If you'd just happened upon a recent concert at Duke you might have thought you were witnessing magic. Jonathan Bagg (violist of the Ciompi Quartet) and his family were celebrating his and his wife Susie's 20th wedding anniversary by playing an awesome program of classical music. Their 16-year-old son, Sam, played the piano, sitting in on the Shostakovitch and Schumann parts Susie had played 20 years ago in Jonathan's master's viola concert just before they got married. Daughter Eliza, 13, joined in on the violin in the opening Handel, and then played a Mozart duo with her dad, and then Susie made a cameo on a movement of the Brahms she and Jonathan had played together when they met in 1978, when he was just a bit older than Sam is now. The whole thing was superbly played, gorgeous beyond belief, and looked effortless.
My family had the luck of watching them rehearse in the same hall the week before. It was just as beautifully played, but we also got to see the magic with some of its tricks revealed, the tweaking and adjusting and hard work that brought things into balance. We got to see Eliza jump on stage, barefoot and in baggy capris, throw down her Walkman and homework, and transform from a typical middle schooler into a serious and beautiful musician. The whole thing was miraculous, especially given that in our own family it's a miracle if all the field trip permission slips and fund-raiser forms don't get lost, everybody gets picked up and dropped off within some margin of On Time, and homework, laundry and the shampooing of small heads are all mostly kept up with. To think that the Baggs have added in several hours of practicing every day for years and years continues to boggle my mind. But they do, and somehow have time and energy to be a loving and happy family.
If a family is an organism of its own, greater than and somehow distinct from its members, then our family's best friend is the Bagg family, and so we've gotten to share in watching them grow as people, and musicians, since the kids were tiny. Which is why it was just so intensely moving to see them there, at a high point in the arc of their family's life cycle, in all their glory. As Jonathan so tenderly turned the page of Susie's music during the Brahms, as we heard his deep breathing in the quiet parts, and as the music was so achingly pure and loving, I almost felt that we were all intruding on something deeply private between them: Did they have any idea back in 1978 that they would arrive someday at this wondrous moment? In the big, huge last movement of the Shostakovitch, the last piece he ever wrote, with everything there is to say about the human longing for and grasping at and finally letting go of life's beauty right in there, I knew we were all witnessing something at its particular zenith. Sam is thinking about colleges and Eliza is talented at so many other things. So, even if they do play a whole concert together again, it'll most likely be with the kids as young adults, coming back to something, not smack in the middle of it.
The evening after the rehearsal was the lunar eclipse. There'd been one in May, too, and we'd been on our 13th annual beach trip with the Baggs for that one. All of us shared the binos around as we rocked on the porch and felt in tune with primitive man and how freaked out and awed he must have been at the moment the moon was eaten in a cloudless ocean sky. Of course, we all have our shaky grade-school-astronomy understanding of the phenomenon, and yet we were still drawn to the backyard to wonder at the toasted-marshmallow hue of the darkening moon. But this time we had the Shostakovich helping out, with the memory of the lights fading to black on the closing notes. We all ride these moments together, on the circles of the solar system and the arcs of our own tiny but grand lives, in awe, holding them tight and letting them go all at once. Thank the stars that we have such good company along the way.