September Morning [Main Story]
BY PRESTON HAWES, Director/Conductor for the New England Youth Ensemble
s I attended to the duties of the funeral for Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, I reflected upon the unusual circumstances that brought us together—September 11, 2001.
My first contact began with an unexpected phone call, when I was 15 and living on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “Hello? Is this Preston? How would you like to travel to Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia? You’ll be playing the Mendelssohn violin concerto, of course!”
I went on the trip and was instantly entranced by Rittenhouse’s magnetic personality and musical talent. She was 59 years older than I was, and seemed ancient—but only in body. That was the beginning of a number of trips that I took with the New England Youth Ensemble (NEYE). When it was time for me to start college, Rittenhouse promised me a full scholarship to study with her at a small, little-known school outside of Washington, D.C. (the university at which I am now employed). I resisted, intent upon my life goal of studying with a famous violin teacher in New York. Like a fool, I brushed off her offer.
Upon arriving in New York in early September of 2001 to attend the Mannes College of Music, I found myself uncomfortable with the decision I had made, looking forward only to my lessons, and dreading the rest of life. My dorm was just two blocks from the World Trade Center, and my ninth-floor window looked right out at the twin towers. Here is my journal entry dated September 11, 2001:
I was sleeping when the first plane struck the building. I saw paper falling from the sky; I thought it was a ticker-tape parade. . . . I was concerned but not alarmed, and went to get my bowl of cereal. I watched out my window while the TV played behind me. I heard an announcer say that a second plane was heading toward the second tower, and I saw the explosion. People started running frantically away from the buildings. Debris and paper were just raining from the sky, and smoke was literally billowing from both buildings. I began to shake all over. I gathered up violin and travel documents and tried to leave, but the security guard would not let anyone leave the building. I went back to my room and prayed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the towers, debris was falling from way up there, and then the people started jumping. . . .
I heard that the Pentagon was also attacked. Then the tower collapsed without warning. . . . A huge billowing cloud of debris, ash, and smoke rushed toward my window. I was rooted to the spot until my roommate pulled me away. The sky outside was black, and soot was coming through the air-conditioner. Dust was settling over everything in the room. We got face towels, soaked them in water, and held them over our faces all day.
What I do not mention in my journal entry is that on September 10, while struggling with the decision of whether to stay in New York or return to Canada, I had prayed earnestly for God to show me what to do, even if He had to “strike me with lightning”—my exact words. Indeed, I returned to Canada, and a year later I migrated to the United States again, only this time to study with Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse.
One week before her passing, a rare earthquake rocked the East Coast, where Rittenhouse had lived and blessed so many. Five days later, August 28, Hurricane Irene made three landfalls there, trailing tragic destruction. The very elements seemed distressed as we dealt with losing her. Finally, 15 years after that first phone call, I said goodbye to my mentor, colleague, and dear friend at her funeral in the Red Room of Thayer Mansion in Sterling, Massachusetts, on another sad September 11, 2011. Not the least bit ironic, I’d say.