(14 minute read)
by Dru Richman
There are moments in one’s life that, years later, when you look back in retrospect, and say, “That was the best” or “That was the worst” or “That changed my life forever.” This story is about one of those incredible times.
It was the 12th of February. I remember it because it was the day that every musician in the orchestra loathed, Open Audition Day. The day when every wannabe musician, who thought they could play at the symphonic level, got their try-out to play with The Symphony. We all hated it but it was in our contract that we had to do this, so here we were.
We started promptly at 8 a.m., and for the next seven hours we heard flute players, violinists, cellists, brass of every sort, pianists, and every other sort of instrument included in a symphonic orchestra. Some were good, some were a bit better. But we thanked them all and sent them on their way, happy in the fact that we had given them their shot.
At three o’clock, the stage manager stepped out, we hoped, for the last time and called, “Is there anyone else who would like to audition?” Slowly, from the side of the house, a figure rose from the darkness and walked toward the stage. He carried a beat-up violin case and, over his shoulder, a knapsack. What can you say? He looked to be about forty, of medium build and height, and dressed like a refugee from middle Europe. He had a two-day beard and both his hat and clothing had seen better days.
He walked directly to the conductor’s podium, removed his hat, and in a voice that could only be described as ‘guttural’, spoke to the conductor. “Maestro, if it would be alright with you, I would like permission to play with your orchestra. My name is Alexi.”
“What instrument do you play?” asked the maestro.
A single word was what he replied, “All.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the life of a professional musician, let’s just say that it takes half a lifetime to get to the position that my fellow players and I occupy, and the other half of a lifetime to refine what and how we play. Most musicians can master one instrument, possibly two, but all? Impossible! Yet, here he stood, this master, master of every instrument. To say a snicker rolled through the orchestra would just be polite.
But the maestro was in a kindly disposition and simply asked, “Which instrument would you like to start with?”
“I dunno, perhaps, flute,” replied Alexi.
“OK,” said the maestro. “Do you know the Mozart Flute Concerto in D Major?”
“Yes,” replied Alexi.
While we set up our music, Alexi opened his knapsack and took out an old flute case. The flute inside looked very much like its owner…thoroughly battered. Alexi carefully put the flute together, blew a short note, walked onstage and took a spot close to the maestro. The maestro took up his baton and, on the downbeat, our lives changed.
I didn’t know what we were expecting. Yes, of course, I did. We all knew what to expect. We had seen it all day— fervent musicians trying their best. We, halfheartedly playing two-to-three minutes of the music and coasting through the rest until, mercifully, the maestro called the audition to a halt, thanked the player and dismissed them.
Alexi was different. From the very first notes through the cadenza and on to the end, the notes soared from the flute of this, this person. Who was he? He played with the skill of Jean-Pierre Rampal and the flamboyance of James Galway. His notes, pure and true, flowed from his soul, or so it seemed, out through his flute and into the concert hall. And when we were done, he just stood there, eyes closed, waiting as if trying to persuade the last note not to leave. It was an amazing moment.
This, this unknown, had just played one of Mozart’s most complex flute pieces, and played it as well as any other flute player I’d ever heard. We stared at him and each other in stunned silence. Finally, it was the maestro who broke the silence.
“That was quite remarkable, Alexi,” he said visibly shaken. “What else would you like to play for us today?” he asked.
“I brought a trumpet. We could maybe do, with your permission, the Second Brandenburg?” Alexi questioned.
The stage manager scrambled to get the music, and we were anxious to see if this miracle could happen again.
Alexi went to his knapsack, packed up his flute with a reverence almost unheard of with professionals, removed his trumpet and, like before, blew a short note, walked onstage and took a spot close to the maestro. The trumpet looked in worse shape than the flute. We didn’t know what to expect this time. We shouldn’t have worried though. Like the Mozart before, the Bach was true and pure without so much as a missed inflection.
The notes poured from the very essence of his being and the music filled our hall. And, as before, at the end he just stopped and stood, eyes closed. It was as if he were listening for some silent confirmation from above. The silence didn’t last long this time though. Almost en masse, the members of the orchestra were upon him. Everyone asking questions –
“Where did you study?”
“Have you played here or there?”
“Have you played with so-and-so?”
But it was our principle trumpet player’s question that stopped everyone else’s queries, “Where did you get that horn?”
“I’m sorry, maestro,” said Alexi apologetically, “I have only money to buy such things at pawn shops or other stores like that.”
