Just as Ekatarina instructed, I walk unobtrusively on to the YMCA concert stage after the performers receive their applause. I sit down on the chair behind Bashkirova’s bench. It’s easy, Ekatarina said, no one will even know you’re there. Just follow along and turn the pages. Don’t let your mind wander. Bashkirova has a nasty left kick when she takes her foot off the soft pedal.
You know Ekatarina, my very patient piano teacher, if you’ve ever been to the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival — which almost certainly you have not if you are under the age of eighty, as my survey of the audience confirms during the time that the string players adjust their seats and psyche themselves up and trade glances with Bashkirova. Ekatarina is there on stage every year, turning pages for the world’s great pianists, like Bashkirova and Mangova and Adrás Schiff. She’s quiet, reliable, and reverent.
But she came down with the flu last night and called me up. Step in for me, she said, you deserve a night off, and you’ll get to hear the music for free.
I hesitated. Who am I to turn Bashkirova’s pages? But who can afford the tickets at 170 shekels a throw, and twice that if Meir comes with me, which would hardly be worth the money because he’d fall asleep or spend the whole concert Whatsapping. Or Ema. Ema.
Bashkirova and the strings exchange their final nods and smiles, and she begins.
I try to concentrate on the music. I don’t know the piece, it’s a piano quintet by a modern Russian composer named Alfred Schnittke, and what can I say, I like the old classics and don’t connect to the dissonance and harshness that came into fashion along with heavier-than-air flight.
Bashkirova is playing by herself, the string players seem to be there by mistake, it’s just a piano solo, slow and morose.
I try to focus on the score but who the hell am I going to vote for, it’s such a depressing election. As if that weren’t enough, Akiva turned into a hyper-macho jock over the summer and started tenth grade sullen and angry, and Gefen doesn’t eat well, I think she’s becoming anorexic but Meir says it’s just a phase, Levia’s the only one I can relate to any more but she’s already ten and she’ll turn into a teenager soon, too. And I miss Ema. And — oops, almost missed that one, thank God I came to on time. Bashkirova goes on, and the strings finally decide to join in, they could have finished a cup of coffee by now.
You in the second row. Don’t look at me that way. I’m doing my job. I can handle this. I’ve taken piano lessons with Ekatarina for five years now, it’s my major escape of the week, the lessons and practicing at home. And aren’t you worried about the election? Why should you be, you probably vote for Labor, you probably have since 1948, you probably haven’t noticed that it’s not the same country any more, but once you eighty-year-olds are gone who will vote Labor anymore? And who will buy tickets to the Chamber Music Festival?
Especially if what they offer is Ouch! Wow, she does have quite a kick. Probably practices on Barenboim. Imagine two concert pianists married to each other. Worse than two lawyers. Always on tour in different places. How did they manage to have children? Can you have sex on a grand piano? It’s big enough. Stop it. I stand and turn the page.
The country is such a mess. Hezbollah firing rockets from the north, Hamas from the south, Iran helping them out, the world hates us. What really bothers me, though, is the intolerance, the people who believe everything they read in Ha’aretz, who say everyone who’s religious or worried about security is immoral and ignorant, and the people who believe everything they read in Makor Rishon, who think everyone who’s worried about rights and minorities is an anti-Zionist.
Don’t give me that dirty glance, Bashkirova, I’m with you, I see it, here I am, turning the page just on time. End of the first movement. The players relax, but just for a moment, and go into the second. Same melody, if you can call it that, it sounds like a waltz, but it all falls apart just as it would if you, lady in the second row, tried to waltz without your walker.
Ema would have hated it. There hasn’t been any real music since Mozart, she’d say. She was a real product of the Enlightenment, which meant that she was suspicious of anything that came after the eighteenth century. It’s not fair that the kids don’t have her as a grandmother.
I’m with you, Bashkirova. It’s a slow movement, remember? I have time. Maybe give me a chord I can relate to?
