Heifetz Office Manager Nick Walge reflects on the Nationals, an Anthem, and Major League debuts….
I can’t speak for every member of the Heifetz Institute that strode through the cement underbelly of Nationals Park this past Tuesday, but what I can say is that even three hours before the game was set to start, my excitement had already risen to goosebump-level intensity. This feeling wasn’t a result of my finally being able to see my first major league game, nor was it due to the fact that all-star pitcher and likely future Hall-of-Famer Max “No Hit” Scherzer would be taking the mound. It wasn’t even the heady atmosphere of being behind the scenes at a big-league stadium.
No, my excitement was all due to the two young woman walking a few paces behind me—two 13-year students (who happen to be roommates!) at the Heifetz Institute who had been invited to perform the National Anthem prior to the game.
If the two girls in tow shared my nervous anxiety, they did little to show it. Both seemed far more interested in the text messages vibrating their way onto the screens of their smartphones than any of the memorabilia depicting the Washington Nationals’ ten year history adorning the walls, or the incredible infrastructure that kept the ballpark running. Israeli Noga Shaham is the daughter of the accomplished violinist and Heifetz faculty member Hagai Shaham. A prodigious talent in her own right, she shares her father’s DeNiro-esque demeanor and expressions, and carries herself with every ounce of confidence one might see in a seasoned professional. Chicagoan Masha Lakisova, on the other hand, with her smaller stature and impish smile framed with braces, could do little to hide her age, but nevertheless equaled her partner step-for-step in maturity, grace, and cool.
The two women would represent the youngest portion of the Heifetz Institute’s student body (whose ages range this year from 13 to 27) on one of the biggest stages that the Institute’s students had ever performed during a summer season. Nationals Park has a maximum capacity of 41,888 bodies, and while the Tuesday evening contest against the Cincinnati Reds wasn’t likely to draw a sellout crowd, the massive space on the DC waterfront would butterfly even the steeliest stomachs—but not Noga and Masha’s!
The final member of our team was Executive Director Benjamin Roe, in his element twice over: first, as a baseball fan who had lived and worked in Washington DC in the years leading up to and following the return of a major league team to the nation’s capital, he was a welcome font of information, illuminating the history of the team for me and the rules of the game to the girls; and second, as a former producer for NPR, he brought his experience to preparing the young performers for any potential issues that might arise. “In a venue this size, what you hear is generally a delay in the audio going into the stadium,” he warned. “You have to ignore that. Always follow each other.”
We were welcomed to the stadium and escorted to the green room by a friendly young woman named Kelly Trimble, who would later admit that she would take laps around the stadium in her few moments of downtime, just to keep her body adjusted to the demands of her job. We liked Kelly immediately. She was warm, and set us on a balanced but steady pace.
After giving us some time to settle in the green room (a room that doubled as the organization’s weather room; we took it as a good sign for clear weather after nobody came in to check the Doppler), Kelly introduced us to the audio team in order to do the sound check. We stepped onto the field for the first time, which was largely covered in plastic, and still being assembled by the team’s ground crew. The girls stepped forward towards the microphones, the stadium’s music stopped, and they performed the sound check.
They nailed it.
We broke for a while, allowing us a few minutes to tour Nationals Park. We all picked up some souvenirs (a cap for me and a pair of Nationals jerseys for the ladies) and checked out the food vendors before returning to the green room.
While the performers prepared themselves and their instruments, Ben and I stood out on the field, watching fans fill into their seats, and the bases get placed into the sand. We watched the team’s mascot, “Screech,” warm up the crowd, and the pitchers warming up in the bullpen. My first major league game, and I was watching it come together with the soles of my shoes in the dirt a few feet away from home plate.
Soon after, the Masha and Noga joined us on the field, wearing red gowns that were a near perfect match for the team’s color, and they were once again asked to step up to the microphone. The announcer’s voice boomed: “Ladies and Gentlemen, please rise for our National Anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, as performed by students of the Heifetz International Music Institute located on the campus of Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia: Noga Shaham of Ra’Annana Israel and Masha Lakisova of Chicago Illinois.” (And yeah, they pronounced “Shaham,” “Lakisova,” and even “Staunton” right!) The sound of 20,000-odd people standing from their seats whispered from the stands, and then, a brief silence. Noga and Masha both took their breath, and raised their bows.
The Heifetz arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” for two violins is more complicated than you might expect from such a familiar tune. It was a true duet, with the pair of musicians offering each other playful cues and replies. Timing against each other was imperative, and as predicted, the audio in the stadium was on just a moment’s delay. Nevertheless, the two young women never lost each other, keeping in step the other way, with Noga’s violin going high as Masha’s bowed low, and vice versa. As the piece continued towards the end (“for the land—of the free”), the audience began to cheer, for what I was afraid was a moment too soon.
I knew the piece added in a few more measures of virtuoso cadenzas before the “home of the brave,” but as the violins sped up together in unison, their eyes focused on each other, the cheering only continued to intensify, and grew with the music into a rousing crescendo that raised the hairs on my neck. Then, with a final pluck of their strings, Masha and Noga finished. The crowd exploded into applause.
As we walked off of the field, the crowd still roaring in approval, an awestruck Ben spread his hands out in front of him, and asked, “Tell me, what was it like playing for the biggest crowd you’ve ever seen?”
Noga, never one to lose her cool, replied: “Well, almost the biggest.”
Soon after, as Ben and I blended into the crowd to watch the game, Noga and Masha stood out to everyone. It’s hard to hide the fact that they were the only two people in the stadium carrying violin cases. Everywhere they went, the pair were congratulated and thanked, saluted and applauded.
We were lucky enough to watch most of the game from the generous seats offered by the Nationals: right on the aisle and just behind first base. Unfortunately for the home team, ace Max Scherzer dug himself into a hole in the first inning, and had difficulty finding his pitch the rest of the game. He didn’t make through five innings. The ace that night was in the visitors’ clubhouse: Reds’ pitcher Johnny Cueto, bidding to make the All-Star team, threw a complete-game two-hitter, whiffing 11 Nats in the process.
We were on the road before the final few innings, and to be honest, the results of the game had very little impact on the morale of the Heifetz team headed back to Staunton. For us, the “rookie callups” from the Home of the (Staunton) Braves had made some incredible plays before a single pitch was thrown. And we’ve still got 30 dates on our 2015 calendar, so I hope you can come out cheer for the Heifetz home team!