Step back with me to August of 2004. It was summertime in Chicago, I had just started dating Akiko, and I was about to fly across the world for my first ever international competition. Things were good. Here’s 2004 Nathan looking ahead to that summer’s doings:
Before a competition or audition, it’s not a bad idea to schedule one or more warm-up performances so that you can wrap your mind (and your hands) around playing your repertoire on stage. As Dr. Seuss said in Oh, The Places You’ll Go:
“out there, things can happen
and frequently do”
On this particular day in August, something did indeed happen, something I’m not proud of. Finally, after more than a decade, I’m ready to laugh about it with all of you. Turn up your speakers or pop in your earbuds, because you’re visiting the Chicago Cultural Center for the Dame Myra Hess concert series. Kuang-Hao Huang joined me on piano, and the listeners of WFMT joined us live on the air. Carl Grapentine was our genial radio host, and fortunately he was quick on his feet that day!
Before the concert, I was a bit nervous because just a day earlier, I had broken an E string. I worried that the new one wouldn’t hold its pitch. I worried that it might whistle. I was blissfully unaware of what should have been my biggest worry.
After some Beethoven (the Romance in F and the Sonata No. 8 in G), we launched into Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. Things started off without incident:
Just before the devilish final section of the piece, there is a long lamentation that climbs ever upward, finishing on a high C. As we reached that moment of calm, I could feel the blood start to course through my arms, preparing my hands for the frenzied fun ahead. Kuang-Hao handled the sudden mood change, and I nearly jumped in early:
At first, both hands kept going as if nothing was wrong, but my left hand quickly realized that there was no wiry E string underneath its fingers. As I turned to Kuang-Hao, I gritted my teeth imagining the hasty retreat backstage, the hurried string change, the brief retune, then a desperate attempt to refocus the dissipated energy in the room.
Then I had a sickening realization: that new E string I had put on the day before had been my last. There were no more. I remembered thinking, as I had unwrapped the string, “Make sure to get another one before tomorrow’s show.” But other things must have seemed more important: a new episode of Fear Factor, perhaps. Now tomorrow was today.
And this wasn’t a concerto performance, where I could just switch fiddles with the concertmaster. It wasn’t even a string quartet concert, where my fellow violinist might have a spare string in his case. I was well and truly sunk unless someone there had a spare violin or at least an E string.
Akiko was in the audience, but she didn’t have her violin with her. Plus, I remembered her telling me that she had never broken a string in performance. How is that even possible? I thought. We just started dating…is that one of those lies you tell to make yourself more attractive? Well, this isn’t going to help my standing with her.
My cry for help, “Do we have an extra E string in the house?” got a nice laugh. Carl Grapentine carried on the broadcast for our remote listeners, while the live audience murmured away. Carl’s pause and “Hmmmm!” pretty much said it all:
After what felt like five minutes but was really just fifteen seconds, I saw that I was out of options. Short of digging up Paganini (or maybe Roman Kim) and having him play the end of the piece on three strings, I had to call it. My goose was cooked. I managed something between a bow and a curtsy, which brought the audience to its feet, in order to leave. There was applause, though I assume most of it was for my intrepid pianist.
Let’s throw it back to Carl Grapentine for the call:
So, to recap:
- Don’t be like 2004 Nathan.
- Every time you change a string, make sure you have another…better yet, two!
- Every time you perform, make sure you have a friend in the audience with a spare violin.
- It turns out that John Gerson (who’s now a good friend) was in the audience, with a spare violin. That was the first time he had ever laid eyes on me, and when disaster struck, he thought: I’ve got this violin. But it isn’t even mine. I’m borrowing it. Should I run up and offer it to him? I can’t be the only person here with a violin. Oh wait, he’s bowing. Was that a bow? Wow, I guess it’s over. I’ll never find out if he had a decent left-hand pizzicato.