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—"