Nobody can blame a musician for their string breaking on stage. But, says Charlotte Gardner, the way a performer responds is certainly within their grasp
Thomas Gould swaps violins with his desk partner after his E string snaps - moments before his concertmaster solo
Although Kafka may have once opined, ‘Better to have, and not need, than to need, and not have,’ it’s unlikely he was thinking of having a spare E string tucked about one’s person. Yet the question of how to react when a string snaps on stage arose at a concert I attended by the Berlin Philharmonic under Constantinos Carydis at the opening of a concert hall in the Swiss village of Andermatt in June.
This was already a strange evening. The fact that a major symphony orchestra was playing in a modest hall in a far-from-established Alpine resort made for a bemused gaggle of journalists – and, I suspect, some equally bemused orchestral musicians. So the likely explanation for what happened when concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto’s E string snapped as he played his solo in Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony op.110a is lowered guards.
While you couldn’t blame the players for stopping, their laboured recovery was unusual for such a polished ensemble: a helpless shrug from Kashimoto to Carydis; a further pause before Kashimoto and his desk partner uncertainly swapped instruments; then a lengthy and distracting onstage restringing operation, involving not just the second chair but also the second desk, as Kashimoto and everyone else played on.
- Watch: Keeping cool under pressure - a violinist’s E string snaps
- Watch: When a string snaps mid performance: Kristine Balanas at the Latvian Music Awards
Happily, the performance recovered, but the incident was a sharp contrast to a video posted online in 2018, capturing the moment that Thomas Gould’s E string snapped seconds before he launched into a leader’s solo: there was a momentary halt from him but not the orchestra, then a swift, cool-as-a-cucumber instrument switch with his desk partner which enabled his solo to begin right on cue.
Still, I have immense sympathy for someone whose onstage appearance has been torpedoed by circumstances beyond their control. Some years ago, I was a presenter on BBC Four’s live television Proms broadcasts, and on my first night the producer accidentally left his fader turned up on my earpiece.
Just as I finished an interview and turned back to the camera to deliver some final Beethoven factoids, his voice blasted into my ear, congratulating a cameraman. My mind emptied. I stumbled, then hastily scanned the prompt cards for the facts I now didn’t have a hope of reeling off from memory.
Although the producer spotted all this, he didn’t spot the status of his fader. So, as I painfully began to read, I did so to his running in-ear commentary, redirecting the cameras to every non-Gardner, Royal Albert Hall shot he could get.
What enabled me to walk back out on stage a few nights later was having my script so well memorised that, had I been dangled head first over a pool of piranhas, I could still have recited it backwards. However, journalistic gigs are sometimes unavoidably last-minute, so when I do find myself on stage with an interviewee who’s an unknown quantity, it’s about having a strategy up my sleeve, and knowing that the odd fluffed word isn’t going to shoot my career down in flames. Because everyone knows that occasionally ‘stuff’ just happens.
- Watch: Violist Yuri Bashmet in tailpiece disaster
- Watch: Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt in page-turning disaster
Hearteningly, violinist Ray Chen reaches the same conclusion in a video blog on snapping strings posted just a week before the Andermatt incident. Chen was once filmed swiftly exchanging instruments with the concertmaster of the Taiwan Philharmonic when his own E string went, but his blog explores the possibility of instantly switching into position on the A to keep going. The result? It’s almost always impractical so don’t torture yourself over it.
One final point: behind every soloist’s impressive recovery is an alert, team-mentality orchestra, and the most glittering example I’ve ever seen is the Aurora Orchestra when Alban Gerhardt’s C string pinged off midway through Tchaikovsky’s RococoVariations. Sure, everyone stopped, but a nanosecond later Gerhardt was reaching round to grab the principal cellist’s already-proffered instrument while the desk partner passed theirs up to the principal. Moments later, conductor Nicholas Collon brought everyone back in seamlessly. Incredible. So to conclude on another adage: it’s not about how you fall, but how you get up again.