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'The Violin Conspiracy' shows what it can be like to play classical music while Black

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Brendan Slocumb remembers that moment that classical music just clicked for him.

BRENDAN SLOCUMB: The first piece of classical music that I heard was Mozart's "Symphony No. 40."

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA DA CAMERA FIORENTINA PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 40 IN G MINOR 550: I. MOLTO ALLEGRO")

SLOCUMB: My music teacher, Miss Holmes (ph) when I was in third grade - she said, you can always tell it's Mozart by this little song. (Singing) It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a Mozart.

And for some reason, that just stuck with me, and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRA DA CAMERA FIORENTINA PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 40 IN G MINOR 550: I. MOLTO ALLEGRO")

SLOCUMB: I was like, what is going on? What kind of music is this? This is totally new. And I just - I fell in love with it that day.

KHALID: The next piece he fell for was Dvorak's "String Quartet No. 12," known as the "American Quartet."

(SOUNDBITE OF JERUSALEM STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 12 IN F MAJOR, OP. 96: I. ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO")

SLOCUMB: I said, one day I'm going to play that. You know, I hardly knew how to hold my violin at that point when I heard it. But absolutely I - that was a goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERUSALEM STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF DVORAK'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 12 IN F MAJOR, OP. 96: I. ALLEGRO MA NON TROPPO")

KHALID: Today Brendan Slocumb has made a career out of playing and teaching the violin - kind of like the protagonist of his new novel, Ray McMillan, who is about to perform in the International Tchaikovsky Competition when his precious Stradivarius violin is stolen. But as a Black man in classical music, a missing instrument is not Ray's only problem.

The book is called "The Violin Conspiracy," and I asked author Brendan Slocumb how much of his own life is reflected in Ray's character.

SLOCUMB: A lot of what Ray experiences are my own experiences, some of it modified. But for the most part, it's basically the story of my life, minus the Tchaikovsky Competition.

KHALID: So you did not compete in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

SLOCUMB: Oh, no, no, no, no. Actually, had someone gotten a hold of me when I was seven or eight years old, I probably would have been able to be at that level. But unfortunately, that didn't happen. The scene where Ray is performing in front of a convocation of his college classmates and he completely bombs a piece, the Kabalevsky violin concerto...

(SOUNDBITE OF RUSSIAN NATIONAL ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF KABALEVSKY'S "CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN AND ORCHESTRA IN C MAJOR, OP.48 - 1. ALLEGRO MOLTO E CON BRIO")

SLOCUMB: Totally bombs it. And he wants to quit, and he wants to give up. That was me. And then the comeback he had - after a great lesson with his teacher, he came and played "Csardas" by Monti.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA CERNAT AND THIERRY HULLIET PERFORMANCE OF MONTI'S "CSARDAS")

SLOCUMB: And it just blew everybody away. That was totally me. That was what...

KHALID: That was you.

SLOCUMB: That was me. And I was like, oh, yeah. This is going in the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA CERNAT AND THIERRY HULLIET PERFORMANCE OF MONTI'S "CSARDAS")

KHALID: So, for example, though, there are some scenes that are really tough, I think, to just deal with for young Ray. I mean, there's a scene that I remember. He's - it's the first wedding that he's played at. And the white father of the bride, you know, not only doubts his ability to execute classical music but also tries to kick him out of the venue. Where's that from? Did that happen to you?

SLOCUMB: A modified version of that actually happened. The quartet that I was playing in - we were playing at a wedding. And the father of the bride was not very happy to see certain members of my quartet. And just the look in his eyes - it was - I mean, it was something I will never forget. I had never seen pure hatred before until that day.

KHALID: So, Brendan, let's talk about the book. You know, Ray, in your story, faces a lot of pressure from his own family to quit playing the violin. His mom would prefer that he work at Popeye's, where he could, you know, get a steady paycheck. And it seems like you're commenting a bit throughout the book on privilege and who gets to make a career out of music. Talk to us about that.

SLOCUMB: Well, in classical music - it's a really sad statistic, but 1.8% of classical musicians are Black. And that number to me is staggering. And I don't understand why, being a Black classical musician. You know, it's certainly not because we are incapable. You know, I've played in major symphony orchestras. I've played under, you know, famous conductors, and, you know, I can do the repertoire. And it never made sense to me why we were not included in these, you know, major symphonies and everything.

And as I'm looking - OK, well, the last concert I played in, there were not very many Black faces on the stage, nor were there very many Black faces in the audience. And what struck me was, why is that?

I think it's probably because we just have this - people have this impression that it's not for you. And they just steer you away from it. They think that they're doing you a favor by steering you towards something that they think that you'll like. You should be playing jazz. You know, you should be listening to this type of music. This is not for you. You probably won't do well. You probably won't like this. And that's something that really needs to change. And I really wanted to bring awareness to people that - you know, we, Black musicians, are just like everyone else.

KHALID: So in the novel, it seems like it's not just the pressure of white or Black people who are threatening Ray's career. He is at one point sued by his own family while he is also facing a legal claim from the descendants of the slave owners who owned his ancestors, who say the violin is actually rightfully theirs. Am I right in noticing that Ray seems to be being hit pretty much from every direction?

SLOCUMB: Every direction you can name, Ray gets hit. He does. And that's part of what I really wanted to write in his character - was his resilience. And, you know, he got that resilience. It didn't come overnight. He actually had to work very hard, and he fortunately had a few people in his life that were really, really encouraging to him.

The main person that Ray looked up to was his grandma Nora. And she just - the woman was - she's actually modeled after my own grandma Nora - just the sweetest woman you've ever seen in your life. And she loves him to death, and he loves her. And she has nothing to say but encouraging words for him. She believes in him because she sees that he doesn't quite believe in himself. So she actually does believe in him, and she gives him confidence.

KHALID: Yeah.

SLOCUMB: And she gives him the...

KHALID: I mean, she gave him this violin, right?

SLOCUMB: Absolutely. I think in Grandma Nora's head, she knew what she was doing. She knew that she was setting him up for success.

KHALID: So I don't want to give away who actually stole the violin. But I did notice you're already working on a second book, which struck me because, I mean, you are a musician. You know, you've performed. You've taught for decades. So what got you to start writing fiction? I don't know if I'd call it a career change, but, like, it does feel like a bit of a career pivot, right?

SLOCUMB: I think it's fair to say that it's a career change. I mean, I'm still teaching. But it's definitely something new for me, and I'm really enjoying it. The summer of 2020 basically did it. You know, when you're stuck inside...

KHALID: Pandemic.

SLOCUMB: ...All day, all day long, all day long and...

KHALID: Yeah.

SLOCUMB: It's either write or eat. And I decided, yeah, I'm getting fat, so I should probably try my hand at writing. I tried writing something. I sent it off. And the agency that I sent it to - of course, it was rejected.

But the agent said, you know what? You've got a pretty good voice. You should try writing something that you know about. I was like, all right, so I know music. Why not write my own story?

KHALID: That's Brendan Slocumb, author of "The Violin Conspiracy." Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

SLOCUMB: My pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL MAURIAT PERFORMANCE OF MONTI'S "CZARDAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Gus Contreras