Between the Chords

Reflections on the Art of Humanity by Annette Simons

Annette Simons

Annette Simons
Location
Santa Monica, California, USA
Birthday
June 07
Bio
Annette Simons is an arts management professional with more than two decades of experience working with performing arts organizations large and small. Her background combines knowledge of classical music, all types of theatre, ballet/modern dance, family programming, and K-12 arts education. With a successful track record that includes experience in New York and Los Angeles, Annette offers a sophisticated viewpoint on arts administration issues. During her 20-year career at the Los Angeles Music Center, Annette successfully developed, wrote, and solicited hundreds of proposals for grant awards ranging into millions of dollars for arts education, family programming, and capital projects. In her nearly ten years as Managing Director of the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra, she produced sold-out chamber music concert series in professional venues (including The Getty Center, the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, and Zipper Concert Hall at The Colburn School) as well as art galleries, private homes, and non-traditional performance spaces. Other affiliations include Calliope Media, with music scholar/pianist/media author Robert Winter. Annette's pro bono work includes eight years on the Santa Monica Arts Commission with two years as chair. She has served on peer panels for the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and the Santa Monica Arts Commission. An honors graduate of the prestigious Performing Arts Management M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College (City University of New York), Annette completed her internships and residency for her degree working in the Development Department of New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. She earned her B.A. in Theatre Arts with honors from Loyola Marymount University. She also spent a summer in England studying writing at Oxford University.

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JANUARY 20, 2010 6:28PM

The First Chord

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Little Dancer 

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 contains a great mystery.  The second of the work’s three movements is just one measure of notation, consisting of only two chords.  Each time I hear this piece, I find myself reflecting on its second movement as an imperfect metaphor for life’s options. 

Scholars and artists have speculated on Bach’s intention.  Some musicians treat this middle movement, marked adagio, as punctuation – a breather between two vigorous allegros.  Some use these chords to frame an improvised cadenza, typically for violin or harpsichord.  Some interpretations insert other works by Bach that begin and end with the two chords.

Life is like Bach’s mysterious two chords.  The first chord is immovable.  It represents the circumstances of birth and the limitations and opportunities they carry.  This chord is the initial lens through which we perceive the world around us and our place in it. 

The first chord can bear gifts – ideals, character, talents, distinguished heritage, rich traditions.  It can also impose heavy baggage – prejudices, guilt, preconceptions, misconceptions, responsibilities, and challenges. 

Are we born into wealth or poverty?  Democracy or dictatorship?  Hope or despair?  Are we female or male?  Urban or rural?  What is our race? Our ethnicity?  What is our predisposition to health or illness? 

Yet – after the initial chord – life is an unwritten symphony.  We can improvise our own cadenzas, seek inspiration from other composers’ repertoire, or seize the opportunity to innovate.  

What makes the between the chords metaphor imperfect?  Melodies, harmonies, and rhythms come in and out of our lives and some play a larger role than we might have scored – for better or for worse.  People and places sing their leitmotivs, altering our moods.   The expected allegro turns into an unexpected largo.  Circumstances force us to travel andante, rather than prestissimo.  Our anthem can become a dirge and our fanfare a lullaby.  Hurdles thrust us from major to minor keys.  Yes, we have choices to make and opportunities to seize, but things get in the way.  

What else renders the metaphor imperfect?  The musician interpreting Bach knows at the outset what the final chord will be and controls when it will conclude the movement.  In our lives, we know a final chord is inevitable, but we do not know when it will sound.  The words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet echo:  There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

This blog is part memoir, part essay.  It shares reflections on the influences and the inspiration that drive my cadenza – a work in progress.

*****

My opening chord resonates with the influence of my family.  I can say without a doubt that my mother considered me the most important person — and achievement — of her life. 

I know little about the circumstances of my mother’s birth – her own first chord.  She was born in Puerto Rico and spent her early years on the island.  My great-grandmother, called Mama or Maman (she was of French descent) appeared to be a significant influence in her life, though I know few details about the relationship.  Maman was an herbalist in her village.  She cared for the sick with herbal remedies and served as midwife.  I know nothing of my great-grandfather. 

As a child, my mother moved to New York City with my grandmother, known as Tata to distinguish her from Maman.  (I plan to devote an upcoming post to Tata; watch this space.)  My mother spoke little of her father.  The men in my family are most notable for their absence.

As a young woman, mom was very glamorous and took courses in fashion modeling.  She was beautiful.  She enjoyed working as an usherette in Broadway movie theatres so she could see all the films over and over.  Thanks to her, I learned to love Fred Astaire, Katherine Hepburn, Ronald Coleman, Greer Garson, Claude Rains, and countless other stars.  In the 1940s, mom was a licensed beautician and completed a commercial art class. 

When I was very young,  my mother had a brief career as an artist.  She worked at home hand-coloring black and white photographs with special oil pencils.  Of course, technology advanced and by the late 1960s this skill became almost obsolete; mom would have been great at Photoshop.  She was always searching for something creative to do, but seemed to lack the drive, self-esteem, or resources to pursue a focused career; I am certain obstacles I cannot fully understand got in her way.

