Thursday, December 30, 2010

At Carnegie Hall (Ch.14 Pt.2)

I'll always remember Erick Friedman's appearance at Carnegie Hall back in 1976. He performed three concertos in one evening with conductor Izler Solomon and the American Symphony Orchestra. I sat in parquet level sandwiched between my parents. We had spent the better part of the day in the car driving from Boston. My father planned his strategy of announcing my departure from Mr. Friedman's studio with cunning finesse. "Here's what I'm gonna tell him, Frances. It's not as if it's a lie. I'll be taking early retirement from Kransberg's Furniture and we'll be selling our mausoleum-of-a-house to move to a warm climate. Marjorie'll re-audition for Heifetz. Simple as that. Puff! A new life."
My mother heaved a long sigh. She knew that Erick Friedman had plans for me through college. During the past six months of lessons, we had merely skimmed the surface together.

I felt anguish at the thought of leaving Mr. Friedman's studio, not to mention being saddled with my parents just when I was about to start life on my own. But after my father had suffered months of depression and, for dramatic effect, threatened suicide by holding a kitchen knife to his throat, my mother begged me to continue my college studies where they could follow and begin their golden years. "We need to  stay together," she had cried. "Your father and I'd be lost without you. A change to the West Coast is our best hope as a family." And I sensed that she was afraid to be alone with my father; he was a string about to snap.

Isaac Stern
The orchestra was tuning on stage; throngs of audience members—young and old—took to their seats. I wondered how my teacher was coping with the fervor of the moment.  He had shared his conviction that violinist Isaac Stern, president of Carnegie Hall, was on a mission to destroy his solo career with an agenda to belittle Heifetz's teaching. Erick Friedman was collateral damage; a victim of Heifetz's foes, real or perceived. But one thing was for certain. Stern could make or break a career. He'd regularly travel to Israel and listen to young talented violinists. With glasses perched on top of his head, in an avuncular manner, he'd point and say, "You and you. Come to America." Those who were chosen became soloists; the ones left behind, and not chosen, would eventually become orchestra musicians.

Erick Friedman had covered the finances of booking Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony and the press coverage for two evenings of six concertos. He had invited us to the first of the two performances, with hopes that I'd learn from him how to conquer stage fright. The house quieted; the lights dimmed; out walked the concertmaster to tune the orchestra. My stomach knotted. And then my teacher, with the conductor trailing behind, strode on stage in his black tailcoat; his footsteps were bold and determined. He stood beside the conductor's podium and blew onto his curled fingers to warm his hands. He placed the violin and bow in his left hand and shook out his right, to help loosen. Then he switched his violin and bow to the right, and shook out the left hand. He leveled his gaze at the audience while slowly readying the instrument. I heard the rise and fall of my mother's breathing and my father's quiet belch.

The first concerto to be served was the Vieuxtemps Fifth. Mr. Friedman had taught me the composition down to the most subtle detail. "Balance the bow here, and let it bounce there," he had reminded patiently at lessons. "Find the sounding point and sustain. Bel canto as opposed to cantorial." At the concert, I observed as his bow arm, now poised above the strings, moved in broad, masterful strokes; the same strokes that he had imparted to me. I looked down and realized that my fingers were moving while he played. The passages were executed with fine-tuned precision, yet, at each extensive orchestral passage during the rests, Mr. Friedman cupped his hands and blew into them. I shivered. There must be a draft on stage, I thought to myself, and wished only to help.

Like a prize fighter, Erick Friedman completed one concerto, acknowledged the applause, and threw himself into the next. Sibelius was the second work to be featured that evening, and was performed with staggering virtuosity. The audience went into a frenzy with stomping and cheering.

We remained in our seats during intermission. My father nonchalantly unrolled a packet of Tums. My mother asked if I needed to use the bathroom, and I replied, "No". She asked my father if he needed a cigarette, and he said, "No". The two discussed the housing market in Wenham and began to quibble about an asking price. I studied my teacher's photograph in the Carnegie Hall booklet, and when nobody was looking, pressed it to my heart.

The Brahms Concerto had been programmed for the entire second half. Mr. Friedman appeared more at ease on stage. He no longer expelled warm breath onto his hands, and as a result, my own hands became warm. His tone conveyed a white heat intensity reminiscent of his master. At the conclusion of the Brahms, the audience rose to their feet. Applause surged. After a third curtain call, he quieted the house by raising his violin and turning to the audience. "I'd like to dedicate the second movement of the Korngold Concerto to my beloved teacher, Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violinist and influence in my life." And Korngold's lush melodies soared above the orchestra and floated into the proscenium.

The concert had ended. I watched helplessly as my father reached for his hat and coat. Couldn't the news of leaving Mr. Friedman wait? Perhaps this was not the best moment, as everyone else was rushing to congratulate the artist.
"C'mon. Follow me," my father said, eyes narrowed like a mobster. "We'll find our way backstage. Just do me a favor. Let me do all the talking—"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Professor Klimt (Ch.14 Pt.1)

I was sitting in the lobby of Mr. Friedman's Lincoln Plaza apartment alone, without my mother. I waited for the doorman's signal at the front desk to go upstairs. My father had stormed out of the house that week, driven all the way to Virginia, and finally returned days later, heavily intoxicated, only to proclaim that he had every intention of beginning a new life—with a shiksa. My mother was beside herself with panic. "I'll stay home this Saturday, Margie, to be with your father. Do you think you can get to Erick Friedman's apartment and the Manhattan School of Music by yourself? It means taking the bus and navigating your way around New York City."
"I know," I said.
"This, you've never done alone."
"Don't worry, Mom. I'm old enough to handle it. Sixteen."
She packed a huge shopping bag with woolen sweaters, music books, an egg salad sandwich, two cartons of juice, and a banana. There were tears in her eyes. She whispered so my father wouldn't hear. "I'm afraid if I leave this time for New York, he'll walk out again for good. Margie, your father's not well." And she looped circles with her index finger by her ear.
I nodded in agreement. "Really, Mom, I'll be fine."
"And don't you worry about Harry Dickson's letter. He was just cranky. Harry's Harry. What more can I say? You'll have other opportunities—"
I closed my eyes to extinguish the memory of Symphony Hall.

Meantime, I was eager to prove my autonomy to Mr. Friedman. Instead of a mama's girl, I felt suddenly  transformed into a young woman about to explore Manhattan on my own. Before I left, I had taken my mother's Maybelline set from the bathroom and packed it in my bag. In Mr. Friedman's lobby, after the five hour bus ride, I held up a pocket mirror and swabbed Blue Freeze over my eye lids. Next, I dabbed Mauve on my lips and applied a few quick strokes to my cheeks, as I had watched my mother do on occasion. I undid my shoulder length braids and held strands of frizz between my fingers, letting them fall against my face. I reached into my coat pocket for the Binaca and sprayed a few blasts, then breathed into my hand and sniffed.
"OK, young lady, Mr. Friedman says you can go up now."
"The professor's waiting for you," said the doorman. "Elevator's straight ahead."

I rang Mr. Friedman's buzzer and listened for the sound of his deliberate footsteps. The door opened and he peered down at me with soft espresso eyes. My heart pounded with pleasure as I gazed up at his unbuttoned white shirt and rolled up sleeves which exposed a dark tan and enormous biceps.
Mr. Friedman glanced across the hallway. "Where's your mother?" His voice was so low that I thought he had swallowed the last syllable.
"She couldn't make it today," I said, thrusting back my shoulders.
 "Is—is everything all right?"
"Fine." I tried to keep from smiling. At the moment, I couldn't imagine better.
The way he studied my face, I wondered if there was something wrong with my make-up.
"Please, dear, how rude of me to keep you standing there. Won't you come inside? May I take your coat?"
I walked past him, as if the apartment belonged to me, or as if I belonged to him. I peeked inside the kitchenette and couldn't help but notice a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. There were remnants of chicken bones and mixed vegetables in the garbage pail. He obviously hadn't been alone the evening before.

Klimt: sketch for The Bride, 1917
I took a few steps near the sofa by the coffee table, and placed my violin case within eye-shot of Mr. Friedman's art work. His drawings of nude ladies reminded me of a book of sketches by Gustav Klimt at the Boston Public Library that I had seen, but decided not to check out. Mr. Friedman's sketches displayed a striking similarity to Klimt, and I found them fascinating. Did women really pose like that? I wondered.
"I've been thinking of you," he said.
"Really?" I felt blood rush to my cheeks as I slowly unbuttoned my coat.
"Yes, sweetheart." His eyes lingered on my fingers unclasping the buttons.
"I've been thinking about you because your father telephoned me regarding the concert with Boston Symphony. He mentioned something about a letter, or a critique."
"Oh God." I finished unbuttoning my coat and threw it on top of the violin case.
"I don't want you to feel demoralized. Because I too—"
Just then, the phone rang. I had been spared.

