Rafal Unesco played the violin for fifteen years, beginning when he was ten years old and first heard his grandfather play the Guarneri that had been handed down generation after generation in the Unesco family. No one seemed to know how his family originally came to own the very valuable 18th century instrument, but ever since Rafal heard its sweet, alluring voice he felt he must learn to play it and travel the world so everyone had a chance to hear its rare beauty. Rafal studied and practiced for several hours every day, eventually graduating with a degree in music performance from the local university in Przemysl, Poland. Even as an adult he still dreamt of traveling the world to play his violin, but as a mature and practical man he now desired to play in one of the best American orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the top ten orchestras in the world. Although Rafal no longer wanted the exciting but financially unstable career of a soloist, he did hope to become concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As concertmaster of the BSO, he would perform many solos, and still travel around the world.
Rafal’s mother Irina had heard him speak to his friends of his plans to come to America. The tension in the little two room apartment they shared began to build and thicken. Mrs. Unesco sensed that her only child would make the announcement that he was soon leaving for America, and as usual, her intuition was correct.
“My dear Matka, why don’t you come and sit down beside me so you can rest for a bit? You look so tired from going to market today. Why didn’t you tell me you needed to go? I would have gone for you.”
Irina Unesco scooted the red vinyl and chrome chair from under the gray Formica table to her right side, placed a bushel of vegetables on the table and sat across from her son.
“I did not ask you to go for me because if I do, then I may not be able to go in the future. One must always do for oneself.”
“Yes, my dear Matka, you are so right. I’d like to talk to you about that very thing, about being independent. I, too, want to be able to take care of myself. I guess you heard me speaking to Martine and Janos about auditioning for the Boston Symphony.”
“Am I the last to know then, son?”
“Matka, I did not want to say anything to you until I knew for sure. I did not want you to worry about me leaving for America if there was no reason to. I had to wait until I heard from the judges that I passed the initial audition with the CD I sent them, that they wanted me to come to audition in person. I also had to make sure that I could get my visa, and that I had enough funds to travel to America. Now that I have all of this in order, yes, I am letting you know.” Rafal thought about the many years of private lessons he gave to local students and how he had saved every bit of that money for this trip, the culmination of his childhood dreams.
The short and stout woman of fifty smoothed her coarse gray hair back behind her ears and doubled the elastic band to readjust her hair bun. Trying not to succumb to her emotions, she pulled a handkerchief from her white apron pocket and held it to her eyes to hide her gentle sobbing.
“Why can’t you bloom where God planted you, Rafal?”
“Matka, when I have been working for a few months I will send money for you to join me. I will buy us a lovely little home near modern markets, one with a washer and dryer so you won’t have to go up and down the stairs carrying heavy loads of laundry. We’ll have our own garden, and I will buy an automobile to take us places. We will be very happy together in Massachusetts, in Boston.”
“Why would I want to go to America at my age? Your father and all of our memories together are right here in Przemysl, and that is where he wants me to stay.”
“But Matka, Ojceic has been gone to heaven these past eight years now. He would want you to be safe and happy. He would want us to be together.”
“My Jacek would indeed want us to be together – all of us. Your beloved Ojceic would want us to stay here. One day I will be beside him in St. Theresa’s cmentarz on the hill. You should be careful of what you wish for.”
“Oh, Matka! Please be happy for me! There’s nothing here for me in Przemysl, or Poland, either. To be successful I need to play in an American orchestra. Besides, next month I will see you again – the Boston Symphony begins a thirteen city European tour, and the first stop will be right here in Przemysl!”
“Thirteen cities? That is no good! My son, you make no sense. Why leave to only come back?” Irina Unesco could not understand why anyone would want to leave their homeland to begin with, much less to come right back home a few weeks later. “When will you be leaving?” she asked, taking in a deep breath, then exhaling, while folding her hands as if in prayer.
“Matka, do not worry; everything will be fine. I’ll be leaving this weekend. I’ll only take a few of my belongings with me now, and will send for the rest later. I’ll be staying in a small hotel during the audition process. Once I begin working, the orchestra has members who will assist me in finding new housing.”
