Sisters of Mercy
May 14, 2019
Sometimes I find myself playing for just one person, not because there is no one else in the room, but simply because that one person presents herself as the portal for the gift I hope to deliver. In this case, it was Sister Agnes*.
Good-humored caregivers had combed her wavy silver hair and patiently assisted her step-by-step to the soft chair. She sat just a few feet away from me in line with the scroll of my violin, collapsed into the soft cushions with one elbow on the armrest and a skeletal hand propping up her head. An afghan-wrapped plastic doll dressed in a bright pink cap balanced on her crossed knees which were equally bony, stockings torn.
Tino was seated, back to the audience, at their upright piano that was desperately in need of tuning and repair. And so, as in all concert situations, conditions were imperfect. It reminded me that the performance is not for the benefit of the artist but to serve the listener. Rather than focusing on the untuned piano, which I could not change, my attention settled on Sister Agnes.
What did she need from me? I sensed that this emaciated Sister was crying for nourishment, and I tried to let Beethoven’s legato lines flow like a life-giving infusion into her being. When she covered her ear with her hand, I toned back the “soloist” sound and caressed her with a more soothing tone. But despite my efforts to reach her, she never looked up or offered anything but a pained expression. The only thing I could do was to keep trying. I grounded myself, inviting a flow of life energy to be released by the vibration of the instrument, as if her very survival depended on it.
It was a different Beethoven Concerto than I had prepared: the “struggle against adversity” was replaced by “beauty at all costs,” and when it was over, I felt I had discovered a new way of interpreting the piece, thanks to Sister Agnes. She was one of the last to be escorted to her room, and so I sat next to her. She told me how much her “baby” had enjoyed the music and that she felt it was so beautiful that she did not want to leave. I was relieved that her words belied her body language and that in fact, I was able to reach dear Sister Agnes, and that her ability to hold my attention shaped the gift we were both able to offer the rest of the Sisters of Mercy with the Beethoven Concerto.