"Hello?" asked Mr. Friedman. "Yes, baby, I know. Yes, of course, we'll have lunch on Thursday. I'm sorry I didn't get back to you but my parents—you know. My father erupted into one of his tirades. And I worry about him. The man eats like there's no tomorrow. He'll have a heart attack one of these days."
A high-pitched voice at the other end rattled away.
"I promise I'll call later, baby. My student is here now."
He hung up.
"As I was saying, Margie dear."
The phone rang again.
"Will you excuse me?"
"Sure," I said, as I pretended to mindlessly gaze at the sketch of a reclining nude lady with a bouquet of flowers between her legs.
"Hello sweet!" he said into the mouthpiece. (I gathered it was a different girlfriend). "How are you? Yes, I know we have a date for Friday. What about a bite to eat first and then the movie?"
He paused for a while.
"OK, OK. I'll give you a buzz later. I have a student here and she's traveled all the way from Boston."
Mr. Friedman placed the receiver back on the phone and stepped closer toward me. The gold rope chain and mezuzah pendant laid across his black-haired chest and gleamed in the early morning sunlight.
"I'm so sorry. As I was saying—"

The phone rang again. "Just ignore it," he said, waving it off as it rang endlessly.
"Again, it all comes back to the question of muscular relaxation and knowing what to do during the pressure of a performance."
"I don't get it," I said, as I had week after week, and looked up at him pleadingly.
"Let me offer you an analogy."
I waited.
"Defensive driving."
"I don't drive."
"Well, imagine operating a car during, let's say, a snowstorm.You need to understand how to apply the brakes and manage the steering wheel. Initially you might find yourself gripping the wheel but then, the moment you take control, you begin to relax. Before you know it, you're just driving; well, not just driving, but enjoying. Margie dear. Take out your violin, and we'll begin, so that you practice control."

I had brought the slow movement of the Brahms Concerto. We worked on the opening phrase for almost thirty minutes. "Balance the bow," he said. I felt his large hand over my own, to help guide the stick. "Save at the beginning of the stroke. That's right. Otherwise you might feel yourself running out of bow at the end which squelches the sound and induces panic. Think directionally. Again, like driving a car."
He pointed to the notes on the page.
"This phrase begins here and arrives there; a destination."
"Oh, I get it!" I started again.
"Now raise your elbow higher at the frog."
"Like this?" I signaled while playing.
"That's correct. That way the control is eased away from the hand and directed into the arm to minimize tremor. The hand may tremble if you're anxious, but not the elbow."
"Mine does," I quipped.
He laughed softly. "You're such a pleasure to teach. Just relax. Consciously."
He picked up his del Gesu, tucked it tenderly under his chin, and offered the first theme of the Brahms. Phrases opened like flowers; glissandi lingered as embraces; Erick Friedman's resplendent tone could melt the coldest of hearts.

Later, he put the violin down and took his seat by the piano but not without the requisite lecture. "I know all this can be demoralizing—the technique of defensive playing— because, as one becomes aware, one often feels worse before getting better. I tried to explain this to your father but I'm not sure he understood. Funny man, your father."
I looked down at the floor and didn't laugh.

Mr. Friedman continued after an awkward silence. "When you're a child, you don't know any better, you just play in front of an audience as you're told. No nerves; completely unselfconscious; that's how it was for Menuhin and many, many others. Now, if you happen to be an exhibitionist, again no problem. Because exhibitionists actually get a thrill, or a rush, from parading in front of others stark naked. But Margie dear, that's an anomaly. It's normal to sense fear and feel trepidation at your age. The adrenaline kicks in and we have a fight or flight response. Unless—"
"Unless what?" I asked, gazing into his eyes, completely absorbed.
"I'm telling you, some people are just too stupid to sense anything—"
"Really? I wondered about that," I said.
"I hope you'll attend my concerts at Carnegie Hall. I'm performing six concertos in two nights, including Brahms, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Korngold, too. I want to play the Korngold as an encore for Jascha. He won't hear it, of course, but never mind. And you think I'm not going to feel pressure? Ha! If the Stern Mafia could silence me—"
I looked at him quizzically.
"Yes, that's right. Isaac Stern. If he had his way, I'd no longer be concertizing."
"What happened?"
Mr. Friedman stopped, remembered.
"Between you and Stern?" I pressed.
"Too long a story for today—but I'll share it with you another time."

I completed the Brahms Concerto with Mr. Friedman accompanying at the piano. Even while he stopped numerous times to point out corrections, my spirits soared. He apologized for the fistfuls of wrong notes at the keyboard, but I found them charming. "I'm a clunker," he said.
"No, you're not!"
"We'll continue next week."
The session ended much too quickly. When I glanced at my watch, I realized that we had spent two hours together, and if I didn't hurry, I'd be late for a Mendelssohn Trio coaching with pianist Joseph Seiger, the esteemed accompanist and friend to Mischa Elman. Mr. Seiger was a munificent pedagogue, able to unlock  hidden details in the score. I packed up my violin, tossed my coat over my shoulders, and looked searchingly at Mr. Friedman. If I quit playing, as I had thought about doing, I might lose him.

He got up from the piano bench and reached for the door.
"Put on your coat," he said, "it's cold outside."
As I brushed past him to leave, he stroked my cheek lightly with the back of his hand.
"You're so talented," he whispered.
Halfway down the hallway near the elevators, Mr. Friedman opened the door again and called out, "Marjorie?"
His bass-baritone voice filled the hall.
I turned around immediately, eager to return. "What? What?"
"Do you need money for a taxi?"

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Letter (Ch.13 Pt.5)

Harry Ellis Dickson
I never felt as small as I did while standing on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall. Conductor Harry Ellis Dickson had announced my name and offered a bit of information about the legendary violinist, Niccolo Paganini to the school children. I heard whistles and shouts before walking on stage to play my solo, for the young audience was thrilled to be on a field trip, away from school, and in a famous concert hall.

I remember tuning lightly (Emanuel Borok sat concertmaster and offered a quiet A) before signaling to Mr. Dickson to begin the piece. My knees were shaking. I heard the familiar swish of his baton, and readied my violin for the third movement of Paganini's Violin Concerto in D Major. I watched my fingers as they fell upon the strings like feet hopping over fiery coals. The devilishly difficult double stop harmonics lost their purity; sequences became reconfigured. My tempo must have rushed for Mr. Dickson broke into a cold sweat; his beat grew more agitated. After each passage, I resolved to do one thing, and one thing only: to get through the performance. I dared not look up at Mr. Dickson, or out into the audience (especially at the balconies and chandeliers which made my head spin), but kept my eyes glued to my now frozen fingers.

When the concerto came to a merciful conclusion, and the audience erupted into applause, I tore away from the stage. Sure, as a child performer, Mr. Dickson had spun around and kissed the top of my head after the performances at the Esplanade, as he had with violinist Lynn Chang. But this time, I sensed that I had let him down. I turned away before even shaking his hand, the customary gesture after a performance. Behind the stage door stood my mother with a yellow sweater over her shoulders which matched her Eva Gabor wig. She grabbed me. "My dolly! I was too nervous to sit in the audience. I got such shpilkes from this performance. How did it go? Did you give it your all?" Then a moment later. "The audience is still applauding! Go—go take another bow on stage!"
"I need to get back to school," I said while suppressing tears. "I have a final in Geometry."

It was to be my last year in high-school, having compacted four years into three. My classmates were preparing for their SAT's, and trying to figure out what they wanted to do for careers, while I continued to practice for solo competitions and college auditions, as my profession had been predetermined. Erick Friedman was under the impression that I'd pursue my violin studies with him at the Manhattan School of Music. However, there was also an opening for the Heifetz Masterclass at the University of Southern California.
I packed up the violin and ordered my mother to hurry. "Please," I begged. "That test determines my grade."
"Ok," she said, after thinking a while. "Let's hope to hear a glowing report from Harry later—"

I tried to shake all thoughts about the performance and put it behind me. It had just been an off day; better luck next time. Mr. Friedman would cure me, and I'd overcome stage fright. And, I thought, thank goodness my mother hadn't sat in the audience and listened to the concert, for she may not have recognized the piece.

But days later, my father returned late from work, clasping an unsealed envelope which was addressed to me yet delivered to his store: Kransberg's Furniture at 301 Cabot Street in Beverly. He waved the envelope in the air. His voice thundered. "Right or wrong. I read this note from Dickson that he wrote to you."
"From Harry?" my mother asked with anticipation. She quickly put on her reading glasses. "Maybe he's arranging an audition for Marjorie with Ozawa. Let me see."
"Frances. Let her read it to you herself."
I could tell from the look on my father's face that the letter was a missive. My eyes welled with tears. I slid the note from the opened envelope, unfolded the paper, and held it in my shaking hands. I began the letter aloud in a thin voice.

Dear Marjorie,

It is out of respect and profound admiration that I write this letter, for you are a remarkably talented young lady. I suspected you were not pleased with your performance last Friday, which I well understand, for it did not go as well as either of us expected.  

At this point I continued silently.  

