I walk up the wide stone staircase of the ‘Maison Bourgoise’ which houses the music conservatory. In a gilded room drowning in autumnal light from the tall French windows, I sit on a bleached chair, my cheeks conscious of its ailing padding, and admire the tattered brocade of the heavy curtains.
We, The Jury, are informed that, though officially the score should be between ten and twenty, for the entrance exams it is pro forma to mark between 6 and 14. 10 is a pass. God forbid anyone should sail out of the room with top marks.
We start with baroque cello. The first candidate is not the nubile starlet I expect, but a man of 49 and a computer technician. He takes a deep breath, waggles his fingers above his fingerboard as if to summon the muse and launches into the sarabande of the first Suite by Bach. In some ways his playing is a mess, but in other (to me, more important) ways, it is splendid. He breathes, he moves, his feet are on the ground. His rhythm is perfect and his sound makes the furnishings in the room blush back to their original warmth. Above all, he is absolutely transported by the music and thus, so am I.
My colleague leans over to me and says: “He is mad you know”.
I think: “Better mad playing Bach than mad on the street with a gun”.
The head of the conservatory is not listening. He is marking an orchestral score and checking things on his laptop, shuffling his mouse squeakily across the table in between each phrase. Trying to compensate for his insensitivity, I breathe harder, deeper, doubly present for this man who has learned to play baroque cello when he is not mending a screen for some fund manager git, and who has the guts to come and sit before us. Just as the head did not acknowledge the candidate’s entrance, neither does he look up when the he leaves, or thank him for coming to make music for us, for pouring out his heart. I want to slap him and scream:
"Did you see the 'Tourneuse des Pages'? That's you assole!"
I whop a mega 14 on my sheet of paper and write the words ‘Touchant. Émouvant’ in big letters to balance out the others’ apparent judgement that he is not of a high enough standard to enter their pristine palace.
The second candidate is just what they are looking for and I know my colleague is gunning for her: All prettiness and control, no daring and she leaves me cold. I dutifully give her a high score.
Then we move on to the traverso flute. There is a Julien Sorel look-alike who sways and makes a willowy sound to whom I give top marks for those moody French looks. Next come a heavy breathing bespectacled professor dead from the waist down and a tight-wristed youth efficiently tooting out his Boismortier sonata whilst tapping his dapper shoes out of time. 12, 12.
Then the big guy enters.
I can see immediately that he needs every ounce of our support. His fingers are flapping and he can hardly move his instrument to his quivering mouth. To top it all, there are beads of sweat forming on the portion of hairy belly revealed by two missing shirt buttons. We have all been there, felt that terror of being out of control and on show, of having what we care about most shredded to death by our own unstoppable hands. Am I the only one who remembers? I can see him leaving his body, his eyes desperately searching ours to drop anchor as he spins above the shipwreck of himself. Unfortunately, though my gaze never abandons him in his ordeal, I am not in his line of vision. I am breathing even deeper, and my ears are reforming the phrases for him where he is leaving gaps, but I feel helpless. My colleagues continue to scribble and whisper, to check text messages as our poor candidate lurches towards the finishing line. I want to burst out clapping but it is not my place. The panel don’t change a thing. Tap tap on the mouse, turn a page….whatever. He stands there stunned for a moment and as he turns to walk out, I say a quiet ‘Merci’, hoping he will hear some compassion in my solo voice. 12, Bless him.
The next player is that sexy thing all professors’ wives dread. She breathes in and I know immediately she is not just a sumptuous piece of skirt, but that she is a huge talent. Full of fantasy, her flute another limb loosely connected at her mouth, she breathes out love. A mature musician at the age of nineteen. Another 14. The wives will have to cope.
We drive home through the small roads, drinking in the glorious tangerine, radicchio and lime landscape, and spend the afternoon pulling up terra cotta tiles and digging a hole in the kitchen floor. As I wedge the screwdriver into the plaster and wait for the pop of the tile coming loose, I think about my presence there at the conservatoire and about the fact that if it weren’t for my vote, the computer chappie wouldn’t have got in. I wonder sadly if he is in the right hands.