Untitled Essay

Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications

Honorable Mention

2014-2015 Staff Essay Contest


I always sit in the balcony on the left side. It’s instinctive, I don’t think about it. My mother studied piano at the Mannes College of Music in New York, so naturally we always sat on the left side at a classical music concert, to see the pianist’s fingers. As a child, I didn’t understand why other people sat anywhere else. Didn’t they know?

I started coming to Richardson Auditorium when we moved to Princeton from Stamford, Connecticut. I was 11. I wasn’t too happy about moving in the middle of sixth grade. The previous year, my parents had put my sister and me in a tiny progressive private school, where I got to play field hockey and do macramé at lunch with Paul Newman’s daughters, who went there too. I also had my stage debut – as the dog in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” Even with a branch tied to my head, I thought life was pretty good.

But when my father was transferred to Bound Brook, my parents drew a half-hour circle around it on the map. We want to raise you girls in a university town, they told us over dinner. I pushed my My-T-Fine pudding around with my spoon and thought, how good could it be? Paul Newman’s daughters don’t live there.

Not surprisingly, my parents’ idea of a family night out was going to a concert. We attended dozens of performances at Richardson. Only gradually did I realize I was hearing some of the world’s greatest living artists. I grew to love classical music deeply.

Once seated, my mother would pore over the program with me, explaining the history of the different pieces, sharing anecdotes about my grandfather’s favorite composers and the concerts he had taken her to as a little girl growing up on Riverside Drive in New York.

Richardson Auditorium became as familiar to me as my home. I thought the 1894 building, with its walls of granite and brown sandstone, was like a castle. Every time I climbed one of the winding stairwells to the balcony, trailing my fingers along the cold, hard stone, I fancied myself a princess going up to my tower bedroom.

People always talk about stepping outside your comfort zone, and that’s a good thing, most of the time, but people don’t talk so much about the importance of doing things inside your comfort zone, the grounding and centering that gives you. When I sit in Richardson, I get that. I have now climbed those stone stairs for four decades. With or without my mother, I continue to sit in the upper left balcony.

The performance is different each time, but for me the experience of listening to music in that venerable building – which says, “We know you, you’re welcome here” – is always the same.

I take my seat. As more people sit down, I am naturally tucked in amongst all the coats and scarves. I check out the backs of people. White swans swim in a cerulean sea on the silk scarf wrapped around the neck of the woman in front of me. Next to her is a couple: a tall man who looks terribly smart in a navy wool blazer and bright red V-neck sweater; his wife, very petite, wears a burgundy turtleneck and a gold chain. I look at its clasp. I see him quietly place his age-spotted hand on her tiny-boned one on the armrest between them. A young child, her feet sticking straight out from the seat, busies herself with a small stuffed animal I imagine her parents cleverly threw in the car at the last minute.

For me, there is no “town” and “gown” – and never has been. I know that everyone in the audience lives here, and perhaps, like my parents, moved here, for the cultural portal of the University. I glance across the balcony and down to the orchestra level and see friends of my parents whom I’ve known for years, who have been coming to Richardson for years; others I recognize from having been here so many times. Some are the parents of my high school friends: one who volunteers every year at the Bryn Mawr book sale at Princeton Day School; one who lost her husband several years back from lung cancer and now comes to concerts alone.

I close my eyes and enjoy one of the most familiar sounds I know – that of the orchestra warming up. The audience is warming up too; I hear snippets of conversation – a French accent here, a mumble in German there, each its own instrument.

As I hear the tinkle of the little bells the ushers ring to signal the start of the concert, I open my eyes, and they linger, as they always do, on what for years I called the four mysteries at the front of the auditorium. Until I recently looked on Richardson’s website, I had no idea what any of them were; yet my eyes had memorized their familiar colors, shapes and features.

On the far left, high above the stage, is an alcove where I can see the pipes of the organ that was used during the first half of the 20th century. Along the entire width of the back wall of the stage, a mosaic made of tiles from Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company portrays scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey; to the right of the stage, set into the wall, is a carving of Henry Alexander, Class of 1840, for whom the building is named; and above that, a choir loft, now, like the organ, unused.

The lights dim. A few people move over a seat or two – empty with a better view. Those who need to get in a last cough or clear their throat. The violinist pops up to play a perfectly punctuated concert A.

The musicians breathe in together as if one beneficent beast, then exhale, the music cracking open the still air, almost visible, sailing in all directions, buoyed by perfect acoustics, up and around the auditorium. If the music is capricious, it covers your eyes and runs and hides, only to pop back up behind your chair; if tender or dear, it presses its furry, soft coat against you; if haunting, it slips its little hand into yours like a frightened child and you squeeze it warmly; if it’s cool and soothing, it wraps itself across your forehead like a dampened fresh towel on a fevered brow; if dark and foreboding, it swoops dangerously close so you feel the air move in front of your face; if its sweetness is almost too much to bear, it sails away in the salty microscopic sea of the tear that slips out of the corner of your eye.

Always, too, it takes you somewhere – a musing about the future, a deeper grounding in the present moment or a journey to the past.

I hear my parents’ voices from my bedroom, accompanied by the clink of ice tumbling into highball glasses. “Turn the radio up right now!” my mother calls from the kitchen to my father. “That’s the second movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 ‘Death and the Maiden’ – kills me every time.” Then a pause as the wall oven door squeaks open. “Didn’t you think the beef bourguignon Margaret served last night was a little fussy? I mean it was just we and one other couple. That woman is obsessed with Julia Child. OK, you can turn it down now.”