Author/Musician Michaele Benedict: “Mystery with Strings”

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Mystery with Strings

A Short Story by Michaele Benedict



 Musical instruments have their own lives. Most of them outlast one generation, so they get passed down, passed along, get lost and found again, get put away in attics, get stolen, recovered, or offered at junk sales like the little violin which finally regained its voice recently in Montara.

            It was a rather battered orange-painted instrument missing some essential parts, so it was impossible to know what it might sound like. A friend whose daughter plays violin had found and bought it, thinking it would be a shame for an instrument, even a battered instrument, to wind up among garage sale cast-offs.

            Burned into the back of the violin were the words “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, School District.” “I telephoned them,” the rescuer said, “and asked if they wanted it back, but they said they hadn’t had a string program for years, so they had no use for the violin.”

            My cellist husband, who sometimes makes minor repairs on stringed instruments, heard about the discarded violin and asked if he could look it over for a while. Chipped varnish covered the maple and ebony. There were various scars and dings. But visible through the F-holes (the scrolled openings on the tops of stringed instruments) was a label which said “Antonio Curatoli, Mittenwald, Germany, 1928” and “Copy of Amati”.

            “This might be a pretty good German violin,” Charles speculated.

            I was curious about Antonio Curatoli and tried to research the mysterious luthier or instrument maker. The consensus among fiddle fanatics seemed to be that there may or may not have been an actual maker named Antonio Curatoli. He may have been a Neopolitan seller of violin strings who learned to make instruments. Or the name may more likely have been a trade name of the German violin company E. R. Schmidt, whose instruments were imported in the early 20th century by various companies including Sears. “Sort of like Betty Crocker,” Charles said.

            The Curatoli violins sold for about 25 dollars in the 1920s, but they are bringing two or three thousand in these days of scarce fine wood and carbon fiber substitutes. The Philadelphia violin was, of course, virtually worthless as it was.

            For several months, the violin sat in various places in our house, being scraped, sanded, and finally varnished with amber, a bit at a time. It perched, drying, on a kind of stand, where it was frequently examined (longingly, I thought) by the teenager whose father had found it.

            This young woman applied for and received a scholarship from the Coastside Community Orchestra with the hope of having the violin finished off by Charles’ luthier friend who made his lovely cello. The varnished violin, missing tailpiece, bridge and strings, went to San Francisco.

            The maker reshaped the fingerboard, replaced a missing peg and rebushed the other three, made a bridge and recalculated its placement according to the original specs. He put on strings and wrote up the bill for a third what the work was worth.

            Yesterday, the luthier returned the Curatoli in working condition, and as fate would have it (I love to say “as fate would have it”) the young violinist happened to be at the house at the time, taking a piano lesson. The luthier handed over the violin. Four of us waited breathlessly to see what the violin would sound like.

            First things first: She tuned it, she borrowed a bow, and she tucked it under her chin. Then she played the beginning of a Bach violin concerto. It was beautiful.


Michaele Benedict lives in the “artist community” of Montara. Her latest book is called “Searching for Anna.”

A Love Affair with Mozart: Story by Michaele Benedict

Story by Michaele Benedict

A Love Affair with Mozart

Mozart and I have been spending two or three hours together every day for the past two months. Sometimes I grumble at these meetings. I have been known to swear. But I have never failed to show up, and I am never bored. I love Mozart more now than I did when I knew him less intimately.
On Saturday, Feb. 7, I am supposed to play the solo part in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, Köchel 467, with the Coastside Community Orchestra in their winter concert at the Community Methodist Church in Half Moon Bay. My part is about 50 pages long and takes about 25 minutes to play if you don’t stop.
Although I have been getting paid for playing the piano since I was 13 and had my first church job, I have never played anything as long, as exposed, or as difficult as a Mozart piano concerto. I got the job when the orchestra decided it wanted to do a piano concerto and two likely soloists politely declined to perform without pay. I am the orchestra’s regular pianist; it is a volunteer orchestra, and if they ask me to play, I have to do it. Usually I enjoy it.
In this case, my confidence was not boosted by the reaction of two musician friends when I told them about the concerto. “What? WHAT?” one of them said. “Oh, dear!” another one said. That made me mad, so I practiced so long and so hard that I worked myself into a disastrous muscle spasm and had to go to the doctor.
You may know Mozart from the film “Amadeus”, which was a singular allegory about the nature of musical genius but which wasn’t very true to history. In February, 1785, when Concerto 21 was written, Mozart was married to the dippy Constanze, whom he adored, and had a year-old son, Karl Thomas, one of his two surviving children. He had presented six string quartets to Joseph Haydn, who considered Mozart the greatest composer he had ever known. He was short of money as always, though he lived well and had a special affection for gold buttons on his jackets. He was 29 years old and had only six more years to live.
As one studies a major work like the piano concerto, things begin to reveal themselves which are not obvious from listening to recordings, or even from playing through the work the first dozen times. My first realization, of course, was that when you are mad, scared, or unconfident, it is difficult if not impossible to play Mozart.
The second and happier realization was that this particular concerto is truly play…as in play the piano, not work the piano. The conversation between the orchestra and the solo instrument is so lighthearted and joyful that the player cannot help but join the party.
Lesson three: You cannot read music when you are crying. The slow movement of this piano concerto, which is sometimes called the “Elvira Madigan” because it was used in an old Swedish movie of that name, pulls at the heartstrings, and it does it every time. Fish up a performance of the Andante on YouTube or iTunes and see if it doesn’t get you.
The entire work is like a little opera, but to tell you more would be against the whole premise of classical music, where you get to create your own plot as you like. I can only say that Mozart, who could sometimes be coarse or unkind in his everyday life, is angelic in his music; in this, the film “Amadeus” was absolutely true.
Who could fail to love someone who saw and wrote so convincingly about a finer, brighter world than the one we live in? It is more than 200 years since Mozart walked the earth, but the power of his vision has remained undimmed. What a privilege to get to play one of his major works. I hope I don’t make too many mistakes.


