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—"