Thursday, August 26, 2010

Conditional Acceptance (Ch.9 Pt.3)

Mrs. Reynold was assigned the task of relaying Jascha Heifetz's edict to my mother, as the great violinist refused to have anything to do with parents of prospective students. She pulled up a wooden chair next to my mother while I stood quietly in the corner. I folded my arms around the violin case, and felt the lingering effects of an adrenaline buzz from my audition.

"Mr. Heifetz wishes to relay that your daughter, Marjorie, has more than her share of musical talent."
My mother's chest heaved as she emitted a long, grateful sigh. "Oh, thank goodness. This is what I've tried to tell my husband, John, over and over again. You know, sometimes he thinks I'm a little nutty for pushing our daughter."
"Yes, well, lack of talent is not the issue, Mrs. Kransberg."
My mother inclined forward, the way a deaf person might do to read lips.
Mr. Heifetz's assistant persevered. "Your daughter has an excellent chance of being accepted into the class—as early as the fall—but Mr. Heifetz has stipulated certain conditions."
 "Oh," said my mother. Her back stiffened. "What are the conditions?"
Mrs. Reynolds shot me a glance.

"Well, for one, Marjorie's performance engagements must be canceled. Absolutely. No more concerts at this time, at least for the duration of her studies here."
"Pardon me?" asked my mother. She pointed to her right ear hidden underneath the nylon wig. "I seem to have a little trouble hearing these days, Mrs. Reynolds. Could you repeat what you just said, and speak a bit louder?"
"Why, certainly, Mrs. Kransberg."
 Mrs. Reynolds raised her voice to a mezzo forte, and wagged her finger.
"No more concerts at this time for your Marjorie. She's far too young, and might be at risk for the devastating consequences of exploitation."
"What about solo competitions and youth orchestral programs?"
Mrs. Reynolds shook her head, no.
"Summer music camps?"
"Mr. Heifetz will not allow them. They get in the way of proper training."
My mother clutched her navy blue pocketbook, now cluttered with pamphlets and brochures, and groped for words. "Thank you for that information."
"There's more," said Mrs. Reynolds.

"If your Marjorie is serious about joining the class, she'll need to first work with Mr. Heifetz's assistant, Claire Hodgkins, over the entire summer. Ms. Hodgkins will teach her the scale routine that Mr. Heifetz insists all students learn, along with etudes, caprices, solo Bach, and perhaps some stylistic short pieces. But it may be a task to erase those dreadful mannerisms, Mrs. Kransberg, and have Marjorie adjust to playing without the crutch of a shoulder pad. I should add that everything, including the Kreutzer Etudes, must be perfectly memorized."
"Claire Hodgkins, Claire Hodgkins," said my mother, fingering her golden wig. "Where do I know that name? It sounds so familiar—"
"Well," said Mrs. Reynolds. "Claire was one of Mr. Heifetz's first pupils, along with Carol Sindell, Varoujan Kodjian, Adam Gorski, and Erick Friedman. You may have heard and watched her on the masterclass episodes which were aired on public television."
"Oooh," said my mother. "Is she tall and slim with blond hair?"
"That's her," said Mrs. Reynolds with a nod. "Claire performed Chausson's 'Poeme' on the series."
"I was quite taken with her," said my mother. "A beautiful woman. She's so slender, and her playing is understated in its elegance."
"Yes," agreed Mrs. Reynolds. There was a pause as my mother pondered Jascha Heifetz's requirements.

"Now, Mrs. Kransberg, I know you have a great deal of thinking to do. The masterclass meets twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays. The sessions are lengthy—five hours each. If your daughter makes it into the class after Claire's approval, she'll need to attend a unique school, or alternative program, where she can work independently. I have some resources for you to look into, such as the Hollywood Professional School. I must warn you, however, that Marjorie might possibly be the youngest of the eight or ten students. The others in the class are college age and older. Your family may need to relocate, yes? So, I expect you'll need to confer with your husband."
My mother nodded in agreement. I couldn't make out what she said about my father, as she lowered her voice.
"But what a wonderful experience to look forward to, assuming all goes well," said Mrs. Reynolds.

