A backbiting violin section, duettists whose honest feedback to one another is less welcome than first thought, and a tuner who sets a pianist on edge: in this trio of short fictions, musicians’ souls sometimes synchronize while tempers nearly snap.
I. The Odious Orchestra
A cellist contorted his way to his seat, holding his cello protectively as if dodging a tackle. “Sorry . . . excuse me . . .” He gyrated through the orchestra and came to an empty chair, pushed aside the music stand to accommodate himself and instrument, and arranged himself to play. “Ah, a newcomer,” he said, looking at the cellist in the next seat. “I’m Simon Jones.” The accent was British. “Welcome to the whipping yard.”
“Anne Fadden,” she said. She put her bow on the music stand and shook hands. “I hope it’s not that bad.”
“Have you been with this orchestra long?”
“Eons. This is my fourth season, and I’m hoping it’s my last. The conductor barely knows the difference between a crotchet and a hemidemisemiquaver.”
“Understandably,” she smiled. “Those are the British terms.”
“Oh, right.” He listened intently to the oboist’s tuning and twisted a peg. “It’s the Rachmaninoff today, no?”
“Right. The Bells.”
Simon drew the score out of his case. “Good old Poe,” he said. “The bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.”
“You know the words by heart. I’m impressed.”
“They’re not that hard, actually.”
Anne smiled. She was going to like this ensemble.
Simon Jones rosined his bow and leaned toward her conspiratorially. “Here comes the maestro,” he whispered. “I should warn you: he’s a monster. Be prepared for a rigorous military drill.”
The conductor mounted the podium and tapped his baton warningly on the music stand.
“He’s partial to the concertmistress,” Simon continued sotto voce. “Favoritism, clashing personalities, and nasty politics are rife here. The discord is legendary.”
Anne Fadden sat in dread, hoping to be spared, and dutifully drew her bow across the strings when the conductor’s cue ushered in the cellos.
“We’ll start with the Beethoven,” said the conductor.
“Best to keep a low profile,” Simon added. “Don’t draw attention to yourself. He loves to see people writhe in shame. He achieves his results by humiliation.” Simon looked up at the conductor expectantly.
“Violins only,” said the maestro.
“Brilliant,” sneered Simon. “This will consume a good part of the rehearsal.” He took out his phone and checked for messages.
The conductor launched into the Beethoven and, within moments, was rapping his music stand viciously. The violinists were excoriated for being shoemakers.
“We’re next,” said Simon ominously.
Anne Fadden sat in dread, hoping to be spared, and dutifully drew her bow across the strings when the conductor’s cue ushered in the cellos. But her cut-off was ragged. She played a whole note instead of what Simon Jones would call a quasihemidemisemiquaver, and her highly conspicuous wayward note lingered in the air long after everyone else’s had decayed. The conductor stared at her in the subsequent silence.
“Are we playing from the same score?” he asked pointedly.
Anne squirmed. “There was a glare,” she whispered, trotting out the timeworn excuse. But her bow arm was trembling and her sixteenth notes were uneven because Simon Jones had primed her to be nervous.
The conductor looked at her venomously, turned to his score again, and lifted his baton. “At the pickup,” he commanded.
The rehearsal continued along the same punishing lines, with Simon interjecting invective whenever a whole rest permitted. “The woodwinds compete with each other,” he hissed to Anne Fadden. “For them, it’s a race to see who can get to the coda first. And there’s rampant backbiting in the violin section. They all want to be soloists. The whole orchestra is a hotbed of backstabbing and bitterness. Just giving you the heads-up so you’ll be on your guard. Someone might want to sabotage your career.”
When the conductor was off again and modulating madly, Simon slid Anne a look that indicated he had just squeaked by the gallows.
“Excuse me, is there a problem?” the conductor asked, looking severely at Simon.
“No,” said Simon. He studied his sheet music, feigning interest. When the conductor was off again and modulating madly, Simon slid Anne a look that indicated he had just squeaked by the gallows.
As Anne trudged home that night, it was not only her cello case that felt heavy, but her spirits. She had looked forward to the symphony position, but the sniping was discouraging. She just wanted to ply her trade without friction, to make beautiful music with like-minded colleagues, to share in the thrill of spontaneous re-creation, but attempting to do so in such an obstructive atmosphere was daunting.
Yet the performance that Saturday night was nothing short of astonishing. There was an integrity and unity about the interpretation that stemmed from shared feeling. It was as if the musicians’ souls were synchronized, their hearts a harmonious whole, their very breaths the exhalations of a single organism.
As Anne twisted her way to her seat for rehearsal the next morning, she scanned the cello section for Simon Jones. She wanted to ask him if he had seen the fantastic reviews, but he was feuding with a bassist in the wings, and their voices were swelling to a fortissimo. She took her seat, put her music on the stand, and tightened her bow.
The conductor stepped up to the podium and raised his arms like Frankenstein’s monster. He held the pose until everyone was seated, silent, and poised to play.
Then he slashed at the downbeat, and harmony filled the hall.
