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Unpublished Draft



The Symphony

The music was abominable, forcing Maurice to clamp his hands over his ears and gasp. The violins were fingernails on a chalkboard. The flutes were finches under attack by crows. The trumpets were a heard of dying elephants.

It was four days before the season’s opening night and the orchestra was threatening to go on strike.

Maurice knew trouble was brewing when the trombones slowed their tempo to a crawl in the midst of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in B-minor during Monday’s rehearsal, sabotaging the piece. But he did not expect wholesale mutiny by his musicians, for he had groomed them over the years until they became one of the finest symphony orchestras in the nation. Today they sounded like a middle-school marching band.

The maestro tossed his baton in the air and told everybody to take an early lunch break.

Seeing how distraught the conductor was, Madam Maria Balsevicius-Smyrl, the renowned first cellist, cornered Maurice in the cafeteria to console him.

“Maestro, we are very sorry we have to do this. It is not personal. It is a tactic,” she said in her thick Lithuanian accent.

“So the plan is to torture me first before asking for more money?”

“It’s not that simple, Maestro. You see, nobody can agree on anything.

The trombones are the worst. They’re demanding dental insurance coverage for embouchure therapy. And a big fat raise,” she said.

Maurice put his turkey and swiss on rye back on the tray. “That’s preposterous. Too many instruments are fighting for the crumbs in my budget. Everybody knows the orchestra is facing bankruptcy. We’ll be performing in the subway if the strike is not averted.”

Maria, the consummate performer, laughed on cue. “How très terrible!”

Maurice was especially fond of Maria and he respected her influence over fellow musicians in her capacity as shop steward for the Cello and Viola Guild, Local 51.

“Look Maria, it’s grim. We’re broke. We’ve been running in the red for three years and digging into the last of our endowment to keep the lights on. The fat cat donors have abandoned us. The philistines on the board are screaming for deep salary cuts.”

“I have some advice for you, Maestro. Start with the clarinets. They have the weakest union and if you get major concessions from them maybe the United Timpani Drummers Local 16 will budge from their radical stance. Our triangle player, Simon John Takahashi, claims those loudmouths are communists, but he’s unrepresented and would say anything to get into the Percussionist’s Guild.”

“Yes, poor Simon,” Maurice said. “He’s the lowest-paid member of the orchestra. I’ve noticed his tattered tuxedo.”

After the day’s hideous rehearsal was done, Maurice retreated to his office to study the budget. He didn’t see any fat to cut. A knock on his door interrupted this odious task. Charles St. Lucas Harris, the lead piccolo player, entered the room shaking.

“Maestro, it’s the flautists!” he squealed. “They’re threatening to drown out my solos if I don’t join their union. It’s extortion!”

By and by Maurice was able to reach accommodations with the unions. Some were pliant, like Maria’s violas and cellos, and he found the others to be less concerned about money than dignity and recognition. All but the triangle player was compensated well enough to accept a small pay cut. Maurice employed his conductor’s skills as a harmonizer, soothing ruffled feathers by promising to print every musician’s name in the playbill. He threw in a concession for embouchure therapy to mute the trombones.

Tension was high when the orchestra assembled for dress rehearsal the eve of the season’s debut. Practice sessions leading up to this momentous occasion were raucous and undisciplined, but Maurice had finalized negotiations late in the night and was confident the orchestra was ready to play in its finest tradition.

The ritual of tuning commenced with the usual dissonance, the rising and falling of notes that clashed and jockeyed to reach the perfect pitch. But the cacophony did not stop. There was no plaintive, perfect note rising above the fray to gather the other instruments into obedience. Suddenly Maurice saw St. Lucas-Harris waiving his piccolo in the air and pointing to the empty chair beside him. Mr. Jones was missing. Maurice slapped his head in despair. He had neglected to negotiate with the United Oboists of America. Mild-mannered Oscar Millhouse Jones, his brilliant and indispensable oboe player, was on strike.


Copyright © 2015 Karl Schoenberger

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