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Exclusive: How a road accident on Fleet Street yielded a new power duet

The last time Gabriela Montero passed through London, a couple of weeks back, she told me she was writing a world premiere for herself and the violinist Ruth Palmer. Knowing Ruth slightly as a shy young English start-up, I wondered how the connection came about. ‘Sam’s brother knocked her down in Fleet Street,’ said Gabi. Sam is an Irish singer, the love of Gabi’s life. Since no newspapers are left in Fleet Street, I asked him to tell us exactly what happened.


the birth of a new composition

By Sam McElroy

What do you get when you cross a Cambridge oarsman and a Brit Award-winning violinist? I am not referring to any biological cross-pollination, but something a little more mundane – a road accident on Fleet Street. The answer, six years on, is a world premiere of a composition for piano and violin by the Venezuelan pianist and composer, Gabriela Montero. My girlfriend. My partner. My undefinable, at our age.

Rewind. Our Cambridge oarsman is my younger brother. Six years ago he was revving his lethal 125cc Vespa through Rupert Murdoch’s back yard, like the adrenalin-seeking hooligan that he is: elite rower, former soldier, swimmer of the Gibraltar Straits as well as the Hellespont and Alcatraz to San Francisco – the latter in 35 minutes, so Clint Eastwood definitely made it – analyst at a major US due diligence firm. You get the kind of man we are dealing with here.

While slaloming recklessly through the rulebook, he hadn’t bargained for the waifish figure of Ruth Palmer, one of Britain’s finest young violinists, emerging phantom-like from between the confusing cluster of red buses and black cabs. Before he knew it, she was in an involuntary quadruple axel and hurtling towards the bitumen. Given that a gust of wind would probably have landed her in the Thames, I think he was surprised she did not splinter into a million morsels. Ruthless!

Miraculously, the only injured party was my brother’s pride. What self-respecting commando loses control of a Vespa? Later that day, I received word of the little mishap on Fleet Street by email, thus:

“Hit this girl today on my moped. She has promised not to sue me if I come to her next recital, at Wigmore Hall.

My curiosity tweaked, as yours should be, I immediately clicked on the link, and emerged on the other side of the wormhole in a world of Bach, Shostakovich and the Ballet Rambert. Jesus! He could have hit someone a little less talented, someone a little more boring, someone whose phalanges were not quite so essential to the human race! He could have struck a News of the World journalist!

He never did go to that recital. Idiot! And we never heard much about Ruth Palmer again. Yet, the story stayed with me. A seed grew, until a rustling of ideas could be heard in the deeper recesses of my optimism. Could this become a real story? A movie? I had long been planning to write a grand old story about the necessity of music in the lives of the spoiled and materialistic Wall Street type, and the necessity of Wall Street in the spoiled and aesthetic lives of the musical type. Now, more than ever! Had I stumbled upon my plot-line? Had my brother screeched into it? Could this be the collision I was looking for? White-collar hits violinist. She hates him. He wins her over. Somehow. Yes!

That’s all you’re getting.

I contacted Ruth Palmer nearly two years ago, out of the blue. I wanted her side of the story. I wanted to meet her, hear her talk, fertilize my growing ambition as a screenwriter. I threw out an e-feeler:

“Err, my brother ran into you on a moped a while ago. I want to make it into a movie. Do you mind? Can we meet?”

By this time I had experienced a stumbling coincidence of my own. While taking a lengthy surfing sabbatical in Los Angeles, I had been invited to the Hollywood Bowl to hear Gabriela Montero, the wonderful Venezuelan pianist, improviser and composer (yes, she really IS all three!), with her compatriot Gustavo Dudamel and his wee band, the LA Philharmonic. Gershwin.

The day after the concert, I stole into the Starbucks on Melrose Avenue to take advantage of their excellent Wifi and lousy coffee, when, of all the coffee joints in all the towns in all the world, Gabriela Montero walks into mine! We have been together ever since. The girl I watched on the telly from a farm in Northern England, freezing at the piano in her black, fingerless gloves as the first black president was sworn in, now shares her laundry basket with me. How did that happen? How does any of it happen?

