In the first minute, my hands found each other’s wrists and gripped tightly. By the time I registered this, my toes were curled and legs tightened. I had to consciously relax. A couple minutes later all that hurt was my left elbow, which was supposed to be resting on the bar to the left of my seat but was in fact bearing my entire weight somehow. I took inventory and my neck, slouched forward, was not going to move—I needed to be as close as I could to this performer’s fingers. My eyes began to ache. I was not blinking.
I found myself in the eighth row. In Richardson Auditorium, this is closer to the back than the front. Aster’s mouth opened, as if wails were about to escape. I was worried for my friend! But all the sound stayed channeling through the cello.
In the first movement, I notice the microphones hanging from the ceiling are not perpendicular to the ground. The wires aim out to the audience, and the microphones themselves angle back inward toward the stage. After a long rest, Aster’s bow was oblique across the cello in order to reach the string furthest from her right hand.
Before particularly aggressive runs, Aster inhales sharply. Her shaking bangs. The lift of her Doc Martens above the floor. One inching forward.
With all this forward momentum, I worry the lacy material of her dress may just slide her off the seat.
In one moment, Aster drew the bow slightly, very slightly across the cello to draw to a close one of the softest notes of the concerto. The bow drifted in the air as if now that the sound making was over Aster did not know what to do with it. In fact, after a few seconds she transferred it carefully to her other hand and stretched her thumb first, then the other four fingers against her thigh. After a long, focused movement of just Aster’s sound in the air, the rest of the orchestra took over and Aster again transferred the bow over, and shook her hand out, as if it was close to cramping. This is a physical effort.
Past the space under Aster’s raised elbow, I can see musicians watching from the row behind. First, I notice someone from my zee group, then a classmate’s girlfriend—at the university orchestra, you’re bound to encounter faces from faltered friendships. By the end of the piece I realize the musicians from the third row are peering over the heads in front of them to watch.
If Aster is still performing on the stage in twenty, thirty years, it may never again be in an auditorium this small. She has already performed in huge, important venues. Her breathy intakes and limbering stretches may not be visible to the majority of the crowd. She may even be advised to hold back these adjustments in the name of professionalism. Still, surely, someone will be taking notes, furiously, during intermission, to report on this incredible event.
After Aster, the orchestra still had another piece, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. Conductor Michael Pratt had shared with us that when deciding what to pair with Shostakovich, which was chosen because it was Aster’s concerto contest–winning piece, Rachmaninoff only made sense, a couple of Russians. But Pratt wanted a Ukrainian voice present too, despite, he said, his thought that the Russian composers would not necessarily have approved of what was happening in that part of the world, and so we had opened with Mykola Lysenko’s Elegie.
The Rachmaninoff began. Aster didn’t play in this one, instead she joined her friends in the front row. Her partner puts his arm around Aster and they lean into each other, so far in that the gold numbers on the backs of their seats frame their outside shoulders.
Special thanks to Aster Zhang ’24