“Ah, I thought I was paranoid, getting here at 2:30,” I said to the woman in front of me as I got in line on the theatre steps.

“So did I,” she said, contemplating the couple dozen people ahead of her. A small crowd of paranoiacs was already forming. Fans of the virtuosic pianist Nelson Freire, that is, lined up an hour and a half before the doors were set to open in order to get a seat for his free Sunday recital. 90 minutes of tedium ensue as the full complement of paranoiacs arrive and is subsequently supplemented by a few hundred latecomers, snaking around the block and down Rio Branco.

Finally, we are permitted entry. The Theatro Municipal (you can tell from the archaic h that it’s a classy place) was resplendent in its mistletoed Advent decorations. The ushers were handing out tickets at random, but we ended up right where the ticket office woman had recommended: in the orchestra section, but a good ways back so as to be able to get a good look at Nelson.

After the third trumpet blast (the Municipal’s subtle and modest way of communicating to its guests to get in their damned seats), the lights dimmed. An uncomfortably long silence before the curtains parted to reveal the compact little frock-coated figure.

As he sat down, a completely inappropriate thought occurred to me: the airplane scene in Fight Club.

Tyler Durden: [pointing at an emergency instruction manual on a plane] You know why they put oxygen masks on planes?
Narrator: So you can breathe.
Tyler Durden: Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you’re taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate. It’s all right here. Emergency water landing – 600 miles an hour. Blank faces, calm as Hindu cows.

The ambient silence as Nelson began to play was so absolute that it recalled that bovine hypnotism. An auditorium full of fossilized Pompeiians wouldn’t have been stiller.

In one of my favorite scenes in João’s documentary Nelson Freire, the cameraman sort of scampers around amidst the musicians during a dress rehearsal turning the lens on section after section with a kind of loose agility that perfectly conveys the exhilaration of the piece’s development. It’s probably the only time I’ve seen the breathlessness of a classical music concert adequately captured.

Even after 4 years of piano and nearly 8 years of double bass, I still don’t have the vulnerability to classical music that many of my peers do; I’ll take my sambinhas over a symphony any day. I don’t mean to sound anti-música erudita.  Rather, to quote my advisor quoting Pascal, le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. All this to say that I probably didn’t go into the same ecstasies as many of the other audience members, and I found myself doing what Nelson Freire probably wants less than anything else in the world: focusing on him instead of the music itself. Fascinating.

He has this air of a “menino perpétuo,” to quote another Nelson, which makes sense when you consider that he’s been performing professionally since elementary school. No exaggerated swaying, which endeared him to my heart. Fingers falling with unsettling, limpid precision, in controlled small gestures which seemed wildly out of proportion with the sound being torn from the grand piano. Mouth ever so slightly open, eyebrows arching with a sort of awe at the realization of a phrase. After the Schumann, he lifted his hands delicately from the keys. Then clenched them, tight.