When Allegra was a little girl, she thought she would pick up her violin and it would sing for her—that the music was hidden inside her instrument.
Now that Allegra is twelve, she believes the music is in her fingers, and the summer after seventh grade she has to teach them well. She's the youngest contestant in the Ernest Bloch Young Musicians' Competition.
She knows she will learn the notes to the concerto, but what she doesn't realize is she'll also learn—how to close the gap between herself and Mozart to find the real music inside her heart.
The Mozart Season includes an interview with author Virginia Euwer Wolff.
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The Mozart Season
By Virginia Euwer Wolff
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1991 Virginia Euwer Wolff
All rights reserved.
In Mr. Kaplan's studio is a needlepoint pillow, on a chair. On one side of it is a violin. The other side says, A teacher is someone who makes you believe you can do it. Somebody who took lessons from him a long time ago made it. When I was little, I couldn't read it clearly because needlepoint letters have odd shapes.
"Now that you're warmed up, let's revisit Mr. Mozart," said Mr. Kaplan.
It was a gorgeous June morning and in my mind I heard another voice: "Now that you're warmed up, let's demolish those Vikings." My softball coach and my violin teacher were overlapping each other.
With my softball coach, it was stairsteps and laps and stretches and endless batting practice. With Mr. Kaplan it was eight repetitions of very fast B-major scales and five minutes of octaves. Two weeks after being the shortstop on the team that had lost in the second round of the district play-offs, I was at my lesson, looking for the Mozart concerto. People say I have a quirky way of holding my violin and bow way out to the side in my left hand while I bend over and sort through music with my right hand, as if I'm signaling to somebody. Mr. Kaplan said we were going to "catch up with Mr. Mozart. Do the concerto start to finish, no stops, to see what's going on in the totality of the thing." He was sitting on the piano bench, waiting for me. The Fourth Concerto, in D. I hadn't paid very much attention to it since February, and now it was June.
In the summer I get to have morning lessons twice a week, and I love it. The sun comes in the windows of Mr. Kaplan's studio, which is at one end of his house, and it lights up the rug's big, colorful designs. Mrs. Kaplan leaves for work early, and there's always some great smell left over, French toast or omelets or something. I work best in the mornings. Things haven't had time to get so cluttered yet.
Mr. Kaplan was wearing his "Pergolesi—a man for the '90s" sweatshirt. It's a joke. Pergolesi lived in Italy in the 1700s and he wrote operas and he died of consumption when he was twenty-six, five days after he'd finished composing something. Mr. Kaplan is better in the mornings, too. He says the Symphony keeps him up past his bedtime. He plays in the first violins in it with my mother. So he's up past his bedtime most of the time during the season. It's the Oregon Symphony. They don't play regular concerts in the summer.
I put the music on the stand and got ready. With Mr. Kaplan you don't whine or mutter. It doesn't help. "We want right notes, not excuses" is what all music teachers say, I guess. He doesn't have to say it very many times; you learn it fast. Mr. Kaplan and I'd been together for seven years, and he was going to know the instant I got to the top of the second page that I hadn't been practicing the Mozart. At that spot there's a fast shift from first finger to fourth finger on the G string, and you have to get ready for it. You can't let a shift like that take you by surprise.
"Straight through. Right, Allegra? Including cadenzas." A cadenza is the part where the violin plays alone; it's harder than the rest of the piece, and it gets the audience all excited when you do it in a concert. There are three cadenzas in this concerto, one in each movement.
"Right." Poor man.
The introduction is forty-one measures long. This time, instead of playing just the last two measures of it on the piano, Mr. Kaplan played the whole thing. He wears half-glasses, and he has a balding head with some blondish-gray hair on the back, and a mostly gray short beard, and he's a little bit slumped over when he sits at the piano. His ears stick out in a funny way. I love the way he looks. The introduction to the first movement, the part the orchestra would play, is bouncy, and it mostly announces what the solo violin will play when it begins. That way you get to listen to it twice.
