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Bow crossers' triumph

Whatever the flaws, it sings in my mind as a shining moment: when we played Tchaikovsky's Sixth, the ''Pathetique,'' that symphony of fire and roses. We are a small college orchestra, around 50, give or take absences and lapses - a gangling group of laid-back students. In the rear stands drift a few faculty - like my husband and me (on the viola) and a brilliant mathematician, a double bass, who waves off any little discrepancies in intonation as ''details, details.''

Some of us are very good and some are bow crossers. All of us spend our working hours elsewhere. But beneath the nonchalance and jokes, we are passionate about our music, practicing hungrily in odd corners of our lives, hoping for that beautiful sound, aspiring to the living melody.

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The previous year we had endured an English composer for conductor - a pale, paunchy aesthete, cherishing ailments and given to Western cowboy dress. But this year we had our own conductor back from his sabbatical of wood-gathering for his stoves and studying Donizetti manuscripts in Sicily. Music is built into his mind; he understands our limitations and can inspire us beyond them. And we were playing the ''Pathetique,'' something we knew, although vaguely - and loved.

''You can't play it by ear,'' he cautioned with a glint of determination. And so we found. Those moments of ringing melody had to be earned with pages and pages of black runs galloping in defiance of faltering technique.

Grudgingly we extended our practicing. My kitchen hovered near chaos with dirty dishes stacking unsteadily, and students concentrated more tightly on term papers, cutting down on the verbiage, as we scraped for the extra time. And still the strong, flowing lines of the movements eluded us.

At the dress rehearsal, the ''ringers'' playing timpani and percussion moved in like an invading army, rattling us and crowding our stands. The double bass muttered wonderingly, ''I never knew I was so exposed,'' as he launched on his opening solo. The bassoon cracked when he followed, fracturing the haunting phrase.

''Could we go back to S,'' begged the lead French horn. ''I blew it.''

''Well, I didn't,'' said his standmate.

''Of course you didn't - you don't play there. I do, and I blew it,'' came the swift retort.

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''Oh.'' Very soft.

The first oboe didn't show. The second oboe, halfway through the third movement, looked at me with the mute appeal of a stricken cow. ''Where are you?'' And I, plowing grimly through a three-page run of triplets, could only mutter, ''A long ways between 'F' and 'G.' ''

Somewhere along the line, my husband whispered in my ear, ''I believe you played that F sharp a little flat.''

We went home very late, worn out and discouraged, and I was resigned to hoping simply for no personal dishonor. Before the concert, we assembled in unaccustomed dark respectability - black suits, long dresses, no flaming ties or dirty socks. The practice room echoed with runs repeated endlessly as those feckless youngsters rehearsed with every ounce of concentration.

In the hall, the audience gathered, expecting disaster. We knew - we had told them - but still they came. And slowly we filed on stage, expectant and tense as the lights dimmed and the stage lit up. A's were anxiously sounded and the conductor appeared, contained and strangely detached in elegant tux and lilac ruffled shirt.

A moment he waited, steeling our resolution, and slowly the basses began, whispering out of nothing, sounding the intimation from the sorrowing wonder to joy, soaring precariously. Our breath held - we had done it. And then the second movement, the delicate drifting hesitation of the 5/4 dance, as though the sparkle must dim and only the lovely melody linger on. We rested, gathering our strength, and whirled into the storming majesty and passion of the third, building power and tumult to the resounding commitment of the explosive last chord. Finally, the fourth, mourning prayer, with its tender mercy and grieving acceptance of loss, broken briefly by a flowering of fire and then the slow, slow dying down to the basses that began the wonder of this beauty and now drift off into the unknown with fragile hope.

We had been lifted to a moment of insight and skill beyond us, with the music towering above, singing as though at heaven's gates until at last it faded to poignant silence. The audience sat hushed, not a breath stirring, before the excited applause.


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