Prodigies under Pressure

A deft introduction to the savage sport of music competition

There is a story about Rostropovich, the great Soviet cellist, who, suffering from the consequences of jet lag and vodka, fell asleep during the long orchestral introduction of the Dvorak Cello Concerto in front of an audience of 3,000 Japanese. Miraculously, half a bar before his entrance he woke up and had enough presence of mind to turn to the conductor and say: “It vas so-o bew-ti-fool, play it again.”

Performance mishaps are part of the biography of every concert artist and they are what inform the story of Toby Hausner, the main character of Ann Ireland’s latest novel, The Blue Guitar. He suffers a breakdown on stage in an important Paris guitar competition. Lapses from a seasoned and loved performer are not only forgiven by their audiences but welcomed: they are the “if” factor of a live performance and an oddly intimate gesture, a comforting reminder that the infallible artist up on the stage is, after all, human. But breaking down in a competition is a different matter.

Toby Hausner, a dreadlocked, you-ain’t-heard-nothin’-yet musical sensation whose electric style undid his competitors and mesmerized his audiences, takes eleven years to get back into the ring after the Paris debacle, the ring being an international competition in Montreal. Since his collapse Toby has been in and out of institutions and has come to lead a private, quiet life with the middle-aged Jasper, the doctor who rescued him, playing out his solitary genius for an amateur guitar choir he conducts. Now he is Muhammad Ali back in gloves after rehab.

Competition is an ethos that has seeped into every pore of our culture. In the world of classical music, a competition is almost the only way for a young artist to launch a career. These competitions, so anathema to art, have come to take on the quality of the Olympics. Today they are brutal, one–shot, life-or-death performances delivered under enormous pressure and so over-rehearsed that many have seen blood. The stakes are high. Not just the players’ future but their self-worth rests on this outcome. They have forfeited their childhoods to be there. Losing is the threat of annihilation, and disappointing their families and teachers, whose vicarious needs are palpable, is unimaginable. They must win. They must be the one in the spotlight accepting the award with that studied, modest bow. They must become the new muscle on the stages of the world, their performance having redefined, like a gymnast with an impossible routine, the latest standard for “best.”

But even if they win there is no guarantee of a concert career. It could be that after only a few bites of hotel fare they will be tossed into the has-been pile and spend the rest of their working lives in the uncelebrated corridors of a conservatory or in an orchestra section, periodically being called out of their cells to judge the latest “best” at one of these competitions. Here their triumph is remembered and they can bask in an old glory. And although they know better, sitting in the judge’s seat now, they must quantify artistry by reducing a performance to its individual components and score for technique, style, interpretation and the marketability of the player. It is the stretch of possibility, the new limits they have to look for, not the tête-à-tête conversation between interpreter and composer. Human frailty has no place in this arena. The game is meant to do the opposite: to conjure the “inhuman.”

The Blue Guitar deftly captures the tempo and climate of these competitions. Ireland’s story of Toby, who pits himself (he is almost over the hill) against a cast of teenagers and a middle-aged housewife, holds all the drama of the event. As part of her research, Ireland must have spent time backstage attending one of these week-long tournaments, because her sensitivity to the workings of the mind in performance and the eccentricities of pre-concert rituals is remarkably accurate: “Left hand zigzags up the fretboard, right fingers roll. Bit of a march thing happening … Cresting the opening movement of the bolero, jack it up a notch. No one plays this piece so fast and lives.”

Equally remarkable is Ireland’s ability to make the many characters in the alternating stories of Toby and Jasper, written in a kind of literary syncopation, distinct by giving us just enough description so that, unlike a Tolstoy novel where you can literally lose count, it does not overwhelm. She has a gift for the verb, unexpected sparks that replace the simile or metaphor, and the prose vibrates.

Toby is a maverick, a self-made virtuoso (rare with few exceptions, Glenn Gould being one of them) who emerges from nowhere: gay, motherless, culturally impoverished, with a difficult aging father and a brother with whom he has little in common. Playing the guitar is Toby’s only access to himself, the only way he is released, and, like many artists, he is a victim of the manic schedule of anxiety. His breakdown in Paris had been the result of not sleeping or eating for weeks.

Brother Felix found him slumped over a chair, passed out … the object was to re-hydrate, re-salinate, orchestrate potassium, electrolytes and urine production. He’d lost his way … forgotten the basics: eat, drink, sleep.

Toby is as wound as the wire on his guitar but Ireland does not unstring him and he cannot do it himself. She gives us a pencil drawing of what should be a full colour portrait. He is a closed, hidden figure whose voice (albeit a clever one) is too ordinary, too much like everyone else’s, and we miss the kinks, the wild tropism of an outré mind. The only character who bursts out of the page is the juicy, slightly corrupt Cuban judge, Manuel Juerta: a thick slab of sloppy, complicated humanity, who lives the way music should be played, improvisatorially, with a capacity for pleasure and pain, open to the moody transmissions from an inspired source.

The Blue Guitar is not a character study or an investigation into the nature of genius. Ireland’s interests are in the ride to the stage and in lifting the curtain from its romantic gauze. And here she succeeds. For the uninitiated the novel is an excellent introduction into the savage sport of music competition and raises questions about the state of the art: how these competitions have informed our standards of performance and what we have come to expect of them, note-perfect renderings that are prepackaged, safe, somewhat anonymous displays of crafted showmanship. Too often, though, they lack spontaneity and do not transport us from the click-click dictates of time into the arms of a single transcendent moment.

Ireland’s story brings to mind the great Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska’s lament about the whole industry, that too many times the best does not win. But the winners are the ones who grace our stages.

Toby is the best artist, the best navigator of the soul, but he has tripped over the bars and that ghost is still following him. Luckily for us, Glenn Gould never had to go through these hoops. Very likely he would not have won.