“My son, my son. I know you will do well; I know you will play in that orchestra. You are talented enough to play in such a prestigious orchestra, and I guess I cannot change what is meant to be. I do not want to lose you, but I believe It is fate that you will play in that orchestra.” Irina smiled and patted her son on the back.
Rafal stood up from the table and stooped over to hug his mother, smiling with tears in his eyes.
“Matka, I can always count on you to believe in me. If it weren’t for my Dziadek’s old violin and your support and sacrifice for my lessons, I would’ve never made it this far. I will make things right for you, and we will finally live a good life. Allow some time to pass and you may find you feel differently. Soon, you can come to visit me in America and see how you like it. I think you may change your mind.”
On Thursday evening, Rafal began to pack his bags in anticipation of his flight. In a medium sized, blue canvass suitcase, he packed his suit and a few days of casual clothing, and in an oblong black leather accessory case he packed his extra rosin, music stand, a set of his best violin strings, and an extra bow. Rafal knew that being prepared was his best defense against any mishaps that could cost him his desired position.
Friday morning came quickly, and Rafal bid his teary-eyed mother goodbye. He rode the 5:00 a.m. shuttle bus to Krakow, and then boarded the fifteen hour non-stop flight to Boston, losing almost an entire day due to the six hour time difference and the flight. Fortunately, the audition was not until Monday morning, and he would have plenty of time to rest and practice beforehand.
Rafal was to choose two violin solo pieces in contrasting styles, an orchestral solo piece, and an etude from the suggested repertoire for his audition. For his two violin solos, he chose Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” and Ludwig Beethoven’s “Concerto in C Major”; for his orchestral solo he chose Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol”, and for the etude he selected Niccolo Paganini’s “Grandes Etude No. 1 in G minor”. These pieces were different in style and technique, and Rafal wanted to be sure the judges knew he could perform most any violin selection. Rafal also knew he would be required to perform sight reading, playing selections chosen by the judges that he had not seen before.
He could think of nothing other than the audition process on the long transatlantic flight, and began double checking his fingerings on his solo pieces. He had checked his clothing and accessory bag in the cargo hold, but kept his prized violin at his side. He could not relax and sleep in his economy seat in aisle eighteen, row B, while sitting between an elderly man with a head cold on one side and an overweight housewife on the other side who took up his elbow room as well as that of her own.
Rafal turned his attention to the hotel details and its proximity to the Boston Symphony Hall, the concert hall where the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed and held auditions. The BSO made arrangements with the Hawthorne Suites Hotel to accommodate out of town musicians coming to audition. The hotel was located just a few blocks away from the concert hall on Massachusetts Avenue. He had purchased two hundred U.S. dollars in varying denominations so that he had the correct change to pay for a cab, restaurants, and other minor expenses. The initial audition tape he sent a month ago to the BSO resulted in his invitation to audition in person as a finalist and a free stay at Hawthorne Suites. The only major expense he had to incur was his airfare.
The plane landed Saturday evening after what seemed like a week. Rafal made his way to the luggage carousel to fetch his duffel bag of clothing and the leather case with his musical accessories. Thirty minutes had passed, and finally Rafal’s olive green duffel bag appeared on the conveyor belt. Rafal waited another half hour, and then another after that – and still his black leather bag did not appear. He walked to an office nearby with the heading “Luggage Enquiries” and waited in line behind several other people. Finally it was his turn, and a pretty Asian woman handed him a black pen and a form to fill out.
“What’s this all about?” Not having flown before, Rafal thought that if your bags weren’t found at the carousel with everyone else’s luggage they must be in this room. He was about to find out what a luggage enquiry really meant.
“Sir, I’m sorry to inform you of this, but some of the luggage from Poland didn’t make it onto the flight. Do you have your baggage claim ticket so I can scan the bar code to see if yours is one of those bags?”
“What do you mean, didn’t make it on the flight,” Rafal asked, his brows furrowed and his mouth still open, although he had stopped speaking.
