Hila Katz

Posted on January 2, 2012

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Coughing Through Shostakovich

It was my first performance at Alice Tully Hall, and I couldn’t stop coughing. An orchestra playing Mahler might have muffled me, but I was one of only four people on stage, the second violinist spluttering through the second movement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor.

The tickling in my throat had started up during the third bar; by the sixth I hadn’t been able to hold back. The coughs came in cycles; the tickling built up, a cough burst out (partly through my nose, because I tried to keep my mouth shut), there was a moment’s relief, which I couldn’t even enjoy because I was in a fever of embarrassment, and then the tickling started up again.

It didn’t help that the music was a storm of hysterical energy. Sweat dripped past my eyes until the notes were little more than liquid scribbles. I didn’t dare peer into the audience, though I lost focus for long enough to picture their grimaces and smothered laughter. Ms. Gallagher, my childhood violin teacher, was probably the only one out there listening calmly. I had hoped she would be proud of my success, playing for the first time at such a prestigious venue; of her former students, I was the only one who had pursued a career in music performance. I wondered what she thought watching my implosion from her seat in the front row. She tends to stay composed in the face of anything bizarre, which is one of the reasons I had fallen in love with her my senior year of high school and the chief reason I hadn’t worked up the nerve to tell her in the twelve years since; I wasn’t sure whether she still saw me as the nine year old who had jabbed her in the face with his bow during their first lesson.

Beside me the first violinist grit his teeth. His face was set in a kind of stony long-suffering martyrdom, as if playing at my side was just one of many sacrifices he would need to make for his Art. The violist had turned his body away from me to stave off whatever contagion or contagious bad luck I was cursed with. And the cellist’s mouth was twisted into a hybrid of sneer and incredulous smile, like she couldn’t believe that something this bad was happening on her stage but had always known that if something bad were to happen it would be my fault; I wasn’t a permanent member of the quartet, but a last minute replacement for the regular second violinist, who was out of commission due to a prolonged respiratory illness.

As another cough came trumpeting out with a kind of frantic arrhythmia that Shostakovich might have enjoyed, I figured that in order to stop coughing I would need to stop holding back. Even as my bow kept bucking around, and my fingers scampered to hit all the notes, I sucked in a breath and let out a long roar, hoping to drag the tickling out of my throat. Later Ms. Gallagher would remark that I had turned the piece into a quintet (for two violins, viola, cello, and dragon), but it worked. My face was damp and hot, my shoulders hunched in mortification, but the coughing was over.

Unfortunately, that’s when my chair collapsed.

I hit the stage with a grunt and one last whimpering cough. There was a wave of gasps from the audience. “I can’t, I can’t do this,” the violist muttered loudly enough for the first few rows to hear. A vein pulsed on the first violinist’s forehead. The cellist hung her head, the cello nestled disconsolately between her thighs; it reminded me of myself last year, in a similar position, though unlike me her cello had never given her an uninspired performance.

I got up, my legs trembling, and searched for Ms. Gallagher in the front row. The stage light shone faintly on her pale purple blouse and the pearls at her throat, her black hair streaked silver. Her hands were folded primly on her lap.

“Sorry, Ms. Gallagher,” I said. “Look at me – the best student you ever had. This must be depressing for you.”

She shook her head. “Anthony, what did I always tell you?”

“That I have terrible posture?”

Her voice cut through the astonished laughter. “You need to live from one note to another, one bar to another. You live inside the piece. The audience can walk out, the stage can collapse, your ears can fall off, I don’t care; you stay inside the music, and you only come out when it’s done.” She sighed. “Even if you are allergic to the moderns, and I don’t fault you for that, proceed with the piece. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you – any of you,” she added, her slender face turning towards the other members of the quartet, “until it’s over.”

As they stared at her, stunned, I snapped my fingers. A stagehand brought out a new chair and removed the wreckage. “You heard her, let’s get on with it,” I said, my voice gaining strength. “The second movement’s pretty much done for, so we’ll start with the third.”

