Page 13 of The Protege

Mr. Goldstein apparently does or he wouldn’t have told me all these rules. Or perhaps he just thought it was best I know. “When did he tell you all this?”

“He didn’t. Some is just orchestra etiquette and with Mr. Valmary you work things out, and quite quickly if you know what’s good for you.”

“What does he do if you break the rules?”

He just raises his eyebrows in a don’t ask expression.

“But Laszlo’s so nice.”

Mr. Goldstein gives a choking sort of laugh. “Nice. Oh. Well. He’ll never shout or bully or do anything cruel but people have been known to leave his rehearsals in tears. Or fired.”

There must be an alarmed look on my face as my tutor adds, “Don’t worry, he won’t fire you. You’re a guest soloist, not one of his orchestra. Besides, he’s very indulgent with you. If any of the ensemble knew he played Saint-Saëns with you while you were both in your pajamas they’d drop down dead.”

I don’t want him to be indulgent with me, I want to feel very grown up and professional so I think carefully over the rules as the Northern Line train plunges through the tunnels. When we pull into Euston I say to Laszlo, “People in the orchestra call you maestro, don’t they? Do I call you maestro?” Maestro means “master” in Italian and it’s a term of respect musicians use when addressing the very best conductors.

“No, as you’re a guest soloist you can call me Mr. Valmary, and I’ll call you Miss Laurent.”

Laszlo call me Miss Laurent? How funny. “Why do you have so many rules for your orchestra? Mr. Goldstein told me about them.”

“Lots of conductors have rules. Or rather, etiquette.”

“But why do you?”

He stands aside for someone who wants to get out at the next station. “How we behave while we play shows how much respect we have for the music and the people who composed it. Not all orchestras are so structured but we are because we play the most respected pieces by the best composers, in one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world.”

“And then the audience feels safe coming to hear you because they see how much you respect the music?”

Laszlo thinks about this for a moment. “Yes, that’s a very good way to put it.”

“Why were people so upset when you took over as conductor?”

He looks at me in surprise. “You remember that?”

“Of course. It was the very first thing I learned about you.”

I see the ghost of a smile. “Some people in the music community thought I was going to challenge the established order of things. That I was too young to know what I was doing and that I wouldn’t show the music respect. It’s true I like to try new things and interpret things my way. A conductor always has their own vision they want to impart. But I always, always respect the composers, and the music. That to me is the most important thing.”

“Not what people in the music community think?”

The ghost of a smile again. “You can’t control what people think, only what you do. Do what you set out to do, and do it well, and nothing else matters.”

I brought some schoolwork at Laszlo’s suggestion as the rehearsal will go on all morning and I won’t be needed until the end. I sit to one side and take out my history textbook but it lays unopened on my lap. I’m too interested in the orchestra and the things Laszlo says to them as they rehearse. They’re playing Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov and he keeps stopping during the movements to ask some sections to be louder, some faster, some musicians to play slightly differently. He doesn’t do rude things like shout or click his fingers at someone or moan, “No, no, no, not like that,” as some of my conductors do. Laszlo’s very calm and thorough, and soon the music coming off the orchestra is exactly what he wants it to be.

Before I know it he’s looking over at me. “Miss Laurent, we’re ready for you now.”

My heart starts to pound in my ears and I collect my bow and cello, which I tuned at the beginning with everyone else. Some of the musicians smile at me as I take my place, particularly the harpist and the violinist I practiced with. There are so many of them, nearly a hundred, and they’re mostly strangers.

But Laszlo’s not a stranger. Laszlo is Laszlo, and once I’m sitting down in front of the other cellists I’m very close to him. There’s a warm look in his eyes and I recall what Mr. Goldstein said, that Laszlo’s very indulgent with me. But I don’t feel spoiled. In fact quite the opposite. It’s like my tutor said, Laszlo never told me a list of rules, he just behaves or talks in a certain way and I find myself responding. And I like that about him. I like that very much.