In which case, I cannot help but offer unsolicited advice. To the chagrin of my colleagues, family, and friends, and perhaps to my detriment, I have a stubborn habit of speaking my mind, and sharing with others my convictions whether they wish to hear them or not. 

As you begin to explore opportunities for your future in music performance (as you should), I hope you'll recognize that there are numerous ways to succeed in a musical career besides becoming a soloist, which, in my humble opinion, can be rather one-dimensional and fraught with high pressure demands. You may find this hard to believe, but I struggle whenever I perform a solo. My concerts never go as well as they do when I'm alone in a practice room. When I'm all by myself, I feel as if I can surpass the greatest violinists, even Heifetz. My imagination lifts me to towering heights. But in front of an audience, I lose about 30% of my capabilities. Soloists require nerves of steel; I have not been endowed with that trait, but it hasn't prevented me from enjoying an amazing life in music. I can't help but wonder; is a solo career what you really desire, or are you being pressured by your parents? Because it is you that concerns me, not them.

Speaking from my own personal experiences, a position in the Boston Symphony has been stimulating and rewarding; I continue to pursue other interests on the side (such as chamber music and conducting) in conjunction with my BSO responsibilities. I enjoy working with my colleagues, many of whom hold outside occupations and hobbies in addition to their busy musical careers. I haven't even mentioned the role of pedagogue, which I regard with the highest esteem. So you see? There are many paths to consider for your future, which I'm sure will be bright.

As I stated earlier, I hope you will accept these thoughts as an indication of my deepest respect for all you have accomplished thus far and will continue to do. As artists we must, first and foremost, remain truthful to ourselves, though it is easier said than done.

Harry Ellis Dickson

I finished reading the note with tears streaming down my cheeks. I wanted to crumple it up, toss it in the garbage and beg my parents to let me quit the violin, for if I was not to become a soloist by age sixteen, I felt as if I had turned into a failure. I lunged toward my father who, after all these years, had remained almost a stranger. My arms were outstretched. "Daddy," I cried. He thrust me aside and  glared resentfully at my mother. "How many times did I try to tell you Frances?— but you never listened to me, and you never will. She's not gonna make it—"

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nerves (Ch.13 Pt.4)

Erick Friedman's words haunted me. "Let's imagine a surgeon patting himself on the back after an operation. 'I did everything I could and followed procedure', the surgeon gloats. 'It was a success. Unfortunately, though, the patient died.'"
I had laughed at first. Mr. Friedman had a knack for dramatizing. He occasionally launched into a soliloquy replete with theatrics at our lessons. "The surgeon's attitude might be analogous to a teacher who has taught a student to play but not to perform. What good is it, Margie dear, to play well if, in the end, you can't face the public? If you walk on stage and experience a sudden burst of adrenaline, how do you over-ride this?"
I nodded my head without saying a word. I loved studying the violin and wanted to learn all I could about music. But the pressure for becoming a soloist was mounting with competitions on the horizon. I was beginning to have doubts about a lifelong career. I glanced at my mother, dutifully scribbling notes in the corner, but kept my thoughts to myself. The last thing I wanted was to let her down, for her heart was set on my becoming a concert violinist.

"Do you ever think how many talented artists fall into oblivion because they cannot get over their fear of public performance?" Mr. Friedman picked up his violin. "Learn to balance and guide the bow properly or this could happen—" He drew the bow so that it trembled uncontrollably from frog to tip. I recognized immediately one of the crippling symptoms of stage fright. I had recently viewed a performance of the Beethoven Concerto with violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, whose bow ricocheted along the strings in what was supposed to have been slow sustained passages. The audience granted him a standing ovation nonetheless, as he was a legend. Was Menuhin's disease in late life the result of improper training, undiagnosed childhood trauma, or a medical condition?

I had never really thought about anxiety till that point. As a matter of fact, in all my youth, whatever tremulations I experienced on stage might have been classified as garden variety nerves. In the past, I had weaved the technique known as visualization into performances. I didn't know what I was doing, but I invoked composers and made up libretti to help set the varying moods. I conjured up seasoned performers, such as violinist Joseph Silverstein, alongside of me on stage. They were guides, so to speak, and their imagined presence helped to soothe and calm. I'd then lose myself in the magic of the moment. But at these lessons, I had fallen under Erick Friedman's spell, and absorbed the flow of his words like a sponge soaking up an unstoppable leak. It occurred to me, suddenly, that perhaps I never understood what it was that I was doing in all my years of playing. Whatever confidence I had in myself was beginning to evaporate. I was no longer merely a pupil of Mr. Friedman's, but a stricken patient in dire need of rehabilitation. Perhaps my disease had progressed too far.

I listened to Mr. Friedman with rapt interest, as if in an altered state, hoping to cling to any cure. My eyes never left his when he spoke. I tried to memorize his face, for it was one I loved.
"There is nobody more high-strung than Jascha Heifetz," Mr. Friedman said with conviction. "I can recall when he sometimes played passages for me at lessons that his face would flush; can you imagine? He was obviously grappling with anxiety. But Heifetz always played perfectly because his muscles were so relaxed and controlled that he could surmount any discomfiture. As a matter of fact, when I watched him I was almost afraid to breathe; I thought I might blow the instrument right out of his hands. Nathan Milstein was the same way. Whenever you find a great player, you'll find a relaxed player, and one who understands the instrument."

Looking back, Mr. Friedman's observations were both liberating and crippling. I learned to practice in a state of hyper-awareness with relaxation as a goal. Passage work became effortless as a result. My left hand began to unclench; the fingers moved with precision and ease. I could play faster than ever before. But keeping the inner control to draw the bow slowly and delicately produced terror in my heart. The seed of fear had been planted in my brain, and I couldn't shake it loose. It dawned on me that to have a solo career would be like exposing myself naked to the world; I was hardly an exhibitionist.

I won the Boston Symphony Young Artist Competition performing the Paganini Violin Concerto. The competition was mainly an audition for conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, who had selected me at the age of ten to appear with the Boston Pops at the Esplanade. To perform for Mr. Dickson by this time, at age sixteen, felt as if I were playing for an old friend. I wanted him to hear my progress. The following day Mr. Dickson telephoned the house and, according to my mother, spoke of my audition with keen admiration. He was delighted to learn that I had made a switch from the Galamian factory of violin playing to Erick Friedman, a concert artist whose approach to teaching might prove refreshingly unconventional. Mr. Dickson reminisced about the collaboration between  Friedman and Leinsdorf during the recording sessions of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto with Boston Symphony for RCA in the 60's.

I was engaged to perform at a youth concert at Boston's Symphony Hall as soloist on November 7th, 1975. Mr. Dickson had requested the final movement of the Paganini, which I had barely learned. The young audience, he felt, would grow restless with a lengthier composition. And he assured my mother, who by this time had soared up to the clouds, that he'd offer a glowing recommendation to Boston Symphony's music director, Seiji Ozawa, for future performances.

Meantime, I checked off the days on the calendar as my debut at Symphony Hall drew near. At school, my heart pounded every time I thought about stepping on the venerable stage. My blood ran cold as I imagined performing for an audience of thousands, even if they were mostly screaming school children. I understood what Mr. Friedman was suggesting in terms of conscious relaxation, but wondered if I could put his remedy into effect during the heat of the moment. I felt that everyone would be disappointed if I failed to succeed: my parents, Mr. Dickson and my beloved teacher.

I wanted out. I wanted out of becoming a concert artist. Or at least I wanted a choice. But after all the years of sacrifice, the hard won praise, the family quarrels, the commuting back and forth to New York from Boston, I dared not tell a soul, least of all, my mother.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Diagnosis (Ch.13 Pt. 3)

Heifetz teaching Friedman
"It's just what I thought," Erick Friedman said after I finished the first movement of the Paganini Concerto. He got up from the piano bench. I glanced at my parents huddled on the sofa. They sat stock still, as if awaiting a life or death diagnosis from a prominent surgeon about to wield his knife.
"The gifted ones tend to exhibit tension in their playing and are the most at risk."
"What?" I asked.
"I hear it. The squeezing and over-pressing; symptomatic of improper training. I'm amazed you don't suffer from tendinitis. Set the violin down and let me examine your hands."
I lowered the instrument to its case, feeling self-conscious. Afterward, Mr. Friedman gently took my left hand into his own. The backs of his were covered with thick black hair all the way down to his knuckles. His hands felt strong and protective.
"Let's take a look." He lingered a bit on each finger, then went on to caress the callouses. "Good length. Even the pinky. And there's just enough padding—"
I looked up not knowing how to respond. The mezuzah around Mr. Friedman's thick neck flickered against the lamp light.
"I recognize all the tell-tale signs, though," he stated with perfect conviction.
"Of—of what?" I asked shakily.
Mr. Friedman's face darkened with concern. Was I about to be dealt a fatal prognosis?
"That charlatan."
"Oh no. I haven't studied with Galamian but with DeLay." I slid my hand away from his and wiped it on my skirt. Gazing into those smoldering charcoal eyes, I realized that Erick Friedman was the handsomest man I had yet to encounter. I'd have believed anything he said, for it was as if I had fallen under the spell of Svengali.
"DeLay. Galamian. Same defects." Friedman's baritone voice filled the room. His vowels were from New Jersey.
"They teach how to press, how to squeeze, how to tighten and force. Tell me, Marjorie dear. Have you ever heard Dorothy DeLay play?"
I reached back into my memory which was a stockpile of music lessons. I recalled the one time that Miss DeLay offered a couple of notes to demonstrate vibrato. "Not really," I found myself admitting.
"That's right. And you won't."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because she can't."
"But, but—she could."
"There's a dichotomy between teachers and doers," he said.

