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—"