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The Funny Fiddler

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I recently had the pleasure of hearing the marvelous violinist Tim Fain in recital. The music was mesmerizing, and all eyes, or I should say ears, were riveted to the stage. You can understand my consternation then, when the man in the seat in front of me started laughing.

The laugh began innocently enough as a kind of gyration of the shoulders, but was quickly followed by jerks of the head and twists of the torso. I have to say in his defense that this man did succeed in stifling the laugh so it was soundless, but was nevertheless highly disruptive.

I grew increasingly annoyed, especially when he turned to his partner to demonstrate his reaction as if he were the afternoon’s center of attention. She nodded reservedly but, like me, was clearly miffed. I felt like poking the man in the back and whispering hotly in his ear, “This is Bach, Mister! You do not laugh at the most thrilling moments of J.S. Bach!” And indeed they were thrilling. In fact, rarely had I heard that piece played with such crackling excitement.

While I have never scolded a perfect stranger in public, I did consider doing so in this instance, but I lost my nerve and realized that I would have to settle for casting this bozo a deeply disapproving glance after the performance.

You can understand my mystification then, when, after the last flourish, this man bolted out of his seat like a rocket and started clapping hysterically and screaming, “BRAVO! BRAVO!” I was baffled. One minute he was laughing as if at a comedy act, and the next, he’s whooping like a cheerleader.

It was not until later that I understood. My husband and I were listening to a recording of Glenn Gould’s performance of the Precipitato movement of Prokofieff’s seventh piano sonata – and we started laughing. Now, this is not a funny piece, but it is probably one of the most exciting ever to emerge from the pen of any composer in the history of mankind. And we were laughing not because the playing was ludicrously bad, but because it was so staggeringly, unbelievably good. It was so fast you couldn’t even take it seriously. It was inhuman. It boggled.

So the next time you are at a performance and you hear a “HA!,” don’t assume the worst. The player is probably being laughed at not because he is bad, but because he is good.

At least, one hopes so, for your sake.

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About Jeanne Farewell

Jeanne Farewell is the author of the short story collection Nantucket Snow, and two novels, Old Rye and In the Lighthouse. Her stories, essays, and book reviews have been published in a variety of literary magazines and on the web. She is also a pianist who has performed in the US, Europe, UK, and China.