My mother peered over her glasses and cast a cautious glance at me and then Mrs. Reynolds. How might she broach the topic of relocation with my father, and avert a temper tantrum?
"Tell me more about your husband, Mrs. Kransberg. What does he desire for his daughter's future?"
Claire Hodgkins in Heifetz Masterclass in 1960s


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thank You, Mr. Heifetz (Ch.9 Pt.2)

To the degree that I was familiar with the Mendelssohn Concerto, I had no option but to give it my best shot at Heifetz's insistence for a spontaneous hearing. Although my teacher at Juilliard forbade me to study the concerto prematurely, I would play it by ear whenever possible, and read through the score with delightful anticipation. I was especially inspired  after watching and listening to the twelve-year-old child prodigy violinist, Lilit Gampel with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, performing the entire Mendelssohn Concerto live on television.

I surprised myself at the audition. When I reached a point about halfway down the first page of the finale, where I could no longer conjure up the notes, I laughed at my mistakes. I glanced up at Heifetz seated behind his large desk with a score in front of him, and noticed the glint in his eyes.

"Not bad," he said. "You're not untalented."
"Thank you," I replied, figuring that those words from Heifetz were meant to be a compliment.
"You wanted to play the Rondo Capriccioso for me, so go ahead."

The nervousness had almost completely abated. I closed my eyes tight, flicked my hair, and dug into the Saint-Saëns. For heightened effect, I clicked my heels against the floor during a frightfully difficult up bow staccato passage. I didn't miss a beat, and reveled in my own performance. I had performed the composition so many times in public, that it felt as if I could toss it off in my sleep. I pulled out all the stops with a repertoire of grimaces and gyrations that I had inherited from Juilliard and Meadowmount students.
Jascha Heifetz tapped the TV antennae for me to stop.
He paused. "Are you an actress or a violinist?"  
I had no idea how to reply."What?"
"Do you wish to become an actress?"
I looked at him quizzically.

"Tut, tut. For a rather nice looking girl, you certainly make yourself unattractive with all those terrible faces. You might consider saving the theatrics for the dramatic stage."
I felt suddenly self-conscious. The bodily gestures, contortions, and facial expressions were purely for show; an entertainer's bag of tricks.
"Your grimaces, not to mention grunting and heel clicking, is nothing more than a distraction, and it detracts from your performance. You don't have to see your own horrible faces, but I do, or the audience does. The music will speak for itself. But, if you wish to act on stage, that's another thing all together. Who knows? You might be successful."
Thank you, was all I could manage to mutter.
"You have temperament," he added.
"Is that OK?" I asked sheepishly.
"You cannot be a performing artist without it. There would be no point in making music."
It would be revealed to me later, that like his own teacher Auer, Heifetz had no tolerance for anemic or unimaginative playing. Temperament was the artist's life blood.
"Thank you," I said, feeling slightly better. I waited for the next acerbic observation, but found myself enjoying being at the center of attention. How many kids from Memorial Middle School in Beverly, Massachusetts could boast the honor of playing for Jascha Heifetz?

"What's that contraption?"
"What?" I had no idea what he was alluding to. "Attached to the violin. That hardware."
"Oh, you mean this?" I pointed to my shoulder rest, a bulky black pad, fastened underneath the violin with rubber-coated, metal clasps. I had never played without one.
"Yes, that. Why do you need such a thing?" He looked querulously.
"I—I have a long neck, and it offers support?" I ended with a question, intentionally, and wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt.
"You're not exactly a giraffe. Except for those horrible faces while you play, you appear, to me at least, a normal girl with a normal neck. You know that contraption, too, is a distraction as it takes away the beauty of the violin. It dampens the sound. Did you ever think of that?"
I shook my head, no.
"I'll bet it leaves marks on your violin."
I lifted the shoulder rest, and sure enough, there were tiny scratches from the clasps.
"You see?" he said. "If you must have something there for added security, use a cloth, but be discreet."
I fumbled with the shoulder rest, not knowing what else to do.

"I'll hear a scale now—G# Minor, first in single notes followed by thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves, and tenths."
 I hadn't practiced a daily regimen of scales in years, not since private studies with Sarah Scriven, and was at a loss for a reliable fingering pattern. I got tangled halfway up the sharp-ridden scale, and couldn't navigate my way back down. I slid into home base with a wobbly G#.
An awkward silence filled the room.  
"Come on," Heifetz said, tapping the TV antennae. "You can do better than that, I hope. And then I expect the same scale in double-stops, beginning with the thirds."
I drew a blank.

"I don't have all the time in the world, you know. Not at my age, anyway."

