Page 12 of The Protege

I stare at him. I’ve already performed in lots of shows and competitions and with several youth orchestras but they’ve never been called debuts or required satin dresses. “Where? What debut? How?”

He smiles, showing his pointed canines. “With my orchestra. At the Mayhew.”

His orchestra. Perform with his orchestra. He’s never even let me come to one of their rehearsals as he says they’re kept strictly professional. I’ve seen his orchestra perform several times while he conducts and they’re formidable. Laszlo always wears black tie and tails and he’s terribly formidable as well. The orchestra is huge and the audience is enormous. I suddenly feel very small and quiet, like a mouse squeaking in a church.

“You think I’m good enough to perform at the Mayhew with your orchestra?”

“I do. On your mother’s cello, if you like. A solo with the orchestra behind you.”

A solo. Sit at the front of the orchestra and have my name in the program. Be announced and walk onto the stage with Laszlo. That’s why he chose a dress in such a lovely vivid color, so that I would be seen. Soloists always stand out and the women especially because they wear beautiful evening gowns. I imagine myself sitting at the front of Laszlo’s orchestra, close to him, playing my mother’s cello, and feel breathless with excitement.

“What would I play?”

“What would you like to play?” He explains that a short piece would be best, something orchestral but that has a prominent cello solo throughout. Most importantly it should be something that I love to play.

I barely need to think about it. “I’d like to play The Swan, please.”

Laszlo takes my hand and squeezes it. “Good girl. I thought you might.”

We do what Laszlo calls some sectional rehearsals in his music room. When I first came to live with him he told me it was called the rehearsal studio, but to me it will always be the music room. I’ve said music room to him so many times that he’s started calling it that, too. I hear him correcting himself on the telephone sometimes. We’ll use my music room—I mean, my rehearsal studio. He leaves the door open when he’s rehearsing with his musicians and the sounds permeate every room. When the entire violin section comes around the house is filled with drama and heartbreak. I keep out of the way because I know how seriously Laszlo takes rehearsals, but I also want to listen so I sit just out of sight on the landing above, hearing them play and Laszlo giving directions. Less bow on the string. Make your diminuendo later. Always polite, but firm, and they do exactly as he asks.

Just the harpist and one of the violinists come to the house to help me practice before the proper rehearsal. I’ve played the piece many times with Laszlo while he accompanies me on the piano and I love the piece that way, but it’s beautiful with the harp and violin, too.

On the day of the rehearsal we take the Tube from Belsize Park down to Leicester Square and walk from there to the Mayhew. Laszlo’s dressed in a suit jacket and shirt, but no tie, which is what I usually see him head off to rehearsals wearing, and I’ve put on a black pinafore dress with a white t-shirt underneath. It’s what I wear for performances. At rehearsals I usually wear jeans but Laszlo expects musicians to be smartly dressed at the Mayhew at all times. I know this because at my last lesson my cello tutor, Mr. Goldstein, finished our session with a list of rules that Laszlo has for his orchestra. As he enumerated them my eyes got bigger and bigger.

No eating or drinking anything except water from bottles. No phones. No conspicuous yawning. No talking back to the conductor. No arguing with the conductor or questioning his intention or directions. No playing in between sections or when he’s called for a stop. No playing anyone else’s part just to see if you can. Don’t tune too loudly. Don’t tap your feet or whistle or hum. Don’t wear a lot of perfume or cologne. No chatting between movements and never, ever talk while he’s talking, even if he’s not talking to you.

“And don’t be late. He hates that. But you’ll be going with him so that’s not something you need to worry about.”

I had no idea Laszlo had so many rules. It’s more strict than school. Thank god I know because I might have embarrassed him horribly otherwise. I’m sure I’ve yawned at rehearsals with my other orchestras and we chat all the time and pass around snacks. Some people even swap instruments for fun when the conductor is helping someone else with their part. “Why didn’t he tell me all this himself?”

“I expect he didn’t want to make you nervous, and in any case you’ve got lovely manners. I doubt for a second he believes you would do anything to embarrass him or yourself.”