Last month, we headed back to the UK (via Hong Kong and London) to visit Bob Halstead's 92 year old mum. She was in a state nursing home, and our goal was to move her to a better, private nursing home. Lily, however had other ideas. She had three wonderful visits with her 2 sons- Bob and his brother Ric Halstead (and Ric's son James) - and then she passed away quietly in her sleep. We then set about busying ourselves with everything that one has to in such times.
As many will know from your own experiences, it is not only a time of grief, but also full of many organizational and logistical jobs to do. The day before the Funeral, as we all were having lunch, it occurred to the guys that they had somewhat neglected the choice of music for the Funeral. Ric was set, however, as, being a professional jazz saxophonist (based near Noosa), he had found several of his CD recordings in Lily's house from his days as the manager and lead performer at the Hong Kong Jazz Club.
That in itself is yet another element of this story which makes the serendipity SO amazing, as when I lived and worked as professional violinist in the Hong Kong Philharmonic back in the early 80s, our muso "go-to" club for relaxing after Philharmonic concerts was- you guessed it- the very same HK Jazz Club. I probably heard Ric perform nearly every night for 5 years and we did not know each other until we met through his brother Bob last year! Anyway- Ric selected a few moving and soulful tracks from his CDs for the Funeral and had the Funeral Home prepare them. Meanwhile, Bob remarked to me, "Leigh, I would love you to play violin at the Funeral." Ok....but I did not take my violin with me on this trip, of course not expecting a funeral, and not wanting the hassles in travel it adds these days if not performing. Hmmmmm- the men thought about it. "There MUST be a music shop in Weston Super Mare, how about you head off and go find a violin on loan for tomorrow and we will meet you at close of business on the High Street?" Yeah- right! I will just meander down past Boots the Chemist and Marks and Spencer and Waitrose and find a violin.......
Well, after concerted "I -have -to-find-a-music-shop" inquiry and bemused looks from the heavily rugged-up locals, my wanderings led me to the one and only music shop anywhere in Weston: Weston Music Shop. I walked in, and spilled out my whole slightly bittersweet tale to the friendly young man who greeted me."We need a violin by tomorrow! It is for a funeral! Do you think you can help me?" The chap (tattooed and with several piercings, perhaps not a day over 22 years old) looked at me in a sort of incredulous way, raised one eyebrow, and quipped, "Sorry love. You see, we don't DO violins here in Weston." I was nearly in tears and wondering how on earth I would be able to solve this dilemma in time for the Funeral. As I was leaving, my friend added, "Hang on! I think there is ONE old violin back in the cupboard....I will grab it." Out came the tell-tale student issue case, complete with dust and broken zipper. Out came the violin, Tapes all over the neck, and sad plastic everywhere. Then- the best part- the bow. Hair was dangling off as my friend wielded it and joined me in looking dismally at our prospects of bringing any musical life to such a poor imitation of an instrument. "It's been here in the cupboard for a few years I think- but have a little go! It just might still "play" " (he offered this last as an almost apologetic consolation). I felt I must at least try. After all, this may be my only chance at anything resembling a violin for the special day.
I drew the bow across the rusty strings, and somehow managed a very tinny rendition of "Meditation from Thais". I grimaced and went to return the violin, knowing it was not possible. Having no violin was better than playing THIS one. I looked up, and my friend was.....well, there were a few tears streaming down his gentle face. "Was it THAT bad?" "Oh, NO- it is only, well, you see, I have never actually heard a violin played in my life before- and especially not live like that, and it is so, so, MOVING! It is beautiful! We cannot let you play that terrible one for the funeral, we have to find a way of getting you another violin, There must be SOME way. I will make it my mission now to help you in every way I can."
I was so touched, so I started crying too. We were a mess, the two of us, but we both then remembered, simultaneously, that there was a poster I had passed on my walk to his shop. "Weston Super Mare Youth Orchestra Concert this Sunday", it had announced. "Quick! Let's go read it again!"
So, we ran out of the music shop, around the corner to the Town Hall, and re-read the poster. "Music Director/Conductor Dennis Cole". My friend nearly shouted in glee- "We will get back to the shop and you can use my internet, Let's Google Dennis Cole. Anything you want or need- I am here to help you solve this!" So- we got on his computer and Google came up with a number for Dennis Cole. I rang it. He answered. Out came my story- this version even longer, as I had to include my detour past the local music shop.
