Rising From Ash

Yesterday, I was invited to chaperone my son’s second grade class on a trip to City Center to hear Stravinsky’s “Firebird”. What I know of it, and what I remembered from childhood, is that the time signatures are just nuts and at a certain point you don’t care and want to sing along anyway. I also know that the Firebird is another name for a phoenix and that it rises from the ashes of its own death, but I never really was able to visualize music so that was sorta lost on me.

In looking at my children and the myriad ways in which I’m destroying their lives, it’s hard not to admit that I simply didn’t take advantage of what I was given as a kid. I do SO like to focus on ages 14 to 20, after The Divorce (which basically every kid my age went through) and during the Failing School and Doing Drugs years (again, The 80s, so that’s every kid), but I totally ignore the years before that when I was allowed backstage and in the green rooms of major metropolitan orchestras around the world.

But I was, and it just barely stuck with me. I really ought to have been a well-versed and classically trained musician, but instead I’m basically a dabbler, a guy who knows the greatest hits. I can kick myself, but this stuff is internal – you’re either inspired by it or you aren’t.

We sat down and Barnaby and I were at the end of the row in a back corner so I grabbed his hand and snuck into the row behind us, all the way to the inside aisle. I wanted him to see the timpani and you can’t see stage left from the far side. It *did* mean we were surrounded by kindergartners and first graders almost immediately. Inner city New York 5 and 6 year olds. So… y’know. Not really your typical orchestral audience.

The conductor didn’t start with Firebird, he started with a series of short pieces by Russian composers, to give the kids some sense of the world that Stravinsky lived in. I don’t know, I loved it and Barnaby loved it, but the kids around us were *done* really early. One kid behind me kept saying “this is stupid. This is just *music*, there’s nothing going on.”

My heart just sank. How many times have I sat next to someone at a non-arts-centered meeting, that found out what I do and said, “I should go, I really should, I don’t know why I don’t…” when they talk about live theater. I’ll tell you why you don’t, because in your head it’s a goddam *chore*.

I mean, it’s a chore *to me*. You aren’t really gonna find a guy who wants to see live theater and music more than I do, and I still find myself looking at the “Purchase Tickets Now” button and thinking, “Man, do I *really* want to do this?” I remember myself at seven, in a three piece suit backstage, listening to… whatever, probably The Firebird, and wishing to god someone had brought Cheerios and Hot Wheels. Just bored and exhausted and feeling punished.

We got through Tchaikovsky and Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov – and I should say, each piece was about three minutes long, so they had the best possible shot of keeping the kids in it, it’s not their fault these little assholes are savages – and I just kept hearing the kids behind me bitching and complaining. I shushed them once and this five year old says, “Yo, you can’t tell me what to do, it’s a free country,” and it reminded me of the guy in the park who, when I asked him to put his dog on a leash, said, “You got a problem? Call a cop.”

It’s just so New York. Nobody can tell us what to do.

Finally, we got to The Firebird and the lights started to dim. A group of four people came out on stage with a large billowing puppet, and another group came on with a puppet that looked like a boy prince.


And the music started to pump. Sure, the kids behind me said, “Fake! That’s fake, that’s just a *puppet*,” but I started seeing the kids *in front* of me, the ones in Barnaby’s class. His close friends, K and JP and P, all rapt, and Barnaby leaning forward and talking to them about moment-to-moment brilliance that was happening on stage.

The bird gets trapped by a wizard and the boy-prince, now grown, chases him down and gives fight. In the battle, the Firebird is killed and eaten by the evil wizard, swallowed whole as the puppet is crushed into nothing. The prince gives battle and the wizard is destroyed, but so is the bird.

And something had happened. The low buzz of a room full of children was still there, but it was pulsing and beating, rising with the action on stage and pulling back with the heart break. It had been seven, maybe eight, minutes since the puppets came on stage, but when the Firebird is swallowed by the evil wizard, I hear the smart ass behind me very quietly say, “oh no.”

And the prince came to the front of the stage and lit a small fire. Out of the fire a tiny flowing gem floated up and began to swirl, the puppeteers letting more and more fabric unroll over a fan with a yellow-orange light. And as it built, the kids around me pulled forward. Slowly their voices rose and I started to hear a few kids clapping.

As the Firebird came back to life, slowly unfolding scarves, the kids started clapping louder and louder until the birds beak and head suddenly appeared and the room exploded, the kids leaping to their feet yelling and clapping. It was so loud – it was so loud that I could barely hear the orchestra. And for the final cadenza, the orchestra members themselves lept to their feet and played the last phrase standing.

I was elated, I was rejuvenated, I was reminded of the power of all of us in a room together bearing witness to a single artistic statement and I was astonished at the reversal of the small children behind me. They weren’t just on board, they were conducting, they were bouncing… without regard to the time signature, they were singing along.

I was crying – I’m not gonna lie, I wept. Quietly, of course, and the nice thing about getting old and lined and crusty-faced is that you can cry without anyone really noticing, your tears don’t stand out against your Actinic Keratosis and grey beard, but I cried.

As we were leaving, one of the really erudite and cultured moms looked at me with a huge smile and said, “This was so great! So great! I don’t know why we don’t go more often…” But maybe that’s it. I hear these New York City kids and I think they’re saying “You can’t make me do anything”, but maybe what they’re saying is, “don’t give me the rules, give me the *reasons*. If they’re good reasons, I’ll follow the rules.”

On the bus, I talked to the kids around me and they got it. They were elated, their lives were *made better* by this communal act. And Barnaby leaned on me, looking out the window and telling me a made up story – water-creatures who live by eating rock-people – and I started to think that just because this didn’t stick with me, it doesn’t mean it can’t stick with him.