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Chapter One: Survival of the Fittest

“Onstage, please,” someone called out in the half-light. Standing in the wings of Carnegie Hall, I felt my heart racing and the palms of my hands turning clammy. The stage door swung open slowly, framing the broad expanse of hardwood floor where, in a matter of seconds, I would play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin. Doubts rushed at me like a fetid wind. Would I play well? Would the listeners, music lovers with exacting expectations, be pleased? Or might I be booed for a less than stellar rendition of the great Chaconne? Then I thought the unthinkable: Just don’t play. It was my choice, after all. Either cross the Rubicon onto the heady but risky concert stage or cancel the performance entirely, something a kin to jilting your bride at the altar.

As if by alchemy, a delicious anticipation unexpectedly rose up in me, quelling my fears. Of course I would play! I strode onto Carnegie’s stage, savoring tiers of seats stacked dizzyingly one on top of the other. The hall’s grandeur swept any lingering nerves away, but the applause that I expected to float forward was absent. An eerie silence greeted my entrance from the wings, and when I looked out over the stage, my heart sank. There was no audience at all. Carnegie Hall, lit on every level by strings of shimmering lights, stood empty, like a great ocean liner at dock awaiting passengers before a voyage. Only when lowering my gaze a notch did I notice that a few people were indeed occupying the front row’s center section. Curiously enough, they all had writing pads and pencils ready.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Steinhardt,” a man with a salt-and-pepper mustache who sat on the aisle called out. “We would like to ask you questions about the violin.” Before I could respond, a woman with a cigarette in her hand leaned forward and spoke. “Would you tell us about the violin’s early history?” Apparently this self-appointed jury was bent on going through with some kind of examination. Better to humor these people and get on with my recital. After all, the audience had not yet arrived.

I began to think out loud. “Let’s see. Antonio Stradivari was the most famous. He studied with Nicholas Amati. Amati was one of the early violinmakers. Then there was Maggini. Was he the first?” The woman eyed me coolly and chose not to answer. A frigid silence lifted off the entire group as I stood at the front of the stage looking down on them.

The man spoke again. “Please tell us about the string instruments leading up to the violin -- the rebec, the hurdy-gurdy, and the crwth.”

The names were familiar to me, but I was forced to admit the truth. “I can’t tell you anything about the rebec, the hurdy-gurdy, or the . . .” Without a vowel to move the consonants along, my tongue snagged on crwth as if I were afflicted by a speech impediment. My face flushed with shame.

This must have been the last straw, for the entire group of judges rose and began to talk among themselves. I searched frantically in my mind for a way to dispense with these people who had entered my life like a rogue asteroid.

Then the obvious occurred to me. I would simply play the Chaconne as planned. Let Bach’s noble opening strains answer the criticism of my tormentors and banish them fro the hall! But when I tried to lift the violin onto my shoulder, it became unbearably heavy, and the bow refused to move across the strings, as if a quick-setting glue had been applied to its horsehair. The Chaconne’s opening three- and four-note chords should have been easy enough to play, but to my mounting consternation, only a strangled croak came out of the violin. From the corner of my eye I saw the man with the mustache collecting pads. He mounted the stage steps slowly.

A feeling of suffocating dread rose up in me, and then I awoke. Carnegie Hall, my violin recital, even the panel of judges who moments earlier had held me hostage, were gone. To my immense relief, the concert-exam was only an anxiety dream, on of dozens I’ve had over the years.

[chapter continues]