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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bad day in #Ålborg by John von Daler

                The telephone rings at 6 a.m. Can I come to Ålborg to take over a seat in the first violins for just one day and one concert? I would have to get a plane at 8 and stay the night in Jutland. I say yes, even though playing classical music is less and less a part of my life.
                I pack a bag, grab my violin, kiss the kids and zoom out the door. A taxi races me to the airport. I remember to get a receipt and run to catch the plane. The trip takes about forty minutes, but it gets delayed awhile in Copenhagen. When I finally get to Ålborg, I take a taxi to the concert hall, find the orchestra's dressing rooms, hear them playing already as I unpack my violin and bow, quietly open the door to the rehearsal room and edge into the only vacant seat in the first violins at the back. I nod to my partner behind the music stand, note to myself that they are rehearsing Beethoven's Violin Concerto and lift my bow to the strings while my eyes search for the right place in the music. Then the conductor stops the orchestra with an irritated swipe of his baton.
                "Up bow! UP bow! not DOWN!" he yells at me across the turned heads of the orchestra. I obediently move my bow higher up on the strings.
                For the uninitiated: Strings in orchestras usually agree on a set of instructions about when to move their bows towards heaven and when to move them - the other way. The concertmaster usually signals the correct way or writes it in the music. It is said to give a more homogenous sound if everyone moves in the same direction at the same time. Perhaps this is true, but I have always felt that this just was one more excuse to make everyone stay in line. I distrust symmetry of the kind that leads to regimentation; balance, however it is produced, is more my kind of thing.
                      In the first break the concertmaster comes over to welcome me politely to the orchestra and to try to explain the conductor's strange behavior: "He always tries to make himself important by attacking the weakest link. Today that's you. Just forget it."
                We rehearse an overture, a symphony and the concerto and play them for a crowd of eager enthusiasts in a large concert hall that evening. I play the whole thing prima vista without falling off the musical horse. My bow stays impeccably in line with the agreed on directions and I feel tired but satisfied seventeen hours after the telephone had rung. I think, You deserve a drink.
                   I check in at a hotel on the main street, take a shower and wander down into the bar. I'm pretty much alone with the bartender who seems ready to call it a day. What would soothe the tired musician before a good night's sleep? I ask for an Irish Coffee.
                He looks puzzled. "Irish coffee? I think ours is Columbian."
                I squint at him through tired eyes. "Oh it's just ordinary coffee with Irish whisky, whipped cream and sugar." He looks tired, too.
                "Irish whisky? All I got is Scotch?"
                I assure him that that will be fine.
                "But I got to get the coffee from the restaurant and the whipped cream from the kitchen..."
                I make the big mistake of accepting this arrangement. He puts me in charge of the empty bar and disappears.
                A quarter of an hour later he returns with a wooden tray on which are a coffee cup, a huge coffee pot, a bowl full of enough whipped cream to service the drink and to do my shaving tomorrow morning. He places the tray on the bar, whisks a bottle of whisky from the cabinet behind him and pours exactly two centiliters into the cup. Then he adds the coffee and afterward the cream. I stir in some sugar as he watches me suspiciously. As I raise the cup to my lips, he moves the tray away from the bar and onto the counter behind him. He pulls the bill off the tray.                
                "That will be 25 kroner for the whisky, 10 kroner for the cream and 15 kroner for the coffee. All in all, 50 kroner."                
                That's about what I am getting for the Beethoven Concerto. Happily, I had also played a symphony and an overture. I give him the money and take a sip of the drink.
                Pulling down the rolling cover of the bar with one hand, he says good night and leaves me there with my cup, looking out a window at a street that went to sleep a few hours ago. A sign on the other side of the street blinks, Special Clothes for Special People, Special Clothes for Special People, Special Clothes for Special People.
                 Getting up, I leave a half a cup of the concoction on the empty bar. On the way to my room I think, Sometimes it can be really, really hard to keep your bow right in line with everybody else.

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces below. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!

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