THE STRADIVARIUS

(© 2003 Quentin Bristow)

[A promising young violinist learns the difference between talent and relying on the quality of an instrument]

It was a wintry day in January and Michael Fortescue was relaxing in a rather cramped aeroplane seat, on his way home from a concert tour in the U.S.A. He was the principal violinist of a small privately endowed orchestra in Ottawa, the Schubert Players, which had made quite a reputation for itself over the years.

Michael had been attracted to the violin at an early age. It helped that there was a tradition of music in the family. His mother was an accomplished pianist and his father was a fair amateur cellist. He had inherited the talent in spades and by the time he was twelve, it was clear that he probably had what it took to be a top flight violinist. His parents were dubious about the idea of his gambling everything on the expectation of a profitable career as a soloist. They knew only too well that success as a concert artist generally has more to do with being in the right place at the right time, than being better than everyone else. Most top notch musicians, after years of study end up playing in orchestras and chamber groups for a pittance for the rest of their working lives.

Michael had chosen that route despite his parents misgivings. He had swept the board in the annual Ottawa Kiwanis music festival violin categories, year after year, and finally completed his music degree at the University of Ottawa. He really was quite outstanding as a performer and had been invited to join the Schubert Players at the age of only twenty three. He had also caught the attention of the Canadian Classical Strings Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to promoting the careers of talented young Canadian musicians. It was bankrolled by well heeled patrons and substantial grants from the Canada Council. They felt that he showed enough promise that he could benefit from a better instrument than the one he had. They offered to lend him a Stradivarius violin, something which they did very rarely for obvious reasons.

There were of course all sorts of conditions attached to the offer, mainly having to do with requirements of the company which insured it. Michael was absolutely overwhelmed by the tone the first time he played it and he was totally hooked. He had made friends with other young people in the orchestra, there was Malcolm Forester, also in the first violin section, and Marcia Holbrook, a flautist. Actually she was becoming rather more than a friend, which caused the predictable orchestral tongue-wagging .

The latest tour had gone off rather well, ten concerts in two weeks. The music director had a good head for business, and made sure that the concerts consisted of well known items with popular appeal, which is why the orchestra was comfortably in the black, unlike many others. Michael played several solo pieces with the orchestra during the tour, among them the lyrical slow movement from the Beethoven violin concerto. As his bow stroked the strings of the Stradivarius, the rich golden resonant notes just rolled off them and out into the auditorium, keeping the audience spellbound. "These are heart strings" he thought to himself. The magic was palpable. As the last chord died away there was a moment of hushed silence, and then a thunderous spontaneous burst of applause. Michael stood there, basking, and blinking, and bowing, and how he bowed, again and again and again. It was an incredibly emotional experience - and quite addictive. Eventually the conductor had to intervene by moving over to shake his hand a second time. With a fixed wooden smile on his face, he whispered through clenched teeth "Okay Michael, don't over do it".

Marcia Holbrook was pleased that he was doing so well, but concerned about the false confidence which she felt the instrument was giving him. She was also just a teeny bit bothered by all the attention he was getting from the other girls in the orchestra. She said to Malcolm Forester. "You know what, I think Michael is coming down with a nasty case of Stradi-virus, I don't know what'll happen if he ever has to give it back."

At the end of the tour everyone was pretty exhausted. A number of the musicians had decided to spend some more time at the last venue, which was Miami, and make a vacation out of it, including Malcolm and Marcia. Michael however, had a recital scheduled, which just might lead to a recording contract, so he was anxious not to miss it.

It was a Friday evening when Michael's plane touched down at Ottawa airport. After going through customs he waited around while the reinforced instrument boxes were retrieved from the cargo hold and cleared, with the orchestra transportation manager doing the paperwork. There were only three other musicians and the four of them started to go through the boxes looking for their instruments, Michael quickly found his and put it on a trolley along with the rest of his belongings. He trundled it out to the kerb to wait for a taxi, it was foul weather with freezing rain and sleet. He wished heartily that he could have stayed in Miami and lazed around for a few days - especially as Marcia was there.

Soon he was on his way toward the west end of Ottawa and the taxi was approaching a green light at a major intersection. The driver realised in the nick of time that a car coming across the other way was sliding into the intersection with its wheels locked and would be unable to stop. He managed to stop in time, but a pickup truck behind - didn't. It slammed into the back of the taxi, shunting it into the intersection and into the car which had been unable to stop. Michael was shaken but not injured and quickly got out, as did the cab driver. They both smelled a strong whiff of gasoline and almost immediately the rear portion of the cab burst into flames.

