The first time I met her, I was a newly wed, having just moved to Palo Alto, CA where Kurt was attending business school at Stanford and I was a novice first-grade teacher at one of the many Bay Area private schools. I had decided that in my spare time I would play violin with the Stanford Symphony which generously opened its arms to both students and the outlying community.
As I waited at her door for my audition, anxiety took hold. I had not auditioned in years and the only feeling I had about Karla was extreme intimidation. She was not just a conductor. This woman towered over me like an Amazon, knowing heights I could only experience from the top rung of a ladder. She was confident and filled with a passion for music that went beyond the notes and tempos, style and artistry. When she began to move her arms, she became the music, inviting the rest of us to do the same.
"What are you playing for me today?" she asked.
"First movement of the Dvorak concerto," I blurted, hoping maybe I could hide somewhere behind my music.
"Huh. Interesting choice," she noted plainly, sapping me of any calm I had left. "Alright, let's go."
I began the only piece I had worked on in years, praying all the while that she would stop me before I either completely humiliated myself and sent Dvorak rolling in his grave, or got to the section that I hadn't learned yet. (Or, God forbid, both!)
After a couple pages she said, "Great. Read this," and handed me some violin part. I have no idea what I played as I was too busy breathing again.
I was filled with relief after that first interaction. I hadn't completely ruined the Dvorak (although the attempt was thorough!) and I would be able to play, lost in the violin section of the Stanford Symphony, or so I thought. The thing about Karla though was you were never lost under her watch. She ALWAYS knew where you were in the music and where she wanted you to be and even though I spent two years trying as I might to hide behind my stand, praying I'd go unnoticed, I was no match for her superhuman eyes and ears. She was humbling. She was inspiring. And her passion drove each of us beyond what we might have been able to accomplish otherwise. Woe was the section (often ours) that needed individualized help in sectionals. Woe was the musician (often me) who didn't make a little extra time to practice. Karla was on top of it all, and even when she didn't call us out by name, she knew who we were. She was like God: there was no place to hide!
I remember feeling extreme pity for the few students who had wandered off during our recording session at George Lucus's Skywalker Ranch (yes, it was as cool as you imagine!) and who had taken it upon themselves to tour the private mansion without permission. Karla's passion was complete, well-rounded and had a wide range of uses.
I remember my humbling conversation with her, a few weeks before we were supposed to go on a two week tour: Carnegie Hall and then London.
"Karla, I'm really sorry but I can't go on the tour," I had told her, hoping to at least salvage some of my deposit.
"Why not?" she asked, un-accusingly.
Pause. "I just lost my first pregnancy in miscarriage," I explained, tears welling in my eyes as I took a few deep breaths. "I just don't think I can go on the tour right now. I need time to heal emotionally and get things situated since we are moving down to San Diego at that time as well."
"I am so sorry," she told me, her eyes revealing that her passion included abundant amounts of compassion as well. We then went on to talk about the musical I had written for my class, the kinds of things that teaching entails, small talk mixed with just a sampling of her fun-loving humor; conversation she might have had with dozens of others who probably all felt the same way I did: although our lives and paths were vastly different, she knew me and she understood.
After the last performance I played there, I was taken by surprise when Karla, in her adrenaline driven enthusiasm whisked me up in an Amazon-sized hug and swung my little frame around in the air. I remember laughing, as much in shock as in delight, as she thanked me for being there. I still think she meant more that I was just the right sized person to come walking by at the right time rather than that I had in any way made her life better by filling a seat in the violin section. But then, knowing Karla, she probably felt that each of us made her a little better. Though at times it felt as if we were her personal pawns, she was able to exalt each of us to greatness, a truly royal status, and in turn, we gave her hope that the future of music would not die an early death. I wish I could say the same of her.
So to Karla:
Thanks for claiming a part of the show for yourself and then giving so much of it away. Though the show must go on without you, you will be remembered, appreciated and applauded by many. May you rest in peace knowing that in doing your best, you touched so many; your life an open invitation to the rest of us to rise up and do the same. May your soul forever soar on the symphonies that sustained your heart here on earth, lifting you to heights much greater than these.
Karla Lemon 1954-2009
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