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The Enigmatic Cellist

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

I was meeting two friends for dinner at the tiny restaurant in the upscale village.  It was warm enough that tables were still set up on the patio under a canopy.  We were led to one of these, but there was a problem:  between our table and the indoor dining room a man sat playing the cello. 

It was a fine sound, deep and clear.  I knew that I would not be able to eat, let alone talk, next to those thrumming notes, so I asked to be moved. The waiter looked annoyed, but went to arrange for a table inside.  The cellist glanced up from his score, and I felt sure he\’d caught the gist of my request.  I was mortified that he must think I wanted to move because I didn\’t like his playing.

We followed the waiter indoors, and as I passed the cellist, I wished I could make eye contact, maybe smile–do something to let him know that the reason I wanted to move away from him was that he played too well.  We sat down and the wine arrived, and the basket of crusty bread, but I couldn\’t taste any of it because, through the chatter of the diners and the clatter of dishes and silverware, I could still hear the cello.  And it was distractingly, disturbingly good.

I looked at the people around us.  They were talking and eating, seemingly oblivious to the stream of high art wafting through the air.  Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the cellist began playing the Bach Cello Suites, one majestic, soulful movement after another–allemande, courante, sarabande, gigue….  Here is this man, I thought, pouring out this sublime stuff, and behind it lie years and years of lessons, scales, and auditions, performance anxiety and bouts of despair.  And now it had come to fruition…and here he was, in a restaurant, playing while we chewed our food.

I mentioned to the server how extraordinary the playing was. \”Oh, he\’s good,\” he said, \”he plays with the — Symphony,\”  and named one of the top orchestras in the U.S.  I couldn\’t believe it.  There are thousands of accomplished string players in the land today, only a handful of whom make it into the best orchestras.  I know that symphony orchestras have been having a hard time lately, but this guy\’s orchestra is still alive and active.  What was he doing playing in a restaurant?

Musicians have always supplemented orchestra salaries with other jobs.  My school uniforms and tuition were paid with the money that my father, a violinist, earned from chamber music gigs, recording sessions, or–steadiest but most disliked–private lessons or college teaching.  I know that in his early years as a musician, well before I was born, my father played waltzes at an exclusive tea-house in Barcelona.  But never again, after I knew him, did he play background music at a social event, much less at a restaurant.

Is the state of classical music today so dire that fine musicians are forced to play in restaurants, I wondered?  Perhaps the enigmatic cellist was just a friend of the restaurateur…or he was a musical masochist who enjoyed playing while people ignored him.  Eventually he stopped, and I was relieved–the tension of trying not to listen to the music had been wearing me out.

As we were leaving, I saw that the cellist had joined a couple at a table, and was eating with them.  Were they avid music lovers who, amazed to find such a star in their midst, had asked to buy him dinner?  Away from his instrument, the cellist looked affable but unremarkable as he cut into his roasted duck.  Again, as I walked by him I wanted somehow to let him know that he had been heard.  But he was munching away so contentedly that I figured he was happy with things just as they were.

8 Responses

  1. i think you should have spoken to him.did you ever read gene weingarten's wonderful piece in the washington post about Joshua Bell playing in the subway? if you haven't read it, i'll dig it out for you. weingarten won the pulitzer prize for the piece, which is about art out of context. it's a glorious piece of writing.

  2. Laurie, that piece about Joshua Bell haunted me for a long time. He played at the metro station where I used to get off every day for my work. He played the Bach Chaconne, which I knew well (not to play, though). I always wondered how I might have reacted. I would have probably doubted my senses and walked on….

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