We are prepared for this day. We are equipped with all the most modern camping accessories from a store in Denver. We are in shape from aerobic exercise, at least four times a week for several weeks. We are at the edge of civilization, brought here by a friendly van driver along rain-gouged roads. My backpack is heavy. My neck hurts already and the air is thinner than in the valley. I sense that everything else will hurt by the time we reach camp tonight.
At night I lie in a position I have never slept in before, my body a Zen garden’s combed sand around the rocks beneath me. Rain falls continually onto our tent all night long, each drop not a patter as on a window but a rat-a-tat as of gunfire. I pray to the spirit of the wilderness to show me how to release the seething pain along my spine, to let me sleep and to heal me by tomorrow morning, when we will get up and do it all over again, back up the pass, back down the other side, this time knowing how hard it will be.
Back from camping in the Rockies and it is T minus 18—18 days to go from zero to 180, from the mountains to the stage of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam for my audition. The first days are terrible for my fingers, worse for my ears, like listening to my own baby talk. I have other engagements, meetings, deadlines, social appointments. At T minus seven I realize this was the day I usually felt ready and could just coast along until the audition. This time I am still struggling to make my fingers work. My neighbors, unaccustomed to hearing me play for more than two hours a day, seem to have developed a taste for loud heavy metal.
One morning I wake up and feel my fingertips. Soft as a baby’s bottom. No, like deflated old balloons, their centers distended and flabby. These weeks of practicing after a three-week break from the cello have not been sufficient to create calluses. Feels like riding a bicycle with two flat tires, could swerve off the path at any moment, lose control. And if I don’t try to control anything? They say you can ride a bicycle with no tires, on bare rims if it comes down to it.
Desperate times call for desperate measures: I ask for and receive a key to my friend Peter’s café so I can practice there after hours. For five days I sit in the darkened café from seven p.m. till nine p.m., my back to the storefront windows, playing to a refrigerated case of Viennese tortes.
I play for my friend Catherine, put matters into her hands. “You should go,” she says. “You rock.” “I feel like I’m on the edge of losing it,” I say. “You look completely secure,” she says. “Just think about different colors and contrasts in your playing. You make such a nice big sound, but it’s always such a special moment when someone plays beautifully and softly.” “Okay,” I say. I’ll go. I’ll work on my colors.
After the fifth day of overtime, my utter dextrous flaccidity persisting, I’m ready to throw in the towel. I have my standards, after all. Why should I go all the way to Holland just to be humiliated? Then again, what have I got to lose? Everything is booked already in a 21st century way: airbnb and EasyJet for a grand total of less than $300. A cheap trip for a no-expenses-paid audition. Also, my husband reminds me, you always want to cancel a few days before an audition and then it goes just fine.
There will be two rounds if I’m lucky. The first one a mere 10 minutes, maybe even less. The exposition of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto and two orchestral excerpts: Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the cello solo from Beethoven’s ballet “Prometheus.” All behind a curtain drawn across the stage of the Concertgebouw’s chamber music hall.
Exactly a month after the camping trip, I arrive at Berlin Schoenefeld Airport. It is raining and everything gets wet on the tarmac on the way to the EasyJet plane: cello, carry-on, hair. I am prepared, though perhaps not as thoroughly as for the Rockies. The rain is feathery and silent. The flight attendant explains to me that the cello must be seated at the window and strapped in with an extension belt as if I haven’t done this at least 1,000 times already.
I arrive at my accommodations in De Pijp at 10 p.m. Contrary to expectations I sleep very well. Almost too well. I wake up hyper-alert and go for breakfast in a seedy café on the corner. One tram stop before I reach the hall I recognize the neighborhood and my heart jumps into my throat. It’s only rehearsal. Not yet; down boy.
The porter explains to me where the pianist is and points me up the stairs. On the way there I recognize a fellow cellist in the foyer. I first met him when I was 17 and our paths have crossed sporadically since then. He smiles sheepishly. “So you’re here on vacation,” I say. “Ha,” he laughs nervously. “Yes, yes, vacation.” “Yeah, me too.”
The pianist is ready for me now. We play through the five minutes of Dvořák I will play three hours later. I feel free, warm, actually invigorated. If it goes this well later…“Wow,” says the pianist when we finish. He is in a hurry. My colleague is waiting outside for his turn. There is nothing to rehearse anyway.
I take the tram back to the apartment, drop off my cello, and go out in search of food. I decide on a deli: sweet potato soup and a bowl of rice. Comforting, warm, yet not too heavy. Just enough to weigh me down a little, to counteract that helium feeling of an audition day, as if I could lose all contact to the ground and drift off into the stratosphere. I go back to the flat again and lie down on the floor, trying to smooth out a kink in my shoulder that has little to do with carrying my cello and suitcase the night before. This is my audition kink. We know each other well.