II. Dueling Duettists
“Ha!” Adam and Jill threw up their hands in triumphant glee after they struck the last chords of the Mozart. They were still smiling as Jill closed the book of sonatas and put it back in the stack on the piano.
“That was heaps of fun,” Adam said. “As always. Did you want to play your Schubert?”
The Sunday-afternoon musicale included solos as well as duets, and Jill had spent countless hours polishing the Schubert. Adam had already played his Debussy set, so it was her turn. Smiling, she readied herself on the bench and started in on the exposition. She got through the entire Allegro with just one minor memory slip that she covered. Overall, she felt that she acquitted herself well.
Adam was complimentary, as always. “Sounded good,” he said. “Nice tempo.”
Jill was getting frustrated of late with the all-too-considerate responses to each other’s playing. If she expected to grow as a musician, she needed better feedback than just “that was nice.” She needed concrete criticism.
But she was guilty of the same tactfulness in her own responses to Adam’s playing. His Debussy was devoid of dynamics, but Jill said supportively, “Nice pedaling,” and left it at that.
She decided that it would be in both their interests to speak up. “I’m wondering,” she said, reaching for a cookie casually, “if we should treat these musicales more as a workshop, where we give each other explicit advice. I think we’d grow that way.”
Adam nodded. “I was thinking the same thing myself, Jill. We’ve always been so careful not to offend each other. But I guess we’ve known each other long enough by now to be honest.”
“Okay,” Jill said, nibbling. “So . . . what did you really think of the Schubert?”
Adam looked at his cookie and cocked his head to one side. “I liked it,” he said guardedly.
That’s real helpful, thought Jill with irritation. “Was there anything about it that you’d change?” she pressed.
Adam seemed reluctant to answer. “Well,” he finally said, “I think you have to work a little on your sound.”
Jill was taken aback. “My sound? What do you mean?” Could he have come up with a more sweeping condemnation? What was a musician, if not her sound?
“Your tone,” said Adam.
“My tone! People have always liked my tone.” Jill looked perplexed. “What’s wrong with my tone?”
Jill was taken aback. “My sound? What do you mean?” Could he have come up with a more sweeping condemnation? What was a musician, if not her sound?
Adam made a face as if he were struggling with having to be frank. “Well, it’s a little on the harsh side—when you play forte. Just a tad brittle. Nothing bad, mind you. It’s just not a rich and rounded tone. I think you should aim for more resonance. I’d play the chords in the exposition like this.” Adam went to the piano and demonstrated the triads in the third bar.
“That’s a bit understated for my taste,” said Jill. “I guess it’s a matter of interpretation.”
“In my Debussy,” Adam went on, “I build to the high point gradually so the music unfolds in a long line. I smooth out the sharp edges. Listen to my mellow tone.”
“But the music can sound static if you don’t do more with the dynamics,” Jill argued. “You lose the drama if you hold back too much.” She thought her remark would give Adam the impetus he needed to bring the piece to life.
“Static!” He looked at her with incredulity. “Static?” His mouth dropped open. “Jill, I was after atmosphere! I was carefully layering the sound to achieve a nuanced effect. What I’m doing is stylistically correct!”
Jill realized that she had been too disparaging. “I didn’t mean static exactly. . . .” She decided to frame her remark as an innocuous question. “Do you think you’re being overly cautious?” she asked kindly. “It can sound tepid if there’s too much restraint. I’d do more in terms of color.” She realized immediately that “tepid” was too strong a word, but it was the word “color” that made Adam turn Oriental-poppy red.
“Color!” He gulped repeatedly, his Adam’s apple going up and down like a slide trombone. “That’s all I have been working on for weeks, Jill: color!”
“Maybe color wasn’t the word I was after.” Jill smiled apologetically. “It’s all subjective anyway.”
Adam looked at his watch and starting packing up his music. “I have to go,” he said quietly. He went to the door.
“Till next time?” Jill asked.
Jill smiled unconvincingly, and Adam mumbled a tepid reply.
III. The Persistent Pianist
re you ready?” Jane Claverton stood with her tuner’s case on Svetlana’s doorstep.
“We’re never really ready, are we?” Svetlana smiled, leading her to the piano.
Jane ran her hands across the keyboard, played a few scales, and took out her tuning lever. “It’s tonight, right? The soiree? What are you playing?”
Svetlana showed her the program.
“Oh my, you’re doing the Beethoven. You’re brave.” Jane began clacking along the tuning pins. “Primakov was seventy-five years old when someone asked why he hadn’t played that. He said he wasn’t ready yet. Imagine! He was one of the towering pianists of the twentieth century and had been playing virtually all his life—and he still didn’t feel ready.”
“It’s a big responsibility,” said Svetlana.
“Such a shame that he never performed it. He died before he had a chance. Well, I wouldn’t touch that sonata, myself. And back in the days when I was performing, I did a lot of Beethoven. But that piece isn’t for mortals.” Jane took out a rubber mallet and hammered a pin. A string went ping.
