This Is What It’s Like To Be A Classical Musician

In an excerpt from Aja Gabel's novel The Ensemble, Jana is trying to lead her quartet to greatness — but a much older famous violinist might be getting in the way.

It’s a love story, the famous violinist had said, and even though Jana knew it was not, those were the words that knocked around her brain when she began to play on stage. The famous violinist, Fodorio, had coached the quartet earlier in the week, and it was what he’d said after they had finished a run-through of the Dvořák “American,” which, according to Jana, was definitely not a love story. But here they were, the Van Ness String Quartet, performing in their final graduation recital at the conservatory, starting the shimmering notes of the first movement, and all she could think, as much as thinking was involved at all, was: Maybe it was a love story.

It was a love letter to the country, as she understood it from her classes. Dvořák’s European peasant take on American folk songs. But how could someone think this was a story of romantic love? It seemed to Jana to be more classic than that: A person falls for the dream of a place, for a life that could be lived there, for something they were not but might be. It was about the shimmering itself, that almost visible stuff that hovered just above the hot pavement of your life. Potential, aspiration, accomplishment. The famous violinist who had coached them — Fodorio, she could not bring herself to say his name —was sort of a hack, anyway, at least when it came to teaching. Jana would never tell him to his face, but she enjoyed the solemn interior pleasure of her disdain. What did he know? Here’s what she knew: that the Dvořák “American” was about the simple opportunity of America, and that no one was more closely acquainted with identifying and consuming opportunity than she was. By the time Henry’s viola solo entered three bars later she had decided again: no, it was not a love story.

A person falls for the dream of a place, for a life that could be lived there, for something they were not but might be.

It’s a love story was not something Henry remembered from the coaching session, and certainly not what was running through his mind when he introduced the jaunty Americana melody in the third bar. Instead, what had glommed on to the inside of Henry was what Fodorio had said when he passed Henry his card as he was packing up his viola. Call me if you decide this quartet business isn’t for you, he’d said. I can set up a few recitals in front of the right people in New York. You could have a great solo career. Henry had wordlessly taken the card, slid it into the velvet pocket inside his case, and had not moved it since. But the card throbbed there nonetheless. If you decide this quartet business isn’t for you—as though Fodorio had already decided it was not for Henry, and was simply waiting for Henry to come to the same conclusion. But Henry hadn’t decided anything at all. He never did, young as he was and blessed with the kind of talent that guided his life’s decisions for him.

Whether or not it was a love story did not concern Daniel, as these days he didn’t have room in his life for romance or enduring love, or any symptom or side effect of the two. Not when he had to practice twice as hard to keep up with the rest of the quartet and their maddeningly natural abilities, and especially Henry, whose obscene talent teetered on the edge of prodigy, who could play drunk, blind, in love or out of it. There was no space for love in Daniel’s life when he had to work real jobs in addition to their schooling, moonlighting at a bar in the Castro, picking up wedding gigs when he could, and teaching beginning cello lessons to rich kids in Pacific Heights. It’s a love story: sure, okay, but what else?

Of course it’s a love story, thought Brit, though she thought everything was. This note here, and this one, this joyful countermelody, her second violin harmony, the collective intangible, the audible agreement. Her relationship with Daniel, which he’d rather coldly cut off a few days ago. Even the absence of love was a love story for her. Even this pain, this suffering. It was useful. Though she imagined one day no longer needing to know that, or she fantasized about rewinding her life and starting over so she was a person who did not have to know that, or she entertained the idea of a parallel Brit, living in a world in which there was no need to make sense of a man who up and left on the brink of love, of people who up and left, of a life strung together with all these little leavings, but she felt sad for this parallel Brit, an emptier sadness than she felt for herself now. They were all love stories.

And though no one would have explicitly admitted it, what it was about—love or something else—was entirely up to Jana: It depended on the way she took a quiet, sharp, and precisely timed breath in an upbeat before the first note, on the pressure of her attack on that first note, on the space she left between the first and second notes, on the degree and length and resonance of the vibrato she applied to the violin neck. It was up to her minute movements, certainly in the beginning of the piece, if not after. Even the way she closed her eyes, if she closed them at all, if there was a flutter to her eyelashes or a stern set of her brow, all of that determined everything that was to follow. Jana’s job as first violinist was to lead, but these days her leadership had expanded beyond the physical. Her bodily and tonal decisions, one after another after another through an entire forty-minute program, now served as emotional leadership.