"I find this incredible", Dennis remarked. "You say you are from Cairns and you need a violin tomorrow?" "Yes, that's right." He searched for, and found my website as we spoke. There was a strange sensation as I could hear myself performing over the telephone as Dennis had my violin music streaming from my website as we continued. He was obviously checking me out. "I find this incredible on many counts, Leigh. Firstly, our daughter lives in Cairns, Australia, and she has been estranged from us for many years. Today she just arrived to visit us for the first time in 35 years, and we have just had afternoon tea together in the living room and you just called as we finished. I am overcome with emotion at the chances that your coming from Cairns was a "coincidence." Nothing in life is ever a "coincidence". Secondly- you are a great violinist, asking for loan of a violin. I just sold my violin last week to a top student as I am retiring this Sunday. The poster you saw is to be the final concert of my career. I am retiring after 50 years." "Congratulations!" , I exclaimed- "I am amazed at the "coincidences!" " "In fact", he asked me, " would you be available to conduct a masterclass for my Youth Orchestra this Saturday before their concert? They would benefit greatly from your expertise," "I am so sorry, but I am leaving for London on Saturday with Ric and Bob." "Did you say RIC and BOB? And was I correct in hearing that the Funeral tomorrow is for Lily HALSTEAD?" "Yes........." "Well- now I simple MUST help you, as I first conducted those two boys, Robert and Richard,Halstead, when they played cornet and trumpet in my Weston Youth Orchestra 50 years ago!!!!"
I was incredulous. My punk friend in the music shop was incredulous. Dennis continued: "I am about to give you a phone number. Please realize that I do not pass this out to anyone, but there is a terrific man in the village, Andrew Barrington, that collects violins, He is passionate about his collection, but also very private. In fact, he is the "violin secret" in this city! Here- give him a call, and say Dennis sent you, Please tell him you are a lovely lady violinist and a good friend of mine!"
By this time, my friend in the shop and I were hugging and squealing with delight and amazement. We were doing a little jig together of happiness. I rang Andrew- and the now-famous story had to have another chapter added to it as I relayed all the details up til now to Andrew. I heard my "Lark Ascending" serenade me again over the phone, as this time Andrew was giving me a phone "audition" and listening to my abilities over his computer before he made me any fast promises. I nervously held my breath! He was also amazed that the trail of intrigue lad this far to him! "Come right over, Leigh. Yes I will most certainly love to help you. Lily cannot be without a violin for her day, now, can she?"
I bid my farewells at the Music Shop, and met Ric and Bob. They saw I was empty-handed, and so resigned themselves that there would be no violin for Lily the next day. "No! Drive here- we are going on a violin mystery chase!" Off we went, up a road over a hill, around several bends and down a lane. We arrived at JPB Music, a quaint shop that was in a converted Coach House from several centuries ago. The plot thickened.
As we greeted Andrew, he led us through into the only kind of room I love more than the stage- a room filled with violins, Everywhere. Perhaps 500? 600? Heaven to me. "Go on- pick one! Anything you like." I chose. I played. I loved what I heard, It was like coming home in a violin sense. Since I felt I must, I then reluctantly put back the first selection, and started randomly choosing other violins and comparing. None touched the very first one I had picked (out of hundreds, remember). I was certain- the initial choice was THE violin to play at the Funeral.
The brothers came in from the next room and agreed. "There was one instrument that stood out from the rest- we are certain of it." So, the violin chosen, Andrew grinned and gave a knowing smile. "You have chosen well!" That is a French violin, about 120 years old." "Please- choose a bow." This I did, and after being presented with a bow case of 100s, also chose (luck? I think not) a bow that was also French, We got a case, and then went to settle up for the loan. Andrew would take nothing, he would not hear of it. "It is for Lily." "Enjoy."
Off we went. I was happy as a Lark.. That night, I played the violin at a sumptuous Italian restaurant La Cucina - and the charming beautiful waitress Asia Asia was immediately filled with emotion too at the music. The head chef even left his helm in the kitchen to pour himself a glass of red and attend my mini-recital! He was a large man, yet the tears were evident as he stood and bowed to me before he returned to his post.The violin and the story were touching everyone we met.
