Sight Reading

An Excerpt

Chapter One

She arrived at rehearsal that winter evening to find behind the podium a young man in baggy slacks and a boxy tweed jacket. This was Remy’s final semester at the conservatory; she was twenty-two years old and still one seat away from first chair. The man said nothing as the other students trickled in, just nodded “hello” and waited for them to assemble themselves and their instruments. The air was so dry, the clasps of Remy’s violin case shocked her fingertips.  She glanced at the man, whose face seemed to be trying to say that nothing unusual was happening, no, not at all.

It was 1987, a Sunday. A room full of students not quite recovered from the weekend’s parties and performances and one-night stands. Their regular conductor, Mr. Bergman, was a short, lisping man with rolled-up pant cuffs; everyone looked at this new one in a tired, questioning way. His skin was fair, and his dark hair flopped at a slant across his forehead. There was something angular about his face, with its defined cheekbones and elegantly bony nose.  Remy tucked her violin up under her chin and tested the strings, enjoying the sensation of each one, with the slight turn of a peg, slipping into tune.

Not until her stand partner, Lynn, hurried in to take the seat next to her did the man explain—not at all thoroughly—that Mr. Bergman wouldn’t be back. “And so,” he announced in a British sort of accent that managed to sound both witty and bewildered, “I’ve been hired as his replacement.”

He was too tall for the tweed jacket, or perhaps just too trim, too lad-ish:

Remy decided he couldn’t be more than thirty. “What did he say his name was?” whispered Lynn, who as concert mistress would surely end up on a first-name basis with him.  But no name had been mentioned. The man had come from out of nowhere. Remy pictured a small pile of luggage waiting just outside the practice hall.

“Well, so, in that case, then,” the man was saying. “I’m very excited about the selections we have this term. Scheherazade is one of my favorites.”

Mine, too, thought Remy, with slight bitterness. Not a day went by that she didn’t wish she, and not Lynn, might be the one to portray Scheherazade’s seductive voice, with that first melodious proclamation and the passionate spirals that followed. In private she practiced the solo bits as if they were hers. Lynn, meanwhile, was briskly swiping rosin onto her bow, stirring up a low cloud of sticky dust, as if this man’s sudden appearance weren’t at all out of the ordinary and she might be called upon at any moment to play her cadenza.

The man’s eyes were bright (though there were slight shadows beneath them) and his button-down shirt, open at the collar, was visibly rumpled underneath the tweed jacket. His expression was one of bemusement. Remy felt suddenly hopeful, though she couldn’t have quite said why.

“Well, so,” the man announced in a cheery, English way. “Off we go.”

He had them start with the Sibelius.  Remy loved the sureness of her fingers defining each note, and the vibration of the strings beneath her bow. The rehearsal hall had excellent acoustics; the music rose up over her, sound waves reverberating between her body and her violin, from the touch of her left-hand fingers upon the strings through her right arm down into her wrist.

The new conductor was listening, getting a sense of the orchestra and what the previous conductor had accomplished. “All right, so,” he said lightly, waving at them to stop.  Remy felt a surge of frustration.  She was just one of the many faces looking up at him; this late in the semester, what were the chances a new conductor might discover all she could do?

“Starting at bar seventy-four, let the phrase play itself out.”  He hummed the phrase, as if from pleasure rather than in illustration.  “Let it come to rest, don’t rush into the next sequence. It’s your job to make sure the audience hears the significance of the phrase—so you need to give them time to absorb it.” He raised his baton. “Let’s start from there.”

As they played, Remy could feel the conductor trying to hold them back, then allowing the music forward again.  Mr. Bergman hadn’t done it this way.

“The thing to keep in mind,” the man said, tapping his baton at the podium for them to stop, “is that what the music asks of us isn’t always spelled out on the page. We might need to slow down even where there’s no ritardando written, or rush forward where there’s just a crescendo mark. Tempo is about more than just speed.”  He said this casually, as if the thought had just occurred to him.

“It’s about the passage of time, really. In our lives—not just on the page. You know how sometimes everything seems to keep rushing forward, but then at other times things are peaceful and still?  How sometimes we feel stuck in time, or just plodding along day by day—and then suddenly it’s as if time’s passed us by, or we’re being hurried along, too quickly?  That’s what tempo is really about.  That’s what we’re expressing.  Not just how fast or how slowly the music moves.  It’s about how fast and slow life moves.”

His eyes widened at the thought.  They were a greenish blue.  For a moment it seemed he might be about to make some personal confession.  But he just raised his baton and asked them to try the passage one more time.

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