The power in this was both benevolent and wicked, and, to Jana, felt perfectly natural. She had always wanted to truly lead a group—and better still, to lead a group to greatness. It had to happen, it would happen, its future happening defined her. And where, in this narrative of greatness, was there room for a story of love? It wasn’t any story she’d ever been told.

There was a reception in the large anteroom off the faculty lounge, and the quartet stood awkwardly along a wall at the back. Jana picked at the side seam of her dress, where she could feel her performance sweat drying stiff.

“We shouldn’t stand together like this,” Jana said. “We look like idiots.”

“I think we should stand together so no one mistakes me for Daniel,” Henry said, grinning.

“They’re not going to mistake me for you,” Daniel muttered. “For one, I’m six inches shorter, and for two . . .” But he didn’t finish saying what the second reason was.

“Don’t leave now,” Brit said to Jana, gesturing across the room. “Here comes that guy. He gives me the creeps.”

Fodorio strode toward them, buttoning his jacket and beaming. Jana stood up straighter. He was a prick, as she understood it, but a talented and successful one, and talent and success were two things she never turned her back on.

“Ferrari,” Daniel said under his breath.

“Fodorio,” Henry corrected him.

“Since when do you remember names?” Brit asked Henry, as Jana stuck out her hand to shake the famous violinist’s famous hand.

“The Van Ness,” he said in his thick accent. Where was it from? Somewhere in the Mediterranean? Jana had forgotten. He shoved past her outstretched arm and embraced her. Jana inhaled his scent: musk, tobacco, women. She smiled a gummy smile.

“I see our coaching session got you all far,” Fodorio said, moving on to Henry, whose hand he took in both his hands.

“We were doing all right before that, though,” Daniel said.

“He’s joking,” Jana said, shooting Daniel a desperate look. If he could not be an asshole now, that would be excellent timing.

“Am I?” Fodorio said, winking. Winking! He was now embracing a reluctant Brit, whose long blond hair fell around her shoulders like noodles. Angel-hair pasta when it spilled out of the box onto your kitchen floor. It annoyed Jana that she never put it up for performance. It was all anyone looked at on stage. It lent her a quality of accidental beauty, beautiful gold hair that just grew and grew as though she couldn’t help it.

Where, in this narrative of greatness, was there room for a story of love? It wasn’t any story she’d ever been told.

It was true, their recital had gone well. But Jana had fully expected it to go well. Everyone had been prepared, infused with the right amounts of fear and confidence. But this recital hadn’t been the true test. While it was their graduation performance, and while all their teachers sat in the audience, grading them, and while a select number of talent agents and representatives from RCA and Deutsche Grammophon had also come to listen, it had really been a warm-up for the real deal: the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies just one week away. If they won or placed there, it would be the beginning of the lifelong career Jana acutely wanted for herself, and for the ensemble.

They couldn’t afford to screw up, and Jana never let that knowledge fade.

Fodorio—the famous violinist, the prick, the winker, the soloist on tour—also happened to be one of the judges for the Esterhazy competition this year, a fact Jana had tacitly but firmly noted early on in his weeklong residency at the conservatory.

She slid her arm around his elbow. “Would you get me a champagne?” she asked.

Fodorio smiled. “Surely.”

“Oh, me too,” Henry said.

Jana frowned. “You’re not even old enough to drink, Henry.”

“Also, get it yourself,” Daniel said, peeling off to the makeshift bar. Brit followed seconds behind him, as though tethered.

Fodorio fetched two champagnes and leaned against a tall table with Jana. Henry had disappeared. Fodorio commented on Henry’s absence, then asked Jana, “Where is your family, dear?”

“Oh.” Jana shook her head, not wanting to explain. “In Los Angeles.”

Had the absence been that gaping? Jana wondered. Was it obvious, the space in the audience where Jana’s family was not? Then she remembered that neither Daniel’s family (too poor to travel, “not plane people,” Daniel had said) nor Brit’s family (dead, as they were) had shown up, and this brought her a private comfort.