Svetlana did not want to encourage Jane’s negativity, so she changed the subject. “Thanks for agreeing to come at the last minute,” she said. “I know how busy you are.”
Jane sighed heavily. “With the tuning, the lessons, and the accompanying, I’m working nonstop,” she groaned. “But that’s what you have to do in this business. You have to cobble together a living just to stay afloat. You have no steady paycheck, no health benefits, no paid sick leave or vacations, and no pension. I’m an inch away from indigence at all times. Honestly, I wouldn’t do it today if I were just starting out. When I got out of school, there were opportunities. There were orchestral jobs, and music schools needed teachers, and classical music was big. But now . . .” She waited, listened, and rotated her tuning lever. “Orchestras are folding, quartets can’t get bookings, and kids are fixated on their phones. I used to have to prepare a dozen auditions a week with students applying to music schools, but now I’m lucky to get less than half that number. And worse yet, the tuning jobs are getting scarce because people use computerized keyboards that get discarded when they break—unlike traditional pianos, which can be rebuilt over time. Folks don’t realize that there is no replacement for the natural beauty of resonating strings.” Jane ceased her monologue to listen to the A-string beats. She reached in her bag for a tuning fork. “Audiences are shrinking,” she continued. “How many are coming to your musicale?”
“Most of them probably never heard a piano sonata in their lives. If it weren’t for the receptions with the food and the social life, you’d probably get three attendees. No reflection on your playing, of course. People just aren’t interested in classical anymore.” She chimed the fork, rotated a tuning pin, and threaded a felt mute between the strings.
Svetlana turned back to the window. She recalled that Beethoven had contracted pneumonia by riding home in a milk wagon during a rainstorm.
“And to think that Patelson’s closed,” she resumed. “When I was growing up, Patelson’s Music House was the center of the universe. Performers used to congregate there and exchange ideas about editions, and you could be thumbing through the choral music in the bins, and the person next to you would say he was looking for a mass by Taverner, and then you’d be all fired up to hear the Taverner mass. But all that’s gone. And if New York can’t support a music store—right back of Carnegie Hall with musicians coming in from all over the globe—what place can?”
She tightened another pin as Svetlana looked out the window abstractedly.
“You might as well be a wainwright,” said Jane.
“A wainwright. You know, a wagon maker from the olden days. For all the need there is for Beethoven.”
“Right.” Svetlana turned back to the window. She recalled that Beethoven had contracted pneumonia by riding home in a milk wagon during a rainstorm. What were his last words? He had just heard of a gift from his publisher. Oh, yes: “Pity—too late.”
“We’re like monarch butterflies, subsisting on beautiful flowers, rapidly headed toward extinction,” sighed Jane.
Svetlana was becoming annoyed. Jane’s remarks were true, but they weren’t the sort of thing one wanted to hear right before a performance. Svetlana had been amply tormented by doubts during the course of her career, but she had resolved to disregard the drawbacks. Music was your sustenance, your nourishment, the air you breathed. Music was something you loved unconditionally and never abandoned. Questioning music was like questioning love. Or food.
Music was something you loved unconditionally and never abandoned. Questioning music was like questioning love. Or food.
“Classical music is a dead language,” Jane declared.
Svetlana turned toward her. “And it will be lost forever unless those of us who know it make the effort to keep it alive,” she said firmly.
Jane looked at her friend significantly and drew out the mute. “The A-string is perfect now,” she said, packing her bag. She winked. “I admire your conviction. Wish I had it myself. Break a leg.”
Brewster, New York
An Author's Note: A Classical Renaissance
In writing “The Persistent Pianist,” which is the final story in “Trio,” I was lamenting the decline of classical music in the US and have thus selected a gloomy piano piece that might be considered a tiny funeral march. I have always admired composers whose commitment to music is supreme, but dwindling listenership no doubt daunts even the most dedicated. Popular culture and an aging audience have taken their toll.
On a less dirgelike note, Western classical music is in fact vigorous in some parts of the world, such as China. Musical life there is now radically different from that of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, when listening to Beethoven was a crime. Upon visiting the country in 1976, at the end of that era, violinist Isaac Stern found that there was not one adequate piano available for him: they had been destroyed. In the Shanghai Conservatory alone, approximately five hundred pianos were demolished during the Cultural Revolution.
Happily, the China of today is producing 80 percent of the world’s pianos, and the Chinese are the largest consumers of pianos in the world. Their conservatories are flourishing, concert halls and orchestras are in demand, and the country is turning out world-class virtuosi. China now has an estimated thirty million piano students and ten million violin students.
When I performed in China in 1989, the country was on the cusp of such a cultural sea change. There were still many composers whose music had not been heard, but the curiosity about their work was evident. When my host took me around the Beijing Conservatory, she said that just a few years before, professors at the school were ashamed of the poor quality of their instruments. But then she opened the door of a practice room, and I saw that she was beaming. Inside was a brand-new gleaming grand piano.
“Now we are proud,” she said.
Clearly the death knell for classical music should not be sounded yet, contrary to what Jane Claverton, the character in my story, asserts.