We are stepping over puddles on the pavement in the nature center until we reach the pathway, the packed dirt of which is softened from the recent snow alternating with rain. My slip-on loafers sink down about a quarter of an inch into the light brown mud and I try to press lightly so as not to soil the sides of my shoes. As I lift each foot I feel as though the ground is paste; the sole of my shoe sticks to the earth for a portion of a second then breaks free of the ground’s suction. I weave on the path from side to side, avoiding pools of water; my son is behind and beside me following and leading at turns.
The building just ahead looks like a home but no residents live there. It houses a number of programs open to the public. Just behind us there is a large building with apartments for the elderly; Heather says this would be a wonderful place to live and I agree. You would hardly know you are in the city here; it is quiet and wild, though just minutes from our one-lane, one-way small urban street.
Before we go inside the small building ahead, I do my best to keep my eyes on the path while stealing glances at the world’s natural and man-made beauty. It is early April and winter’s thaw here in the Midwest seems like a sloppy adolescent kiss, as long and slobbery as it is passionate. Everything is both crushed and poised, emerging budded from a long March muck, forest mulch and leafless trees. To the left are two large rough wood compost bins, and a picnic table dark and damp from a season under logs that have been built into a canopy with foot-long gaps in the roof.
The tall grass appears flattened in places as if deer had lain down there recently; life leaves her imprint even when she is gone, as much in the bowing as in the standing tall. Her rising holds no meaning apart from her resting. Whether growing or grown, the contrast is both our tether and our freedom.
Some tree branches have fallen, slowly decaying, while other tree limbs curve and curl like arms of dancers warming up. To the right is a bird feeder; a squirrel directly underneath devises robbery while finches, chickadees, and robins light momentarily on the swinging perch. The vibrancy of bird chatter and flight catches my voice. I laugh briefly in delight and am aware Heather and Nic may think I’m strange for chuckling at nothing in particular. I explain, “Oh, it’s those birds!”
As we get ready to step inside the building, I take one last look at the sky, a late morning blue, brilliant with the sun’s light. It’s the perfect day for music. That is why we have come—to hear strings from the Civic Orchestra.
This concert is number three out of four they have been scheduled to play at the nature center this year. Each concert features a different small group of musicians from the larger orchestra. Next month there will be a small brass chamber ensemble but this month we are treated to strings.
The musicians are each from different places: Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Switzerland and, well…all over. Three women and two men, they are from diverse racial backgrounds, but they are all young. The Civic is a training opportunity, a stepping stone to those who aspire to join a professional orchestra. For up to two years, young people can experience the thrill of performing with a professional-grade outfit while receiving mentoring and continuing to work on the craft of music performance. Because the program is structured mainly as an educational opportunity the Civic often offers concerts free of charge to the public in venues all over Chicago.
That is why the ensemble is here today at the nature center. Because the music is so wonderfully performed, that is why Heather, Nic and I have come. We make our way into the back room of the center. Coming in through the double doors, we see an alcove filled with plants of at least a dozen varieties. There is a thin cactus, ten feet tall, as proud as he is prickly. The ferns are full, flush with life. Palm plants are waving their hands and long fingers every which way, as if perpetually praising. The ficus tree is delicate and gentle. Violets, agave, and aloe grace the space. The dracaena tree has spiked hair, strong and certain he’s unique.
There are two long thin sections of chairs, arranged length-wise in a bank of four on the right and six on the left in the long rectangular room. The space cannot seat more than ninety I would think but when we enter it is still slightly shy of half full.
We take three of the four seats in the second row on the right and no one sits in front of us. Five music stands, four chairs and a stool are arranged for the musicians about eight feet from where I am seated. The charts are prepared and I can see that one of the sheets simply says “Quintet” at the top with the artistry of notes filling the page underneath.
A Civic staff person enters the room and makes some announcements. There will be another free concert at the nature center next month and he draws our attention to more concerts in other locations in the city. The musicians enter to applause. They bow and introduce themselves then take their seat to perform a work of Mozart in a rare four-movement structure.
I am struck by the strength of their sound. Sitting this close I can hear every nuance clearly, the ebb and flow of each musical phrase. When they crescendo it is not as a voice shouting, demanding to be heard. The music is mature, humbly sure of herself. Each movement is like a season, unique and growing. The second movement feels older, slower and even more confident. Beauty is her own adornment; there is no need to fill it with frills. The third movement is a dancing pair; strike that, a group of pairs. And the fourth…the music, now at the height of maturity, sounds like it has learned the art of calling out each individual voice yet they are still one. They know how to pass the torch to each other, spreading the light. They do not clench tightly to their own part; they know how to share.
We applaud and people move to get ready for the second piece. The first violin and the second violin trade places. Now she will take the lead and he will play the harmony. The viola and cello remain seated and an upright bass is added to complete the quintet. They will play Dvorak.
This piece, they explain, was written about one hundred years after Mozart’s piece. Originally, Dvorak wrote the piece in five movements, but he felt it was too long so he cut it to four. Today’s ensemble will perform three of those four movements. With a deep bass line added to the mix, they invite us to listen closely to the difference in the cello; she serves a different purpose in a quintet than in a quartet.
Just before the music starts up again, some latecomers take their seats. Directly across the small aisle just a few chairs away, a mother and her three-year old daughter take a single seat. The girl is on her mother’s lap. The girl’s eyes are bright and she is lively in red.
The music begins. The first movement is grounded in a theme that repeats at regular intervals to create a sense of security. It is as if Dvorak wants to be our friend; he simplifies his musical choices so we can get to know him. Yet, between the familiarity of repetition there is enough variety to hold interest. Like a good companion, Dvorak is dependable but he improvises to remind you he won’t be chained.
During the second movement, out of the side of my left eye I can see the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap. She is enrapt by the music. As the movement ends, she applauds. As she prepares for the final part, she reaches for a small baggy of Cheerios and munches on them quietly, one at a time.
Into the final movement, the first violin passes the melody to the second. The viola picks up where the second leaves off and the cello adds her rich voice to complete the circle. As the different instruments take turns playing the lead, the bass endures as the foundation and the other strings fill the atmosphere with supporting harmonies and rhythms. Each instrument sounds with a pocket of plucking in staccato snaps while the others hold their voices elongated. They are each distinct yet one in spirit.
And the girl’s eyes follow the musical conversation. She is watching them seated but she sees them as dancing. She is smiling and her gaze is fixed in delight. Her hand reaches into the small bag and takes another Cheerio. Dvorak is her grandfather, stately yet gentle and friendly. At once, he puts her at ease and nurtures glee. This is joy. There is wonder, a kind of playful reverence here.