01-04-2013 - Traces, n. 4


A passion for music, the encounter with the Movement, and then the “flight,” in search of something that can fill the heart. This is the story of Brazilian pianist MARCELO CESENA, a 20-year race that brought him back to the same place, and the same faces. He found his whole life changed, including the way he composed music and experienced reality, embracing the tragedy of Emily…

by Paolo Perego

Emily dances in the arms of her father, Michel. She wears the dress that he always dreamed of seeing her in for her 16th birthday. And now he finally does see her like this, dancing–not to the notes of a song, but within a song, written by Marcelo Cesena, 43-year-old Brazilian pianist and composer, who now lives in Los Angeles. But Emily died two years ago, at age 13, run over by a suicidal driver. She left behind two sisters. In her diary, she had written down all of the things that she had wanted to do. On the last pages, she had expressed one desire: to have a full life. But Marcelo discovered this later.
Two years ago, on a day like any other, he was preparing a lesson about beauty for a group of students. “Music, art... The lesson would have been nice and theoretical.” A friend called him and, during their conversation, told him something that had happened that day–Emily had been killed. “I hung up the phone. I didn’t even know who she was. I mean, how many of these things happen every day? But I couldn’t get it out of my head–that tragedy, her family. And I was trying to think about what I would say the following day at my lesson. Where was the beauty in that?”
He couldn’t go through with the next day’s teaching appointment–he called and cancelled it. At midnight, he sat down at his piano, with that nagging thought in his head. An “E” for Emily. And then a “D,” for death... “I imagined that her father was there, and I told him the story of his daughter.” In the morning, the piece was finished. And it was beautiful. “But how could it be? It came from something terrible.” In the end, Marcelo went to teach his lesson. “Beauty is beauty only if it can be for that family, now. If not, that means that it isn’t for everyone, that it exists only when everything is going well,” he told the students. His pieces are born like this, from reality that surprises and wounds. “It imposes itself to the point that you cannot help but look at it–sometimes mysteriously, like with Emily. It’s not just the fact that ‘it hurts.’ It enters into you, sows a seed. And it forces you to get to the bottom of it.”
His whole life lies in this “getting to the bottom.” Marcelo tells his story from the beginning, one scene after another–his childhood in São Paulo, growing up in a middle-class Catholic family... His father was of Italian origin, a man of strong character, and his mother was a great woman of faith. “I hated music. At home, we listened to opera. I could often hear the neighbors playing music through the windows.” One day, the son of one of his mother’s friends, “a chubby little brat,” sat down at the Cesena’s piano, which was little more than a decorative piece of furniture at that point, to demonstrate his progress on the keyboard. “He played a silly little motif, and terribly at that. But I was struck by how he did it. All of him was in that gesture.”

Departure and return. Marcelo arrived at the University of São Paulo’s Department of Musical Education 10 years later, an accomplished pianist. His display case at home was already full of certificates and prizes. The year was 1988. “I met the Movement. It was an intense period, a friendship like none that I had ever lived before. But after a few years, I left.” He didn’t understand, he says. “That radicality, the question of the Incarnation today, a present event... I had my own ideas; I wanted to accomplish everything myself. I was unable to understand, and I got angry and left.” Nothing was enough for him–not music, not that friendship. What did God want from him?
He went to Medjugorje. “I was 22. It was an intense experience, extraordinary. For months, I lived at the home of a visionary and went to the apparitions. I wanted to see, too. I wanted everything.” He even wound up working as a volunteer at a rehabilitation community for drug addicts. “For three years, I cleaned bathrooms and washed and served those kids.” The desire to become a priest emerged. “I had already begun a journey in that direction...” And yet, one day, in front of the Eucharist, something happened. It was like a lightning bolt had struck. “I had come there, anxious to understand what God wanted from me. And I realized that I had done away with myself. My heart, what I desired... Where was I? He hadn’t asked me for all of this. I had decided it...” But that wasn’t enough for his heart, either.
He returned to Brazil for awhile, and then left for the United States. He took up the piano again, and enrolled in a music school in Los Angeles, then at the University of Arizona. Success started to come. He composed music for films, gave concerts, won prizes. “I threw myself into everything, and I succeeded. I did all sorts of things, and I always went all out–in the good and the bad.” But, in the end, something didn’t add up. “I looked at everything that I had. It still wasn’t enough. I looked back at everything that I had lived, and I saw life as if it were fragments strewn across the floor.” A senseless mosaic, he says today, and Mosaic is even the title of his latest album.
What could hold everything together? The keynote was missing, the one from Chopin’s Prelude No. 15, the “Raindrop.” “I’ve always loved Chopin, because he tells the story of everyone’s life. Take the ‘Raindrop,’ for example: two ‘discordant’ chords, which clash with one another. And yet one note, and only one, the A flat, can hold them together. And it ties them together throughout the piece, inexorably, even when one of the two tries to break free or dominate. There you go–that note was the answer to my heart’s cry, the dualism between the faith that I desired and life.”
On January 1, 2011, Marcelo began a novena. “For days, I continually repeated a prayer that I remembered from my days in the CLU: Veni Sancte Spiritus. It had remained inside me...” On January 9th, he received a phone call from an old Brazilian friend, with whom he had reconnected only a few months before. “We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, and, at the time, he hadn’t even known what the Movement was. By chance, I was going to be in São Paulo the following week, and I suggested that we get together for pizza.” The reunion became a series of stories. His friend told him about his studies, the university, how he had met some people, a Catholic movement... “Is it CL, by any chance? Be careful with them. Whom did you meet?” And his friend rattled off the names, one after another: “They were my old friends from the CLU, the ones from whom I had fled. And that’s not all. There were other people that I knew, and who hadn’t been involved with the Movement at the time. It seemed like everyone had ended up there.” His friend dragged him to a lunch with those people. “I didn’t want to go, but I accepted the invitation. I figured I would go and throw everything in their faces, and I was prepared to do just that.”

