They expected the piano tuner would have arrived already. He wasn’t very late - maybe by five minutes. But as the piano was badly out of tune, they had anxiously awaited his arrival so that Ashton could resume practicing for the competition. They had chosen this hotel in Moscow because it had a grand piano in a modest suite of rooms. With the International Tchaikovsky Competition only three days away, Ashton needed a well tuned piano to practice on.
There was a knock on the door. “He’s here,” said Margo. “Come in. Come in,” she said as she held the door open. “The piano is there, at the end of the hall.”
The piano tuner nodded and made his way down the hall, glancing briefly at Ashton who was busy studying the score. The tuner sat on the bench next to his bag of tools: mutes, fork, tuning wrench, temperament strip. After studying the keyboard for several seconds, he attacked the keys forcefully, aggressively, loudly pounding them to get a sense of where the strings had drifted out of tune.
“My God!” shouted Ashton. The piano tuner ignored him. This was the only way to properly tune a fine piano, and he continued to compare keys of different octaves, play chords to check the harmonics, and test the action of individual keys. To Ashton and Margo it was ear splitting noise.
“When will this be finished?” shouted Ashton over the cacophony of notes as they were being nudged upwards and downwards. But no answer was forthcoming, as the piano tuner was a proud local man who gave no heed to temperamental foreigners.
Ashton had come here with his coach Margo to compete in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. He was an exceptionally gifted pianist, and he expected to repeat the victory of Van Cliburn and bring the first place prize back to American soil. Modesty was not one of Ashton’s virtues.
The piano tuner continued plying his craft, tightening strings to bring them into tune and adjusting the action of the keys. He checked the pedals and the soundboard. He adjusted the tuning pins and cleaned the hammers from years of accumulated dust, and even tightened the lag nuts of the piano legs to steady the instrument. This of course was taking a considerable amount of time, and Ashton was becoming very agitated.
“Will this take much longer?” asked Margo. She pointed to her watch.
“Nyet, I have finished,” answered the piano tuner. With this, he packed up his tools, slightly bowed to Margo and Ashton and took his leave. The piano was in perfect tune now, ready for Ashton to practice Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
For the next three days, Ashton rehearsed his performance piece almost non-stop. He took his meals at the piano and slept barely five hours a night. Margo occasionally allowed reporters to interview Ashton, but the questions annoyed him. One reporter asked why he thought he was as good as Vladimir Ashkenazy, the Russian who won the competition in 1962. Eventually, Margo put an end to the interviews.
The two ordered a full breakfast from room service on the morning of the competition. Margo seemed to be more nervous than Ashton, pacing around the suite of rooms and double checking the sheet music while making sure the tuxedo was ready for her to bring to the hall. She barely ate anything. He, on the other hand, was relaxed and filled with confidence, and he ate heartily.
The competition’s schedule had Ashton performing on Wednesday at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, but not wanting to arrive at the hall too early he went to Gorky Park to walk among the tulips and hyacinths that bordered the paths. Margo stayed behind in the hotel, as Ashton had wanted. He required time alone before a performance to settle his thoughts.
Sitting on a bench, he stared at a looming statue of a man with a thick mustache, holding a hat by his side and leaning on a cane. He tried but couldn’t read the inscription, for it was in Russian and written in Cyrillic.
“Maxim Gorky,” said a voice with a Russian accent. Ashton turned to his side to see who was speaking. “One of Russia’s great authors. A national treasure.”
Ashton was taken aback. “My oh my!” he exclaimed. “You’re the piano tuner.”
“Indeed I am,” returned the man. He was pulling a cigarette from a pack of Ziganov, offering one to Ashton as he sat on the bench.
“No. No thank you.”
“Boskerov. Dmitry Boskerov.” He offered his hand. Ashton introduced himself as they shook.
After a brief description of Gorky’s writing, they walked throughout the park discussing at length the music they loved to perform. Dmitry was particularly fond of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. “These melodies are alive, the passages are full of wonderment.” He was also quite familiar with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody, which the two discussed at length.
So after a while Ashton accepted Dmitry’s suggestion that they go to a café a short distance from the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, where Ashton would be performing later in the day.
“Come,” said Dmitry. “I’ll show you the metro. Such a wonderful example of Soviet over achievement.” And with this newfound camaraderie based on their shared love of the piano, Ashton and Dmitry entered the Moscow metro on their way to the café.