"Let me elucidate my reaction to your playing." He stepped nearer to the violins that rested on top of the Steinway. "Given your talent, and remarkable hands, you have the potential for a career. I think we share more similarities than differences."
I looked at him quizzically. Erick Friedman was an enigma, this six-foot-three hunk of a man.
"Like yours, my parents were dedicated to my training. My father played the violin but as an amateur. And he was determined to grant me the finest musical education that money could buy."
"Like me!" My mother interrupted.
Mr. Friedman nodded slowly.
"He'd take copious notes at every lesson. I studied first with a patient of his who happened to be none other than Samuel Applebaum. You know that name?"
"I do." My mother raised her hand as if in a classroom. "I know of Applebaum. I had my Marjorie study all his duet books; we played them together. Wonderful!"
"Take it easy, Frances," my father said. He placed his arm over her lap as a restraint. "Let the man talk. Go ahead, Boychik. Interesting stuff you're telling us."
She thrust her hand up a second time. "Oh, so Mr. Friedman.Your father must be a doctor?"
"Frances, I told you. Enough already," warned my father.

Mr. Friedman laughed softly. "My father's a dentist. I come from a family of medical practitioners, which partially explains, I suppose, my interest in the physiology of violin playing. As a matter of fact, my brother is a  neurosurgeon. When he was younger, though, he was an athlete. I learned through him that the muscles have one active motion: contraction. In fact, there's a strong muscular association between the hands. When the left-hand muscles are squeezed and pressed, the right hand tends to react in the same way, and vice versa."
For some reason I had a flashback of Dr. Ben Casey on TV.
"Let me make myself clear; there's no instrument more unnatural to play than the violin. You have to be like a pretzel!"
Mr. Friedman reached for his "Ludwig" Stradivari and tucked it under his chin. He inclined his left elbow far to the right, and twisted his neck. "See?"
I laughed out loud. Erick Friedman suddenly resembled Quasimodo.
"That's how I used to look when I played."
"No." I shook my head in disbelief.
He laid the Strad gently on the piano.
"I studied with Applebaum until I was ten years old, then alternated between Galamian and DeLay."
"Miss DeLay, really?" I asked.
"Yes. 'Sweetie this and Sugarplum that.' Meantime, so many bad habits set in because, like you, I was talented and worked hard. I was tied up in knots."
 I waited for him to continue, wondering what he might prescribe.
"I don't know if you've ever experienced nervousness. You don't look the type, but—"
I didn't want to respond to this question. I got nervous just thinking about getting nervous, so sometimes it was better not to think. "I—I do."
"Yes? Because I doubt anyone suffers from nerves more than I do," he announced at last.

I stared at Erick Friedman in amazement. Those broad shoulders and large biceps. No way could I imagine a  big man like that battling stage fright. I had watched him in every episode of the Heifetz Masterclass on television. He had performed J.S. Bach's Concerto for Two Violins with Heifetz, and seemed totally at ease, unaffected by the cameras which must have loomed close.
"I don't get it," I muttered.
"I'll let you in on a secret, Marjorie. Would you rather be called Margie?"
"Yes. She prefers to be called Margie." My mother stated from across the room.

"Margie, when I was just a bit younger than you are now, in my early teens, I had a series of concert engagements. My mother was good friends with Michael Rabin's mother. Michael was offered management at an early age, so she, a nice lady, got me signed under contract too."
I heard my mother gasp. "How fortunate!"
"No. I wasn't ready. One evening I was to perform Lalo's 'Symphonie Espagnole' here in New York. I underwent such a panic attack that I wound up not on the stage, but in the E.R., gasping for air. It was awful. I still remember my mother screaming at the doctors for help."
My pulse quickened. "What happened?"

His face turned ashen as he retold the tale. "Well, I was diagnosed with asthma. But, you know, it took years for me to finally understand that this condition was brought on by extreme fear, and it reoccurred every time I had to perform. In other words, my asthma was psychosomatic. Not until I studied with Nathan Milstein and later Jascha Heifetz, and analyzed their playing up close, did I begin to realize that I had been improperly trained, which affected my nervous system. If a young performer is not guided properly, it can cause trauma."
"How so?" I asked, somewhat confused but also impressed by his depth of knowledge.
"We're like athletes. If something is fundamentally wrong, we cannot perform well, or sustain a career for a number of years. By observing those great master violinists, so relaxed, devoid of undue tension, I learned economy of motion, and subsequently, the art of relaxation. But I had to practically start over."
"And the asthma?" I asked.
"It went away."

He leveled his gaze at me, and I thought I might melt.
"But the moral of this story—and I know that I talk too much," he said. "You'll need to protect your playing by consciously allowing the muscles to relax. Let's imagine, for an instant, that you have an important performance, or God forbid, a professional career. A nasty critic shows up with an agenda to thwart your success. You, somehow, become aware of this unfortunate circumstance, and you know what? It makes you downright anxious. Scared, even. Michael Rabin was addicted to sedatives; we all know that. And he died not too long ago, a young man in his thirties. The pressure was too much for him."
I nodded. Rabin's untimely death was a loss for the entire music world.
"Margie dear, take my word for it; I know a little something about this business, which is cutthroat. You'll need to be prepared for such an event as a critic or colleague's determination to crush your career. Because in this field, it's not a question of if, but when."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Erick Friedman (Ch.13 Pt.2)

My father placed a call to North Carolina School of the Arts to contact the master violinist, Erick Friedman, protégé of Jascha Heifetz. He was told that Mr. Friedman had left the institution and currently resided in New York City. My father followed every lead until he discovered the telephone number for the violinist. They had a polite conversation, I was later told. Mr. Friedman, who had been awarded the Mischa Elman Chair at the Manhattan School of Music in 1975, was more than receptive to having me among his pupils.

"He hasn't been teaching all that long due to his concertizing," I remember my father explaining on the way to Dairy Queen. "But he says that he enjoys working with young people, and has several talented students."
"Wonderful," said my mother. "She'll study with him at Manhattan School. Phew! To think we almost sent her to North Carolina."
"He told me that the lessons are to be in his apartment at One Lincoln Plaza. But she'll take her other music classes at the school. Frances, maybe Marjorie's old enough—at sixteen—to commute from Boston to New York by herself. Whaddaya say?"
My mother waved her arm. "No way."

Both my parents accompanied me to my first lesson. It was a Friday evening. I remember, because as the elevator opened to Erick Friedman's floor the entire hallway smelled of onions and pot roast for Shabbos. "This is a very Jewish building with, obviously, a lot of money," whispered my mother. "You can tell by the names on the doors." She pointed to each and rattled them off as we marched in single file: "Goldberg, Finkelshteyn, Weinberger, Greitzer, Rosen, Altschuler, oh and here we are—Friedman! Marjorie. Go ahead and knock at the door of your artist teacher."

I was about to press the buzzer when it suddenly thrust open. There, in front of my eyes, stood a strapping mustached man with long sideburns dressed in a sleek, blue, smoking jacket and jeans. His chest, so broad and thick, was covered with a nest of black curly hair. A gold chain with a mezuzah dangled from his neck almost down to his navel, which was exposed by the loose jacket. Friedman looked me up and down, and said in a smooth bass baritone voice, "Welcome, Marjorie." My mother gasped. My father extended his hand. "John Kransberg. Good to meet you." I could hear my father snort. "I hope you don't mind my asking. How'd you manage to get so—ah, handsome?"
Mr. Friedman laughed gently and took one step back.
"No, really. I wanna know your secret. I'm sure my wife Frances wouldn't mind."
"Won't you come in?" He asked calmly.

"You must be married," chirped my mother. She seemed to flutter into the posh pad, decorated with objets d'art and numerous framed photographs. For this occasion, she had donned her blond Eva Gabor wig, typically taken out during holidays only.
"I'm not—"
"No?" quizzed my mother. "Not married? Why, of course. You're still young. Are you even thirty?"
"Then you're twenty years older than our Marjorie." She sucked in her cheek and narrowed her gaze. "You'll need someone to take care of you. Such an important person, you are."
There was an uncomfortable silence, as we stood gaping at one another. I scanned the walls and noticed several sketches of female nudes. I'd eventually learn that Mr. Friedman was an accomplished artist, having taught himself to draw. Resting curvaceously on top of the grand piano were two of his famed violins: "Ludwig" Stradivari and "Balokovic" Guarneri del Gesù.
"Please. Allow me to take your coats."
He reached to assist me with my red leather jacket. I felt the tug of his large warm hands and watched as he folded the coat and laid it gently on a chair.