The first violinist was flustered enough to take my lead. He played the opening notes of the third movement, keen and full of foreboding, and I smiled. I leapt into the music and struck at each note like a man chasing insects with a flyswatter. The other players faded from my mind. I had always wanted to be a soloist, a great violinist, but had been too nervous to command the stage on my own. Thinking that I would embarrass myself, I had come across as stilted and unsure at auditions for solo parts. After my college conservatory days, my career had consisted of plodding from one gig to another, from trios and quartets to larger chamber groups, whoever would have me. No more. Now that I had survived the depths of embarrassment and rallied with Ms. Gallagher’s help, it was time to be bold.

When Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor finally ended, closing the evening’s program, I remained on stage as the others trouped off.

“What are you doing?” the cellist hissed in passing.

I stared down at my muse in her purple blouse and long paisley skirt; some of the lights had gone on above the audience and I could see her more clearly. “This is for you, Ms. Gallagher,” I said and tucked my violin beneath my chin.

The audience paused in gathering up purses and coats. A hush fell over the hall.

“Call me Amelia if you’re going to serenade me,” she replied.

“Will do.” And I began the Mélodie from Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher. The gentle piercing music called to mind Ms. Gallagher’s parlor with its plush pink carpet that I had always wanted to walk on barefoot. Her parlor is a dream of candies and pastels, the dark wood furniture dressed in pink, gold, green and light blue. The curtains bloom with flowers; the lampshades are stained glass. Picture frames are propped up on scraps of lace, and statuettes of cats batting at yarn punctuate the books on her shelves. Her music cabinet is made of scrolling gold wood.

On my last visit to her house, when I had presented her with the ticket to this evening’s performance, I had waited in her parlor as she fixed up tea and laid out fresh-baked snickerdoodle cookies. I had snuck toffees and peppermints from one of her cut glass crystal bowls and thought how happy I could be living with her.

The music came to a tender close. The applause started reluctantly then picked up steadiness. I’m not a brilliant player, but I had delivered a heartfelt performance even without the accompanying piano part. “Encore!” Ms. Gallagher – Amelia – cried.

I obliged her, little noting how people fidgeted, some leaving but most rooted in place to see where the night would go. I performed the first movement of Schubert’s playful Sonatina in D, followed by the first violin part of the Allegro from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and then Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E. Amelia approached the foot of the low stage when I had finished that one and offered up roses wrapped in blue paper. “Well done, Anthony,” she said.

There were still plenty of people hovering around, at their seats or in the aisles, hanging on for some more entertainment; I spotted a few recording me with cameras and cellphones. Someone just off-stage was telling me I should wrap it up and leave. I got down on one knee, until my face was only a little above hers. “Marry me,” I whispered.

With a cool, slim hand she patted my cheek. “Don’t be hasty,” she said.

“Savor your moment here.”

Some of the lights extinguished over the stage. More people filed out. “Your ‘yes’ would make my moment complete,” I said.

Her eyes were a vibrant green in the low light. “Strange man. Play another for me.” She settled back into her seat.

I got up, blew her a kiss and took up Heifetz’s violin arrangement of Debussy’s Beau Soir. I had last played it in the twelfth grade as an encore at Ms. Gallagher’s annual student recital; the intimate melody had been an invitation, a caress, the closest I had come to declaring my love. I had hated how the other students intruded, crowding onto the furniture in her parlor and scuffing at the carpet with their stiff dress shoes.

More people left, more lights died out, there was an uneasy stirring in the far corners of the stage. I didn’t care. A man like me, set on marrying a woman sixteen years his senior who used to teach him violin, couldn’t care too much about other people’s opinions. After the Debussy I reveled in The Rose in the Heather and poured my heart into My Lagan Love, and I would have carried on playing for her all night had I not been threatened with security.

Amelia Gallagher did marry me, six months later. She remains at home teaching children how to play creditable music and not impale people on their bows. I go out and play solo. Not on any grand stage, I’ve been barred from those (though a video of my coughing fit, chair collapse, and subsequent serenading has gone viral on the web). I play on street corners, subway platforms, at coffee shops, bars, parks, tearooms, parties, receptions, music festivals, agricultural exhibitions; just me, having fun and making money. I love coming home to that little parlor where I first lost my heart to Ms. Gallagher and first dreamt I would be a great violinist. The carpet feels heavenly to my bare feet.

***

Hila Katz is a writer living in the US. She maintains a blog, The Sill of the World. http://thesilloftheworld.blogspot.com/

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