(For backstory, check out this violinist.com discussion: http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=12346
At first glance, it is hard to see the correlation: my young son peers out the window of our third floor Rome apartment and promptly expels the contents of his stomach onto the pavement below; the next day I visit world-renowned luthier Claude Lebet’s workshop. But there is one.
It was distressing to see my son sick. It was distressing to hear the shop owner down below screaming up at me in Italian to clean up the mess that very instant (I couldn’t, I was virtually locked in while my husband Peter was out with the keys) or she would call the police. It was distressing not to be able to soothe the stress away later with some practicing on the violin I’d brought. Turns out I’d forgotten my shoulder rest. I am not a member of the “play without it” camp, nor did I wish to experiment right then. What I needed was comfort and continuity after a day of energetic, chaotic, history-packed exploring. Instead I had a sick child, a still-raving shopkeeper below me, an absent spouse and a slippery, uncooperative violin. Earlier that afternoon, we’d been bumped from our charming 17th century Trastevere apartment, perfect for our needs, to another rental in urban, workaday Testaccio. Jet lag was stealing our energy. My feet hurt and so did my head. I wanted to go home.
But that’s just how it goes with travel. You give yourself a good night’s sleep and the next day you set forth again after a bracing cappuccino. But one look at my son’s increasingly pale face, following the thickest, richest cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever seen (really, it should have come with a warning, or age minimum, like wine), his faint words that he didn’t feel so good, and like that, the day’s plans changed.
“Why don’t you go out on your own for a few hours,” Peter urged, seeing my downcast face. “We’ll head back to the apartment and I’ll explore after you come back.” Once I was sure he meant it, I set off again. It sank in as I walked that I was now free to do whatever I pleased. Anything. And I knew, in a flash, where I needed to go.
A confession: in spite of Rome’s treasure trove of antiquities and sights, I missed my novel writing terribly. I missed my characters like they were my babies, snatched from me. My violinist, Montserrat, in particular. She’s more than a character, just as the violin is more than a pretty wooden box with strings. But I’m trying to wean myself off her. After a year of revising my novel, it’s pretty much good to go again, save for some final polishing. Montserrat is now like a ghost, achingly present but just out of reach, much like classical music’s hold.
Well, catch this: Claude Lebet’s shop is located off the Via di Monserrato. How’s that for a coincidence? Some things are just meant to happen.
“Montserrat’s Road” leads off the Piazza Farnese in Rome’s bustling city center, a narrow, picturesque little street that offered me no clues as to the whereabouts of the workshop. Asking around, I finally found it, an imposing 16th century palazzo bordering the Piazza dé Ricci. I announced myself uncertainly on the intercom and was buzzed in, thus commencing a comedy of errors such as Italy seems to produce in me: an ineffectual clawing at the massive wooden doors, missing, asking them to buzz me in again. Once inside, I hesitated too long in the entryway, hearing a second buzzing from a door a few meters away, for which I made a dash for but missed. Finally, after the second buzz, I burst into a dimly lit workroom to discover two men regarding me quizzically. “Excuse me,” I managed, “Are one of you Claude Lebet?”
The older man nodded and relief welled up in me. “I’m so glad,” I babbled, switching to French, which after two days of Italian, felt like my mother tongue. “I’ve heard about you. I’ve read about you.” I took in the room peripherally: crafting tools in their holders sharing workbench space with notebooks and papers; violins everywhere, hanging, displayed in cases, reclining on benches in various stages of undress. The room, sweetly redolent of glue and varnish, looked homey and industrious. I was back in safe territory.
Gradually my explanation came out, that I wanted to buy a shoulder rest, that I knew he was francophone Swiss from the articles I’d read, that I’d heard great things about him and his work. For the next thirty minutes, Claude, his assistant and I chatted away easily. We talked about violins, about Rome and where my family and I were staying, our Trastevere to Testaccio downgrade. After I’d picked out a shoulder rest I told him about my writing (he, too, is a writer), about Montserrat, the coincidence of the street name being the same as hers, which he found equally entertaining. I told him how in my story she plays a JB Vuillaume. He didn’t have one in inventory just then, but he let me check out some of his treasures: an Andrea Amati (“The Portuguese,” 1567, made for Charles the IX, painting on the back) and a Guadagnini (Giovanni Battista, Piacenza, 1748). The Amati so very light in my hands, was amazing—history come to life. The Guadagnini (in the final picture), so glossy and perfect, seemed to give off its own energy. I didn’t want to let it go.
Finally I bade them farewell, practically skipping my way through the Piazza dé Ricci and down the Via di Monserrato. Back in the Testaccio apartment, Peter took one look at my face, smiled, and slipped out. (Our son, while feeling better, was very much enjoying his “day off.”) I clamped on my new shoulder rest and began to play my violin. I thought of those exquisite instruments I’d just held, the workshop visit, and as if by musical osmosis, the notes soared, pure and sweet, from my little Chinese fiddle, my heart following suit. Even Montserrat showed up to listen.
This, then, is why I bring the violin wherever I travel. For moments like this.
PS: For more scoop on my novel and Montserrat, and to decide whether I did an accurate job in depicting a soloist’s life and background, check out an EXCERPT from my novel, Dirty Little Secrets at Doublestop Magazine. I welcome all comments or suggestions, either via email or here. And while you’re at Doublestop, check out this entertaining, endearing story from Kristina Riggle, reminiscing about her high school orchestra days HERE.
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