At the hall, I know the procedure: about 20 minutes before, you get a warm-up room. You try not to listen to the cellist next door playing everything you are about to play. You play slow scales in an effort to convince yourself that the world is still in order when in reality you know you are about to go to your death. The firing squad is right down those steep Dutch stairs and behind a curtain. For 10 minutes you are going to experience pure torture, but actually it has already begun. Does it have to be torture? No. Sometimes it is bliss. Do you get to choose? I don’t think so. I’ve been trying for decades, but it seems to be out of my hands.
There is a knock at the door. The grim reaper has come. I take off my cardigan and shiver in the damp chill of the room. I walk down the red carpeted stairs and pause at the stage door. The orchestra manager holds the thick curtain aside for me to enter the hall. Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it, pounds my heart. Here I am to play for no one. I take a seat in front of the crook of the grand piano. My least favorite place to sit, the loudest part of the piano that makes me force my sound, try to play too loud. Too little time to move things around. The orchestra manager announces my number.
The dark blue curtain hangs across the length of the stage, a foot and a half in front of me. I tune and notice a skittishness in my right arm. Like an inexperienced soldier I want to storm onto the battlefield and get it over with, come what may. I turn to the pianist and give him the nod. The 10-minute orchestral introduction is reduced to the two bars before the solo cello entrance. Breathe. Count. Heavy arm. The very first note obliterates my desire to make music. The curtain soaks up any resonance and spits back every scratch of the bow and every intonational blemish with brutal honesty.
Suddenly I am back on that hill with that heavy backpack, every joint aching. False summits chip away at my resolve. This was supposed to be about closeness to nature, affinity to wilderness, beautiful views; and all I feel is pain. This audition was supposed to be all about the music and now it is simply about survival. Not a single phrase goes by without a devastatingly ugly sound or out-of-tune note. The touching, melancholic second theme of the Concerto croaks as if my bow were strung with boar bristles. At the end of it I am drenched in sweat when I was freezing just five minutes before.
Instead of playing the development after the triumphant final chords of the exposition, the pianist leaves the stage and I am left all alone behind this foreboding blue curtain to play the cello parts of two short segments of orchestral works. Just get it over with. It’s all over anyway, just get it over with. Mendelssohn’s elves become elephantine under my trembling bow. Beethoven is prosaic and slightly out of tune. I feel numb.
I go back up the stairs, feeling strangely relieved. There will be no final round for me. I will go to museums tomorrow, maybe rent a bike. The orchestra managers look at me inquiringly. “Well that was just terrible,” I say, feeling very objective about it already. “Worst audition I’ve played in years.” “But why?” says Harriet, “Why today?” “I don’t know,” I say. “It happens.”
I make plans to visit a friend in a village an hour away from Amsterdam for dinner. I go out walking along the market street in De Pijp and buy some beautiful-looking fig gorgonzola bread not because I am hungry but because I feel I should partake of something pleasurable. As I am heading back toward the apartment my phone rings, a Dutch number. “Hello?” “Hello, this is Harriet from the Concertgebouworkest. Elena, you are through to the next round and they want you to play tomorrow at four p.m.” I stop before an intersection. “What? Are you serious?” “Yes,” she says, laughing. “But that was the worst audition of my life. Are you sure?” “Yes, well,” she says, “they heard something musical.”
Something musical. The feeling of calm relief evaporates instantly. Now I will have to take this seriously. Tomorrow I will not be able to hide behind the curtain. Tomorrow they will all see me and hear me in the same hall. Now I am close enough that I begin to really want it. I abort scenarios of a successful outcome: having to learn Dutch, moving to Amsterdam, making my husband move to Amsterdam. Just focus on the music. Now you have a chance to make up for today’s debacle, God knows why, but you do.
I cancel my dinner appointment. I practice for another hour, can’t manage any more than that. I go to bed early and lie awake until at least 1:30 a.m. I try my iPhone’s ocean soundmaker, earplugs, calling my husband to get him to talk me to sleep. Finally War and Peace does the trick.
The next day is the slowest day in the history of time. Waiting at the tram stop and looking around me, I try to put it all into perspective. I am about to play part of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major and nine orchestral excerpts, and the quality of this performance together with the whims of the audition committee will determine whether I move to Amsterdam and join the last remaining musical institution in Holland or stay in Berlin and continue my bohemian existence. I want the music I make to be relevant to people’s lives. I want out of the ivory tower. Melodies in D major frame scenes and passersby. Is this music relevant to anyone here on this tram? I hear French, Spanish, different Asian languages. There are so many languages in this town, but how many people in the world still speak music?
There is no time to philosophize today, let alone to bemoan the state of the arts in our world. After my rehearsal with piano, I eat a hasty, tiny lunch and go visit my friend Miguel down the street. He has promised me herbal tea and refuge from other cellists for the remaining hours before the audition. His kitchen is flooded with afternoon light and looks out onto an inviting garden. He offers me his couch for the final half hour; I close my eyes and go through what I am about to go through.