"May I offer you drinks, Mr. and Mrs. Kransberg?" Mr. Friedman gestured to a liquor cart in the corner. "You've traveled from so far—"
"That won't be necessary," said my father, finally settling on a black sofa near a large potted plant, and signaling for my mother to join him. "Jeez, Erick—may I call you Erick?—You're a big guy. You must be, what, six-foot-three? Four?"
Mr. Friedman smiled. He had dimples. "Too tall for playing the violin. That's what I am."
My father nodded with delight, and a Yiddish expression fell from his lips. "Kenahora."

"You know, for some strange reason. I can't put my finger on it—" Mr. Friedman paused mid-sentence and shook his head.
"You—you remind me of my own parents. It's uncanny; a trick of fate."
He shot me a glance. "History repeats itself, Marjorie. One thing I've learned over the years."
I looked down and began to unzip my violin case slowly.
"What would you like to play for me, Dear? So that you to feel at ease."
I rosined my bow and lifted several books of music from the side pocket, sensing an urge to conquer this man's heart.

Mr. Friedman strode to his Steinway and sat down on the bench. I surreptitiously gazed at his hairy, open-sandaled feet. They were monstrously huge.
"Well," I said at last. "I'm trying out for the Boston Symphony Young Artist Competition in a couple of weeks with the Paganini Concerto. But I also have the Mozart Concerto in D."
I glanced up and couldn't help but notice Mr. Friedman's paternal gaze. At the piano, with stacks of sheet music and scores by his side, his demeanor had turned reverential, his voice tender.
"Boston Symphony Competition. Really? Let me hear that Paganini of yours, Sweetheart."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Presenting Erick Friedman (Ch.13 Pt.1)

The final concert at the Bowl began with the Interlochen Theme; I felt my eyes mist. I tried to catch Scott's attention in the viola section but he kept his face buried in the music. In my Interlochen yearbook he had written:
Dear Margie, what can I say? I'm really speechless!! I hope you'll go to the University of Michigan. I'll really miss you this year.
Love, laughter, and luck,
Scott Woolweaver 

Back at home, it soon became clear that my mother was watching me closely. One hint that my thoughts were with Scott made her spin out of control. Alone, in my bedroom, I'd flip through the pages of Scherzo '75, the Interlochen yearbook, and reread Scott's words. Lost in the fantasy of reuniting with him during college—a whole year away—my mother would sneak by my doorway and peek into the room. One time she cleared her throat so loudly that I nearly fell back from my desk chair. "Is it all boys now? Can't you think about anything else? I don't hear any practicing." Before I could offer a rebuttal, she stormed off. Defeated, I tossed the yearbook on my canopy bed, and opened the violin case. I mechanically practiced the second and third movements of the Paganini Concerto. Although I had been assured by friends at Interlochen that I had played well during Concerto night, my mother countered their compliments with a litany of criticisms. "I could hardly hear you. And what little I did hear sounded like a student."
"You're more deaf than I thought!" I cried, wanting to hurl all my music books at her.
"But that other violin soloist—what's her name, Ani Schnarch?—magnificent. I could hear every note she played in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. There's a girl who's serious about her studies—"
I bit down on my lower lip to force back tears.

Each night after my father returned from work, I'd overhear snippets from their conversations about what to do with their boy-crazed, teen-aged Daughter Number Four. "Maybe we should send her to a boarding school, John. That way she'll be out of our hands. Let her be a school's headache."
I'd hear my father's agitated footsteps as he paced from one end of the kitchen to the other.
"Frances, I can't put up with this mishegas on a daily basis. Enough with the music already. Ol' Doc Grush warned me that my blood pressure has sky-rocketed. Take the violin away so we can have a normal life for a change."
"I don't know—"
"What, you think she's gonna make it as a soloist?"
I strained to catch my mother's reply but she didn't answer.

Erick Friedman
Meantime, bundles of brochures from various colleges and conservatories ended up in our mailbox. I can remember my mother sitting at the kitchen table, thumbing through the pile of pamphlets. She refused to look at me, maintaining an exasperating air of silence, as if a genie had waved her into a block of ice. I'd stand in the corner and try to speak through rivulets of tears, but it was to no avail. She opened one last envelope which was addressed from the North Carolina School of the Arts. I watched as she tore through it with a look of contempt. "That's a boarding school," she muttered, "if you were only serious about your studies." She turned a couple of pages and her eyes grew wide.  "Erick Friedman's on the faculty?" My mother fingered his name. "Maybe that's the solution."
"What solution?" I asked meekly, grateful that she was beginning to thaw.
"Don't you have his recording of the Paganini Violin Concerto?"
"Yeah. I guess."
"The young man sounds more like Heifetz than Heifetz, doesn't he?"
I shrugged, not quite understanding the point of the discussion.
She lifted the brochure to eye level. "I had no idea that Friedman was a teacher. So handsome. Jewish, of course."
"But I have a violin teacher, Mum. Miss DeLay. And I like Juilliard."
My mother set the brochure down on the table and folded her hands. She fixed her gaze at me. "You'll work harder for a male mentor. It never occurred to me before. In the presence of such an accomplished young man—"
And with this comment she nodded her head.
"You'll forget about that boy in no time."

For the first time in days, the worried lines on my mother's face had smoothed; her eyes softened. I went back up to my bedroom and reached under the Magnavox Hi-Fi for the recording, Presenting Erick Friedman which had been released in 1962 while Friedman was in his early twenties. Indeed, his playing had been a tremendous source of inspiration to me. By listening repeatedly to his rendition of the Paganini Concerto and the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, I endeavored to fuse his suave tone, so reminiscent of Heifetz, into my own. Friedman had composed his own fiendishly cadenzas and tossed them off with mercurial ease. He was both master and creator. I gazed at the cover of the album, admiring the coarse black hair, slightly parted lips, and long thick fingers that caressed his violin. He bore a striking resemblance to actor Cary Grant. Not so bad, I thought to myself. I turned the LP over to read the back cover and get a closer glimpse of my prospective pedagogue. Here's what it said:

Ask Erick Friedman what it was like to have been a child prodigy and he answers: "One doesn't judge one's life while it's happening. That comes later and sometimes it ends up that one and one equal three. I had no friends. I went to no parties. The strange thing is that I did not resent it. I was working, after all, with a purpose."

It was then that I realized my mother must have read Friedman's statement, imagining those words as her daughter's.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

An Ultimatum (Ch.12 Pt.4)

I shall never forget that weekend at Interlochen with my parents. They ordered me into the car for a ride to their motel where we'd undergo a private confrontation. My parents didn't exchange a single word during the car ride. My mother just stared out the window and emitted painful sighs, as if suffering from a bout of cramps. My father quietly belched. I watched silently as he fumbled for his Rolaids, feeling like a prisoner as we drove along Michigan Highway.

"I don't think you're being fair," I finally blurted. My father pulled into the driveway of Interlochen Motel.
He whipped around to face me. The car keys rattled in his hands. "Don't talk until I give you permission, hear me?"
"But Daddy, I don't—"
I could feel blood rush to my cheeks. It occurred to me, with mild shock, that my parents had arrived at a foregone conclusion that I had slept with Scott. I'd remain guilty until proven innocent.
"Oh my God. I didn't do anything. Honest. You've got to believe me." I reached for my mother's arm. "Mum. It's not at all what you think."
No reaction.
"Say something. I'm still your daughter, aren't I?"  
She thrust open the car door and sprang from her seat. 
My father ran to catch up with her.  "Frances, Frances—"
I trailed behind, whimpering.  

In the motel room, my parents sat side by side on the edge of the king size bed. I pulled up the desk chair and gathered a modicum of courage to face them.  
My mother spoke first, her voice flat. "I wouldn't expect your upcoming concert to be a success—"
"What do you mean?" Tears had begun to drop down my cheeks. I wiped them away with the back of my hand, but more came.
"You can't fool us. You're no longer serious about your music."
"Oh, but I am!"
"No. You have other things on your mind." My mother then whispered what every teen-age daughter cringes to hear. "You could be pregnant."
"You heard me. That boy you've been with. Did you—"
"Stop!" I jumped off the chair and screamed. "You have no idea what you're saying. I just have a boyfriend, that's all. How come other parents are happy for their kids when they date? Don't you want me to have any friends?"
"If that's what you need, Daughter Number Four. Go ahead and be like everyone else." 
My mother cleared her throat; it felt as if the entire universe was coming to an end, all because I liked a boy. 
"You're how old? Sixteen? I was married at eighteen. Pregnant by nineteen."
"What does that have to do with me?" I yelled.
scanned my father's face for reassurance, hoping he might find it within himself to be reasonable for once. He stood up, his eyes filled with rage and his hands curled into fists. "Tell me something. Did that boy touch you?"