While he was doing it, I practiced the G-string shift without making any noise, sliding my hand up and down the fingerboard.
I love this concerto. Mozart only wrote five of them for the violin. The year before, Mr. Kaplan had let me choose which one to learn, the third one or this one, and I'd taken them both home and spun my bow the way you spin a tennis racquet. If it landed with the hair toward me, I'd learn the third, in G; and if it landed with the hair away from me, I'd learn this one. When Mr. Kaplan and my parents found out I'd treated my bow With Such Astonishing Disrespect, they got very alarmed about it.
I'd worked very hard on it for several months, and in February we'd made a tape of it to send to a contest. I'd worried and fretted and trembled, but we'd gotten the tape made. After that, I'd sort of neglected it. In softball season I'd practically stopped being a violinist.
Mr. Kaplan, who was having fun playing the introduction, got to the BUM-pum-pa-pum part that comes right before the violin begins. I was ready. It starts on a high D and goes on up from there.
I got through the first movement all right, and I made some genuine messes of the beautiful double-stops near the end of the second-movement cadenza. Double-stops are two notes at once, on separate strings. And I was sure the last-movement cadenza was making it Abundantly Clear to Mr. Kaplan that I hadn't even seen it for a long time. But the end was fine. The Blip-te-de-bip-bipbip came out very, very soft and nice.
Mr. Kaplan leaned back, smiling and saying a kind of "ah." Then he turned sideways on the bench. "Isn't this a beautiful song, Allegra?"
"Yep." It is. Mr. Kaplan calls overtures and symphonies and concertos "songs" sometimes. I waited for him to say the rest.
He leaned forward and flipped the pages. "Hmmm. I'm concerned about the articulation in spots, and some of the dynamics aren't at all what they should be—and you know that, young lady—and ... Hmmm." Then he turned sideways on the bench again, straddling it. "Are you willing to play this concerto a thousand times by September?"
I laughed. That would be more times than I'd brush my teeth by then. He watched me thinking. He started to smile, then he got up and walked across the studio, away from me. Then he turned around. "Your tape was accepted," he said. "For the Bloch Competition. The finals are on Labor Day."
I looked at him. And I saw myself four months before, worrying and worrying and worrying about whether or not the sixteenth-notes in the first movement were vigorous enough, how satiny smooth the Andante cantabile was.... I remembered being a mass of nervousness, actually frightened of a tape recorder.
"Had you really forgotten about it?" he said.
The picture in my memory faded and Mr. Kaplan's face came in, looking at me over the top of his half-glasses. He has terribly vivid blue eyes.
"You're serious, aren't you?" I said.
"Indeed. You are one of the finalists. We have almost three months, if you decide to play. You may decide not to, of course."
I laughed. I held my violin and my bow out at arms' length, so I was kind of a V shape. "Really," I said. "Thanks, guys," I said to them. I dropped my arms, letting violin and bow dangle so they hung just above the floor. I thought of my grandmother in New York, Bubbe Raisa, who'd bought me the first violin I ever had. It was a one-eighth size. I can still hear her voice in my head, like an old radio program you think you remember, all jolly-sounding, saying, "Just tuck it under your chin, just tuck it...." The whole violin was only seventeen inches long.
Mr. Kaplan bent his head to the side, a little bit like a bird listening. "Mr. Kaplan, do you think ..." I purposely let my voice fade.
He shook his head back and forth. "You make your own decisions, always, Allegra." I laughed again, and so did he. Mine was kind of an accusing laugh; I was thinking of the thousands of hours of finger-sickening exercises he'd put me through in seven years. Those nasty exercises were his decisions, not mine. "In important things of this kind," he added.