I suspected that I had failed the audition right then and there, from lack of preparation with the dreaded scales. I couldn't continue any longer.
 Heifetz put down the antennae and leveled a stern gaze, but his voice remained calm.
"Scales are the foundation of technique. They are to the violinist as calisthenics to an athlete. If you find yourself with little practice time on a busy day—that is, if you're hurried for some reason—the scales are a necessary requirement to stay in condition. They are to be practiced daily before anything else. Agreed?"
"Yes," I agreed, dejectedly. "Thank you."
Jascha Heifetz rose from his desk. "That will be enough for today. Thank you and good-bye."
My audition for the Heifetz Master Class had ended.
As I recalled my mother's instructive to offer respect and gratitude in the face of a critique, I said thank you in a somewhat affected voice.
Heifetz responded with an impersonation of my high-pitched thank you.
I laughed and packed up my violin. "Thank you again," I said without flinching.
"Thank you, thank you. I think we've thanked each other enough all ready." He reached for the door. "I'll have a word with my secretary, Mrs. Reynolds, and she will speak with your mother—"
"Yes," I said, as I edged away from the famous classroom at Clark House, and headed downstairs with the words, thank you Mr. Heifetz, on my lips.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

First Audition for Heifetz (Ch9 Pt.1)

My mother had viewed several episodes of The Heifetz Masterclass on national public television in the 60's. The legendary violinist was filmed live in session with his pupils at the Clark House on the premises of University of Southern California. Before the documentaries were aired, little was known about Jascha Heifetz, the pedagogue. How did he relate to students? What teaching methods, if any, did he use? Heifetz, the performing artist, was sometimes perceived by the public as being cold and aloof. What was he like as a mentor?

"A masterclass is such a useful idea," my mother said, as we walked towards Clark House, located off West Adams in Los Angeles. Her heels clicked against the pavement with every determined step. "Students learn not only from the master, but from one another—clever."
I felt a twinge of anxiety, but not the dread of stage fright, as I often did before playing concerts.
"When you audition for Jascha Heifetz, give it your all."
"I will."
"Don't be shy."
"I won't."
"Show him how appreciative—"
"I get it, Mom."
"Thirteen year olds," my mother said, exasperated. "You think you know everything. But if the professor corrects you, say thank you. Always be grateful for constructive criticism. That's how you better yourself." 

Inside Clark House, a spacious Victorian mansion, we were greeted by Mrs. Reynolds, Heifetz's secretary. She led us upstairs to the famous studio, and explained to my mother that Jascha Heifetz forbid parents to attend classes and auditions. He had been barraged with requests through the years by pushy parents to promote their offspring, and he adamantly refused to have anything to do with them. My mother appeared to understand, as she nodded in compliance, but I could read the disappointment on her face.
I stepped into the commodious room, lined with chairs against the wall. I slowly unpacked my violin and rosined my bow. After a few moments of warming up, Mrs. Reynolds opened the door.
In she walked with Jascha Heifetz. He looked older than I had imagined, but the artist was, after all, in his seventies.
"This is Marjorie Kransberg, Mr. Heifetz. She's thirteen years old."
"Hello," said Heifetz, as he strode to his desk in the center of the room.
"The essay?"
"It is here," said Mrs. Reynolds, pointing to the lined notebook paper on top of a neat pile.
"Thank you."
And she left.
"What brings you here?"asked Mr. Heifetz.
I stared at him, in awe. I had studied his face on record jackets and books, right down to the bags under his eyes.
"What can I do for you?"
 "Well—I'd like to—to play for you."

Jascha Heifetz glanced over my essay, a requirement for an audition with him. I felt pangs of guilt for having copied my mother's words in my own hand. But with her incessant demand for perfection, she had left me little choice. I was supposed to have written about my previous history, and my musical goals.
"You played a concert recently—it says here."
"Yes." I flicked my long brown hair away from my face. The room felt increasingly warm.
"Well, how did it go?" He looked up. His icy blue eyes cast a penetrating gaze.

"Um. Fine, I guess." In spite of a burst of adrenalin, and frustration with Mr. Müller's beat, the Tri-State Music Festival concert had been declared a success. More solo engagements and invitations were to follow. "The audience liked my playing," I said.
"Is that so?"
 "How do you know?"
"Well, they stood up."
 Heifetz narrowed his eyes, and studied my face.
"Were they in a hurry to leave?"
His voice remained calm, though his words stung.
"Did you ever think, perhaps, your audience was just plain relieved that your performance had ended?"
I giggled uncomfortably. A silence ensued.
"Maybe they were grateful it was over—your playing, that is."
 "I hadn't thought of that," I muttered.
"Or perhaps, the listeners needed to stretch their legs. That can happen, too. You didn't think about that, did you?"