Miraculously, no one was hurt, but by the time the fire fighters arrived, the contents of the trunk, including Michael's luggage and the violin, were completely destroyed. He was absolutely rigid with horror, he had just witnessed one of the few remaining seventeenth century musical treasures - a Stradivarius violin, go up in smoke. What on earth was he going to do now?

The full impact of the affair didn't really hit him until the next day, when he prepared himself to phone the Foundation and report the loss. What would they say? Just the idea of what they might say made him feel like something that had crawled out from under a wet slab. He went over in his mind all those conditions of the loan. Yes, he reckoned that he had fulfilled his side of the bargain. He had cared for it with the utmost diligence and short of taking the damn thing to bed with him, he couldn't have done any more. In the event, after relating the details to the official on the other end of the line, the response was remarkably sanguine.

"It's a shame Michael, but under the circumstances there is absolutely nothing you could have done, we certainly wouldn't have wanted you to have tried to rescue it, because we actually value you more than the Strad. It isn't the first one we've lost - and I don't imagine it will be the last, we will all just have to move on."

Moving on was now Michael's greatest obstacle, as far as he was concerned he had suffered a huge setback to his career He could hardly write a letter to the Foundation saying Dear Folks, sorry the Strad you lent me is toast, could you please send another one. The first thing was to get used to a common or garden violin again. He dragged out the one which he had always been quite happy with before. It seemed a horrid shock to hear it now, how on earth was he going to play the recital on this? It was to be at the University of Ottawa Taberet Hall, a venerable salon on the campus where he had performed many times as a student. The recording contract possibility was due to a previous contact with a talent scout from a prestigious British Label. The guy was an ageing Yorkshireman named Jack Boothroyd, who had lived in Canada for many years. He was rather brusque and far too cynical for Michael's taste, but he had expressed an interest in hearing him again and had hinted at the possibility of a contract.

Michael was in the depths of despair and told his parents that he felt he couldn't go through with the recital with only seven days to prepare for it. He would be playing the Mendelssohn violin Concerto with a piano accompaniment, which was appropriate for a relatively small hall like the Taberet. The downside was that having just the piano rather than the full orchestra in support, meant that any shortcomings in his performance would be magnified.

His father felt it was time for some straight talk:

"Michael, now you listen to me, how dare you sit there crying the blues because you can't play on a world famous instrument any more. A real artist, or a real athlete for that matter, has the inner grit to pick up another instrument, or another pair of skis, or another tennis racquet or whatever and make the best of it. If you think that only a Stradivarius can make your career - you've got another think coming my boy. Your Mother and I have told you time and time again that a career in music is beset with all kinds of banana skins. Up till now you have had things pretty much your own way and this is the first time you are up against it.

"Do you have any idea how many musicians out there are battling with really career-threatening problems? Can you imagine what it's like to have rheumatism in your finger joints and have to lace yourself up with medication before each performance just to keep going? Try coping with Carpel Tunnel syndrome when you are a pianist, which, as you know, is what ended your Mother's career. Now you get weaving my lad and put in the hours on the violin you have, it was a pretty expensive instrument after all, then get in that hall and tough it out. I think you have the talent to pull if off - don't you prove me wrong."

Michael knew that he was right. It was true enough, in absolute terms he had everything going for him. He was young, disgustingly healthy, talented and had phenomenal finger and arm dexterity. Even the thought of how an ailment might affect that sent chills down his spine. He bucked up and followed his father's advice. It wasn't easy, and he tried to ignore the lacklustre tone of the old violin and just concentrate on the technique. The Mendelssohn was a pretty demanding concerto, the composer had written it for the famous nineteenth century violin virtuoso Ferdinand David, who at the time had rated it as almost unplayable. Now it was one of the corner stones in the repertoire of every budding violinist. Michael had played it any number of times before, but there were always new nuances to discover and work on to try and deliver a truly fresh and scintillating interpretation. In this case he wasn't out to put on a bravura performance to please a crowd of concert goers. The audience of students and alumni would be knowledgeable and critical, it would also be something of an audition, with that wretched Jack Boothroyd sitting there slumped back in his seat.