I recoiled and groped for words. I thought of my friends at camp and how they eagerly awaited visits from their families. They went on picnics and outings; there were hugs and ripples of laughter from their parents. They were trusted; but not me. I was accused of something that I had never done, or even thought of doing.  
"We're gonna take away that violin, right Frances? The kid doesn't appreciate what she has."
My mother nodded.
"I know what I'll do. I'll sell it."
"Daddy, how can you say that? I love—"
 "You have a choice to make," threatened my father, the smell of cigar and antacids on his breath. "Either the violin or that boy."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tragic Challenges (Ch.12 Pt.3)

I lost first chair. There had been the usual Friday round of orchestra challenges known as compete-for-your-seat. The instructor, a petite woman with black hair stacked in a tight bun, led the first violins through a maze of selected passages in the Brahms Tragic Overture. She asked if anyone wanted to try and move up. My stand partner for that week, a Puerto Rican violinist with an afro raised his hand to challenge my spot.
"Wonderful," said the instructor. She fixed her beady eyes on the score. "Here at Interlochen, we embrace a healthy competitive spirit."
A few players groaned. My pulse quickened.
"OK, first violins. Remember the rules for challenges. Number one, no peeking while the contenders perform their selections. Number two, listen with your ears and remain attentive throughout the entire selection. After each of the violinists have completed their excerpts, you'll vote by raising your hands. There'll be no talking or whispering. Understood?"
She tapped a pencil against the music stand. "All right. Let's begin. Top of Tragic."

The instructor paused to wait while the students covered their eyes, then pointed for me to play. The overture was the one piece in all the repertoire that I hadn't bothered to crack open and practice. At first glance, in orchestra rehearsals, it looked simple; too easy for a musician of my caliber, and besides, I preferred to practice Scott Woolweaver. But during the challenge, the notes seemed unfamiliar with daunting leaps and complex rhythms. I took a deep breath, plunged my bow into the strings, and missed the opening octave shifts. Half steps grew wide; triplets limped, and dotted rhythms dragged. My sound petered out. The instructor drew a line in the air with her hand, palm side down, which meant for me to stop. She then pointed to my challenger for his turn. He arched his back and inclined his violin to such height that it might as well have been Heifetz. Every shift was spotless; each triplet steady; dynamics and articulations were executed with sharp contrasts. Notes shone as polished pearls. Behind me, arms thrashed  to signal a unanimous vote. After the vote was taken and results announced, I heard gasps from those behind me.
"That was—Margie?" A student queried.
"No way," replied another.
I refused to turn around to the players and face their humiliating stares.
"She lost her chair? Really, after all these weeks as concertmistress?"
"Shut up, idiot. She'll hear you—"

I scooted the violin case across the floor with my foot to second chair. "Congratulations," I whispered to the new concertmaster half-heartedly.
He shot up from his chair to switch places. "Thanks," he mumbled.

♭♩ ♬♮♬ ♯♪♮♩ ♯♬ ♮♩ ♫ ♯♪♭♩

Scott and I planned to meet at Melody Freeze, the Interlochen hang-out, that afternoon. It turned out that he, too, lost his principal viola chair that fatal Friday. Over swirly chocolate and vanilla ice-cream, we comforted ourselves in knowing there'd be challenges again the following week to hopefully regain our posts. And I'd be performing the Paganini Violin Concerto as soloist with World Youth Symphony Orchestra in no time at all. If I played really well, I thought, it might appease my parents. We lapped up our ice-cream cones. Our bodies vibrated with excitement as we schemed to attend University of Michigan together. I slid my hand against Scott's pant leg, feeling the stiff ribbed corduroy of his camp uniform, and he held it there.
"Aren't you warm in these?" I asked.

 The sun bathed one side of Scott's face and I saw that his eyes were closed. Reaching to nuzzle against his  neck, I heard a familiar man's voice in the background.
"There she is Frances," my father shouted. "Over there on that bench. See? I told you we'd catch her with that boy. You're fooling yourself if you think she wants to become a concert violinist—"
I spun around. My parents? It was only Friday. They weren't supposed to arrive at Interlochen till Saturday for a dress rehearsal. Aimed in my direction, they walked in lockstep, my mother in her Bette Davis wig, and my father with his fedora and summer trench coat. He held a cigar in his hand and pointed it straight at me. I leaped off the bench and smoothed my blue knickers.
Scott blinked and looked up in dismay.
"What's wrong, Luv?"
"You better go."
"My parents—they're here!"
"But Margie. Don't I get to meet your folks?"
"Scott, look, if you know what's good for you—"

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

After the Dance (Ch.12 Pt.2)

I tossed and turned in my bunk bed after the Monday night dance. Scott's light cologne had lingered on my skin; my body still tingled with his touch. I loved the way he had run his fingers through my hair, caressed my face, and sniffed the scent of Jean Nate under my chin and neck. He tickled my nose with his own. "Eskimo kiss," Scott said softly. I laughed and felt beautiful. It had been a perfect summer evening. The incandescent moon peeked above the whispering pines and cast its glow upon the shimmering lake. Crickets chirped in the meadow. I melted into Scott's firm embrace and wished the magic of Interlochen would never end.

"What do I tell my mom about Scott?" I asked my friend Julie at breakfast a few weeks later.We huddled over our trays in a quiet corner of the cafeteria. Scott had left the table to practice for the week's orchestra challenges. He was determined to retain the principal viola chair.
"What do you mean?" Julie looked at me quizzically, her brown eyes magnified through thick lenses. "You're already concertmistress of World Youth Symphony Orchestra; you aced the solo competition; Van Cliburn shook your hand after his guest appearance, and Scott Woolweaver, your boyfriend, is the cutest and most talented guy at Interlochen. It's so neat, Margie. You've got it all. What more could a mother ask for? Won't your mom be happy for you? I mean, mine would be dancing cartwheels."
I sipped from the straw of my milk carton. "You don't know her, Julie—she's, well—"
"Well, what?" Julie's face darkened.
"Sort of intense." I took a final sip and crumpled the carton. "Julie, the truth is, he's my first."
"Listen, Margie, if I were you—"
"Just call your parents tonight before they show up here for Visitor's Day. Tell your mother that you've fallen in love. She's gotta understand that passion and music go together, right? How can you be a true artist without emotions?"
I sighed heavily like my mother would do. "Sure," I said, finally.

♭♩ ♬♮♬ ♯♪♮♩ ♯♬ ♮♩ ♫ ♯♪♭♩

"Daddy, I need to talk to Mom," I said cupping the mouthpiece. I could hear my father flick a match for his cigarette.
"Frances, pick up the kitchen phone. It's the little pisher Margie calling collect, so hurry. We'll stay on the line together. That way she'll have us both."
"Maahgie!" My mother panted into the phone. "How's my dolly?"
"Okay. Good."
"I've been so concerned. Those cabins can be awfully chilly at night. Is your sleeping bag warm enough?"
"Yeah, Mum, it's fine."
"Are you getting enough fruits and vegetables?"
 "I guess."
"We made the right choice sending you to Interlochen," said my mother. "So tell us, how does it feel to be concert mistress of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra? You won the concerto competition with that difficult, difficult Paganini. Did you play the cadenza?"
I didn't have time to respond before my father blurted, "We read about you in The Salem Evening News!"
My father took a drag of his cigarette. "I bought—how many, Frances—ten copies? Enough to show customers at Kransberg's, my brothers, and of course, your Auntie Irene. God bless her. She keeps every newspaper article about you."
"Look, Mum—" I opened the door to the phone booth a crack for air.
"Dolly? What is it? Your voice sounds different. What's the matter? Tell Mummy."

I wracked my brain for Julie's exact words and spoke with quiet deliberation. "I'm sure you'll be happy for me. I have a ..."
My throat constricted.
"Dolly, what did you say? Did you hear anything, John? Did the operator cut us off all ready?"
"Boyfriend." I said, getting it over with.
No response. "Hello?"
I heard them mutter something.
"A boyfriend?" asked my mother. "We sent you to Interlochen to fool around with the opposite sex? When do you manage to find time?"
"There was a dance, Mum. It's just normal at my age, you know, girls and boys—"
"So, tell me. This boyfriend of yours. He doesn't maybe interfere with your studies?"
"Oh no! Scott practices his viola every single day. He inspires me."
"John, are you hearing this? Say something."
"Whaddya want me to say, Frances?" My father expelled with such force that I imagined cigarette fumes wafting from the receiver.
I heard my mother clear her throat before launching into the dreaded questions. "So tell me, Marjorie Jill, what's the young man's name?"
"That's his first. What's his last?"
"Woolweaver," I whispered, the cord wrapped so tightly around my finger that the nail had turned almost white.
"Jewish?" she asked.

