The Perfect Soundtrack for My Grief

Courtesy of | By Kathleen O'Brien | Illustration by Yvetta Fedorova | Originally Published 06.22.2018 | Posted 07.29.2018

Ms. O’Brien is an amateur cellist.

 A friend of mine died recently.

Judged by the conventional standards of friendship, a stranger might conclude we weren’t particularly close. We never met for lunch. We didn’t send each other birthday cards or give each other Christmas presents. She’d never been to my house.

By those measures, Karen Pinoci’s short but lethal illness shouldn’t have rocked me so.

Were it not for this: She was my conductor.

I play cello in a community orchestra in New Jersey, the New Sussex Symphony, and she was its music director for 27 years. For two hours every Tuesday night, she led us, taught us, cajoled us, amused us, goaded us, encouraged us.

We’re a small orchestra that others might view as rinky-dink. (How rinky-dink? Let’s just say that when I joined nearly three decades ago, the men still had to be reminded that “concert attire” meant no white socks.)

It’s the perfect orchestra for me, though — strong enough to play music that speaks to me, yet needy enough to welcome an amateur. (When an editor at The Star-Ledger discovered I was a cellist, he asked, “You any good?” I gestured around the newsroom and said, “If I were, would I be here?”)

We know our limitations and try to avoid playing music that is beyond our reach. Yet sometimes my conductor would pick works that were within our grasp except for a short string of measures that were beyond our collective ability. Whether a wickedly fast run or a riff that was too high or intricate, it was a section we’d never master no matter how much we practiced.

When we hit such a passage, Karen could sense the hesitancy and fear that were choking off our musicality. Her solution was to give us permission to fail.

“It doesn’t matter if it isn’t perfect,” she’d tell us. “If some notes fall on the floor, don’t worry, we’ll sweep them up later. But say something with your music! Why are we here, if not to say something?”

It’s an odd job, conducting. In an art form consisting of sound, a conductor contributes none of her own. At its very essence, her job is to make the musicians look deep into themselves, tap into the emotion the composer is seeking to express, and offer it to the conductor via their instruments. The conductor-musician relationship is as intimate as romance.

Some of the pieces we played were so soft and beautiful that Karen would leave her baton on her music stand, her strong hands conducting with the smallest gestures, as gently as if she were caressing silk.

When we did right by such pieces, her eyes would brim with tears, and as the final notes faded into silence, she would place her hand over her heart and mouth, “Thank you.” Only then would she turn to acknowledge the audience’s applause.

Its reaction was the whole point of the concert, of course, but before the music ever reached the audience, it was first a private conversation between the orchestra and her.

Her final concert was last November, when we played Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms asks a lot of a conductor. He messes around with the rhythm so much there are times when the only person with the downbeat is the conductor. It requires strength and athleticism. Ominously, she dropped her baton twice during the dress rehearsal.

The concert went well. She got through it, hiding her balance problems from us all. Yet the damage inflicted by her undiagnosed tumor was subtly apparent: Someone in the audience later told friends, “Something’s wrong with Karen.”

She was dead less than five months later.

When we started our search for her successor, we were astounded by the number of applicants willing to move cross-country for an extremely modest salary. At first, we assumed these out-of-state applicants didn’t grasp our likely salary range and the cost of living in our neck of suburban New York.

But no, it turned out there are so few conductor openings, and the job is so rewarding, the applicants were willing to upend their lives for a pittance. When I mentioned my surprise to one of the applicants, he answered, “Conducting is such a fulfilling act: When things go right, it truly makes you feel much greater than just one mortal person.”
For the finalists’ audition, we had them lead us in a movement from Brahms’s Second.

It’s my favorite symphony, by my favorite composer.

With dread, I recalled that when I was preparing for my own chemotherapy sessions in 2009, an oncology nurse advised me to not bring along my favorite music to pass the time. Otherwise, she warned, I might forever associate my cherished playlist with cancer.

As we’ve played the Brahms week after week under the baton of our late conductor’s possible replacements, I’ve come to accept that for the rest of my life this music probably will remind me of her shocking death.

That’s O.K. It will be an honor, the perfect soundtrack for my grief.

Before, I would’ve described this Brahms as “achingly beautiful,” and I mostly heard the beauty.

Now, I hear only the ache.

Kathleen O’Brien (@OBrienLedger) is a retired newspaper reporter in New Jersey.

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