The day came and everything was just as he knew it would be, there were a couple of the professors who had trained him, a bit grayer now and obviously pleased at his success. It seemed everyone had heard about the loss of the Stradivarius. There had been a short clip in the Ottawa Citizen about it, which had infuriated Michael because it had said "Young violinist sees Stradivarius burn to ashes in freak accident - but it was insured." "So, that makes it all just Okay does it" he had fumed to his parents, "as long as no one loses any money over it - nothing else matters, ink stained little wretch, I'd like to wring his bloody neck"

His eyes scanned the audience, sure enough Boothroyd was there, slumped in his seat. Michael was introduced, together with his accompanist, a long-time pianist on the Ottawa music scene, with whom he had played many times. She played the bars of the lead-in and he started in to the piece. The slow haunting melody began high on the E string and then quickly evolved into what Michael called ‘Gladiator stuff' which really challenged the dexterity of any violinist. This was his forte. Then came the lyrical theme in the slow movement. This is where the Stradivarius tone had been so gorgeous. He tried to ignore the difference, no heart strings here, no golden notes rolling out to the auditorium, just squeaky, muddy notes dropping at his feet in little muddy puddles. Despair began to take hold and he could only think how ridiculous he must look, valiantly scraping away at four pieces of wire with stuff that came off the back end of a horse.

He soldiered on grimly, feeling sure that he had blown it right there, but remembering his father's lecture he was determined to see it through, after all they weren't going to lynch him. His fingers carried him through to the dramatic finale, although his heart wasn't in it, and with a flourish he executed the last double stop and the final note. He had never felt so utterly disconnected from an audience as he did at that moment and he turned to thank his accompanist without waiting for any applause. He should have waited, suddenly the roof practically caved in, the whole audience was on its feet cheering and clapping with bravos and roars of approval. Michael was in total shock, how on earth could they possibly have gone wild over such a disastrous performance.

After the hall had cleared he saw Jack Boothroyd sauntering over to him,

"Well, well, that was quite a performance" he said.

"Come on don't butter me up, it was terrible and you know it"

"I don't know anything of the kind, I thought it was first rate and apparently so did the entire audience here and they are not exactly easy to please. My company doesn't pay me to go trailing round concert halls just to pay people insincere compliments, you know. "

"But I had to play it on that mediocre violin because my Stradivarius was destroyed."

"Ya, ya, ya, I heard all about that, look son, you don't get it, you've got the talent and you have a real flair for presentation, it wouldn't matter if your damn violin came from Zellers or Canadian Tire, it's the total package that counts. D'ya know Julia McKenzie?"

"Well of course I know of her, she's your Label's five-star harpist isn't she?"

"Yes that's right, well when she started with us she had a fancy harp that she was practically married to and on one tour we were in a rather seedy old auditorium which was pretty run down. The stage had a trap door, the older ones did in those days for special tricks like sawing girls in half and all that crap.

"Well there was a small rug over it and before the concert, our crew came in and did the setup, which included placing the harp on the stage. Now a harp is a pretty heavy piece of gear and wouldn't you know it but the guy set it down right on that rug, not realising it was there to cover the damn door. We all went backstage for a break and I suppose the weight was just too much, the screws holding the hinges must have popped out of the decaying wood and the whole shebang went down like the Titanic. You should have heard its last chord when the bloody thing hit the concrete floor and disintegrated ten feet down. It was a real show stopper, we all thought judgement day had come. Julia was devastated and I knew we had a serious problem."

"So what did you do about it"

"I said ‘Look kiddo, its no good getting your knickers in a knot, its gone, Okay, we'll get you another one. All you've gotta do is play the right notes and look like an angel, they won't care if you're playing on a harp or a bicycle wheel'".

"That was pretty brutal, what did she say?"

"She burst into tears, whatd'ya think, then reality set in and she knew I was right, she was magnificent, we found her another harp and she put on the performance of her career. It was that sort of grit under fire that puts her in the top rank in the world.

"Now I told you all this for a reason, as far as I am concerned you could be another Julia McKenzie, not that I want you to look like an angel. You had a setback seeing that Strad go up in smoke, but you did exactly what she did, you got in here today and put on one helluva a show. That does it for me, can we talk turkey?"