By the time I contacted the London-based Ruth, Gabriela and I were living together sinfully in Lexington, Massachusetts – that was auto-corrected, I still can’t spell it. To add disbelief to the unbelievable, Ruth was about to visit the US and a first cousin once removed. In Lexington, Mass-a-chu-setts! I have renewed my vows as a coincidentalist, but remain an atheist.

Ruth came to dinner, friendships were made and plots hatched. Ruth was forced to abort her first attempt at a Rockefeller recital last spring, due to the monumentally exhausting US visa process, but by the second time of asking she had all her ducks in a row. In the interim, Gabriela had whipped up a gem of a seven-minute piece for the two of them, following last year’s success with her piano and orchestra epic, “ExPatria”. She struggled longer and harder for the title this time around: “A Piece for Ruth.” In fairness, she didn’t need all those extra months to compose it, giving birth to it between two rounds of Scrabble. She’s quick. Very quick. Take note, commissioners! She also uses the dictionary in Scrabble, by the way, under the table. How else would she get “Xi”? Our sole cause for domestic wind sheer.

On Friday December 7th at Noon, in the Caspary Auditorium of New York’s Rockefeller University, “A Piece for Ruth” will become a piece for all of us. As I swiftly forge this little account of its inception, I hear the two of them busily chiseling away at it upstairs in the music room, the finest figurine emerging, a precious accident of poor moped etiquette from an officer and a gentleman – my dear brother, unwitting spinner of fates.

You’ll have to wait for the movie. Two-thirds down.

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  1. I hope the miscreant brother shows up tomorrow! BTW, this guy McElroy writes well. If his screenplay matches the insouciance shown in this missive, it should be a hit.

  2. It's That Steve Again (ITSA) says:

    Oh yer, I heard about that brother. He’s the guy who keeps showing up at football matches on his Vespa, honing around the football field, buggering up the paddocks just as they’re about to kick off, and terrifying the football fans, who displace their fear via riot and mayhem.

    My friend Karla would love Gabriela. She’d be inspired by her piano and ability to play impromptu pieces such as this:

    Karla would also be keen to play Scrabble with her. Karla has a bit of a habit of coming up with seven letter words. I think her German background has something to do with the ease with which she does this in her second language of English, as she says in German it is not uncommon to join words to describe something, resulting in some long words.

    At the other end of the word-length spectrum, one of my favourite science magazines is published by Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Society ( Their bi-monthly publication is called ‘American Scientist’, and contains excellent, readable, referenced articles, along with regular columns which are often very informative. Their publication is of course not to be confused with another of my favourites, the monthly ‘Scientific American’ magazine, which more people are aware of.

    I wish Sam, Gabriela and Ruth well in their ventures. Few things are as captivating as a well played violin. I found this clip interesting, regarding what start-up artists are up against: namely commodification of musical instruments which have their real value in the sound they produce, but which, in a typical positive feedback cycle, spiral increasingly upwards and out of reach of those who could demonstrate that true value. Paradoxical perhaps.

    Maybe the screenplay could have alternative beginnings: a sort of reverse of that neat film ‘Run Lola Run’. Here, you might have an absurd scene with say, The Piano Guys playing in the middle of a football field prior to a match. This fellow hoons onto the field on his high-powered Vespa, resulting in mayhem and the abandonment of the match. The moped rider then races off to escape the crowd who are baying for his blood. Along the way, he enters this intersection see, where there’s this violinist giving a recital on a roundabout. Also on this roundabout is a point-duty policeman, who is so captivated by the violinist’s playing, that not only has he not the slightest thought of moving her on, he is paying no attention to the traffic, which has come to a standstill.

    Enter a hoon on a Vespa, who rumbles onto the roundabout, bowling over the violinist and upsetting the policeman: but crucially setting the scene for an eventual collaboration between The Piano Guys (who would have some neat ideas of how to pull all this off, and would probably delight in collaborating), an inspiring pianist, and this violinist, who perform in a retake of the abandoned football match.

    Oh well, just a thought…

  3. Hi, Sam, enjoyed your piece enormously. You may remember we met when Gabriela and you came to Costa Rica a few months back. Looking forward to Gabriela’s concert with our National Symphony Orchestra in the coming season, hope you’ll be along to continue the pleasant chat we had! All the best to you and Gabriela.

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