Having gone to the concert hall two hours before Ashton was to perform, Margo had been busy making sure that everything was in order. Later she began checking the time, wondering when Ashton would arrive. There was still thirty-five minutes until he was to play, but she didn’t like to cut it so close. As the minutes went by, Margo began to worry that something was very wrong, but kept telling herself that Ashton would show up in time.
The orchestra musicians took their seats and began tuning up. The contest judges, all accomplished musicians, were already at their posts, while the recording technicians were finishing the sound check. Margo, in the dressing room with tuxedo in hand, was frantically watching for Ashton. Now she was very worried.
Ashton had remained with the piano tuner at the café far longer than he anticipated. The two musicians were deeply involved in discussions about their musical careers, the concerts they performed and the conductors who added so much beauty to the world’s collective culture. They politely argued over technique, but agreed on form. The mention of several composers’ names brought animated reactions from them both.
“You are aware,” said Dmitry, “that Rachmaninoff suffered from stage fright, especially when it came to playing the 24th Variation of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”
“Yes, I do know that,” said Ashton. “His fear nearly ended his performance of the piece. I have to admit, the glissando is very challenging.”
“And that to help calm his nerves,” continued the piano tuner, “he would sip a glass of crème de menthe, even as he was performing.”
“That seems to be a very well known anecdote,” Ashton replied. “Everyone finds their crutch, I suppose.”
“Garçon! Two glasses of crème de menthe, please,” ordered Dmitry.
Ashton protested. He had never had a drink before performing, and in fact doesn’t often drink. But Dmitry reasoned that if the great composer himself relied on a simple glass of crème de menthe to perform the Rhapsody, it should also be of benefit to Ashton. Eventually, Ashton was persuaded to agree to a sip or two.
Dmitry paid the waiter, and passed a glass to Ashton.
As night follows day, a sip of alcohol is followed by a second. And then a third. After more discussions about all things musical, Dmitry ordered another round. This time Ashton refused, even though he had been deeply immersed in their conversation.
“Look at the time!” Ashton said with alarm. He had only a few minutes before he was to perform his piece. He and Dmitry shook hands and Ashton flew out the door, quickly walking to the concert hall.
“No time to explain yourself,” cried Margo as Ashton ran into the dressing room. “Here’s your tux. Quickly! You’re on now.” The smell of liquor on his breath and his glassy eyes alerted her that he had been drinking. “How could he?” she thought.
Ashton knew he did not play the Rhapsody as well as he had before. He considered it to be among his more troubling performances. He played the 24th Variation with several mistakes, including the glissando sweep of the keyboard that he didn’t even complete. He didn’t notice, as unfortunately the judges had, that he was often a beat ahead of the orchestra. Nor did he realize that his pianissimo was always played molto forte. Or that his andante was more of an allegro. Later, Margo let him know of his poor performance in no uncertain terms, and chastised him for being soused “on this of all days!”
Now the waiting began, filled with tension. Margo couldn’t bring herself to talk to him about his inebriation. She remained isolated in her room, thinking she should leave Moscow without him. There were three more contestants over two more days before the winners were announced. Two long and suspenseful days for Ashton to sit in the hotel suite agonizing over how he should have performed differently, how the alcohol had affected his playing. Yet his ego allowed him to maintain that his performance was worthy of first place - that he was yet the greatest living pianist in this moment.
On the evening that the results of the competition were announced, Ashton attended the ceremony alone as Margo had left Moscow a day earlier. He listened anxiously as the names of the top five winners were read.
Fifth place was announced and a ribbon and plaque were presented to the winner, then fourth place, third place, second…
The announcer then paused and solemnly introduced the competition’s first place winner. “The jury is pleased and honored to announce that the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition”, and here he paused again for a dramatic moment, “is the Russian pianist -”
Time stood still for an instant for Ashton. The Russian pianist! The Russian pianist!!! In the space of one second he grew cold and sweaty. In the space of one second, he saw his life slip away. For it was at the end of that one second of frozen time when the earth stopped revolving around the sun and everything that can be seen came to a sudden halt, it was then that Ashton came to realize the bitter betrayal that befell him at the hands of a conniving rival.
It was then that he learned the first place winner of the competition… It was Dmitry Boskerov.
The piano tuner.