In October, 2022 I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. Wynton Marsalis was performing as part of Hancher’s 50th year celebration. His piece All Rise was performed with Orchestra Iowa and choirs from the University of Iowa. I was called to be a substitute viola 3 days before the first rehearsal. There was no way I could turn this down. Even though it was 70+, pages of music to learn in three days I still immediately said yes.
There were rehearsals through the week leading up to the Saturday performance. Since I was just filling in with an orchestra with which I do not have a position, I did not share on social media what I was up to that week. It felt like I would be taking away from my colleagues and friends who were actual members of that orchestra.
Along with Wynton Marsalis the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra also performed. The way I was positioned on stage I was next to the trombones and trumpets. I was positioned literally 4 seats away from Wynton. I was mere feet away from some of the best jazz musicians on the planet.
I play an instrument not typically included in jazz music. Viola is pretty much the furthest you can get from jazz. Especially when you consider my training in classical music. I never learned to properly improvise or even read markings one might find in jazz. There were passages I couldn’t even imagine playing until after we played them all together in rehearsal.
I learned more by playing next to those incredible musicians than I ever thought possible. I learned about tone, and how to melt into the sound around me. One thing in particular surprised me. They didn’t play loud. Sure, there were times I was very thankful for my custom ear plugs to protect my hearing. But these guys made the listener almost come to them. Wynton, especially, used the silence between notes like a master.
Throughout the rehearsal process Wynton would give insight as to the meaning behind a specific movement and then the whole work. To have the composer sitting right there performing alongside the rest of us was amazing. The number of musicians on that stage was enormous, but every single one of us was right there with him. We all felt the momentum and story behind the work as a whole.
I have never been a part of a performance as powerful as this was. It has literally changed me forever. The part of me that believes in the magic of music was resurrected from the ashes of the trauma of the pandemic.
I openly cried during the last movement at the dress rehearsal and at the performance. They were tears of absolute joy. I want to carry that feeling with me each and every day - with every performance I give and with every lesson I teach.
I had lost that joy for a number of reasons. Life has been difficult for every human on Earth the past three years. Situations in my personal life (health) also took a huge toll on me. Professionally, every single project I have worked on has been kissed by the breath of the pandemic.
All of the pain, loss, and suffering made more sense to me once I tapped into the well of joy created by the musicians on the Hancher stage. My life first changed in Iowa City when I came to the University of Iowa for graduate school. I had big, influential performances on the old Hancher stage. This performance of All Rise made it feel like I had come full circle. On the banks of the Iowa River is a portal that can take me to the place I belong: making music with other humans. That is the only magic I believe to be actually real. Music connects. And that is magic.
Written by Christina Mixemong, co-owner of Dynamic Music Studios in Coralville, IA and teacher of viola and violin.