The Late Starters Orchestra

  • By Ari L. Goldman
  • Algonquin Books
  • 289 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kristina Moriconi
  • July 24, 2014

The author recounts his late-in-life journey to become a cellist and, in the process, reminds us to never stop learning.

The Late Starters Orchestra

In his inspiring new book, The Late Starters Orchestra, Ari L. Goldman is at once a memoirist, a historian, and a cellist.

Early in the first chapter, Heinrich Joachim (Mr. J), though already deceased, is introduced as Goldman’s cello teacher. Throughout the book, many of Mr. J’s lessons echo in Goldman’s mind and, as he chronicles them on the page, readers, too, become enlightened. And informed. And transformed. Mr. J’s posthumous voice is that of an experienced musician, an advisor, and a father figure. And, for Goldman, this is a journey of second chances.

As a memoirist, Goldman takes readers back to his childhood, revealing how music first became a part of his life. During the time of his parents’ divorce, music was a refuge for him. “The one bright spot in my young life was music,” he writes. Then, he recounts the deepening connection music had to his devout faith as an Orthodox Jew. “My father wanted me to use my gift for the glory of God,” he recalls. “Music, the music of the synagogue, was a link that kept us close even as I moved away.”

The themes of family and faith return again and again in The Late Starters Orchestra. And, seamlessly throughout the book, Goldman weaves facts into the pages of his storytelling. He instructs readers on the subjects of Jewish lore, law, and wisdom, citing the Encyclopedia Judaica and the Torah.

As a historian, he has done the research necessary to offer context, to provide readers with background information about the cello and to paint for them small portraits of the cellists who had long ago paved the way. As Mr. J once reminded Goldman, “Study the greats and you can become great.”

Goldman’s accounts portray a life of steady and continuous change. His journey is one toward great accomplishment, but it is also one in which he truly values each and every step he takes in the process of getting there. He listens frequently to cello music, plays with the Late Starters Orchestra once a week, studies with a new teacher, and rehearses on his own. “I learned that there are no overnight sensations, especially when you are my age,” he admits. But he remains confident despite his seemingly slow progress. “I was now something more than just musical,” he writes. “I was becoming a musician.”

As a cellist, Goldman gives readers the opportunity to accompany him to rehearsals with the New York Late-Starters String Orchestra, to sit in on lessons his son, Judah, attends at a summer Suzuki program, and to attend rehearsals with the Morningside Orchestra where he plays beside his son.

The chronology of these experiences is not always easy to follow. At times, Goldman’s recollections loop and circle back much like the music he plays. But, even when the events slip in and out of time, Goldman’s dedication to thematic unity within the larger composition remains unswerving.

Throughout The Late Starters Orchestra, the cello becomes a means for Goldman to fulfill a promise he makes to himself. It offers him courage and a way to reclaim his dreams. “Perhaps learning cello as a late starter was not about learning it anew,” he writes, “but about recapturing what was already part of me.”

“The music is in you,” Mr. J reminds Goldman. “You’ve learned that music is more than notes and rhythms and strings. Music is emotion.” It is with these heartening words that the voice of this most revered mentor and teacher at last falls silent, leaving his student alone with his cello.

This book is for music lovers and for people who, like Goldman, never want to stop learning. The Late Starters Orchestra reminds readers to seek inspiration, to pursue dreams, and to take note of each step in the journey along the way.

Kristina Moriconi is a poet and essayist. She received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared most recently in Cobalt Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Blue Heron Review. She is the author of a chapbook, No Such Place (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and she is the 2014 Montgomery County poet laureate.

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