Just another day in the life
of a touring violinist — Not!

Lara St John

As I flew home to New York from Edmonton, Alberta, having just finished the season finale concerts of Buffalo and Edmonton symphonies, I was exhaling comfortably that the season — having gone more or less nonstop since mid-January
was at an end, and I could goof off. I received a message as I arrived that I must more-or-less turn around and get myself on a plane to Europe where there was a cancellation of a soloist with a chamber orchestra of a large-ish city in a certain small mountainous country in the center of Western Europe (which shall remain nameless).

I went back out to JFK that same night armed with melatonin, earplugs, and eye covers, knowing that the dress (and only) rehearsal was at 10 AM, an hour after arrival (and therefore at 2 AM, my recent mountain time). It would be important to sleep, I knew, and apparently I was so fixated on this idea that I did not manage to sleep at all, despite drugging myself out and looking like a mummy. The middle seat did not help.

I was picked up at ____ airport and was driven straight to the rehearsal, where I realized I was starting to feel a bit wonky. I asked to have a Coke as I warmed up for 20 minutes, and was duly brought one and told that it would be XX of the ______ currency.

They charged their guest soloist
who came in from overseas on a few hours’ notice and was trying to stay awake long enough for the dress rehearsal for a Coke in the dressing room!

Well, stranger things have happened, thought I, and watched as my change was carefully counted out (even though I didn’t even have any of that currency, so my two dollars were figured out by calculations). The rehearsal happened, and I went back to the hotel to sleep a few hours before the concert. All was fine, until the concert, where, in the second movement (yes, the slow one) of the concerto, my E string broke (the Bruch concerto, by the way).

This not being the first time for such an occurrence, I turned around and took the concertmaster’s violin, shoved him mine (and I even managed to switch shoulder rests) and finished out the second movement wondering what on earth it could be that he plays on, poor guy, since it sounded to me under the ear (and to friends of mine in the audience) like a sow crying out from within a tin box.

Obviously I thought it best to remedy this situation, and as the slow movement ended, I desperately tried to catch the conductor’s eye to make it obvious to him that I wanted to stop, restring my own violin, and continue forthwith. He did not even glance at me, nor wait even a millisecond before driving immediately into the opening tutti of the last movement.

At this point time somehow slowed, and the next 9 seconds seemed to last forever. In this odd slow motion I somehow felt rather calm, and turned around to the concertmaster, to make some sort of signal to him that I would have to keep his violin, much to both of our chagrins, surely. To my happy surprise, I saw my Guad being passed up from hand to hand through the section with a gleaming new gold E string on it. I passed his back to him, grabbed mine and discovered another shoulder rest on it, strangely (meanwhile realizing that I had about one second to go before my entrance), took that one off and calmly watched it sail through the air to the floor as I was fitting my own on, and came in with the entrance just in time. At this point, time restarted and I was feeling rather pleased that, so far, utter disaster had been avoided.

This self-satisfaction soon turned to abject horror as I realized that I sounded like shit. I had no idea what was wrong, but I had never sounded so bad or out of tune before in my life. I couldn’t even generate any sort of tone from the E (high) string, and still having no clue what was happening (no longer being blessed with this Hannibal-Lecterish-stilled time) I decided to stop. It turned out that whoever had restrung my violin had somehow pegged it badly and the E had just slid down to somewhere around a B, which made it sound like a bowed ukelele. As I played the two open strings to show to the conductor what was wrong, he gave an exasperated sigh and rolled his eyes as though it were all my fault.

Amid confused murmurs from the audience of this great and sold-out hall, I attempted a graceful smile (probably more like a grimace) and retuned, starting the finale one more time and finishing, in the end, with no more mishaps.

The audience was very enthusiastic. It seems as though the same strange impulse which brings a crowd to an accident is there in the reaction to a concert in which something goes wrong. They just don’t have to rubberneck. They are presented with not just the everyday concerto, but also an obstacle course to watch, sitting with bated breath to see what else will happen before the finish line of the last chord.

Meanwhile, all of the adrenaline needed to get through the past 36 hours had forsaken me completely and I could hardly make it on and off stage, let alone get through the encore (in which I conveniently forgot the repeats). I finally slumped into the dressing-room couch and sat talking to my friends, both musicians, who had witnessed the whole debacle. “Why didn’t the conductor stop!!?!???” was their opening remark, to which I could only shrug, still wide-eyed. Then the conductor’s wife popped her head in, smiled graciously and told me that she hoped it would go better tomorrow.

Our jaws were still hanging open from that one when the violinist who had sabotaged my E string peg stepped in and asked for the string back
for me to take it off my violin so he could have it, despite the fact that I had another performance the next evening and had no other E string (normally, I would, but I had figured on going home to be a couch potato 36 hours prior). As I sat wondering what I could do with three strings, or where to get one, some other guy stuck his head in and informed me that in his opinion the really hard part of that concert must have been having to give the Strad back. I realized then that the concertmaster must have some sort of Strad. (Well, it’s just a name and, they’re not all great only some of them). I somewhat weakly said that No, it wasn’t hard. The dude sort of backed out of the room.

The end of this whole story is that I eventually got a nice review titled The Unperturbable Soloist and the following evening’s concert went without a hitch. I found an E string, the orchestra ended up all being super nice and the conductor managed to at least half-extricate whatever it was he had up him.

© Lara St. John
Please visit her website: www.larastjohn.com
Photos © Off Broadway Photo

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