It was late January of ’38, and I’d been a substitute at Radio City for the better part of a week. At that time, I took any gig I could; money was scarce and work that paid well even more so.
One of the acts was the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. I played the violin solo onstage from memory twice a day, and toward the end of the week, I had it nailed. Not that I thought anyone was listening. I was certain the audience dozed through the longhair stuff while waiting for the Rockettes to kick up their heels. Despite playing second fiddle to a chorus line, I played my best.
After my last performance, the stage manager escorted me to a VIP lounge, pointed at the door, and left. I knocked. A gruff voice told me to enter. Once inside, I was stunned to see the maestro sitting in a leather chair next to a chrome table, a snifter of brandy in his hand. He was a god in my world—I’d seen him only from afar at Philharmonic or Met performances. I never suspected he’d come to Radio City, to say nothing of summoning me after a show.
Bright light streamed from a floor lamp behind his chair. As my eyes adjusted, I studied the famous long white hair and imperious mustache. He was seventy then, elegantly dressed in a blue blazer with a black silk cravat. His dark eyes were clear, penetrating—almost demonic. Immense power surged from them. On his right hand, he wore a large gold ring.
The door shut behind me with a disconcerting thud. I stood mute with my fiddle and bow in my right hand. He placed the snifter on the table and sat quietly for a moment, sizing me up—or so it seemed. Then, at last, he spoke in a deep, heavily-accented voice.
“So, you are loving playing this joint?”
I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a snide remark.
“I love playing great music, Maestro, whenever the opportunity presents itself. A composer should be honored wherever his music is performed.”
“That is a good answer for someone so young. I am sure Pyotr Ilyich, he is grateful—for the thought and for the music you made tonight.”
The maestro smiled gently.
“Tomorrow, you come play for me. My assistant, she makes the arrangements.”
I stood there, rooted to the floor, not fully fathoming what I had heard. He smiled again as if he understood. Was this the fabled dragon who routinely scorched musicians with his fiery temper?
“You know the Mendelssohn, yes?”
I nodded. Every violinist worth his salt knows the Concerto in E Minor—a tour de force that separates the good from the great.
“Third movement, Allegro molto vivace. From memory, tomorrow. I will accompany you. Perhaps you should practice some tonight, no?”
He reached for his brandy, brought it to his lips, and dismissed me with a wave. I bolted from the room and ran right into a beautiful young girl who stood just outside the door. As we collided, I pulled my fiddle and bow close, then reached out with my free hand to stop her fall.
“Mr. Tischler, we need to set up your appointment.”
My arm was still tightly wrapped around her waist. She was breathtakingly lovely, with long black hair, intense dark eyes, and sensuous lips within inches of mine. It took all the strength I could muster not to kiss them. The look in her eyes was part surprise, part recognition—as if she had somehow foreseen our odd encounter. She smelled of lilacs.
I let go of her after a moment. She was all business; what made me think this could be the time and place for romance?
“I beg your pardon?”
“An appointment with the maestro. Tomorrow morning at Carnegie Hall. You will present yourself at the business office at 8:50. I will meet and escort you to the stage. He will audition you then.”
Her English was flawless, with the slightest trace of Tuscany. I wasn’t sure who was more intimidating: the god in the room behind me, or the goddess standing in front of me.
“Yes—of course. The appointment—certainly. Yes, I’ll be there.”
Always so good with words, I was.
I practiced the Mendelssohn for hours that night. There was no point in isolating the third movement; it was the culmination of the entire work. I played all three movements in sequence, over and over again. Neighbors banged on the pipes and pounded on the floor. Still, I practiced.
Around three in the morning, I tried to rest, but it was useless; the Mendelssohn kept running through my head. There was no sleep to be had that night, but I had the concerto—all of it—under my fingers by morning.
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