Thursday, April 29, 2010

Harry Ellis Dickson with Lynn Chang (Ch.2. Pt.2)

My mother often spoke about the conductor and violinist, Harry Ellis Dickson. She referred to him as a Bostonian musical treasure. A first violinist in Boston Symphony, he was also music director of the Brookline Civic Symphony, conductor and founder of Boston Symphony Youth Concerts, assistant conductor to Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops, close friend to actor Danny Kaye, a raconteur, and an accomplished writer, all rolled into one human being. My mother idolized Mr. Dickson, who everyone called 'Harry'.  "Oh, that Harry," she would say, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. "What a sense of humor. I just finished his book, Gentlemen, More Dolce Please!  You know, my dolly, he writes the way he talks. Such wit. When I was pregnant with you, I sat in the back row of the first violin section in Brookline Civic, and you know what Harry would say?"
"No Mummy, what?"
"He'd turn to all the violinists, point to me, and remark 'pregnant women are the most beautiful'. Of course, I didn't look too bad in those days. I kept my hair off my face, in a chignon, and watched my weight during the entire pregnancy. Then, when his buddy, the comedian and famous actor Danny Kaye would come to watch Harry conduct during rehearsals, Harry would seat him right next to me. I couldn't get over it. Danny Kaye was supposed to pay attention to Harry but the whole time he made eyes at me. Danny was a you-know."
"A what?"
"A flirt." She sighed.

It was Harry Ellis Dickson who championed the extraordinary young violinist Lynn Chang, and showcased him as soloist on numerous occasions with Boston Symphony. My mother was all too eager to have me follow in Lynn's footsteps.
"When will my Margie have the opportunity to audition for Harry?" my mother asked Mrs. Scriven one day at a lesson. I was ten years old.
"I'd give it some time, Mrs. Kransberg. Marjorie's not quite ready yet."
Mrs. Scriven had acquired a patient tone of voice with my mother, for I had become Mrs. Scriven's pride and joy. My musical progress had been rapid, and I had won several awards of recognition from the National Federation of Music Clubs performing works of Viotti and Mozart. I was regularly invited to perform in youth concerts throughout the New England region, including as soloist with New Hampshire Philharmonic and Wellesley Symphony Orchestra, and I had performed "Ave Maria" at Linwood Scriven's memorial service. Although I found it exasperating to practice several hours a day with my mother pointing out errors, I enjoyed the distinction of being a prize pupil. Even my father boasted about my accomplishments to his customers at Kransberg's Furniture. He'd arrive home from work with a cigar box full of candy as my reward. "Keep your mother happy," he'd say with a wink.

Impatience reflected on my mother's face at the lesson. "But Sarah, Harry'll remember me from Civic Symphony when I sat there in my ninth month of pregnancy with Margie. He'll get such a kick out of hearing her play." Then, in a conspiratorial whisper. "I had to quit Brookline Civic because I got fenumen with this little one. You know what I mean, Sarah—busy, busy, busy."
"My dear, Mrs. Kransberg. I assure you," said Mrs. Scriven slathering her hands, wrists, and arms with talcum powder but restraining herself to a sotto voce. "I'll let Harry know about Marjorie when the time is right. You need not push. Please, Mrs. Kransberg. Don't turn into a stage mother."
"A stage mother?" My mother looked quizzically. "I could never—"

"But, you know," said Mrs. Scriven, smoothing her white hair away from her face. "As I think of it, I have two tickets for this Saturday evening's Boston Symphony concert. My husband Linwood, may he rest in peace, loved the symphony. We were season subscribers for as long as I can remember. The tickets are not front row, but pretty darned close. Lynn Chang will be performing the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Harry conducting." Mrs. Scriven held a steady gaze in my direction, and narrowed her eyes. "I think it might be useful for Marjorie to hear Lynn. What do you say, darling?"
I looked helplessly at my mother without uttering a word.
♪ ♩ ♪
"Marjorie. There you are. I was looking all over for you," Mrs. Scriven said, after my father had deposited me on the steps of Boston's Symphony Hall. He forbid my mother to drive into the city at night.
Mrs. Scriven grabbed my hand and pulled me into the venerable, brick building through throngs of people. "Come on, darling. Let's go inside."
Mrs. Scriven handed her tickets to the usher and we stepped into the hall. I had never been in one place with so many seats. Glancing up at the balconies and crystal chandeliers made my head spin. My stomach knotted, as if I were the one having to perform in front of thousands of people.