I was taken aback. But then, even though I was young, I recognized that Heifetz's comments were meant to plummet me back to earth; a child performer could easily suffer from a swelled head after receiving adulation from both public and press. I was to learn years later, that Heifetz had a keen sense for people. He could sniff conceit and insincerity, and put those who suffered from such maladies in their proper places, at once, with words as weapons.

Mr. Heifetz lifted my essay again from his desk, and put on his reading glasses. "Do you recognize this hand-writing?"
I nodded. He pursued the interrogation.
"This paper belonged to you?"
"You write something about a bow—grip." And he repeated the word grip with obvious displeasure. "What's the problem? Are you confused?"
"I don't know. I mean, I guess."
Awkward silence.
"I'm not sure if I hold the bow correctly," I blurted, finally.
I felt like an idiot. My mother included a query about right hand technique. The violinist's supple bow arm is to a violinist as breath control to a singer. And she recognized that, though the Galamian approach had its own aesthetic appeal, the disciples of Leopold Auer from the Russian school of violin playing, such as Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, had a vastly superior sound, style and virtuosity. Mother and daughter were both confused on this subject.

"What have you been doing all these years?"
I paused. "What do you mean?"
"Do you hold the bow or not?"
"I do, yes, of course."
"With your fingers?"
I nodded.
"Because you could attempt holding it with your toes. Have you tried that?"
I fumbled for an answer.

"So. What would you like to play? Assuming, of course, that you can figure out how to hold onto your bow."
"I—I would like to play the 'Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso' by Camille Saint-Saëns."
He drummed his fingers on the desk with an expression of boredom.
"I'd like to hear the Mendelssohn Concerto in E Minor, final movement."

 I wiped my hands on my tight-waisted, navy blue skirt, and took a deep breath. I hadn't yet learned the Mendelssohn. I loved the piece, though, especially the Heifetz rendition. I had practically worn out the LP by playing it over and over again on the Hi-Fi. And I had viewed the film, "They Shall Have Music" with my parents. Heifetz had made a rare cameo appearance in that movie, performing both the Saint-Saëns and the Mendelssohn with a youth orchestra. I shed tears as I followed the plight of a little boy who had run away from home, and ended up at a music school for poor children. When the school suffered hard times, and faced possible closure, the boy enlisted the aid of Heifetz. The violinist performed a benefit concert, saved the school, and was a hero.

"Hello?" Heifetz leaned forward at his desk. "Anybody there?"
"I'm sorry. I haven't learned the Mendelssohn," I said. "My teacher at Juilliard says it's too difficult."
"Well, have you heard it?"
"Y-Yes. Many times."
 I'd never admit that when I listened to Jascha Heifetz on any recording, I pretended it was me playing. Now, in front of the legendary violinist, I was suddenly at a loss, not only for words and confidence, but the most important ingredient of all—the notes.  
"It's settled," Heifetz said. "Mendelssohn Concerto—Finale."
He picked up a metal stick—was it a TV antennae?— and tapped it against the desk.
"I'll try to play it," I said.
"Don't try, just do it."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rehearsal and Lunch (Ch.8 Pt.2)

J. Frederick Müller stood on the orchestra podium, arms outstretched like an exotic bird poised for flight. The baton trembled in his thick hand, for Mr. Müller was plagued by stage fright. He was more at ease as president of Scherl & Roth, as an orchestral arranger, and part-time journalist for Orchestra News. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. As nervous as Müller was, I bordered on frantic. The violin bow skipped along the strings in a flying staccato during the backstage tuning. My mother sat in the audience in rapt attention with the score to the "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" propped open in her lap. On stage, I closed my eyes to calm down and concentrate.

Mr. Müller tapped the music stand twice with his baton to start the Introduction.  The orchestra of high-schoolers began at an agonizingly slow pace. I lowered my violin, and tucked it under my arm.  
"Please, Mr. Müller. Can you move the tempo along?" I asked with trepidation.
Mr. Müller nodded and continued to beat time in four, though the opening was marked in two. He hadn't heard me.
 "Mr. Müller—" I repeated.
"What's that? You said something, Marjorie?" The orchestra sputtered to a near standstill.
"We seem to be apart—somehow," I whispered.
Mr. Müller shushed the orchestra. He scratched his large head, and peered over the score; his horn-rimmed glasses had slid midway to his nose.
"The introduction is too slow," I explained with added conviction. "It feels—"
I hesitated.
"Yes, Marjorie. Do speak up."
"Well, kind of static."
"Oh, why of course," Müller replied, taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and furiously wiping the sweat from his face.
"Boys and girls, listen carefully. Our young soloist, Marjorie, requests a faster tempo. Watch me, please. Always, always follow my stick."
A violist hiccuped loudly and all the children laughed. Mr. Müller tapped the music stand with fervor.
"Shhh, boys and girls. Let us begin from the top."