The only door. At the table were Alexandre, an old classmate of his and now a doctor and a member of the Memores Domini, Cleuza, and Fr. Julián de la Morena, the CL Responsible in Brazil. “I started to spew everything at them–that I had had grandiose experiences, that thanks to me an orphanage had been built in São Paulo. And them? What had they done? I had fulfilled my dream of being a pianist at the highest levels, when in the past some of them had tried to discourage me... And yet, the more ‘rocks’ that I threw at them, the more they surprised me.” Alexandre listened to him. “Everything that you’ve done is beautiful. But, for me, the fact that you are here today is more beautiful. It’s bigger. What you are, what you’ve become, is bigger than what you’ve done.” “They wanted to know everything. They were struck. They were looking at my life, understanding it in a more profound way than I did, and I was the one who had lived it.” Cleuza, who had been silent throughout the lunch, suddenly spoke: “I have just one thing to say to you. I have news for you, and you might not like it. In the Movement, there’s only one door–the entrance. There’s no exit. You’re stuck. The Movement is not ‘the things that we do together,’ School of Community, the gestures. It’s something that happened, to you and to me. It’s called Jesus of Nazareth. And you can’t change this. You can resist it. But it happened, and you can’t eliminate it.” Marcelo was blown away. “I was in front of something evident. My heart was exploding, and I could stay or leave again. As Alexandre was bringing me home, I asked him to take me to his house. And we talked for four hours.”
The subsequent days in São Paulo were an explosion. “I wanted to be with them; I went looking for them.” Then he returned to the U.S. He wrote to Cleuza, “You have always helped people who have no home. I live in a beautiful place, Hollywood, and I have a beautiful dream house. But in my heart, I, too, am homeless. When I met you, I found my home in your heart. I need that home. Help me.” There was no indication of what to do as a response, just, “we want to be with you.” “But they were far away, and I wanted to continue to live that spirit of friendship. I started to go to the School of Community in Los Angeles.” And his premiere with the CL community in L.A. was quite a show. Marcelo arrived an hour early, and he didn’t want to get out of the car. He already knew what they would say; he’d already seen it. The challenge was “to love the truth more than my idea of truth.” A phone call to Alexandre–“Should I go?”–was enough to convince him. But then he discovered that he was in the wrong place, and he had to run a few blocks to get to the right address. He threw open the door, gasping for air; School of Community had already started. “Is this CL?” “In 20 years, I’ve never seen anyone run in order to get here,” answered Guido, who was presiding over the assembly. A 20-year race, “to return to where everything began. Not just in the same place, but with the same faces. What patience Christ had with me. He did everything to get me back, and to change my life.”And his whole life did change, from friendships to work. His way of making music changed, became more intense. “What I write, my heart, has changed. Before, playing was almost a distraction, a flight. I forgot my problems. Now, it is a way to look more deeply at everything.” Beauty, pain, joy, and “even crisis, or facts like Emily’s”–and everything that came from it, like the relationship with her family, whom he met on the same day that the driver who ran her over was sentenced. Her father said to him, “Don’t say anything; it was an Other who brought us together.”

Gift from God. “In life, I always desired great things; I always wanted the utmost. I sought the extraordinary. Now the extraordinary has become the ordinary. And even the little things call you to get to the bottom of them, in order to understand all of their makeup. All of reality is the extraordinary, and you live within it,” he says. At that simple meal in São Paulo, he felt the same intensity of the great and profound things that he had lived–that grandiosity that he had always sought. “My music has become an expression of this. Both when I compose, starting from simple things like the wedding of a friend, and when I play the music of others–Chopin, for example. That music is mine.” Everything goes into it–technique, talent. One could even stop there, as Marcelo used to do. And now, instead, it is a continual comparison with life. “You don’t leave anything of yourself behind. On the contrary, it’s the experience of something more.” His experience mirrors that of an orchestra, where following the conductor’s volumes and rhythm results in harmony, “which is more than balance. There’s a fullness within it, a beauty.” And now he understands what this beauty is that he expresses in his concerts: “It’s a gift from God, so that we too can feel, just for an instant, what He feels when looking at the greatest thing that He created: our heart.”