“Your baggage claim ticket, please?” she repeated, holding her right hand out, her palm raised.
Rafal handed her his receipt. The twenty-something petite woman promptly scanned the bar code.
“I’m sorry sir, but yes, yours is one of a couple dozen bags that were mistakenly left at the Krakow airport. Our next flight from Krakow will be arriving on Monday evening. Would you like us to have your bag delivered to your hotel, or held at the airport on your return?”
Rafal was determined to not let this unfortunate event bother him. There were no music stores open that late on Saturday or open on Sunday at all, and he knew that he didn’t absolutely need to have the contents of that bag for his audition. Besides, he knew that if he allowed himself to become upset, that he would do nothing but worry between now and his audition, practically ensuring him a case of stage fright.
“Actually, ma’am, I need my bag by Monday morning, so I will have to ask you to have it held at the Krakow airport when I return at the end of next week.” The woman then typed something on her computer keyboard, resulting in a piece of paper emerging from the printer. She signed and dated the paper and handed it to Rafal along with his baggage claim ticket.
“Make sure to keep this paper and your claim ticket for when you return to Krakow. When you arrive, go to the “Luggage Enquiry” window and hand them these papers. They’ll have your bag ready for you.”
Rafal thanked the woman and left to hail a cab to take him to the Hawthorne Suites. After checking in and unpacking his luggage, placing his clothing into the bedroom dresser and his violin and music next to him on the extra double bed, Rafal settled in to a night of deep sleep until his alarm went off at six o’clock a.m. Sunday morning. He spent all day practicing his violin to prepare for his audition the next morning.
Rafal awoke covered in sweat before the Monday morning alarm rang at five-thirty a.m. He managed to quell his anxiety by reminding himself that he had practiced thoroughly and was now ready for the most important moment of his life – his one chance to make his dream come true. As he hailed a taxicab and traveled the few blocks to the concert hall he thought of how proud his mother would be to see him as concertmaster, playing difficult solos and leading the orchestra in front of people who had known him all his life. The many who encouraged him and some others who had teased and made fun of him, yes, they would all be there that Saturday evening in late September to hear him in all his glory. As Rafal sat outside of the concert hall awaiting his turn to perform, he concentrated on this one thought.
A short man with gray hair and matching beard entered the hallway from the concert hall and called Rafal’s name. He felt frozen in time, his name echoing in the long hallway where he and four other hopeful violinists awaited their fate. He collected his music and case, rose from the wooden bench with his Dziadek’s Guarneri violin, and took a deep breath before entering the concert hall. He began to warm up with a few scales and arpeggios until an unknown female voice from behind the large tan convex screen announced the judges’ instructions.
“Anytime you are ready, Mr. Unesco. Please begin with your chosen etude, then your two solos, and finally the orchestral solo excerpt you have selected. We will direct you when to stop and to move on to your next piece, after which you will be directed to sight read some contemporary orchestral solos and excerpts. If you have no questions, please begin.”
Rafal knew he was ready, but still needed to summon all of his courage in this one moment. I need to somehow impress these judges, to sound better than all of the other violinists, he thought to himself. I really need to shine, to show them my passion. I know I can do this. I’ve waited my whole life for this one moment. Rafal chose to begin with the one piece that he knew impressed everyone who heard it, the Paganini etude in G minor.
The tempo and pizzicato of the Paganini etude was quick and precise, and Rafal thought he had never played better. He performed the Sarasate “Zigeunerweisen” soulfully, with charged emotion, the Beethoven “Concerto in C Major” was perfect in pitch of harmonics and interpretation, and the fingering quick and intonation without reproach in the “Capriccio Espagnol”. The acoustics in the concert hall were the best Rafal had ever experienced. Here, his violin had a sweet, delicate sound that was light, and precise; yet full, and thick, when he needed it to be.