Plunk, plunk went the strings, in an unsteady cascade of pizzicato that sounded more like the clattering of skeletal bones.
Müller's tempo remained the same stultifying slow.
"Follow me, follow me," he shouted at the players while shaking his baton. "The stick, the stick. Watch."
I stomped to quicken the pace. Adrenalin caused my heart to pound, and my fingers to fly. The orchestra straggled to keep up. J. Frederick Müller looked faint, as if he needed a supply of oxygen. Perspiration soaked his shirt, and I could hear him wheeze during a Grand Pause, which led to a sequence of three note chords that I tossed off with abandon. Certainly, I had played the final section of the piece faster than all my peers at Meadowmount. Even Lynn Chang!
I finished a whole bar before the orchestra. The young players tapped their bows on the music stands, and cheered. Mr. Müller gulped air, and gestured to the orchestra that the rehearsal had ended.

"Bravo!" shouted my mother from the back of the hall. She had been listening for acoustical balance.
With the Saint-Saëns score in her hands, she walked briskly towards the lip of the stage. I stood and waited for her verdict.
My mother looked up and gave me a wink.
"You're a marvelous conductor, Fred."
He wiped his brow. "Aw, you're just being nice, Frances. I didn't really do anything at all. Just trying to keep up with your daughter and her fast tempi. Whew!"
"No, really," insisted my mother. "You have that certain—something. I've watched other conductors.
None of them have what you have—"
Mr. Müller grinned. The color had returned to his face. He tucked the score into his briefcase and snapped it shut.
"Shall we have ourselves some lunch at the hotel, ladies?"

♪ ♩ ♪

At the Ramada Inn lounge Fred Müller ordered a deluxe patty melt with steak fries and a Heinekin.  
"You deserve a hearty meal, Fred. Eat, enjoy. Conducting burns lots of calories, I'm sure."
"Why yes, Frances. Did you know orchestra conductors enjoy the longest life expectancy?"
"Really? Maybe I should learn to conduct—," my mother said, sipping Sanka.
Mr. Müller laughed. "Frannie, you're a charming woman. Why, that husband of yours, John. He's a lucky, lucky fellow."
My mother put down her cup, lowered her eyes, and fingered a blonde wig hair.
"Anyway, as I was saying. Arturo Toscanini lived to be around ninety years old. Pierre Monteux, Sir George Solti, Ernest Ansermet —all managed long, productive lives. We conductors have a way of fending off the grim reaper, I suppose." He laughed at his own wit.
"Marjorie, dear, you've been so—so quiet. Were you not satisfied with today's rehearsal?"
I looked at him cautiously, without saying a word.
"Did you feel the Rondo went smoothly? Do you have any musical concerns or issues you'd like to discuss?"  
"It was—fine." I picked at my tuna salad.
Translation: Müller, your beat is insufferably slow and erratic, and an accompanist you're not. Is there a God, because if so, I'm praying that we'll make it through this concert without a train wreck. 

"Why, you must be a finicky eater," said Mr. Müller, polishing off his glass of Heineken.
"She watches her diet," insisted my mother. "A young girl must look absolutely flawless for the camera and stage."
"Is that right Frances?"
"Then Marjorie takes after you. You're flawless, Fran."
 My mother crouched over her hot drink, and ripped open a package of Saltines.
"Tell me, Fred. Will there be many prominent individuals attending this Sunday's concert? You know, anyone who might have an impact on my Marjorie's future?"
Mr. Müller thought for a while. "I'm quite certain there'll be an audience of highly esteemed individuals. Instrumentalists from all over the country attend Enid's annual Tri-State Music Festival. Why, they typically host 14,000 students from schools across the nation. I understand that the American Brass Quintet will be featured at the Grand Concert, too, alongside Marjorie. They're terrific, Frances."
"Yes. The trumpeter from that group is New York Phil's youngest player— just a kid 24 or 25 years old.
I think his name is Gerald Schwarz. I'd love to introduce him to Marjorie. I've heard that he's an up and coming—" 
"You don't say," said my mother, biting into a Saltine.
photo of Mr. Müller, my mother and me 1973