Michael didn't quite know what to do - or say, but he made it clear that he was very very interested. Boothroyd was pleased and said:

"Good, that's very good, we may have to work on your name a little"

"What's wrong with my name"

"Nothing wrong with it dear boy, but there's always room for improvement, it did a lot for Alfie Camp and Alice Marks"

"Who are they"

"Who were they actually, you probably know them better as the fifties violinist Alfredo Campoli and the prima ballerina Alicia Markova"

"Oh you're kidding, those weren't their real names? I had no idea"

"See what I mean? Now, let's think, Michael Fortescue, yes, we could do something with that, how about ‘Michelangelo Fortescari'. Perhaps the Michelangelo is a bit of a stretch but Fortescari has definite possibilities."

"You Brits don't have any scruples do you"

"How the hell d'ya think we built the greatest empire the world's ever seen. Seriously though, I can say on behalf of the company that we are definitely interested in a recording contract and if you are too, you should get yourself an agent to deal with our people, they are pretty hard-nosed and I certainly don't want to see you get shafted."

"Thanks, I'll do that and I am really grateful for the tip, can I ask you something"

"Sure, fire away"

"Something tells me that you cultivated that veneer of cynicism to mask off something that happened at some point in your career."

Jack Boothroyd was taken aback for a second and then took a deep breath:

"Well you are a perceptive young feller I must say. Yes, you are quite right, I had a career as a violinist in my sights, believe it or not, and I was doing Okay, all set to join an orchestra actually, and then I was involved in a motorbike accident. I broke a leg and two fingers in my left hand. Nobody was too worried, they reckoned I had got off lightly considering the spectacular crash. They set the bones and the leg mended really well, but something went wrong with the fingers and when they took the cast off I could move them, but nowhere near enough to play again. The specialist said of course they would be stiff for a while, but that would wear off and they would be as right as rain. They never were, so it was curtains for my career.

" I had to do something for a living so I went into orchestral administration and was lucky enough to get a job with this company where at least I can use my experience to spot other - luckier - young people."

"So that's why you were so hard on Julia Mackenzie, because she was just feeling sorry for herself, but didn't have any real impediment to confront as you did."

"Right again. We'll be in touch, and oh, er, congratulations." he said and wandered off.

The second he left, Marcia Holbrook suddenly appeared out of nowhere and threw her arms around him.

"What the...I thought your were still in...."

"Don't say anything, I came back for this recital because I knew it meant so much to you, and because we heard about the accident and I knew what losing the Strad would do to you. When I said I was coming back, Malcolm Forester decided he had had about enough of Miami and said he would come back too. We got in yesterday and went to the office to pick up our instruments and d'you know what Michael, we found that Malcolm's violin is missing - but yours is there"

Michael looked at her in dumb incomprehension and then the penny dropped and he collapsed onto a seat, quite weak at the knees.

"Oh my God, I can't believe it, so it was Malcolm's violin that got fried"

Then he remembered hurriedly scanning the labels on the boxes in the dimly lit airport baggage area, of course, all the violin boxes were identical and "M. FORESTER" was close enough to "M. FORTESCUE" in a bad light with tired eyes.

"So why on earth didn't you tell me yesterday for God's sake" he said furiously.

"Oh Michael, we had a big debate about that, Malcolm said we should, but I said that we should discuss it with your Mum and Dad and we did. They were four-square with me, especially your Dad. He felt just as I did, that it was make-or-break time for your career. He knew you were coming to terms with it and that he had succeeded in steeling you to do this with the old violin and damn the torpedos.

"I was scared to death today Michael, I really was, but I am so proud of you now - you did it, and I have been dying to tell you everything that happened, but I had to wait and hide while you were talking with the recording company guy, I gather he thinks you did it too."

Michael just looked at her for the longest time and then he said:

"Marcia, I am the luckiest guy in the world to have someone like you risk so much for me, do you suppose you could take an even bigger risk and marry me?"

"Oh God YES!" she said and flew into his arms.

The next day Michael phoned the Foundation to break the good news about the Stradivarius and spoke to the same official.

"So you'll be keeping it then" he said.

"Actually - no, I am infinitely grateful to the Foundation for having given me the opportunity, but I have learned an important lesson, plus it really has been an awesome responsibility, so I will be returning it with many thanks, to be available to another candidate."

The Foundation must have thought highly of him, because a few days later a letter arrived offering to provide both him and Malcolm Forester with violins that while not in the Stradivarius league, were nonetheless much better than either of the young men could possibly have afforded.

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