Spend three months with Mozart. My whole summer vacation. Go through the nervousness all over again. The Ernest Bloch Competition for Young Musicians of Oregon. Last year it was for piano, the first Beethoven concerto, and the boy who plays piano with the Portland Youth Orchestra won it. He played the concerto with the Oregon Symphony at a Sunday concert; that was his prize. I'll never forget his eyes when he came out on the stage to begin playing at the concert. They looked wild, as if he didn't know what a piano was. Daddy and I were sitting down front, and we could see him very clearly. Mommy said he'd been awfully jumpy in rehearsal but always came through in the clinch. He was eighteen. He played the performance wonderfully.
"How old are the others?" I asked.
"Allegra, will that affect your relationship with the concerto?"
I looked down to both sides of me. My violin was centered exactly over one of the dark blue curly designs on the rug. I centered my bow over another one. The designs weren't exactly alike. I'd had the rug designs memorized for years. I looked back up at Mr. Kaplan. He was standing with his hands in his pockets. "I don't exactly know," I said.
He moved his feet slightly. "Let's say I'm quite sure you're the youngest. Let's say that." He kept looking at me over his glasses. I put both violin and bow in my right hand. "How tall are you?" he asked.
I told him. Five feet one and three-quarters.
"Indeed," he said. "And you've had the full-size instrument since? ..."
"Uh ... I was just starting sixth grade. One and a half years ago. One year and nine months." The agreement was that if I started to slack off on the practicing, Mommy and Daddy wouldn't "take the payments very seriously," as Daddy said. If I got unmotivated or lost interest, away would go the violin, and I could use a rental. Same with the bow.
"I'm wondering if we can expect some growth these days. It would make the reaches a bit easier for your hand, you know. Your brother David, he's rather taller than you, yes?"
"David's five eleven."
"Indeed. Well, we'll see what nature has in mind." He began pacing across the rug. Then he stopped. "What do you think, Allegra? Would you like to play the competition? You mustn't play it unless you're willing. Completely willing."
I'd never done such a thing in my life. I'd played auditions. One for the All-State Prep Orchestra, but I was so young then, that one hardly counts. I almost didn't even know what I was there for. And for the Youth Orchestra, the one I play in now. That was scary, because I knew exactly what I was there for.
"I've never—Mr. Kaplan, I've never played a ..."
"I know, Allegra." His voice was full of—I didn't know what to call it. It wasn't pity. I had to have my own list of new words by September for school, and whatever it was in his voice would be one of them. I'd find it. It was something like pity, but not the kind that makes you feel bad.
"Does my mother know about this? When did you find out? Find out I'd made the finals?"
"Yes, she does. We've talked about it. Not long ago."
"What does she think? Why didn't somebody tell me?"
He sort of laughed but not really. "She thinks it's your decision. Naturally. We wanted to wait till after school was out—and your softball—so you could more accurately gauge how you want to spend your summer."
"Does my dad know?"
"I'm sure he does." Daddy doesn't play in the Symphony; he plays in the opera orchestra. And he teaches at a university and plays in a quartet. He's a cellist.
"What does he think?"
"That, I don't know. I have a hunch he agrees with your mother."
I loosened my bow. "What's it like? You don't have to play in front of a lot of people, do you? I mean, not the whole orchestra?" I looked down at the rug design on my left, where the blue and red come together. "Do you get more than one try?"
"This is the way it goes, Allegra. There'll be three, maybe four judges. They're the jury. Every contestant will play the entire concerto. Once. Without accompaniment. The judges listen and decide. Somebody will win. And there'll be a second prize, an alternate. The others will get a whopper of an experience. Then it'll be over for all the competitors except one. That one will play the concerto in January. With the Symphony, at a Sunday concert. If the winner should get sick, the alternate winner will perform."
Suddenly the idea of winning was the worst thing I could imagine. I'd be out there exposed to everybody. I'd rather lose.
Or would I?
"How many people are gonna be in the competition?"
"I'm not exactly sure. Fewer than ten, I think. The finalists have come from a field of eighty-five."
Eighty-five. "Are they adults or something? In college, I mean."