There are six of us. I am last. They are running late and again I find myself in the drafty room far too early. I cannot play scales for an hour. I lie down and try to breathe loudly to block out the sounds of other cellists. I see the name of a cellist on the list who could not possibly not win this job. I block it out of my mind. I play the opening of the Haydn Concerto half-heartedly and miss the first octave shift. I play it again and miss it again. Again. Again. This is exactly what I did not want to do, play my pieces and have other people hear my mistakes. I open the door on the pretext of checking the audition’s progress and see my most formidable competitor sitting right in front of my door, smiling and chatting to the managers. So she has heard me play amateurishly for the last five minutes at least. I try to erase this from my memory. Think how beautiful this shift is, what it means to state the same harmony an octave higher. Stop playing, dammit.
For the remaining eternity I play with my left hand only, air-bowing. Finally there is the knock at the door. I take off my woolly arm warmers and stand up. It doesn’t matter, I keep telling myself. It doesn’t matter at all now. Just do it for yourself. First ballerina shift and then smooth sailing; if that goes well so will everything else. This time Harriet draws the backstage curtain for me and announces my full name. I smile and walk out as if this were a concert. Without the curtain of doom it almost feels like one. I avoid identifying any faces. I know most of them from a few months ago, when I subbed here for a week.
The pianist plays the three bars before my entrance and in this time I decide I am going to risk it all and throw away my security devices. We all have them; we are all deathly afraid of playing out of tune, missing a shift, making an ugly sound, letting our bows tremble. My own seatbelt tends to turn into a straitjacket. Start thinking about a difficult technical issue and it turns into a haunting idée fixe, overshadowing everything else. I decide that the first phrase is going to be a beautiful, effortless meandering through 18th century gardens. I can’t help smiling after the shift is behind me; this is it. This is my day. I have done it, I have set the tone. Yesterday’s downward spiral reverses and propels me up, to a place where I really don’t give a shit whether people like it or not because now it’s only about the music. When I get to the excerpts I put the music stand close not because I need it—I have memorized everything—but because I need the time it takes to turn pages between excerpts to bridge the gaps between Schubert and Mahler, Schoenberg and Brahms, Rossini and Shostakovich.
I finish and feel triumphant. That was me out there. I played for my very life, I slaughtered all those demons. I chose music over security. I know this is all I can ask of an audition. The results are another story entirely. I take my time packing up my things, take off my concert shoes, put on my boots. I know they are voting now, since I was the last one. I go downstairs unable to really focus on the possible consequences of my playing. I have too much leftover adrenaline. I chat with some people from the orchestra who are not on the audition committee. Their anxiety is palpable.
There is applause in the adjoining room and someone near me says, “That means somebody got the job.” I stand up and watch the committee members stream out, wondering who will say it. Harriet comes over to me with a tense smile, shakes my hand, says: “Thank you for playing, Elena. It didn’t work out.” “Oh,” I say, beginning to fall from a great height. “Who got it?” “Tatjana. Vassiljeva.” The great virtuoso, the one who heard me play out of tune four times in a row. The natural choice.
Friends from the orchestra come to greet me as if a common loved one has just died. Not yet realizing what has happened, I almost feel the need to console them. One of my oldest friends from the orchestra, Benedikt, invites me to his apartment around the corner for a coffee with him and his girlfriend. Coffee turns into gin and tonics, too strong. Benedikt is more worked up than I am. “Can’t take the tension of auditions,” he says, trembling the whole time, more anxious than the candidates themselves. At the airport I have a glass of prosecco with a fellow candidate from the finals. We talk and laugh. Just an audition.
I board the plane and suddenly feel like sobbing violently. The buzz is wearing off. Was my best not good enough? Not right enough? Does it mean nothing that I played my heart out? That’s the harsh reality of an audition. One person gets the job and everyone else goes home empty-handed. I take out War and Peace and read the same paragraph five times. I am in one of the war sections and don’t understand the army’s positions and tactics. I want to skip to one of the family sections but have too much discipline to do so. The demons I so successfully vanquished for half an hour are dancing up a storm in my head. Why didn’t you play for more people beforehand? Why didn’t you take this more seriously?
Finally we are in Berlin and it is not raining. My husband is waiting for me outside the gate. Five minutes after we get into the car I am in tears. Not out of sadness that I didn’t get the job but from this black hole that opened up after giving all I had and walking on a tightrope for 48 hours: a black hole of energy loss that would ordinarily be filled by conversation, audience compliments, and dinner, after a concert. I feel as if I have just publicly declared my undying love for a man who then walks away to take a phone call from his wife. The analogy doesn’t hold, because my love applies to the music itself, which I still have and always will; these are not the only musicians in the world, I tell myself. But for now it makes no difference and my tears flow all the way from Schoenefeld to Mitte, my helpless husband stroking my hand at every stoplight.
The next day is a beautiful day in Berlin. My cello stays in its case. Towards evening I begin to feel human again. So many other projects beckon. Some masochistic part of me wants to do it all over again, now that I am in form, and also just to win. Just to fill the black hole. On the other hand: didn’t I want out of the ivory tower? ¶