The next morning, we drove in quiet reflection to the Chapel for the Funeral.The music that Ric chose was ethereal and exquisite. The tears rushed forward as we all were overcome with the emotion and the moment and the celebration of a glorious life. It was my turn, and I rose, acknowledged the family and thanked them for inviting me to perform for Lily. Bob told me Lily's favorite music was the little tune, popular back in the day, "Daisy Daisy". Bob had requested, if possible, that I incorporate that tune somehow and play a cadenza. I opened my cadenza with the famous strains of the song, and then let my mind carry me across an improvised musical landscape, basing the themes on Daisy, and yet allowing the structure and form to take shape as it wished.
The violin was in her element. Rich, sonorous and strong-voiced. Even and pure of tone across the entire range of the instrument. Not too strident, not too gutteral. She was perfectly voiced. I fought back my own tears in order to play. As I finished, I turned, touched the coffin, and gave a curtsey of respect to a great woman.
Farewell Lily. I hope I honored you. I hope you loved the music from your beloved son Ric and this new woman you only ever met over the phone (until the three visits after we arrived here.) - the American with a "lovely laugh" as you liked to tell me, and you often thanked me for "giving my son a new meaning of love." "You make him so very happy. I can hear that every time he tells me about you. Thank you Leigh", you used to tell me.
Well, at this moment, I was just so filled with emotion but I was humble in her presence and so grateful that the violin had soared and allowed me to express that which words cannot. After the Service, we all celebrated Lily's glorious life once again at a terrific Bangladesh Restaurant,The New Viceroy restaurant. We were spoiled by the delicious cooking of owner and host Zak Rahman. He too, allowed me to perform on the violin in a little reprise of the cadenza. His guests were delighted, and we enjoyed the music and the company of friends old and new, and basked in love and life's ebbs and flows- the cycles of life had completed in another soul today. We relaxed as the afternoon continued. The heartfelt feelings of everyone were genuine as the story entertwined and was made longer each time by the addition of new characters and events in "The Violin Journey".
As the afternoon led into the evening, I became sad and reflective. I did not see how I would be able to let the violin go. How could I return the violin after all this? Plus, she was SUCH a violin. I was smitten. All the tell-tale signs were there. I was falling in love with that violin.
I literally did not sleep that night, I tossed and turned, and finally had to pace the empty house, Lily seemed to be somehow with me, saying goodbye to her family home of some 50 years. I felt comfort that she was releasing her space, and also somehow found comfort and strength and greeted the morning knowing that I could do it- I would be ok returning the violin to Andrew.
As we ate breakfast, and my calmness of happiness was restored, I was content with the world, feeling gratitude that I had had the extraordinary experience of finding and performing on a violin that had given not only me, but everyone she sounded out to, such great pleasure. At this moment, Bob called to me, "Leigh, come with me." We walked into his childhood bedroom, and he gave me a giant bear hug. (He is really good at those- being somewhat of the stature of a giant bear.) "Here is a gift for you." It was an envelope. Quite a fat envelope. Well- as it gradually dawned on me, I squealed and screamed! The violin would be mine! Could you all hear my joy around the world that moment? The neighbors certainly could!
And, in case you think my amazing tale ends there- it doesn't. just yet. Yes! There is more! We went back to see Andrew at JPB Music. I told him the good news. I was purchasing the violin! Remember his raised eyebrow and wry smile earlier? "Leigh- how did you do it? You managed that day, to select the very best violin in the whole shop. First pick. Now I am envious, as I will no longer be able to practice on that violin-my favourite- when I am here working in the shop !" It is amazing! That violin is the best! Well, dear readers- life has a wonderful way of unfolding, doesn't it?
"That" violin has now got a name. Meet Lily. She found me, I had really nothing to do with it. Lily is happy in my music room as I type, and in 5 minutes I will take my favourite journey: down the stairs to my beloved music room. And I will play Lily. Can you hear me yet? Oh yes- and thank you from the bottom of my heart, dear Bob (and Ric.) Your gift means the glory of your Mum lives on through the greatest power I know to transform- music.