We were stunned into silence. It was finally me that broke the quiet. “Okay,” I said with long-practiced sarcasm, “now that all you one-note wonders are done, let’s get to some real playing. Alexi, do you do piano?”
“Yes,” was his reply.
“Mr. Jamison,” I called out, “would you roll out the Steinway?”
As our head stagehand and his crew moved the huge black grand piano into position, I pondered which piece to ‘test’ Alexi on. When the piano was set, I turned to Alexi and asked, “Do you know Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto?”
“Yes, I do,” he said nodding his head.
And so he began. And when, sometime later, he finished, I must admit I wasn’t the only one with wet eyes. I had been working on that Brahms piece for several months in hopes of bringing it to performance, and now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to play it again. He played like a man possessed. Every note, perfect. Every phrase, perfect. This was how Brahms, himself, would have wanted the concerto played. And now, for me, every time I hear that concerto, it will have to be compared to Alexi’s.
Finally, it was Uri Plentkin, our concertmaster, who said, “Master Alexi, I noticed that you have a violin. Would you care to join me?”
“Yes, of course, maestro. I would be honored,” replied Alexi.
Alexi went to the violin case, opened it, tuned, and then returned to his spot near the conductor. His violin was a dark, rich brown and appeared in just a bit better condition than the rest of this instruments.
“Would you play the Prokofiev Sonata #1 with me?” asked Plentkin.
And so it began again. And just as suddenly, Plentkin stopped the music.
“Alexi,” he said slowly, “your violin…it has a very unusual sound, the tone is quite distinctive. May I look at it for a moment?”
Alexi handed over his instrument. Plentkin carefully scrutinized the violin from top to bottom and side-to-side and then, inside. Plentkin, not a young man, sat down with such a thud that we thought that he had collapsed from the long day and all the excitement. We all rushed to his side and with a look of absolute wonderment, he told us what he already knew.
Holding the violin with the care of a newborn baby, he handed it back to Alexi and whispered a single word to us, “Stradivarius”. Where had this man acquired a Stradivarius? The last one I knew of was auctioned off in 1996 for almost $4 million dollars. Mystery upon mystery. If you’ve never heard about the fantastic instruments made by Antonio Stradivari, let’s just say they are the Holy Grail for violin players. It was finally Plentkin who shushed us down and quietly asked, “Alexi, would you play The Dance of the Witches by Paganini?”
“Of course, maestro,” replied Alexi.
It was the most incredible performance I have ever witnessed in my life. Alexi played as if he were playing for the Heavenly Host himself. We all did. And when it was done, we all sat there stunned. Changed. We were physically, emotionally and musically exhausted.
Finally, it was the conductor, mopping his brow, that spoke what we all felt. “Alexi, we must have you in our orchestra. Whatever price you want, you name it, I’m sure that something can be worked out. Can you return tomorrow to speak with our business manager?”
“I will do what I can do,” said Alexi as he packed up his violin.
To the echoes of ‘so long’ and ‘see you tomorrows’, Alexi left the concert hall and walked into the night and…out of our lives.
We never saw Alexi again. The stage manager called the number on Alexi’s audition card the next morning. It was the downtown YMCA and they had never heard of anyone named Alexi, nor did they know of anyone matching his description.
I have often wondered who this incredible musician really was. I even went so far as to mention this episode to a few of my colleagues. To my surprise, our orchestra was not the only one that ‘Alexi’ had visited. My friend in Munich related a similar story, except his musician was named Günter. Same physical description but he carried a clarinet and a trombone and the Strad. In Paris, he actually ‘sat in’ with the bassoons in the Symphonique du Paris. There he was known as Henri LeMonde. In Cleveland he played percussion and was simply known as ‘Bob Smith.’
To date, he’s auditioned or sat in with most of the best orchestras and symphonies in the world. And that’s all. No real identity. No contract. Just the most extraordinary musician I have ever witnessed in my life. A musician who played for the sheer joy of playing. Not money. Not accolades. Not recognition.
And perhaps that’s all we need to know.
Copyright © 2018 – 2020 Dru Richman. All rights reserved.
About the Author
For more than fifteen years, Dru has been part of an international writing group called Brainz. Each month the group is charged with writing something based on a one-word topic.
Dru lives in Richardson, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), with wifey Ava, and their four-legged love child, a standard poodle named Jacob.
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