"There is no minimum age, just as in the Youth Orchestra. The maximum age is twenty-one. I expect the mean age to be about seventeen."
"I was twelve in February."
"I know, Allegra. Do you want to think about it for a few days?"
"I don't know. Maybe I'd better think ... I don't ..."
"Well. Then we have unfinished business, you and I. Let's do the Vitali for fun now."
My music says Vitali was born in 1660 and never died. It says, "Tomaso Vitali, 1660–." It just has that blank. He wrote a ciaccona in G minor that I love. That was what I'd been practicing. It has a lot of trickery of crossing strings in it, and you have to play faster than your mind can think when you play the trickery parts. Automatic pilot is one way to describe it. It's a kind of automated finger memory. You let your mind go away and not interfere with your fingers. It's kind of like the way you write your name or ride a bike. First you learn how, and then you just go ahead and do it without thinking about how you do it. I love the ciaccona he wrote.
But when we got to four measures after letter M, I botched some trickery notes. And I stopped. I don't usually do that; I usually go right on.
"This section is still your Waterloo, isn't it?" Mr. Kaplan said. Somebody lost a battle at Waterloo; I don't remember who.
"Yes. I don't know if I can play any competition, ever, Mr. Kaplan. I ..."
"Oh, come now. Don't start that. It doesn't do any good." He looked at me. "Remember, this competition is in memory of Mr. Bloch."
"Yes." Ernest Bloch was a Swiss-Jewish composer who came to Oregon and lived at the beach. Last year the Youth Orchestra played a concerto grosso he wrote, and it was so beautiful it made some people in the orchestra cry.
"And we're going to remember, you and I, that Mr. Bloch had tenacity and fearlessness and a great, great soul."
I looked at him in a question mark.
"Tenacity. Holding on when it would be more comfortable to let go."
While I was putting my violin away, I saw on Mr. Kaplan's desk a photograph of a string quartet I hadn't seen before. It had the most gorgeous guy holding a violin, with messy curly hair and an incredibly handsome roundish face, sort of smiling.
"Who's this?" I asked.
"That's the Juilliard Quartet. You must hear them in person someday."
"I mean who's this?" I pointed to the gorgeous one.
"Oh. That's Joel Smirnoff. Their second violinist. Excellent musician."
Instant crush. Lightning love. Allegra and Joel. Joel and Allegra. Duets.
"You'll think about the competition, won't you, Allegra?" he said as I was going out the door.
"Of course. Thanks. For the lesson. And ..."
"You're welcome. Always. And do the Kreutzer double-stops this week?"
The terrible, nasty, tormenting Kreutzer double-stops. Kreutzer lived in the same time as Beethoven. He wrote a whole book of violin exercises, called études, and his idea of double-stops was to get you going good and fast and then throw one at you that your fingers can't possibly reach and make you keep going. Good old number 34.
I was just crossing the Kaplans' lawn when a catastrophe struck me: if I didn't at least try to play the competition, I'd be just one more boring violin student and Joel Smirnoff would never even think of looking for me in Portland, Oregon. He wouldn't even ever find out I was alive.
I turned around and ran back and knocked on the studio door. Mr. Kaplan opened it, and I told him, "Yes. I want to play the competition."
He looked a bit surprised, but not totally. "Good girl, Allegra. It's a deal. Kreutzer." He almost growled the last word, and smiled. I said good-bye again and he put his hand up in his flat-handed wave.
I walked home. I had to talk to somebody. My brother David was in the dining room making a cartoon. He was sitting in the chair he sits in for dinner. He's sixteen, and he's basically called Bro David. He makes a lot of cartoons. Last year he sold one of them to the New Yorker magazine by lying about his age. It had tragic, starving Africans opening up big boxes and saying, "Yeccchhh—not more spinach and rutabagas from the children of America!" He got some money for it.
Excerpted from The Mozart Season by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Copyright © 1991 Virginia Euwer Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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