Neptune

This is a narrative essay I wrote for my English class. I thought I would share it with you guys. Hope you enjoy.

The thing I remember most about the Highland Youth Ensemble’s performance in the concert titled “Space- The Final Frontier” with the Johnson City Symphony is not the fun of singing with an orchestra, or the applause at the end, or the feeling of satisfied exhaustion after having rehearsed for hours and then performed, or any of the usual things I associate with a concert. Not this time. This concert was different. We were all used to being well prepared. Our director Ms. Morrison always made sure of that, even if it meant long hours spent practicing, drilling our parts until we could practically sing them in our sleep. But this time, we got thrown in for a loop, and we were going to learn a thing or two about how even the most well-rehearsed musicians can be made to feel like amateurs in the face of a classical masterpiece.

If you have ever listened to Neptune, the last movement of the Planets Suite by Gustav Holst, you may not have paid much attention to the choral part at first; it doesn’t really announce itself. The music swirls mysteriously and then settles down a bit and begins to slink by uneasily, and then, quietly, the first sopranos join the music with their solitary and long-held G. But they are soon joined by the rest of the choir, who add an otherworldly echo to the piece, without which it would simply not be the same. During the performance, the choir is in another room off to the side of the stage to create the effect of disembodied voices. It was a difficult piece to learn; though it is beautiful, it has a discordant aspect to it which makes it a bit hard to memorize, since the melody is not predictable and sort of floats around all over the place. We had to work hard at it, but in rehearsal, our part was sounding good. We just had to rehearse it with the orchestra and the children’s choir who we would be singing it with, and then we would be ready for the performance, or so we thought. But it was not going to be that easy.

The day of the dress rehearsal at Milligan college, our Ensemble and the children’s choir all squeezed into a small room off to the right of the stage. Listening to the orchestra and watching our director, we waited for our cue. But once the long G had passed and it was time for both choirs to come in together, chaos ensued. The two choirs threw each other off. Everyone got lost. Our parts spiraled into an ugly mass of confusion. The orchestra director looked askance at us, and Ms Morrison gave us some pointers. We tried again, with the same result. The combination of the orchestra and the parts of the two choirs combined into something much more elaborate and complex than we had anticipated, and we were all trying to wrap our minds around it to no avail. We just had not realized the intricacy of the piece before, and now that all the parts were combined, it hit us. By the end of the rehearsal, we still had not managed to scrape together anything melodious out of the confused mess that the choral part had become. I think we all went home with the same feeling of unease, knowing we would have to perform the next day. I laid in bed puzzling over our rehearsal. Holst had beat us that day. Could we pull off a victory tomorrow with what time we had left?

The next day, a few hours before the performance, we struggled through Neptune, and on our very last run-through of the piece, our consternation was swept away as our parts suddenly fit together. I was elated, but the feeling did not last long. We had done it, but we had only done it once, and as I said, we were used to feeling well-prepared. Usually, we would have sung the piece correctly dozens of times, and it wouldn’t have even seemed a possibility to me that the choir would make any major mistakes. This time, with only one good run-through under our belts, I was not feeling very confident. As the orchestra played through the first movements, I enjoyed the music, but I could not help but feel the twitch of anxiety in my stomach. We would have only one chance to get this right, I thought, as I ran through my part over and over in my head, trying to imagine exactly what it was going to sound like with the orchestra and the rest of the choir.

As the orchestra was about to begin Neptune, both choirs piled into the room, everyone jostling for a spot where they could see Ms Morrison. I managed to find a spot where I could just barely see her, my view partially obstructed by the person in front of me. We listened intently as the wind instruments sidled into the first few measures of the piece. The music whirled in its mystifying way and then dipped down into the restless part that we knew preceded the entrance of the choir. Everyone tensed in anticipation as Ms. Morrison raised her hands to cue the sopranos. They quietly joined the music. I stood silently watching Ms Morrison with the rest of the second sopranos. So far so good, but this was the easy part. I inhaled deeply as she started to cue the rest of the choir in. Everyone came in on the right note, and our voices blended into the magical sound we knew we were supposed to be making. Once I realized that we were indeed on the right track, I began to relax. Our voices rose and fell in an inexplicably melodious and yet discordant harmony, adding an unearthly touch to the music. As we neared the end of the piece, someone began to gradually close the door between our room and the stage to create the effect of a fade-out. Some of the kids in the children’s choir waved to Ms. Morrison as the door closed between her and the choir, and had it not been such a critical moment, I might have laughed at their charming gesture. After the door closed and we could no longer see our director, we concentrated on counting so that we would all cut off at the same time. We got quieter and quieter until our voices reached the limit of how quietly we could sing and still be on key, and then, all at once, we stopped. There was a moment of silence, and then, the applause of the audience.

I do not remember us getting to go out on stage and take our bow. I don’t think we did. But to me, this is fitting; we were the echo of the unknown in the background. Even though we had performed the piece almost flawlessly, I still left that small room with a feeling of awe at the complexity and beauty of the music I had just sung. The experience really drove home the genius of Holst’s music, that it could almost defeat us even after the countless hours we had spent rehearsing it. Perhaps this is what makes such classical masterpieces so unique and unsurpassed.

Note: this happened years ago, but to this day, if you ask me to hum a G, I can do it without even thinking. Those 1st sopranos had to hold that G for a long time! It really burned the note into my brain.

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