Mrs. Scriven clomped down the aisle to her seat, and gestured for me to take my chair. She took off her brown fur coat and spread it over her lap, then peeled off her leather gloves, dug into her pocketbook, and sprinkled talcum on her hands. Mrs. Scriven lifted her bifocals from her bag and placed them on the tip of her nose. She licked her fore-finger. Slowly, she began turning the pages of the Boston Symphony program booklet, and lingered on the photograph of her former student, Lynn Chang.
Mrs. Scriven pointed to the name Joseph Silverstein in the program. "He's the concertmaster—leader of all those violinists. Important job."
Awkward pause.
"He won the Naumberg Prize, not long ago. Do you know what that is?"
I shook my head, no.
"Well, it's a coveted musical award which establishes international solo careers. Joseph Silverstein could have become a world famous soloist, but instead he chose to be Boston Symphony's concertmaster."
I nodded in agreement.
"And to tell the truth, he's come a long way, that Joseph Silverstein."
I smiled.
"What I mean is—that he keeps improving. Do you understand how vital that is to an artist?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"Marjorie Kransberg," snapped Mrs. Scriven. "The day you open your mouth and say something to me is the day I'll probably drop dead from shock."
One by one, a few musicians strutted onto the stage. A beefy violinist sat down in the first violins. He nodded to Mrs. Scriven, and grinned. "That's Rolland Tapley," she said. "Rolland which rhymes with Holland. He's such a sweet man."
A bald cello player took a seat, pulled up the music stand, and stabbed his end pin onto the floor. A horn player shook spit out from his instrument. An oboist swabbed his oboe with what appeared to be a turkey feather. Musicians were fun to watch, like exotic animals at the zoo. As more players made their way onto the stage, the cacophony of  squeaks and honks created a painful crescendo. I looked around at all the elegantly dressed people swarming into the hall, and chewed my thumbnail. I said a silent prayer for not being the evening's soloist.
Finally, the magic moment arrived when the house lights dimmed. Audience members applauded as concertmaster Joseph Silverstein took center stage.  He cued the oboist for an  A.
Mr. Silverstein sat down, and twitched his bushy eyebrows. They looked like two caterpillars. As Harry Ellis Dickson strode to the conductor's podium, the orchestra stood up, and Dickson enthusiastically shook Silverstein's hand. "William Tell Overture" broke the spell of anticipation. The overture made me want to gallop away on a horse, march in a parade, or at least perform cartwheels in the aisle. I didn't want the music ever to end. After an eruption of wild applause, the hall quieted. A rustling of Boston Symphony program booklets could be heard, and a few coughs. "Oh look here," I overheard a lady behind us remark. "A child prodigy violinist is about to perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto."
Mrs. Scriven's eyes were glued to the stage. My hands turned clammy. Silverstein raised and dipped his furry eyebrows. The orchestra tuned. A giant wave of orchestral sound crashed and receded.

Lynn Chang charged onto the stage, a small kid with longish hair. Mr. Dickson trailed behind. He lifted his baton in the air, jerked his head, and the orchestra tutti began. The young violinist launched into the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Confidence exuded from Lynn Chang's face, as if his performance was mere routine. The Tchaikovsky began slow, and then, like a steamroller, took off. Lynn Chang's left hand whizzed up and down the fingerboard. His violin bow ricocheted off the strings like a spray of fireworks. Sweat flew from Lynn Chang's face and dripped onto his violin. I had never seen anyone wipe his forehead during one bar rest with a sleeve. The audience gasped. I was certain the concerto was about to end, but the music had only reached a cadence. I felt dizzy; my hands gripped the arm rests. Notes spiraled and clustered into fiendishly difficult passages with double stops. How could anyone play so perfectly? As Lynn Chang dug into the final chord, the audience burst into a resounding ovation.
Harry Ellis Dickson spun around, grabbed the soloist's left hand and raised it high, like a champion. As the audience cheered, Mr. Dickson kissed Lynn Chang's forehead.
Finally, Mr. Dickson reached for a microphone. It hissed and buzzed.
The audience quieted down.

"Will the wonderful parents of Lynn Chang please stand?"
A Chinese couple slowly rose from their seats, and smiled with deference. 
I turned to Mrs. Scriven and whispered into her ear. "How did he do that?"
"What?" she asked. The ovation endured.
"How did he do that?" I repeated.
"How did he do what, darling?" Mrs. Scriven smiled warmly, and smoothed my hair.
"How did that violinist, I mean Lynn Chang, play so fast without missing a single note?"

The rest of the concert was a blur. To this day, forty years later, I can't remember the second half of the program. All I could think about that night was the wizardry of Lynn Chang.

My father arrived to pick me up after the concert, impeccably dressed in a gray suit. He stood in the foyer with a cigarette loosely held between his fingers. 
"How was the concert?" he asked Mrs. Scriven.
"It was remarkable."
"You mean, that Lynn Chang's something else, huh? Frances talks about him all the time. She says he's a wunderkind."
"I mean, Mr, Kransberg, that your daughter sat enraptured the entire evening. Watching her face during Lynn's performance was the highlight for me."
My father took a deep puff of his cigarette, and blew out a perfect smoke ring. I knew he liked Mrs. Scriven because the normal edge to his voice mellowed whenever he spoke with her. "May I offer you a ride home, Sarah?"
"No," she said. "I have a taxi waiting."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure."
"Thank you for taking such good care of our little Marjorie. She's lucky to have you for a teacher." 
"She's a wonderful girl, Mr. Kransberg. And you know what else?"
"What else?" 
Mrs. Scriven's neck disappeared as she raised her shoulders. "The greatest surprise yet. Your Marjorie can even talk!"
Photo of my mother while she was pregnant with me