Early Lesson 

A violinist recalls the first time she heard Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

click to enlarge Ellen Cockerham is principal second violin at Richmond Symphony and executive director of Classical Revolution RVA.

Ash Daniel

Ellen Cockerham is principal second violin at Richmond Symphony and executive director of Classical Revolution RVA.

There’s something about the last few seconds that rattles me.

Up to that point, the orchestra playing of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 has been chugging along like some sort of sinister factory. But in the final bars of the piece, the whole operation is reduced to a few musicians. They continue playing as if unaware that you’ve suddenly zoomed in on them, until finally, they’re swallowed up by the rest of the orchestra in one triumphant gulp.

Every time I hear it, my chest rattles, tears fill my eyes, and I’m lucky if I manage to suppress a yelp. The first time I heard it, however, I suppressed nothing.

It was the summer of 2006, and I was a student at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. Keith Lockhart was coming to conduct Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, and everyone wanted to make a good impression. The faculty was so concerned that the students might come unprepared to the first rehearsal that they scheduled an extra one just for us before the maestro arrived.

They were right to be concerned. Summer music festivals tend to pack in more rehearsals, coachings, lessons, classes and performances than is humanly possible, leaving students little choice but to fly by the seat of their pants and make huge artistic strides.

At lunchtime on the day before the student rehearsal, it occurred to my group of friends that we would have to step up and lead our respective sections in the absence of the faculty. Furthermore, we realized that we didn’t have time to learn the music, the afternoon was filled with chamber-music coaching, and there was a not-to-be-missed recital after dinner. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, we agreed to meet at 10 p.m. to listen to the entire 45-minute symphony.

But where could all four of us listen to this blaring music after curfew?

We ended up in the middle of a dark parking lot underneath a lone street lamp, sitting in and on top of a BMW Z3 convertible, a fourth-generation iPod blasting Prokofiev Five through the car’s sound system, following along in our music.

Hearing the soaring melodies with those athletic leaps and the unexpected, yet heartbreakingly gorgeous harmonic shifts, all underscored by militant rhythms, made my body rumble while panic and dread gave way to excitement and joy. How lucky was I to get to play this incredible music? Having familiarized ourselves, we retired to our bunk beds and eagerly awaited the new day.

So what is it about that ending that still resonates so deeply? Perhaps it’s the insignificance of our lives in the grand scheme of things, or maybe it’s the futility of all our scurrying about, or just our obliviousness to said futility.

Or perhaps it’s the integrity of people who are meticulous in their work even though no one is watching. Whatever it is, it’s human. S

The Richmond Symphony performs Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony on May 9 and 10.



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