Right of Passage
by Karen Dionne
If Nesya Dobrovitsky had known what momentous events the day would bring, she might have stayed in bed. Instead, she performed as she always did on a Wednesday: she got up, dressed, drank a cup of black coffee, grabbed her violin case, and ran out the door in time to catch the number nine to Herr Messerschmidt's flat. After turning the ancient brass doorknob, she mounted creaking stairs to an apartment redolent of mothballs and peppermint.
Opening the case on the sofa, she took out her violin, a honey-colored Hans Trautner with a voice to match which Herr Messerschmidt had smuggled out of Czarist Russia and which he had sold to Nesya two years previously after she'd mastered her first Kreisler sonata. Nesya rosined her bow, fine-tuned the instrument, and launched into a series of warm-up scales as Herr Messerschmidt sat in the next room, eyes closed, drinking tea.
"Ready?" came the voice from the kitchen after precisely five minutes had passed.
"Ready, Herr Messerschmidt."
Nesya's eyes remained open as she played, moving across the page as the notes peeled from her instrument. Her technique was impeccable, every note hit with precision, but as the music progressed, she dared not relax. Ever since Federico Bianco had joined the Moscow Philharmonic, she had been relegated to second chair. It was true Bianco studied at the Brussels Conservatory, but she was herself an excellent musician -- certainly miles above the slut who occupied the chair on her left, a brazen Czech who dressed like a whore during rehearsals, bosoms spilling out of her neckline, distracting all but the most jaded male members.
She pushed the thought aside and concentrated on her music, racing through the arpeggios, the minutes ticking inexorably by as she approached the final, dreaded passage. Stomach clenched, body swaying, her face contorted as the notes poured forth, building, ever building toward the climactic passage she had yet to play perfectly. It was said that Paganini had composed his works in such a way that no one could play them but he himself, and indeed his first concerto contained a passage which Nesya swore could only be mastered by prepubescent prodigies or virtuosos willing to sacrifice six months in pursuit of a few torturous measures. It was Paganini's Concerto No. 1 which was to be played at the concert tonight, with Bianco, of course, as the soloist.
She closed her eyes. She had attempted the nefarious passage so many times she knew the music by heart, and now she raced blindfolded through the octaves, through double stops worthy of a contortionist, the flying staccato . . .
And then she was through! Startled, she lowered the instrument in a daze of accomplishment. She wanted to laugh, to cry, to toss her violin to the floor and punch her fist in the air. Instead, she merely glanced toward Herr Messerschmidt and humbly bowed her head.
She lifted the instrument to her chin, smiling as she played through the passage a second time. It was hers now, she owned it, she would never stumble through it again. She imagined herself performing the solo at the concert tonight as, at Herr Messerschmidt's direction, she repeated her momentous accomplishment again and again, a third time, and then a fourth -- ten times more without missing a beat before she was finally permitted to stop.
"Nesya, darling!" said the voice on her answering machine. "Are you there? Did you hear the news? Bianco has fallen! He's broken wrist! Shmuel will be calling, but I wanted to be first to congratulate you. It's you, darling, you. You'll be playing the Paganini tonight!"
She sucked in her breath. The very day she'd mastered the Devil's own passage, the gods had granted her opportunity to perform it. She sat down, her knees weak. If this were indeed a gift from the gods, then even as they'd smiled on her they'd bestowed tragedy upon Bianco. Her euphoria vanished. She understood it was the nature of competition; that a step up for one meant a step down for someone else, but even so --
"I know what you're thinking," Dimitri's message interrupted. "But it's not your fault, Nesya, dear. Remember: 'One man's curse is another man's blessing.' You'll be wonderful tonight, I promise."
Nesya waited behind drawn gold velvet curtains that evening, watching them sway from the cumulative whisperings of a thousand expectant voices. Beside her, the whore sweated in a matching concert gown. Nesya noted with dismay that the woman's chest rippled whenever she moved. Was she not wearing a bra? Such disrespect would come as no surprise. The woman was so unprofessional a musician it was a wonder she retained third chair at all. She rarely practiced, unless her concerted activity with the male orchestra members counted toward her virtuosity. Nesya had little trouble believing the rumor that everyone had slept with the woman except Dimitri.
Dimitri. From across the stage, he winked as she caught his eye, and she offered him a tremulous smile in return. Dear Dimitri. Always desiring the best for her and wanting nothing for himself. As concert master, he should have commanded the podium tonight when word came that the maestro was ill, and yet he hadn't objected when the orchestra board brought in as guest conductor Shmuel Ashkenazi, a boy with too-long hair and an intense, pale face. Newly arrived from St. Petersburg after having won the Rachmaninov Prize, Ashkenazi had graciously delayed the opening of his first world concert tour to allow himself to be pressed into service.
Ashkenazi stepped up to the podium, looking every bit his twenty-two years. As he toyed with the pages of his score, Nesya smiled. Somehow it seemed appropriate that they should make their debut together. Please, God, she whispered. Let it go well tonight. For Ashkenazi -- and for me.
The curtains parted. Nesya stood and took the soloist's place. Ashkenazi raised his arms, struck the downbeat, and the concerto began. Nesya played along, gaining confidence as the music swelled, and the thought that it was all for her gave her strength. When the crucial moment arrived, her fingers did as she expected, and even as she sailed through the impossible passage, she anticipated the applause. When she struck the final note, she opened her eyes, gasping with exertion, and then the applause was real. Behind her, the orchestra was standing as one, applauding -- applauding for her.
She tucked her violin beneath her arm and bowed, her face flushed with victory, her smile restrained, as if she played such music for the gods every day, as if every day were as momentous as this one had been, a day in which everything had gone so exactly, miraculously right.
She bowed a third time. Behind her, came a ripping sound, followed by a cry of dismay and a collective gasp. She turned to see that the tip of her violin bow had caught the bodice of the whore's dress, revealing that the buxom Miss Ecklund had indeed eschewed wearing a bra. As the startled woman clutched at the halves of her ruined dress, her violin clattered to the floor. Aghast, Nesya bent to retrieve the instrument at the same moment that Ashkenazi stepped forward to do the same. Their heads met with a resounding crack and he fell backwards, stumbling against the podium. For a moment, it looked as though he might regain his footing, and Nesya stood frozen, willing him to do so, but it was not to be. Ashkenazi tumbled off the stage and fell to the floor where he lay still, his youthful face ashen, his right arm bent outward at an impossible angle.
The orchestra erupted in cries of horror as the audience leapt to its feet. Someone actually had the audacity to cry, "Is there a doctor in the house?" as Nesya continued to stand rooted, terrified, gazing across the stage at Dimitri in sheer and utter panic, completely dumbstruck at the magnitude of what she had done.
Dimitri stood up. Leaving his bassoon on his chair, he crossed the stage to retrieve Ashkenazi's baton. He rapped authoritatively against the conductor's stand, and the orchestra resumed their seats. As the fallen conductor was carried off on an improvised stretcher, Dimitri raised his arms heavenward, turned to his beloved Nesya, and winked.