The sound of a gong announced the end of three minutes. I heard the operator's voice. "Would you like to continue this call?"
"No," my father rasped. "Frances, hang up the phone."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scheherazade at Interlochen (Ch.12 Pt.1)

I had returned to National Music Camp at Interlochen for a second summer in 1975. Not out of choice, but because my mother fell in love with the place, a music camp in northern Michigan surrounded by lakes and forests that offered a rich regimen of music and art classes. "Oh, if only I could be you," she'd intone at each visit. If it had been up to me, I'd have returned to Meadowmount. There I could at least have tested the waters of independence and crashed midnight parties. But at Interlochen there was little chance for enterprising escapes. I'd live in a rustic log cabin with eleven other girls my age under the watchful eye of a counselor, and partake in cabin clean up with my two friends: the broom and dust bin.

Though my violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay, had invited me to Aspen, it was J. Frederick Müller, my manager, who sold the Interlochen experience to my parents. As guest lecturer and adult workshop coach, Müller had an established presence at the camp. I had been his discovery; the poster child for the string instrument company Scherl & Roth. But by the time I went off to Interlochen, solo engagements had become increasingly difficult to obtain. At sixteen years of age, I was no longer a child sensation.

The World Youth Symphony Orchestra extended its arms to talented youngsters from every corner of the globe. If you glanced up at the stage of Kresge Auditorium, you'd find these words emblazoned like the Ten Commandments: Dedicated to the promotion of world friendship through the universal language of the arts. And that summer of 1975, students traveled from as far away as Romania, Israel, Finland and Iceland. Everywhere you turned you'd hear foreign dialects. National Music Camp at Interlochen would be—how did my mother put this?—a broadening experience.

The day began with a bugle call, or reveille, at 6:45 A.M. It could have been the the military, as far as I was concerned. Dressed in uniforms of red sweaters, white blouses, and navy blue knickers, campers resembled American flags as they tore out of their freezing cabins for breakfast. Teeth chattered at the speed of 64th notes. The morning air smelled of lake water, damp earth and fresh baked bread from the cafeteria. At breakfast, over a bowl of granola and milk, I found myself noticing that some of the gawky, pimply-faced boys from the previous summer had turned into striking young men with sideburns and light mustaches. Camp uniforms didn't offer much to see, of course, but male voices had deepened, and unbuttoned shirts revealed tiny tufts of chest hair.

Me and Jeannie Wells Yablonsky at Interlochen
At the Bowl, Jeannie, my stand partner, was diligently practicing the music even before the orchestra tuned. We were to rehearse Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" a symphonic suite based on "A Thousand and One Nights". The conductor, an ape-like figure with white hair silenced the orchestra. "Boys and girls, how many of you know the story of Scheherazade?" I heard giggles from the back rows and turned around. One of the newcomers, a Romanian violinist with stringy hair was showing off her Paganini left hand pizzicato to new admirers. "Young lady!" shouted the conductor. "We'll have none of that during orchestra." He held up his score for all to see. "As told in the Tales of the Arabian Nights, the Sultan Schahriar, convinced of the faithfulness of his many wives, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade," he pointed to me, "depicted by the solo violin, saved her life by spinning tales to her husband during a thousand and one nights."

A gentle breeze rustled the pages of our music. Jeannie speared the part with her bow and giggled nervously. The conductor lifted his arms to usher in the theme of "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship". My bow was poised in mid air to play a high E after an introduction by the harp. But then, my eyes landed on the principal violist seated diagonally across from the first violins. He swayed with the music; a lock of wavy brown hair had fallen over his forehead. He flicked it away, glanced up, and beamed at me through black-rimmed glasses. It was Scott Woolweaver, the cutest boy in all of Interlochen. I sunk my bow into the string and lingered on the first note to begin a four bar rhapsodic cadenza. This might be the summer of night after night of wondrous tales, I found myself thinking.
"Scheherazade" by Sergey Smirnov

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Imaginary Acts (Ch.11 Pt.2)

"Sugarplum," says Dorothy DeLay after listening to my run-through of the G Minor Bach Fugue. "Imagine leading a four part choir whenever you play this. Point to the alto in the opening to introduce the fugal subject; then, two bars later, indicate to the tenor, finally, gesture to the soprano to join with the others. Bring out every voice for your audience to hear. Fugues are daunting for the average listener."
I nod with apprehension. My recital at Paul Hall begins in four hours, twenty minutes, and twelve seconds. I wipe my clammy hands on the skirt my mother sewed for the event.

"Let's talk for a moment about the summer," she says, lifting a tub of Darigold cottage cheese from the coffee table. "I hope you'll attend Aspen, so that we can continue our work together. Great outdoor concerts and picnics, too."
I mutter something incomprehensible about my mother and Interlochen. The truth is, Fred Müller, my manager, has sealed a deal for a summer program. I've been awarded full scholarship to Interlochen, and that's that. Müller has convinced my mother I might be named concertmaster for the World Youth Symphony; my mother imagines her daughter following in the footsteps of Joseph Silverstein, Boston Symphony's legendary concertmaster.

"You have your mother come upstairs after the recital, OK? It'll be easier for us to discuss plans here in my studio than backstage at the hall, where I might get distracted by others."
You mean, accosted by other stage parents.
"If your mother has objections to Aspen, I need to understand her reasoning."
I force a smile. I'm aware that Dorothy DeLay has a degree in psychology as well as music, but my mother has a Ph.D in Obstinacy. No amount of analytic reasoning will change her ways.
"Are parents really allowed up here?"
"What dear?"
"You know. Isn't there some sort of, um, policy? Like, no parents allowed on the fifth floor."
Miss DeLay sets the tub of cottage cheese on the coffee table and darts a disapproving glance. "Oh, these hare-brained institutional policies, Margo. For every rule, there's an exception. Speaking of exceptions—"

I tuck the violin under my arm and distractedly etch a circle into the carpet with my bow. Somewhere I had read that Piatigorsky, the great Russian cellist, had begun one movement of a Bach Suite in a concert, and detoured into another. The week before, Robert McDuffie, Miss DeLay's prize student and not exactly a wimp, perspired uncontrollably during a performance while fighting his way through a fugal episode of Bach.
Why did I agree to this recital in the first place?

"If I'm to stick with this diet," says Miss DeLay, digging into her pocketbook and jangling coins and keys, "I'll
need chocolate. Sweetheart, here."
She crumples a couple of dollars and extends her arm.
I reopen the thick Galamian edition of Bach to examine a fingering.
"Will you bring me a candy bar from the vending machine before your next class? Make that two, actually. I'll be going all day without a lunch break."
I distractedly reach for the dollars after glancing at the notes.
"Thank you, Margaret, and keep the change."

♪ ♩ ♪

Backstage of the recital hall, I begin to warm up; the violin feels alien. I've been told to enter on stage at five minutes past the hour, allowing latecomers a grace period. I tiptoe to the stage door, hold it ajar, and frantically scan the audience. I spot my mother sitting third row center. She's fanning herself with what appears to be several concert programs. I know what she'll do with those programs; she'll send to my sisters, aunts and uncles as proof of my prodigious accomplishments. She glimpses my figure from behind the door, and tosses a bouquet of kisses. I release the heavy door and let it close with a thud. My legs turn to Jell-O.

In less than an hour, I tell myself, the recital will be over. I glance up at a red lettered sign: EXIT. If the performance is awful, really awful, I'll unlatch the fire escape, jump out, and vanish. Kids disappear all the time in New York City.

My mind races as I imagine all sorts of strategies to survive. I recall Joseph Silverstein performing the same Bach G Minor Sonata at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. There's a violinist for you, I think to myself; an artist unburdened by stage fright. I envision him backstage with me, amused as I pace back and forth. His thick eyebrows, two furry caterpillars, raise and dip.
Scared of a solo performance, are you? He brushes off my nervousness with a wave of his hand. What could possibly be more enjoyable than playing Bach? I imagine him saying. Besides, it's not as if you're performing all six sonatas and partitas, as I'll do on my birthday.

I've attended many recitals of his in Boston. Each time Silverstein bounds the stage with the enthusiasm of a diner heading for the buffet table. He squints into the lights with a grateful grin and offers a deep bow to acknowledge his audience. Silverstein then readies the violin to produce—as my mother describes—a purity of tone comparable to vintage wine. He renders the sonata that I'm about to perform with elegant ease. In his supple hands, voices flow in seamless textures, sometimes blending together, other times diverging. But always beautiful. The audience is transfixed by the artist's touch and tenderness. Even the complicated fugue is suffused with gaiety and charm.

A backstage voice bellows. "It's time, young lady." The man, his sullen expression that of an executioner, props open the stage door. It creaks loudly. With quickening pulse, I walk past him, into the lights, and acknowledge the smattering of applause with a prolonged bow and grateful grin. I slowly ready the violin, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. Soon the ordeal will be over. My knees tremble. Joseph Silverstein, I find myself wondering: Are you with me?
Dorothy DeLay at Aspen  © Peter Schaaf; Joseph Silverstein

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unforgettable Journey (Ch. 11 Pt.1)

Fran Kransberg with my music
It was scary to look at my father before we left for Boston's Greyhound station. The routine of driving us to the city after the clock struck midnight—for Saturday classes at Juilliard—threw him into a rage. "I hope this is all worth it, Furrances, these goddamn music lessons in New York. They're taking years off my life. But you already know that, don't you?" He stared us both down, as if mother and daughter were cohorts in crime, and pointed his finger at me. "You wanna grow up to be a concert violinist, little girl? It's your mother's crazy fantasy. When are you going to wake up and realize that she's robbing you of a normal childhood?" I stood without protest; my sleep deprived father was out of control. The best way to cope, I figured, was to pretend his words had no effect. My mother did her best to cajole. "Do you have your cigarettes, Johnnie?" she asked sweetly. "We don't mind if you smoke in the car, do we Margie?" 
"Enough," he fumed. "Let's get this show on the road."

