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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Busking amongst the sheep and speed cameras,
classical music's agony aunt, ALICE McVEIGH,
live this week from Wales

Dear Alice,
Did I miss your column this week? I'm sure I clicked on, on Friday and didn't see anything new by you. Are you OK?

I ran into a friend who used to substitute in the New York Philharmonic and now plays in the subway. Said that she wasn't interested in another type of work because she just wanted to play the violin. Isn't that depressing?

Your old friend,
J in the Big Apple

Dear J,

Sorry about last week's column. Due to unforeseen insane workload, Keith screwed up. We're all fine.

Actually, I don't know that it is all that depressing. In the week when musicians are all abuzz in London over a walk-out due to Les Miserables musicians being replaced by a computer (which is sincerely depressing) I find it heartening that someone (somewhere) still loves music enough to want to play more than do anything else, even if it is busking on the New York subway.

It reminds me of the leader of my string quartet (sterling fellow from Aberdeen) who said to me once he'd rather starve than not play violin. It also reminds me of a classical cellist I once knew who said that musicians are the most privileged people on earth, to be asked (even if not often enough) to travel the world bringing music to people. It even reminds me, moreover, that another fiddler in my quartet (demon jazzer, as well as classical) once travelled all over continental Europe on nothing but the earnings he made from busking The Four Seasons.

And let's look on the bright side. Your busking ex-colleague is probably cold, tired and underpaid, true. But is she paying whacking great (or indeed any) taxes like the rest of us? I beg leave to doubt it. Is she enjoying playing her music? Possibly more than some well-fed orchestral players I can think of. And is she obliged to answer to anybody, however puerile or unmusical he/she might be? No way, José. These buskers fly free as birds. They can play what they like, when they like, in whatever fashion they like. Buskers may be the last bastion of musical freedom (along with soloists/conductors at the far end of the pay scale, and even they have to answer to their agents/record companies/divorce lawyers.)

What your friend has done is to trade respectability for freedom. It is not a choice that I would ever make, being the cosseted daughter of diplomatic parents and accustomed to an cushy life. But it is, at least, a choice I can respect, and even admire. People on the local classical music station here are fond of referring to themselves as 'music lovers'. For me, your friend is the ultimate music-lover: someone who loves it so much that nothing less will do.

Love, Alice

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

You may remember me as the third or fourth cello in your high school cello section. I gave it up, became a patent attorney for many years, and now have decided to give away my wife and children and become a countertenor. Can you recommend a dietary regimen suitable for my new ideal profession?

Stephen P McNamara

Dear Stevie baby,

Of course I remember you: you were the tall, good-looking, blue-eyed, lazy swine at the back of the nationally-known McLean Virginia High School orchestra cello section (mine, that was) who never bloody practiced.

Oops, I mean, the bright spark who never paid any attention to his cello due to working constantly towards being a high-paid, Connecticut-based, patent lawyer, and how's about a low-interest-based loan to buy the second home of my dreams in sunny Crete?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Alice McVeigh in Crete. Photo: Simon McVeigh
Alice McVeigh in Crete. Photo © 2003 Simon McVeigh

Nice to hear from you after two and a half decades since our pimply youth, though I regret to inform you, in answer to your question, you are way way too old to make it as a countertenor. You have to have devoted yourself to it since your voice broke (an embarrassingly long time ago), and to have gorged yourself on nothing less wholesome since than organic yoghurt and whole-grain cous-cous. (At present you of course breakfast on muesli crunch and lunch on deli sandwiches, but let yourself down with a bang and three bloody marys after taking the commuter train suburb-wards each weekday, plus your rhythm's gone to pot thanks to your local choir's weak excuse for a non-conductor every other Wednesday eve).

Still, never say die. I can hear you now, warbling in the shower after hitting your private gym on Sunday morning.

'A wandering minstrel I, a thing of rags and tatters ...'
(in, as P G Wodehouse puts it, 'a pleasant light baritone', natch.)

Your once and future section leader,

Copyright © 23 January 2004 Alice McVeigh, Llanfair P G, Wales, UK





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