoughts and fantasies begin to press upon the psyche, seeking release from the subconscious. Had each of us been alone, this might have sufficed to pass the seven minutes. But we were together, we and the audience, as we had always been during concerts. A community with a shared devotion, a shared awareness redirected toward a strange and until now insignificant aspect of our passion. And in this setting we could not retreat into the solipsism of the self. We saw that everyone had reopened their eyes. Perhaps four minutes had gone by. von Aldenberg remained motionless, the exact timing known only to him. Gone was the fear that we might slip and make some noise. Replacing it there seemed to be an air of contentment, even cooperation among those who had remained, a sense that together we had achieved a secret knowledge, a spirituality that the people who had walked out would never understand. We did not need to shout it, or speak it. It was evident on the faces of the people, on those of the orchestra. We wanted the silence to last longer. A few more minutes. Hours. Please, maestro. von Aldenberg showed a trace of a smile. He turned and bowed to the audience.
“Thank you, all,” he said. “Let us call back the others and continue with the Tchaikovsky.”
The rest of the audience filed in. It appeared that a good portion of them had given up on the concert altogether and gone home. Those who’d stayed in the lobby had grown even more angry over the change. We could hear their frustrations as they took their seats. As von Aldenberg returned to the program and introduced the overture, some people spoke openly, over his narration. Others began to cough and fidget loudly enough for us to know it was deliberate. The conductor seemed not to care. He brought down the baton and we began to play. von Aldenberg reverted to his traditional style, adding the usual panache to the performance. We played without effort, yet with a fervor we had never achieved before, almost as though we had transcended what our bodies, what our talents had been capable of. We reveled in the sound we made, and the finale of the piece at last drowned out the malcontents. When the cannon sounded at the close of the overture some of us stomped our feet in time with the explosions. At the close the crowd rose to applaud—not uncommon at the end of a concert—but as we peered out we could see tears on the faces of the fifty who had stayed with us. Tears on our faces too.
After the concert we loitered backstage, watching von Aldenberg as he retrieved his things from his office and walked past. A squat little man we recognized as a critic from the Times approached him. “Maestro, that was brilliant. Genius, if I may,” he said. But von Aldenberg ignored him and exited through the side door to the street. Some of us, our instruments already packed, followed him into the urban night to see where he might go and what he might do. As soon as we stepped outside we were struck by the sound of thousands of automobiles, and throngs of people talking and laughing. A siren wailed a street or two over. Someone in the distance began shouting. We looked to von Aldenberg to cry out, to tell them to silence. But he only put his hands in his coat pockets and went down the street, into the thick of it.