Page 14 of The Protege

Sitting here surrounded by the order that he’s put in place and upholds I feel very safe. He won’t let anyone tell me I’m too silly or young to be here, or talk over my playing or call me names. If I make a mistake no one will laugh at me, because he’s there. I smile up at him and he gives me the ghost of a wink.

When I’m settled and my bow is poised I look at his hands. He brings them to resting position, forearms parallel to the floor, palms raised and fingers bent, and the baton is held lightly in his fingers. The baton is because it’s such a big orchestra and it helps the people at the back see what he’s doing. He raises his arms slowly and brings them down just as slowly, showing the orchestra what tempo he wants. The harp starts to play and the rest of the string section joins in, measured and gentle. All around us the rest of the orchestra is hushed. I wait for my cue, keeping Laszlo’s hands in my peripheral vision, and then I start to play.

For a few bars I’m too nervous to become lost in the music, but then there’s just the poignant strains of my cello and the swell of the strings all around me, and Laszlo. He’s told me that the gestures he makes while he’s conducting reinforce what the composer has written on the sheet music and remind the ensemble of what he’s asked for during rehearsals.

When we get to the end and the sound of my cello fades away he smiles at me, and I like that because he hasn’t smiled at anyone else the whole rehearsal. I’ve been watching.

All right, maybe I’m a little bit indulged.

I wonder if he’s going to adjust my playing but there are only directions for the orchestra. “Beautiful, Miss Laurent. Once more? Violas, a little softer from twenty-eight to thirty-four, please.”

When we’ve finished the piece a second time the rehearsal ends. I wait to one side with my cello as the rest of the orchestra put their instruments away or stand about talking. A few of the musicians are talking to Laszlo.

Finally we leave, and Laszlo suggests we go to Covent Garden for a late lunch. As we’re walking over the cobbles I say, “Are you sure my playing was all right? You didn’t have any corrections for me.”

He looks down at me in surprise. “Solo pieces are a collaboration between the soloist and the conductor. You bring your own vision for the piece and I interpret it for the rest of the orchestra so that your playing sounds its very best.”

“How do you know my vision? I never said anything.”

“Sweetheart, I’ve heard you play The Swan so many times. You don’t need to tell me because I know what it means to you.”

My vision for the piece. He’s arranged his whole orchestra—well, the strings anyway—around my vision for the piece. It’s such a lovely thing for him to have done and I don’t know what to say.

“Did you enjoy yourself?” he asks.

Trying to convey just how wonderful I found the whole experience I say emphatically, “It was so nice. I’ve never felt like that during any rehearsals or even practice, that I was within something so beautiful and that everything around me was flowing like water. Your orchestra is wonderful.”

“Thank you, Isabeau. I think so, too.”

I take a deep breath. “You’re a really wonderful conductor, Laszlo. It was a bit scary at first, but I felt very safe with you there.”

He looks down at me, and then puts an arm around my shoulders and squeezes me briefly. His voice is husky when he says, “Thank you, sweetheart. That means a lot to me.”

The night I’m to perform comes around quickly. There are two soloists visiting the Mayhew and playing with Laszlo’s orchestra, a violinist and a pianist, and I’m to come on at the end.

I watch the orchestra from the wings wearing my pink dress. Mostly I watch Laszlo, who looks very handsome and dramatic in his tuxedo. I love seeing him wind up to a crescendo, the movements of his arms getting bigger and his hair flying about. The pianist plays with the orchestra first, and then there’s a break, and then the violinist. And then there’s me.

The applause goes on for a long time when the violinist finishes and there’s a lot of shouting and cheering. Laszlo takes his bow with the violinist and then comes off stage and approaches me. “Are you ready?” he asks in whisper.

I nod, gripping my cello tightly. He watches the audience for a moment, waiting for them to settle, and then we walk out together. The applause erupts immediately and it’s so loud. The lights are so bright that I can barely see the audience sitting in the dark, but I think that might be a good thing. I stand beside Laszlo with butterflies rioting in my belly.