Thursday, March 3, 2011

The (other) Soloist

Last May, The Volunteer Ministry Center hosted a luncheon featuring Steve Lopez, author of the 2008 best-selling book The Soloist. The luncheon was a fundraiser for the VMC and also featured performances by the cellists of the Knoxville Symphony orchestra. The Soloist, as you may know, is the story of the struggles of a homeless classical musician who catches the eye of LA Times reporter Steve Lopez. It was made into a movie, released in 2009, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers, the Juilliard drop-out who has become homeless.

The book has been on my list for a while, but after the luncheon I felt I had become very knowledgeable on the book’s main points, so colorful and descriptive were Mr. Lopez’s anecdotes. I was surprised to learn of the subject of the book since I had become acquainted with another book by the same title written by Mark Salzman, published and nominated for a Pulitzer in 1994. Although the cello also figures prominently in Salzman’s book, music is not the main focus. The novel centers around Renne Sundheimer, a former cello prodigy who is now professor of cello at a University in southern California. While “legal thriller” is too dramatic a term for this novel, it is an intriguing fictional tale of Sundheimer’s experiences with jury duty in the trial of a Zen master’s bizarre murder. There is a love interest with a fellow juror, although Sundheimer’s character is laughably self-conscious when push comes to shove.

Some interesting parallels exist between Lopez’s protagonist and Salzman’s. Both are child prodigies who, for whatever reason, have shunned (due to mental breakdowns of differing types) the obvious career paths to which they have been affianced. Experiences in their late teens alter their respective world views. Sundheimer, having risen perhaps too quickly to stardom as a solo cellist, has found his way despite meeting, at age 18, an artistic roadblock that renders him unable to play in tune. A major boost comes for him when he accepts as a student a 9-year-old Korean boy who shows a great deal of promise and reminds him of himself. Ayers has no trouble whatsoever playing either the violin or the cello in tune, but it is his inability to be in tune with his surroundings, which surfaced while an undergrad at Juilliard, that makes his character so tragic.

Mark Salzman’s The Soloist is laced with many spiritual insights into the world of classical music, particularly the solo cello, while weaving an absorbing tale of an experience in the realm of due process.

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