Assured of victory, Rafal began to play the first piece given to him for sight reading, the Schoenberg violin concerto Op. 36. Fortunately for Rafal, he had seen the piece before, and it had deep meaning for him. Composed by Arnold Schoenberg during the time he came to America to escape the Nazis, it represented a chance of freedom, of a new life for the composer, just as it did for Rafal. He had heard the recording of this piece by the BSO, led by Cincinnatian James Levine with violin soloist Christian Tetzloff from November 2nd, 2006, and hoped to replicate that stellar performance. Thought to be unplayable by many, Rafal tore into the opening stanzas with lightening speed, until the unimaginable happened. Just a few minutes into the first movement, Rafal’s worst nightmare came true. His “E” string snapped, followed by a few seconds of ear shattering silence. He felt a sudden surge of acid in his gut, as though he were being eaten alive from inside out. He offered the judges the only solution he could think of that would help him.
“Sirs, madams, please forgive me for the broken string. I can perhaps borrow a string from one of my competitors waiting outside and finish my audition, if you will permit me to do so.” Rafal began to experience pain in his jaw and neck as his muscles tightened, and took in a deep breath to steady himself as he awaited the unseen judges’ verdict.
My bag, he thought. If the airlines hadn’t left his accessory bag behind, he’d be able to put on a new string and continue with his audition. As this was not the case, the inevitable happened.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Unesco,” said an unknown male voice from behind the canvass barrier. “We’ve heard enough and will let you know our decision in a few days. We’ll contact you at the number you provided at the Hawthorne Suites. Good day.”
“Thank you, sirs and madams. I shall look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity, to audition for your esteemed orchestra.” Rafal wiped the sweat from his forehead with the white cotton handkerchief in his pocket, packed away his instrument and prepared to leave.
The same orchestra representative that called Rafal in to play also escorted him back out into the hallway. The last thing Rafal heard inside the concert hall building was the sound of the next violinist to audition that day, someone unlike Rafal, who had an unblemished chance to be accepted by one of the finest orchestras in the world. Having much to think about and the late August weather not being too muggy, Rafal decided that the eight block walk back to the hotel would do him good. He felt confident in his performance, that is, until his string broke. Had they heard enough to decide that they liked him? Although sight reading was required for audtions, would they make an exception in his case due to what happened? He also wondered if one of the other violinists played better than he. He knew that even if he were the best violinist that the judges still had to listen to all of the entrants perform. As the hours and then days went by, Rafal left the hotel room only to eat, and even then not for more than an hour or two at most. Rafal felt more doubtful about being accepted into the BSO with every day that passed. Finally, the telephone call came.
“Yes, this is he.”
“Hello, this is Samuel Rogers, contacting judge for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. How are you today, sir?”
“Well, I’m just fine, thank you.”
“Mr. Unesco, I’m calling to inform you that our selection process has ended, and we have chosen another applicant for the position of concertmaster. Please be advised that we appreciate your interest in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and hope you will consider us again in the future when a similar position becomes available We would like to keep your contact information on file for just that purpose, if that’s alright with you.”
“Yes, that is fine, and thank you for calling, Mr. Rogers.”
And just like that, Rafal’s dream was destroyed. How could he tell his Matka that he failed? How could he face the townspeople back in Przemysl? Now he would have to go back to Poland, no job in Boston, no grand concert next month. No flamboyant solo career. Rafal received an offer of 18,000 zlotys per year, the equivalent of about $5,000 US dollars, as the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Warsaw was too far away from home on one hand, and not far enough on the other. At any rate, it was not the prestigious kind of position that Rafal wanted and felt he deserved. Instead of returning as a local hero and leading one of the best symphonies in the world next month, Rafal would now be forced to take worse than second best when the season began in September, as leader of a third rate orchestra. Rafal could not bear to call his mother to tell her of his bad fortune. Maybe she was right; maybe he should bloom where he was planted, maybe he wasn’t ready for the big time. Maybe the bad feelings she had were right all along.
