While I stood in the middle of the puddled cloak Vladimir prompted me to turn around and wave to the orchestra. As I waved, I was surprised to see most of the orchestra’s eyes on me while they played. Many of them waved back at me. I hadn’t recalled seeing that much animation from so many of the players during the preceding pieces of the program. As one player said to me after the concert, the mere thought of a conductor disappearing is enough to put a smile on any of our faces. It was a comment made only half in jest.
Vladimir stooped down and grabbed the curtain while Elena simultaneously moved behind me. The curtain was pulled up over my head, and I could tell that Elena was inside the cloak directly behind me, though not touching me. The black cloth was somewhat translucent. I could see three spotlights illuminating us and the outlines of the cavernous Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Art along with Vladimir’s arms holding and shaking the cloth.
In rehearsal Elena kept repeating to me: “Do nothing, just stand there, and keep your arms by your sides. And whatever you do, don’t try to help me.” When the two of them spoke to me in rehearsal, I involuntarily focused on the pair’s heavy Russian accents, but now I was trying to remember what they actually had said to me. As I went over the instructions in my head, I felt a strong tug at the back of the tux jacket. I could tell my coat was coming off, but still wasn’t quite sure of what was going on. “Just stand there and do nothing,” I thought. Then, I felt the tailored arms of my jacket pulling at the french cuffs of my white piqué shirt. First the left arm, then the right. While Elena was working on my jacket Vladimir would softly say a word or two to her. She would curtly answer him with one or two words in Russian. He continued holding the cloak: making it vibrant and and undulate as if some sort of magical concoction was brewing. I couldn’t see or feel Elena and had a slight sense that I was no longer wearing my jacket though I wasn’t sure as I kept staring straight ahead through the black hood of a cloak.
Suddenly, I squinted my eyes as the full glare of three spotlights hit me. Vladimir had dropped the cloak and I peripherally sensed Elena to my right. Before my sight had fully adjusted to the full glare of the stage lighting there was a roar from the crowd, and I glanced to my right to see Elena.
There she was, still bound in the ropes. But, underneath the ropes she was wearing my tux jacket over her evening dress. The ropes were as tight as they had been when Vladimir and I tugged on them before she and I stepped into the curtain. Despite the fact that Elena was corseted by ropes and wearing my tux jacket, she still maintained a sense of elegance as she and Vladimir began to calmly exit the stage to my right. A genuine smile came to my face as I appreciated the cleverness of the trick and the delight of the audience. Adding a little faux drama to the moment, I—as the straight man in the act—looked down at my formal sartorial ensemble. Minus the tux. With large eyes and open mouth my gaze suddenly shot forward toward the audience in a look of utter astonishment. I was as surprised as I was pleased that the audience roared with laughter and wondered if working with actors for so many years in the theater had given me a slight sense of comedic timing.
I was so enjoying my comedy debut when I suddenly remembered that I was to stop Elena and Vladimir from leaving the stage. After all, she was still wearing my tux jacket. I looked to my right, and I saw them still heading off-stage but looking back at me with a questioning look as if to say: “Remember what we told you in rehearsal?” With exaggerated impatience I mimed that they were to return my coat to me so that I could resume conducting the orchestra.
At that moment I realized that the orchestra was still playing the Cygnets, but I had no earthly idea of which iteration of repeat they were on. “Was this the second or third time?” I wondered. I began to get a bit nervous. Vladimir and Elena came back to me, and we began untying her. I tried to hurry Vladimir along because if the musicians were on the last repeat they were already half way through the piece and I needed to get back on the podium. Or so I thought.
After Elena was untied she came around to me and gently helped me on with my tux jacket. Up close her radiant smile had an intoxicatingly intimate quality, and I wondered if she was truly enjoying the moment with me or if it was just part of the act, having done it hundreds of times before.
Vladimir interrupted my momentary reverie when he prompted the audience to applaud my participation in the quick-change act. I acknowledged the audience though I really did nothing except stand there while the circus artists did all the heavy lifting. As I turned upstage my mind clicked back into music mode as I realized the musicians were about six bars from the end of the piece. “This had to be the third and last repeat,” I thought. My first inclination was to hurry to the podium, but then I felt that it would be most effective for the audience if I reached the orchestra just as the piece ended. With four bars to go I turned back downstage and saw Elena and Vladimir smiling and waving at me. With a quick turn and a step up onto the 8-inch high podium I grabbed the baton just as the orchestra reached the second to last chord.
I brought in the full orchestra with a slight ritenuto—solely for dramatic effect—for the final two chords ending one of the more memorable performances of Tchaikowsky’s Dance of the Four Little Swans that I’d ever conducted.