Fiction · 11/14/2018

The Concertmaster

A few years ago, having arrived early for a flight that was then delayed, I found myself at a champagne bar in the Edinburgh airport, where I recognized the woman sitting to my right. It had been twenty years since we’d spoken, though of course from my seat in the balcony, I’d seen her at concerts, sitting in the chair just behind her father’s on stage. She wore black except for a green silk scarf, which I suspected hid the bruise-like mark from her hours of violin practice.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, “but are you Livia Marshall?”

“Yes?”

“We knew each other a long time ago. In the orchestra children’s choir.”

I admit that I deliberately withheld my name to make her uncomfortable. But she’d been trained to memorize arpeggios and the fingering for dozens of symphonies. My face was not a challenge.

With a practiced tilt of her head and wave of her hand, two new glasses materialized in front of us.

“What were you doing in Edinburgh?” she asked.

“Work conference. You?”

“A friend’s wedding. Rained the whole weekend, of course, but still beautiful.”

We exchanged remarks about Scottish weather for a few minutes, and then her flight was called. Just as well, since we had run out of polite things to talk about.

+

I’d noticed Livia’s sullen face across the choir room, but until one cold November evening, she was just another soprano. I envied sopranos; they always got the melodies and the most applause for their high notes. I’d been relegated to singing alto.

It was our fathers who brought us together. After a particularly grueling rehearsal—the children’s chorus performed five holiday concerts with the orchestra, and cherubic perfection was expected, even though we were all teetering into adolescence—we found them talking in the lobby, at that stiff distance men keep from each other.

“See you next week, Al,” said my father as I shrugged into my coat.

In the car I asked, “What were you talking about with Mr. Marshall?”

“You know him?” His question tilted upward at a perilous angle, as if to ask the heavens why I’d kept this information from him. My father had loved this orchestra since he was a child in too-small shoes sitting in the balcony, so far up that the letters marking the rows doubled. That love expanded, encompassing the composers he heard in the warm dark, and contracted too, squeezing the best violinists tight, the ones who treated each performance as their first and last. And there was no violinist more exquisitely attuned to his instrument, more devoted to the orchestra, than Alexander Marshall.

“His office is down the hall from my voice teacher’s.”

“Oh. Well, turns out the Marshalls live five minutes from us, so we’re going to carpool. He’ll take you to rehearsal next week, and I’ll take you and Livia the week after.” He was practically giddy. Alexander Marshall, concertmaster, endowed first chair of the violin section, would drive his daughter to rehearsal!

The Marshalls’ car was new, large and gleaming silver. I knocked dirty slush off my boots before I climbed inside. The leather seats were cold at first. Livia gave me a brief hello, but then gazed out the window, her fingers twitching a bit. She wasn’t nervous or shy, just completely uninterested in me.

Mr. Marshall, though, tried to make conversation. He asked me about my parents and made vaguely interested sounds when I said my mother was a nurse and my father taught math at the community college.

I asked Livia about her mother.

“She’s in the orchestra too. Second violins, fifth chair.” I heard a faint sneer in her voice. I’d been reading the orchestra programs for years, during slow second movements and atonal modern pieces, and I didn’t remember seeing another Marshall on the musician list.

“Her last name is different,” said Livia, noting my confusion.

“Oh. Where are you going to high school next year?”

“Nowhere. Dad’s getting me a tutor so I can focus on music.”

“Have you been playing violin for a long time?” At my public school, we started individual instruments in the sixth grade, and I was already tired of the flute. In high school I was planning on trying the E-flat clarinet.

“Since she was three,” said Mr. Marshall.

He put on the classical station, and we drove downtown in silence. The drive home was quiet too; I realized when I unlocked our front door that Livia hadn’t asked me a single question.

For the rest of the season she brought homework in the car with her. I pretended to read novels, but out of the corner of my eye I studied her long limbs, her cashmere sweaters, the fascinating red mark on her neck.

My father was disappointed that we didn’t become friends.

+

After the holiday concerts, I only saw the Marshalls when we crossed paths in the music school’s halls. Mr. Marshall gave me a distracted wave now and then, but Livia and I passed each other in haughty silence.

I was a junior when I noticed the handsome student with a beat-up violin case lingering after his lesson, which ended a half hour before mine began. His name was Daniel, and his teacher was Joan Li, the orchestra’s new associate concertmaster.

After a few weeks of whispering in the hall, we started dating. I hummed arias and art songs for him, and he taught me new words: tremolo, martellato, louré. When we learned that the stairwell up to the third floor was rarely used, he pressed me against the cool stone and demonstrated arco and pizzicato with his hands. I ran my fingers through his hair, tasted the skin of his neck. For months, I sang all the better for being breathless.

+

I started arriving at the music school earlier and earlier, taking the train directly after school. I told my parents I liked to do my homework in the quiet halls. For an older building it had good soundproofing, but if I sat on the floor beneath the bulletin board between Mr. Marshall and Ms. Li’s offices, I could hear Daniel practicing his scales, his easy laugh when Ms. Li corrected his bowing.

One afternoon, waiting for my lesson to start and pretending to do my homework, I noticed that the concertmaster’s door had been left ajar, and I heard something unusual: silence. I thought Mr. Marshall must have stepped out, so I peeked inside, hoping for a glimpse of some quirky detail that would delight my father.