“Your own concert went spectacularly,” she said, leaning closer. She’d gone to his performance with the San Francisco Symphony two nights before, though she usually didn’t like going to any concerts when one of her own was so near. It muddled things, took up aural space. Attending

Fodorio’s had been a tactical decision. And she was only lying a bit now—she never used the word spectacular—but as she said, it had gone well. Fodorio was the kind of violinist who mistook his fame for rock stardom, and who played something like the Mendelssohn concerto as though he were Bon Jovi in tails. Jana didn’t know where Fodorio got off. Peering at him from her seat in the middle of the mezzanine, she had not wanted to like the performance, but in the end, in the final movement, with his aggressive flourishes and demanding tempo, she had succumbed to his allure. Fodorio had his thing and he wore it well, a persona that radiated through the tender wood of his bow down to the strings and out the soundpost into the concert hall. A little calculated, Jana thought, but so expertly performed (and rabidly consumed), it was seductive.

“Thank you,” he said. “I wasn’t aware you were in the audience. You should have come backstage to see me. We could have had quite a . . . time.”

Her champagne flute was empty. He was a magnet, two-sided, attractive and repulsive. Black curly hair strewn across his head in a way that seemed haphazard but was surely and entirely thought through. Cuff links, a salmon-pink dress shirt, a gray suit. He wasn’t contractually required to come to their recital. He’d fulfilled his duty with the one coaching session—it’s a love story—earlier in the week. Why was he here?

He reached a hand across the cocktail table to peel her fingers from her empty glass. His hand was strong and veined and covered with wiry dark hairs. Something about the brute strength of his grip won Jana over, an instantaneous reversal. What a player, with that hand.

“Really, though,” Fodorio said. “You’re excellent.”

“I know,” she said. “But not the way Henry is,” she said, almost automatically. She always felt a need to acknowledge Henry’s talent to anyone who complimented her, as if to say, I know what you might be comparing me to. I know my status.

“Well, no,” Fodorio said, and his admission burned her a bit. She wanted more alcohol, something stronger than champagne. “But you’ll have a great chamber career ahead of you. You could be much better, though.”

Jana took her hands away from the table.

“No, no,” he said. “I mean to say you will be better. With age.”

Jana excused herself to get another drink, hoping there was liquor. What did he know? Well, a lot, she conceded. Enough to be selected as a judge at the most prestigious classical music competition in the world. Keep that in mind, she thought, carrying two gin and tonics back to the table where he waited. Her torso grew hot from bottom to top, seeing him. She would also keep that heat in mind.

There was a flurry of other conversations: the director of the conservatory congratulating her, questions about her plans for the summer (play and practice, what else?) and the future (Esterhazy, what else?), the group (Henry getting louder as he drank more; Daniel and Brit in heated, intimate conversation in various corners)—but Jana kept Fodorio in her sights all night, and she could tell that he kept her in his, too. Toward the end of the night, some embarrassing number of cocktails in—it was a celebration, after all—she escaped outside to smoke.

She walked a block away from the conservatory, up the hill. She pulled a cigarette from her purse and lit it, making sure no one was around to see her. She didn’t know exactly why she hid her occasional smoking from everyone, but she did, and it felt good to have a secret from Brit and Daniel and Henry. Her mother had smoked, and the smell of it, of Pall Malls especially, calmed her when boredom led to an anxious jitter.

Sitting on a bench, Jana swung her legs around and turned back in the direction she’d come from, so the conservatory came into view, unassuming in its darkness. When Jana was a young girl, her mother— called Catherine, even by Jana—had often promised to take her to the symphony. She never did. LA Phil tickets were expensive, and Catherine said classical music was boring, anyway. Once, in high school, Jana took herself on a student rush price, lying to her mother about where she’d been. Jana told her she’d gone to a movie with friends, some blockbuster with Catherine’s favorite actress. That was something Catherine could understand. Catherine sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Jana could recall her waitressing and working at the jewelry counter at Mervyn’s (and also being fired from Mervyn’s), but more clearly she recalled the days she came home from school to find her mother still in her silk robe, smoking long, thin cigarettes on the back patio and practicing lines for a commercial audition she wouldn’t get. Once, Catherine got a bit part playing a cashier on a soap opera, and she had recorded the clip. The VHS tape, marked “Reel 1” in her mother’s thick cursive, sat in the center of the coffee table like a flower arrangement until it became sun-bleached and was no longer playable.

When Jana crushed the cigarette under her shoe and stood, a perfect shiver ran down her spine, and she wished she’d brought a coat. She picked up the butt and walked it to a trash can on the sidewalk.

“I see you.”

Jana turned toward the voice. Fodorio leaned against a building, smoking his own cigarette. “But I won’t tell,” he said.

“I don’t smoke,” she said.

“I said I won’t tell.”

“You have the accent of a rich person,” she said. “A person who went to boarding school.”