Rafal returned home to Przemysl, his Matka the only person in town who greeted him with a hero’s welcome. Irina Unesco was thrilled to have her son home where she felt he belonged. Although Rafal had accepted the position of concertmaster of the National Philharmonic in Warsaw before his Boston audition, it didn’t pay enough to survive and wasn’t prestigious like most orchestras in other major European or American cities. He secretly dreaded each passing day as it came closer and closer to the month of September, when the classical music symphonic season began in most of the western world. To make matters worse, bit by bit small articles began to appear in the local newspaper about the Boston Symphony Orchestra coming to Przemysl to play the first concert of their thirteen city European tour. As the days passed these articles grew in size and frequency, further pushing Rafal into an abyss of depression and despair. This would all change when Rafal read the paper on September 16th, three days before the BSO was scheduled to perform in Przemysl.
Rafal picked up the rubber band secured newspaper from outside on the front stoop, and began to read it as he walked inside on his way to the kitchen. After reading the first sentence, he repeated it and the rest of the article aloud, as if hearing what happened could possibly explain why.
“International catastrophe occurs as Delta flight 9168, carrying one hundred members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and thirteen crew members, experienced simultaneous and total engine failure. Four hours after takeoff the pilot reported to international air traffic control that suddenly both engines of the MD-88 failed. The plane plummeted into the Atlantic ocean; there are no survivors. An unidentified airline employee stated that the aircraft had received maintenance earlier that day but did not elaborate on what the problems were. An investigation will be conducted.” As Rafal sat down at the kitchen table, he heard his mother come in the front door and walk toward the kitchen.
“Rafal! Rafal! I was just next door at my friend Aga’s, and you won’t believe what she told me she read in today’s newspaper”. Irina sat down next to her son. She looked at him as he sat there motionless, the newspaper lying on the table in front of him. “Did you read the paper yet? You would’ve. . .-”
“I would’ve been on that flight. Yes, I did read the paper. Oh my, Matka, you were right! I should bloom where I am planted. Those poor musicians, what panic and fear they must’ve felt in their final moments. How awful this is.”
As September came to an end, the townsfolk continued to talk about the air tragedy to Rafal, telling him what good fortune he had not to be on that fateful flight. That is until he received a phone call from an unexpected source.
“Yes, this is he.”
“This is Samuel Rogers. You may remember me from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”
“Yes, of course. I am sad to hear about what happened to the orchestra; please accept my deepest condolences.”
“Yes, sir, about that. You see, we are at an obvious loss for performers, and are calling those who were runners up at the auditions last month. We’d like to offer you a position in our first violin section. Please take a couple days to think about it if you need to, and let us know your decision by Friday.”
Rafal’s brain whizzed around in his head like a child’s top spinning on marble. It wasn’t the concertmaster position; it wasn’t even assistant concertmaster, of which the Boston Symphony Orchestra had three. However, it was a way for him to become a part of this prestigious orchestra, and continue to aim for the top position, Rafal thought.
“Thank you for your offer, Mr. Rogers. I’d like to accept now.”
“Wonderful, wonderful! Our personnel director Miriam Maloney will be telephoning you to help you with all of the new employee details. We will need you to be present and ready for the first rehearsal a week from next Monday at eight a.m. If there is anything with which you need assistance, do not hesitate to call. You do still have my contact information, I presume?”
“Yes, Mr. Rogers, I do. Thank you for calling. I look forward to seeing you a week from Monday. Good bye.”
Rafal was now faced with telling his Matka he’d be leaving for America all over again. And then there was the flight to consider, that long flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
The days following Rafal’s phone call passed quickly, filled with preparation and goodbyes. Rafal promised his Matka that as soon as he could afford to, he would pay for her to come to America. To his surprise, not only did she agree, but this promise made her stop crying. As Rafal sat on the airplane awaiting take off, he mulled in amazement that his Matka expected this all along. He remembered what she said before he left the first time for his audition in Boston: “I do not want to lose you, but I believe it is fate that you will play in that orchestra.”
As he patiently sat and waited for the MD-88 aircraft to leave the ground, he thought about how his Matka did not want to lose him, and wondered what fate held for him in the future.
Sherri Miller is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2009, Sherri Miller