Ari L. Goldman, former New York Times reporter and author of “The Search for God at Harvard,’’ begins “The Late Starters Orchestra’’ with a poignant and witty image of a middle-aged man on the brink of self-renewal or humiliation. A cello strapped to his back, riding a crowded New York City elevator, Goldman is “en route to what [he] feared would be a mortifying encounter,” his first experience playing with the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra. Until recently, he hadn’t played the cello in nearly 25 years.
The Late-Starters String Orchestra was founded “on the premise that . . . [p]laying music should be accessible to all, not just the elite, not just the talented, not even just the good, but everyone.” It doesn’t require an audition and is made up entirely of amateurs. (In a “city of perfectionists,” he notes, the “democratic and open nature of LSO” is all the more rare, and appealing.)
Sixteen pages in, however, it becomes apparent that this won’t be a book about the orchestra (alas) but rather a chronicle of one man’s quest to achieve not “greatness; just above-averageness.” Goldman’s participation in the LSO is but one of many spokes in his cartwheel of efforts, which include private lessons, participation in multiple ensembles, chaperoning his son at a summer Suzuki camp, and stints at adult music camps.
Given that the odds appear dramatically stacked against him — “learning a classical string instrument . . . is close to impossible” for an older person — and my ardent belief in the power of music, I wanted to root for the guy. But I found myself frustrated and put off. Why? First, the publisher’s framing of the book does not serve Goldman well; readers looking for the story represented in the title, book description, and opening pages are likely to feel let down. The blurb ends, “ ‘The Late Starters Orchestra’ reminds us that with a band of friends beside us, anything is possible.” But this isn’t a book about cooperation, collaboration, or friendship.
Rather it’s about one man’s middle-aged musical obsession (or identity crisis?), and the extremity of that obsession may confound more than it inspires. Resolving to spend all his free time practicing, Goldman decides that “building my musical brain was more important than building my pecs or flattening my abs” and abandons all exercise; later, he tells us he’s gained 20 pounds. He empties his iPod of everything but the work of great cellists. Jealous of his son’s experience, he asks and is allowed to join his son’s middle-school orchestra. Although he hastens to assure us that his son “was cool with my joining,” one may wonder about the son’s true feelings or how the other kids felt about their lone grown-up member.
Goldman’s early cello teacher, Mr. J (long dead by the time he joins LSO), reenters his former pupil’s life as “the voice in [Goldman’s] head.” If only this Obi-Wan’s pedagogical nuggets weren’t so cringe-worthy: “fully embrace [the cello] . . . like you would hug a beautiful woman . . . Feel the vibrations, not only in your hands but up your thighs and on your chest . . . the cello has the body of a woman, with an ample curved bottom, a narrow waist, and a full curved top.” If only his aphorisms weren’t so banal: “The note is inside you . . . Just sing it”; “Do not be timid. Just play. Express yourself.” Madonna actually said it better.
The best aspects of “The Late Starters’ Orchestra’’ are its title, Eric Hanson’s charming illustrations, and astutely chosen chapter epigraphs. It also nicely synthesizes current research on the brain’s plasticity and the value of music and offers a practicable reminder that we get better “not by leaps and bounds, but by small, almost imperceptible steps.” Any reader can welcome its pleasant optimisms: “people
. . . can reach beyond their capabilities and even their imaginations.” It may not be the book you wanted it to be, but who doesn’t respect a dreamer?
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’