Michaele Benedict lives in Montara.

Her most book is called “Searching for Anna,” for more information, please click here

Real Estate: Story by Montara Author Michaele Benedict

Real Estate

Story by Michaele Benedict

The Purisima board game we invented was probably a reaction to the landlord shuffle. When we first saw it, the modest little frame house on Purisima Creek Road had a sign saying “Maggie’s Farm” over the front door.
Of course, we all knew the Bob Dylan song of the same name.  “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
“Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them.”
We had jobs. The children went to school. Apart from this, the three families who lived at the farm on Purisima Creek Road were trying our best to be just like we were.  We weren’t really farmers, but we pretended we were, with our gardens, overalls, compost bins.  We invented our own fun, lacking anything ready-made. We wrote poetry, played the piano, painted pictures.
Before we moved to Purisima Canyon and while we still had television and  could watch Star Trek, we had invented a three-dimensional chess game (trying to duplicate the one on the TV show) which was so complicated that nobody could play it. We were used to entertaining ourselves.
The woods at the end of the road, now the 3,361-acre Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, was still wild and there were no houses about. We loved to walk to the end of the road and back, passing by the part of Purisima Creek where the bachelor flock of mallards hung out. We would quack back at the ducks, collect miner’s lettuce, admire the wild roses.
We rehearsed choral numbers together, shared produce, planted a garden, kept a joint journal about the motley flock of chickens. We made plum jam, plum wine, plum leather. The kids played gopher golf with a set of clubs they found at the dump (one day an archeologist may wonder why there are so many golf balls a foot or more beneath the earth surface.)
We cheerfully waded through the mud to get to the chicken coop and each other’s houses. We parked our rubber boots at the front door.
After we ran out of buckets and house plants to put under the leaks, we put a new roof on the house. When the tap water stopped, the fellows would hike up to the spring to clean out the leaves.
At first, we paid our modest rent checks to a bank, since the farm was in probate.
Then the Evil Landlord bought the 350 acres with its tumble-down shacks, barns, and pens and immediately raised the rent. He appointed a deputy who told us to remove our stored items from what had been a millhouse and informed us that we would have to move pretty soon.
Work began on converting all the farm buildings into rental units. We laughed about it until we realized that we were ourselves standing between the Evil Landlord and a neat profit which he planned to realize from preserving the rooflines of derelict buildings and making them into houses.
“Why do they call it real estate when it’s so unreal?” I asked a friend.
“It’s a feudal concept,” he said. “It means ‘royal’ estate, from the days when all land was considered the property of the king.”
We invented a board game called Purisima, based, of course, on Monopoly. We drew and painted a kind of loop which included the next canyon over, and we played with a huge wad of toy money and a pair of dice. When we moved from Purisima Creek Road, we gave the game to somebody who would be staying there. Playing the game, we had the illusion of control over make-believe real estate. We shrewdly parlayed our fake money into pretend real properties, hoping  to accumulate homes, farms, and lots of animals.
About the only thing I remember about the game is that it had, in addition to Christmas tree fields, meadows, houses, coops and sheds, a plastic rooster which allowed a player to collect more rent. A neighbor called R. Gaines had a plastic rooster in his front yard, much admired by our family. The few houses which were on the road in 1972 were all represented on the Purisima board: There was Bud’s place, Stan’s place, Nancy’s place. Instead of going to Jail, if you lost all your Purisima money and your house, you could go to the Hippie Commune.
It is, of course, very different out at the canyon now. There is the beautiful Open Space Preserve. There is the Elkus Ranch, donated by the Elkus family to the University of California in 1975 and now used as an environmental education center. There are lots of big houses and mown meadows. The buildings near where we used to live are all freshly painted.  The present owner has a gated entrance, but she has replaced the mossy old grapestake fence with new weathered grapestake and has extended it all around the fields near the barn, which I think was tasteful.
We all grew up to have our own real estate, all with sound roofs on the houses. Many of us are still in touch with each other. I wrote some of the others and asked if they remembered the Purisima Game, but nobody else recalled it.


Michaele Benedict’s most recent book is called Searching for Anna