♪ ♩ ♪

A line of zombie passengers awaited the 2 A.M. Greyhound bound for Manhattan from Boston.  "New York!" shouted the driver, a big-shouldered black man, swinging open the doors. A blast of cold air swept against my face. My mother barged through to the front of the line, and handed the driver our tickets. It would be a five hour trek to Port Authority. I yearned to rest on my mother's shoulder, as I had done through the night every Friday into Saturday, for the past four years of violin lessons.

"Please, Mr. Driver," my mother whispered as she pressed the tickets into his hand. "Do you suppose you could drop us off in front of Lincoln Center? That's where my daughter studies the violin—at Juilliard. It's a big day for her."
The driver shook his head, no.
"But you pass right by the school, on the way to midtown. There's a traffic light; the bus stops anyway. We won't keep you waiting. You say the word go, and we'll scramble off the bus."
He reached past my mother to load suitcases.
Light snowflakes danced in the sky and fell softly, like powdered sugar, onto our coats.
"It would make such a difference. My daughter has an important recital to play. Oh please—"
"Step on up, lady," the driver said with exasperation. "No letting off passengers before 42nd Street terminal. I gotta follow regulations. Besides, we're due for one helluva blizzard. Lucky if we make it."
She gasped. "But the recital!"

My mother linked her arm in mine, and hoisted me up the steps. The combined odors of perspiration and cleaning fluid—Lysol?—overwhelmed me.
"C'mon, my dolly. We'll sit near the front. You never know. Maybe that grouch will change his mind."
She stashed her Mary Poppins carpet bag underneath the seat, and stowed my violin case in the bin above.

"Oy! I'll sleep, that's for sure."
She unzipped her knee-length, brown-leather boots, and kicked them off.
"To think the other mothers will finally hear my dolly perform at Paul Hall. You'll put their children to shame with that unaccompanied Bach Sonata and the Mendelssohn Concerto—a complete program memorized. I can't wait to see Edith Blum's face when you play. She always brags about her two boys, the pianists, what are their names?"
"Michael and Freddie."
"Michael and Freddie. Such nice boys. And your teacher, Dorothy DeLay. Won't she be proud?"
My mother smoothed her shoulder for me to rest. "Come here. I'll tell you a secret."
"What?" I found myself asking. It was during Greyhound commutes that she imparted her keenest observations.
"It used to be a Jewish thing."
"What—what used to be a Jewish thing?"
"Music, especially the violin. No more."
"What do you mean, no more?"
"I mean, the Orientals."
"What about them?"
"They've taken over. Generations ago, the violin was an instrument that Jewish parents would give their little boys—their Jaschas, Mischas, Toschas; you know, as a means to lift the family from poverty. Our people couldn't have survived without music in the Old Country. Life was too difficult; music offered strength. And I always wondered—you know your mother—why just the boys? Why not give the girls an opportunity too? I'd have given my right arm for lessons but my parents were deaf to my desires. Only my brother Morris, because he was the firstborn son, got to have anything he wanted."
My mother spread her fur-lined coat like a blanket and tucked it up to our chins.
"Nowadays, when I wait for you at Juilliard, I see mostly Orientals."
"Asians," I corrected, half-asleep.
"What, I have to be careful how I talk to my daughter? We're so proper, all of a sudden?"
The low hum of the motor and motion began to work its magic. "Oysgemutshet," I thought I heard my mother say, before we both drifted off.

I awakened to frantic rustling underneath my seat, and glanced down. My mother was on all fours.
"Mom, what are you doing?" I could taste Greyhound deodorizer on my tongue, an indication that I had slept with my mouth open.
"Margie, it's the darnedest thing. My boots are missing!" She raised herself from the floor in a panic. "Look outside. The streets are covered with snow, and we're in midtown already."
She snapped open her bag from under the seat and took inventory. "Everything is in its place, the wallet and essentials. I checked your violin up here." She pointed to the bin. "But my boots. Pardon me," she spun around to the passenger across the aisle. "Did you happen to take my boots—they're brown leather—by accident?"
The passenger, a pony-tailed young man in a stupor of contentment shook his head, no.
"Hello?" she asked another passenger, a few rows behind. "Could you check under the seat? My boots may have rolled backwards?"
The woman stared blankly. "I don't see no boots under no seat."

With stockinged feet, she went from passenger to passenger, then visited the WC, in case someone had played a practical joke. No boots. Finally, my mother inched forward to the driver, and brushed her hand against his broad back. At close range, I saw her blondish wig lower to his eye level.
"Lady? What's the problem?" He growled.
"Can you make an announcement over the loudspeaker? I can't seem to find my brown leather boots. They've got to be somewhere in this bus, for boots don't just fly away and disappear!"
He lifted the handset slowly and brought it to his face. "Attention, Greyhound passengers. See this nice lady here?"
Then he whispered. "Lady, what did you say your name is?"
He bellowed over the speaker. "Fran here lost her boots. What color did you say they are?"
"Brown leather with zippers."
"You heard the lady. Take a look under your seats, and search your belongings. Help Fran solve the case of the missing boots."
Passengers chortled.
"And welcome, Greyhound passengers, to the Big Apple."
A final lurch, and we were parked in Bus Zone.

The boots were nowhere to be found. My mother sifted through her bag, only to find a mismatched pair of extra mittens.
"What are you doing?"
"I have no choice," she said, tugging the mittens, one blue, the other brown, over each foot.
"You're going to walk around like that?"
"This is New Yock! Nobody cares. Woolworth's inside the terminal sells shoes—don't they?"

We tumbled out of the bus. I followed my mother as she glided through the corridor. Throngs of harried passengers with briefcases, newspapers, and bags dodged past us.
"Marjorie Jill—" She turned and paused.
I took a deep breath to keep from laughing.
"Stay close to me. Eccentrics, those New Yorkers."

At Woolworth's, there was only one pair of plain pumps in my mother's size.
"No boots?" she asked the stout sales lady.
"Sorry honey. We're sold out. You want those pumps or not?"
My mother unclasped her purse, and begrudgingly paid for the shoes. "They'll have to do for now."
She glanced at her wristwatch. "Oh my goodness, dolly, we're running late. Your lesson starts in less than thirty minutes."
I shrugged. "Miss DeLay's never on time, Mom."
"We'll hail a taxi."
Was I hallucinating? We had never taken a cab in all my years of music lessons. "You have enough money?"
"When it comes to being at Juilliard on time, in the snow yet, I have money. Besides, these shoes will never do in this weather. They're horrible."

Yellow Cabs lined the curb at Port Authority. My mother waved and caught a driver's attention. He sprang to his feet, to help carry my violin case.
"Don't touch that!" my mother snapped.
"No problem." He threw up his hands. "Where are you ladies heading on this  snowy morning?"
"Lincoln Center. Juilliard."
He glanced at the oblong violin case.
"What's that, a trumpet, horn or somethin'?"
"Violin," I replied.
He squinted.
"Mr. Driver, we're in a rush. My daughter has a violin lesson at eight o'clock sharp."
"OK." He nodded for us to get into the car. The meter clicked a presto.
"Oy, so expensive." My mother shook her head.
The taxi belched as we gathered speed. Snow had piled up the streets and sidewalks, causing mild pandemonium. Horns blared, and red-cheeked passengers leaped off curbs. A woman slipped and landed on top of her shopping cart. Bagels rolled to the middle of the street.
"Ha! I almost got her," boasted the cabbie. He careened around a corner.
"You're a wonderful driver," said my mother, gripping the hand rest.

The taxi spun in circles through a traffic light. I felt dizzy. My lips pursed the letter M for Mommy. The next thing I remember is being in front of Lincoln Center. My mother paid the exact amount, down to the penny. The driver grunted something, and raised his hands, palm side up. Reluctantly, she unzipped her coin purse. "Here," my mother said, counting change. She dropped three nickels and two pennies into his hand for a tip.
The cabbie shifted a toxic gaze from my mother to me.
"Come on, Marjorie," she urged, opening the door.
I bolted from the taxi with my violin.
"We made it," she sang, our arms interlaced. Soon I'd have my lesson and perform my first complete program at Paul Recital Hall.
A car screeched to a halt and blared the horn. "Hey Blondie!"
We turned around.
Our cab driver thrust his head out from the window, unlocked his fist, and hurled my mother's tip onto the middle of the street. "Keep the change!" he yelled, and floored the gas pedal.