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Feather's Miscellany: Buskers

John Waddington-Feather tells the inspirational story of a young musician from Manila – a story which reminds us that we should be prepared to pause and listen.

Time and chance happens to us all. Consider marriage. Those of us happily married probably met our wives-to-be quite by chance: at a party, out clubbing or at a friend’s house. Two people walking different ways in life suddenly meet, then bingo, the chemistry of love gets to work and before they know where they are, they’re wed.

The same holds for the world of business. In my native county of Yorkshire, two young clerks left school and found themselves working alongside each other in the same office of a textile mill. One was a Jew called Marks, the other a Gentile called Spencer. They got on very well together and the chemistry of commerce started to work. In time, they left the mill and set up business together launching a Penny Bazaar in Leeds. From their partnership Marks and Spencers, the international chain-store was born; and from it the city and the entire textile area round it benefitted as the two men began marketing ready-made clothes on a large scale.

In the world of science, too, there are many examples of men and women working as partners through chance meetings to advance scientific knowledge. Consider the Curies, the French-Polish man and wife team who opened new realms of understanding radio-activity, after meeting by chance at the Sorbonne. Marie had left her native Poland to study Physics there and fell in love her professor. The rest is history. The most disparate people have come together to make the world a better place and this is the story of two such people in the world of music.

Doddie Alberto was born in the Philippines, in the slums of Manila. He was brought up in a graveyard, where the poorest of the poor made their homes living in the tombs of the wealthy. He was one of eleven children and his parents worked hard to bring up their family and give them education, for they realised only the ignorant remain poor. Doddie was the most gifted of their children and won a scholarship to a good school where he did well, and as he grew up, his teachers realised he had great musical potential. Somehow, money was raised to send Doddie in his teens to a music college where he excelled at cello-playing. He was a gifted player and practised hard on his instrument, but, alas, though he played well as a poorly paid professional in the city Metro Manilla Orchestra, there was no way he could advance his career in the Philippines and he knew he would have to leave one day.

That day came sooner than he expected. As Doddie entered his twenties the political unrest and violence unsettled him and his friends. Opportunities for well paid work became fewer and Doddie needed to help his struggling family as well as himself. The opportunities were all abroad, so Doddie decided to leave and try his luck in Britain, where there was a dire shortage of hospital staff. There Doddie trained as a nurse; working at the hospital by day and practising his beloved cello each night. He also joined a local orchestra in the part of London where he lived and was an immediate success there.

He worked hard as a nurse and was popular with fellow workers and patients alike, but he never stopped dreaming of the day he could earn his living playing the cello. Indeed, on his days off he went busking to earn extra cash in the London Underground, having a pitch not far from where he lodged near the exit of Paddington Station. There, he earned enough money busking to pay for more advanced cello lessons with a good teacher, which his wage as a nurse wouldn’t run to – and he continued to dream of the day when he could give all his time to music and the cello.

And now to the man who came into Doddie’s life and was to change it – change both their lives. Leon Gregetskyi also came from a family which had emigrated to Britain years before, as refugees from Stalinist Russia. His grandparents had arrived penniless in a small northern mill-town, Keighworth, working hard in the mills until they’d saved enough capital to start up their own small mill.

In the years after the war, industry boomed and by the time Leon was born, the family was rich and as Leon grew up he, like Doddie, showed great talent for music and was sent to a good music school, from which he entered and graduated from the Royal School of Music in London, excelling in violin-playing. From there he went to Yehudi Menhuin’s academy for gifted violin players. Then he joined a leading London orchestra, but before long he carved out a career as a renowned virtuoso, playing solo pieces with leading orchestras, packing the Albert Hall when he played at the Proms and giving performances throughout the world.

Then it happened. What began as a joke, a dare from one of his friends ended with the formation of one of the most famous string quartets of the time, the Gregetskyi String Quartet. It started when Leon was dared by Vladimir Orlov, a close friend and fellow violinist, to go busking in London, just to see what impression they made on the public at large.

So, one mid-week morning they dressed shabbily and took their place quite by chance on Doddie’s pitch in Paddington Underground Station. They played only classical pieces by Bach and Vivaldi, played their hearts out, but the crowds of commuters ignored them and hurried by without a second glance.

After a while, a City gent in a bowler hat and carrying a rolled umbrella paused, looked hard at the pair before tossing a coin into their collecting box and hurrying off. They nodded gratefully at him and continued playing, still ignored by those passing by.

Eventually, a middle-aged, well dressed woman stopped and made some comment about their playing being ‘nice’. She hoped they’d have a good day and tossed a coin in their box before scooting away to catch her train. Minutes later a young man with long hair also paused a moment and listened appreciatively. He told them they were good and ought to join an orchestra, put a pound in their box and walked away. Then a down-and-out stopped, but after a swig at his wine bottle walked off unsteadily belching loudly. And the crowds walked by uncaring and unhearing all the time they played.

After a while, they stopped for a breather and looked in their box. There was just £3 in it. “Not bad for starters,” quipped Leon, and after a drink of warm tea from a flask, they began playing once more, and once more they were ignored by the press of people passing by.

To say they were disheartened would be an understatement. They were dismayed at the philistine hordes milling by and decided to pack up; but just as they were about to leave, Doddie Alberto turned up with his cello. He was surprised to see them but Leon explained they were leaving and hoped he didn’t mind their playing on his pitch. Then he handed him the £3 from their box – making it up to a tenner with his own cash.

The violinists packed away their instruments and were about to leave, when out of curiosity Vladimir suggested they stay a while and listen to Doddie; see how he fared with the commuters. When he’d tuned his instrument he began playing – and how Doddie played! A whole repertoire from popular music, jazz, rock, to the classics and as he played he was utterly absorbed, his eyes closed and his body completely at one with his cello. He was so absorbed in his playing, he didn’t notice the little crowd of listeners who began to gather about him, nor the shower of coins dropping into his box.

The violinists stood by captivated, more and more impressed as Doddie played on. At length, when he stopped playing, the crowd about him applauded and the irony of their applause wasn’t lost on Leon and Vladimir. The unknown cellist had outplayed the two world-renowned virtuosos and filled his collecting box in the process.

They joined in the applause and as Doddie began packing away his cello, they invited him to Leon’s apartment where he was to hold an important meeting the next week. The outcome of that meeting was the formation of a new group, the Gregetskyi String Quartet in which Doddie played the cello. More than that, he was offered a place in a national orchestra and, like Leon before him, soon began carving out a career for himself as a soloist, becoming in time the world-famous cello player we know today.

If there are any morals to be drawn from this tale one must be that if people are too busy to stop and listen to beautiful music being played about them, how much more of life’s beauty goes unseen and unheard by them? And if there is another moral, it is that chance uncovers talent in the least expected places – and from that we can all take heart.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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