I mean, just try having a family conversation about the election. I come home from the office, glad to be away from writing briefs and motions and letters, and I just want to be a parent, you know, show my children the way they should go, have an intelligent conversation with them, demonstrate my values. And usually Meir’s not home, somehow I’m able to leave the law stuff on my desk for tomorrow morning but he feels he can’t leave until everything he set out to do that day is done, and I throw together a bit of dinner, make some omelets and a salad and try to get the kids to sit down together, or at least a couple of them, someone always has an after school activity or is out with friends, and I say, you know, there’s an election coming up and as good citizens who care about the future of our country we need to decide who to vote for, to decide intelligently, to have a reasoned discussion, and what do you get?
Ema, just face it, you like Arabs more than Jews, Akiva mutters, staring into his plate. I’m not hungry, can I go to my room, Gefen whimpers. And Levia only wants to know what there is for dessert. Then Meir comes home and all he wants is to get everyone down so we can get into bed and—page turn—I just want to go to sleep. I respected my parents, wanted to know what they thought about things. Well, most of the time. When they were reasonable. End of second movement, on to the third.
Ema and Abba were Mafdalniks of the old school. Religious Zionists in every bone of their bodies, back when it was a big tent, when being a religious Zionist meant thinking for yourself, and keeping the rabbis at a respectful but firm distance. What’s that buzzing, and why is Bashkirova playing the same note over and over? But it’s getting to me, this music, somehow. It’s melding with my insides. What was I thinking? Sure, I rebelled, demonstrated against Oslo, went to an ulpana in Beit El, but all within limits. I always listened to what they said. Yes, Bashkirova, and I’m listening to you, too, I am, and here I am turning the page. And here we are at the end of the third movement. On to the fourth.
It’s different today. There’s no backbone, no center, no respect for authority. There’s no melody, either. Meir says I’m wrong, that every generation since Adam and Eve has been frustrated by their children. I don’t know. Buzz in my pocket, I should have turned off my phone and not just put it on silent. Blue and White, Likud, Yamina, Democratic Union, all sending me text messages every five minutes. What’s their message? Just how awful the other parties are. Bibi’s a coward, Gantz is a leftist, Shaked’s a fascist, Peretz a Stalinist. Where’s the respect? It’s all so shallow. Ouch. I’m here, Bashkirova, I’m turning the page.
You know what I think? I think people need to listen to more music. I mean real music, not the stuff kids listen to today. I mean, we all need popular songs, we all need easy stuff to get through our days, but that’s not real music, real music that makes you really feel contradictory things at the same time, the way people really do, that makes you think, that catches you by surprise and makes you see the world in a new way. Ekatarina says that the difference between a popular song and serious music is that a popular song has one story but a piece of serious music has a story unique for each listener and each player. And it takes work to uncover what that story is for you. Like here, in Schnittke’s fourth movement, I hear what it feels like to live without Ema. Page turn. Here, it’s coming to an end. I see there’s a fifth movement, that’s unusual, I wasn’t expecting that.
It’s Bashkirova alone again. She plays a theme, it’s like bells, it could almost be a ringtone but it’s more pregnant than that, it’s got more depth. She is so intense, Bashrikova is, like this sound is all that matters in the world. The strings join in but she just keeps playing the bells over and over again, in the background. And gradually the strings fade out, and she keeps playing the bells, softer and softer, her touch lighter and lighter, her hands barely touching the keys, until the music ends, imperceptibly, but stays in the ear.
The two violinists and the viola still have their instruments under their chins; they and the cellist still have their bows on their strings. Bashkirova’s hands are still poised just a millimeter above the keyboard. They hold the pose for a long, long moment before they relax, lower their arms, and stand up to receive their applause.
My job is over. I walk into the wings. It’s been a journey, this Schnittke Piano Quintet. About losing my mother. About not being the kind of mother I set out to be. About not being able to get through to my children, about not being able to explain to Meir why that makes me feel so lost and so cranky. About feeling overwhelmed with work and family and the country I love so much as it falls to pieces.
It’s all so overwhelming because it’s all so important. But within me that quiet bell rings in peaceful solitude. It’s the bell that keeps me going, that remains in my ears, in the background, even when the tumult of job and kids and housework and errands and crises try to drown it out. I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for, but the bells are there. I guess I just need to keep turning the pages.
Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet can be heard here. The bells begin at about 23:30.
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.