Mom suffered many disappointments — in her failed marriage to my father and friendships that let her down.  But perhaps saddest of her frustrations was her unfulfilled desire to express herself through dance, drawing, photography, and painting.  To make ends meet, she worked in factories and retail most of her life.  Our family’s only other income was the small sum my father paid monthly for child support and my grandmother’s social security benefits.  I remember rushing to the bank with Tata to cash these checks immediately on their arrival.

At some point in mom’s disillusionment, she decided to focus all her energy on being a good mother – at the exclusion of everything else.  Mom gave up on herself; she stopped working at building her own happiness.  She became bitter.     

She stopped caring about fashion and the latest hairstyles – at least for herself, though she loved going shopping for my clothes.   Mom deliberately wore dowdy garments and even wore a cheap gold band on her ring finger to make sure no man would look at her with any interest.  She did not cultivate friendships.  Once she told me that, when I became old enough to converse, she stopped making friends because I was so interesting she felt she did not need anyone else. 

Mom, Tata, and I left New York in 1961 on a train bound for Union Station, Los Angeles.  I was eight years old.  This move was both brave and foolhardy.  Mom knew no one in California.  She said she thought it would be easier to be a single parent in Los Angeles, but I think she just wanted to put distance between us and my father after the divorce. 

When I visit Union Station today, I try to picture the three of us getting off the train and walking across the waiting area, luggage and my dolls in tow.  Mom later regretted the move to L.A. and lamented that she had not opted to go back to Puerto Rico instead.  California meant yet more disillusionment for her.

In retrospect, I am astonished that my mother managed to give me dancing and music lessons, to rent a piano, and to make sure I could attend all the choir and play rehearsals I wanted.  Each year, Santa brought what I wanted for Christmas and I always had a new party dress when I needed one.  Despite all her challenges, I never felt “poor” as a child.  It must have been critically important to her that I have the opportunities that she felt were out of reach in her own creative life. 

Before we left Manhattan, we were living on the Upper Westside.  I remember doing the last errands in the neighborhood with mom before we moved to California.  We passed a huge construction site and I asked mom about it.  She explained that they were building something called Lincoln Center and it would have lots of ballet.  Nearly thirty years later I started my arts management career in this very spot – working for New York City Ballet.  I credit my mother for nurturing my love of the arts, which became my passion and my life’s work.  I am forever grateful for this priceless gift.

It was wonderful to feel so loved, but I wish my mother had not excluded other opportunities in her life.  Her devotion to me created strains in our relationship as I grew up, exercised my independence, and spent less time with her.  Nevertheless, we each make decisions based on our perception of the options open to us.  She made the choices she believed were right at the time.  No one is a perfect parent.   I deeply regret that she did not experience more joy and fulfillment.

Mom spent her final 16 months in a skilled nursing care facility, where she passed away in 2004.  Most of the staff there were Latinas who, like mom, were single mothers facing a host of challenges.  One day, mom told me that many of these women had come to see her to ask for guidance. 

“You’re Latina,” they would say, “and you brought up that daughter with no man to help you.  Your little girl went to college and has a good job.  She is kind to everyone here.  She wears nice clothes and knows all about fine things like music and art.  How did you do it?” 

I am tremendously gratified that mom shared this with me.  More than anything, she wanted to be a good mother and now other women admired her triumph!  By the time her final chord sounded, she was proud of me – but, more importantly, she was proud of herself.

I had this essay nearly completed when something prompted me to rethink my mother’s story.  Some weeks ago, I decided to replace the tattered frame that held a photo of me and mom.  I had forgotten that mom liked to store some of her favorite pictures behind each other within a frame and rotate them periodically.  To my surprise, I found some treasured photographs – and memories – lurking hidden in the frame.

Among these pictures, I found the little ballerina featured above.  Mom hand-colored this photo of me at age six, wearing the costume from my first recital.  Behind the picture, barely attached with tape turned orange, I found a yellowed newspaper clipping with a poem by Ben Burroughs:

MY LITTLE FLOWER

There’s a flower in life’s garden…

Far more precious than the rest…

A blushing rose from heaven…

With whom I’m truly blest…

Just a little pug-nosed female…

Who is but six years of age…

And yet a seasoned actress...

On life’s revolving stage…

For she knows the way to make me smile…

And how to make me cry…

She is poetry in motion…

And a tender lullaby…

Pure, even with a dirty face…

Oh, what a work of art…

She is my key to happiness…

This rosebud of my heart…

God bless my little flower…

Keep her safe throughout the years…

May her life be filed with laughter…

Free of doubt and bitter tears. 

Cloyingly sentimental?  Absolutely.  Great literature?  Certainly not.  But I pictured mom as a young mother, taping the scrap of paper to the back of my picture.  Discovering this little poem touched me more deeply than any words can describe.

Copyright © 2010 by Annette Simons.

 

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Wonderful! Just wonderful!
Annette: (hope that's spelled right) This was a simply amazing story. You had me riveted and crying. I'm so glad that your mom had her triumpth and shared it with you at the end.

As a single parent to an only daughter, I am your age, not your mom's and your mom's first chord was nothing like mine, but there is some twinship or couple-ness that develops when two are an entire family. I love the photo she painted in. I love this piece. Keep writing, you are especially good at it.