Mr. Marshall was with a student, a younger woman with dark hair. He was kissing her neck. I glimpsed only her profile. She was staring at the wall, the violin at her side a dead weight, as if it were filled with sand. His hand was under her skirt.

I ran for the stairwell. I could barely look at my father on the drive home.

When I called Daniel that night I told him what I’d seen.

“You’re sure she wasn’t into it?” he asked.

I thought about the way I felt when Daniel touched me, how I wanted to gasp and hold my breath at the same time, devour and be devoured. “Definitely not,” I said.

“That’s fucked up.”

“What should I do?”

“Tell your parents.”

“They’ll want to know why I wasn’t in my lesson. And my dad worships Alexander Marshall.”

“Your voice teacher?”

“There’s no way she’d stand up to him. And she’s so old. She might not even know what I’m talking about. “

“I guess I could say something to Ms. Li.”

My relief was overwhelming. “God, Daniel, thank you. That would be perfect.”

The next week Daniel reported that she had thanked him gravely for the information and then continued their lesson.

For days I stewed over what to do next. Finally I dug the children’s choir picture out of my closet. It felt like a decade ago, that first thrilling day of rehearsal, all of us dressed in white, all of us grinning at the empty red velvet seats and imagining them filled.

Almost all of us. Livia looked bored, like a child receiving a gift she knew to expect.

I called the number scribbled on the back of the picture, panicking when I realized I might have to speak with Mr. Marshall. But Livia’s cool voice answered.

“What’s up?” she said. In her mouth, slang sounded like a horse’s bit.

Bracketing every sentence with apologies, I told her what I’d seen, leaving out the details.

“What do you want me to do about it?” she asked. “If it’s even true.”

“I thought maybe you could talk to your mother?”

“And tell her what? That my father might be cheating on her with a student?”

“Someone at the music school, or the orchestra?”

Her voice sharpened. “I don’t think so. I think you’re not really sure what you saw. Besides, I don’t think your dad would want to know what you’re doing in the stairwell these days.”

She hung up.

“Forget it,” I said to Daniel, the next time he asked. “Let’s forget it ever happened.”

But Joan Li hadn’t forgotten.

+

A month later, when I came down to breakfast one unseasonably cold morning, I found my dad reading the arts section, tut-tutting into his eggs.

“What?” said my mother.

“The orchestra’s trying to force out the associate concertmaster. Creating a new position to outrank her.”

“But why? I thought you said she was excellent.”

“She is. I’ve never heard a better soloist on that Ralph Vaughan Williams piece I like so much. The Lark Ascending.”

My mom glanced over at me. “Honey, you only have ten minutes before school. Eat something.”

“And look at this guy they’re bringing in! He’s gotta be seventy—can’t see him making it through more than five or ten seasons.” He shook his head. “Must be a personality thing.”

I threw up at school and missed my voice lesson, without enough notice to get the fee back.

Joan Li took a position with a prestigious orchestra in Europe. Daniel stayed on with her successor, but I stopped listening to his scales.

+

My parents called me few days after I returned from Scotland.

“Did you hear?”

“Hear what, Dad?”

“Alexander Marshall resigned yesterday.”

I was shocked. He was almost seventy, true, but that just made him an institution. “What happened?” I imagined a student coming forward, maybe more than one, ready at last to call him out.

“He missed a high note on The Lark Ascending.”

I sighed. “It’s a hard piece. Doesn’t that just happen sometimes?”

“Not to Alexander Marshall.”

Apparently immigration held up the soloist the orchestra had booked. As was customary in such situations, the concertmaster took on the solo. He broke a string early, and the associate concertmaster—Livia—handed him her violin to play for rest of the piece, the soaring rise to the bittersweet climax. But whether it was the unfamiliar instrument, or age, or long-delayed justice, he trembled on the highest note, and the peak collapsed.

After I got off the phone, I looked up Livia’s website. There she was, in an elegant navy gown, dark hair in romantic waves, her rose-pink lips parted in a soft smile. She carried her violin through an apple orchard in bloom, posed in front of a brick wall, laughed as she played for a crowd of little girls in snowflake tutus. And above the swirling girls, in tasteful script: “Livia Marshall, Concertmaster.”

+

Back in Edinburgh, after Livia had left for her flight, I drained the rest of the champagne in my glass, then asked the bartender if he stocked anything stronger.

The day after Livia had threatened me, all those years ago, a puzzled Ms. Linton handed me a note from Joan Li. In her office I sat across from the violinist, taking in all her diplomas and awards, the pictures of her with conductors and musicians I’d only seen in newspapers, or on my father’s record jackets.

“Daniel told me what you saw,” she said. Her voice was warm, her expression serious. “I’m sorry. I’ve asked around, quietly, and it’s not the first time. Something needs to be done. I’m going to the board. There might be an inquiry, maybe a lawsuit. They might ask you to tell them what you witnessed. Can you do that?”

My gaze caught the violin mark at Joan Li’s collar. The sharp smell of rosin raked me, and I suddenly realized how much the young woman in the concertmaster’s office had looked like Livia.

I gave my answer.

+++

Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared in FIELD, The Greensboro Review, The South Carolina Review, Day One, Tin House’s Open Bar, Gulf Stream, Booth, and elsewhere. A graduate of The Ohio State University and Boston University, she lives in Massachusetts with her family. Links to more of her writing can be found at www.carolynoliver.net.