“And now I’ve been found out,” he said.

“See,” Jana said. “I see you, too.” She leaned on the wall next to him. The May chill raised goose bumps on her bare arms, and he draped his jacket around her.

“I hear your group will be competing at Esterhazy this year,” Fodorio said.

“The rumors are true,” she said.

Was this against the rules, an entrant in the Esterhazy fraternizing with a judge? Surely not. There were seven judges and three performance rounds, and besides, who could keep one drunk professional musician from smoking with another, even if one was drunker and not exactly a professional yet?

“I want tacos,” he said.

“I know a place,” she said. “But we’d have to walk.”

They sneaked into the greenroom to grab her violin. Before she placed it in the case, he took the violin from her, their fingertips touching on the scroll, and examined it. “Nice axe,” he said, adding, “for a poor girl.”

As she covered her violin with the burgundy velvet protector and zipped up her case, his hand on her back was both a warning and a prediction. He did see her.

“Nice axe,” he said, adding, “for a poor girl.”

As they walked, Fodorio kept his arm around her waist, and she relaxed into it. It felt good to have a man touch her, though she would never admit that to anyone. He was such a man, though, older and larger and more forward than men in school with her at the conservatory, and for a moment an image of Catherine flashed through Jana’s mind—her mother, poured into a sample-size designer cocktail dress, opening the door to her date, a large man who smelled funny and whose forehead shone like plastic under the porch light. Jana remembered sitting on the carpet, looking at the man in the open doorway, and her mother’s own bare feet on the carpet, nervously squeezing the fibers between her toes. Catherine had let the man in.

Jana and Fodorio stumbled toward a taco truck Jana knew of, one permanently parked in a gas station parking lot, and they sat on the yellow curb and ate.

“Do you really think we’re good?” she asked, adopting a false, girlish uncertainty that was unlike her. Jana thought the fastest and surest way to success was confidence. It had gotten her this far. That, and not wasting time with distractions like men or friends.

“I think you’re young,” he said.

We’re not young. Henry’s young. I’m twenty-four.”

“Well, your sound is young,” he said between bites. “Which is good and bad. It means there’s potential. But there’s not really room for danger.”

“We need more danger?” Jana laughed, her mouth full of taco. “Please.”

“Well, it’s true. A little too perfect, if you ask me. You did ask me.”

“We have to win,” she said. It was the first time she’d said that out loud, admitted it to herself, to anyone. “We have to.”

“What would you do if you didn’t win? What would you do if the quartet didn’t work out?”

She sighed. The tacos were gone. There were only two more cigarettes in her pack, and she gave him one. “I don’t know,” she said. “Teach? Record a bit? Orchestra? Try to play solos when I can?” Saying it depressed her, took some of the wind out of her.

“You could have a decent solo career,” he said.

“So I hear,” she said.

“But you don’t want to.”

“Not if there’s something better,” she said.

“Is there?” Fodorio dangled the cigarette out of his mouth and spread his arms wide. “All this. Nothing better than all this. I’m smoking and eating tacos with a pretty violinist who happens to be fucking talented, she wants to tell me how to get back to the hotel, maybe come up, order room service because the symphony is paying for it. I’m going to fly to Sydney tomorrow, where it’ll be yesterday, or today, or something like that. Now, what’s better than that?”

“Are you staying at the Omni?” Jana asked. “That’s right near here. You won’t get lost.”

“But I need you to show me the way,” Fodorio said, blowing smoke into her smoke, his hand back on her knee.

She looked at the ground between her feet. Where was Catherine tonight? Why was Catherine on her mind? It was the dark conservatory, how the pretty but closed façade had reminded her of Catherine’s face. Catherine, somewhere in Los Angeles, likely also drunk. It had been almost two years since Jana had spoken to her mother (a lazy abstention, no grudge in particular), but she felt sure she would know in some metaphysical way if Catherine were dead.

“All right,” Jana said, standing. ●

Illustrations by Aleesha Nandhra for BuzzFeed News.

Adapted from The Ensemble by Aja Gabel to be published on May 15, 2018, by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Aja Gabel.

Aja Gabel’s writing has appeared in The Cut, BOMB, The Kenyon Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. A former cellist, she earned her BA at Wesleyan University, her MFA at the University of Virginia and has a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Gabel has been the recipient of fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Literary Arts Oregon, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where she was a fellow in fiction. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

For more information on The Ensemble, click here.

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