Thursday, December 23, 2010

Professor Klimt (Ch.14 Pt.1)

I was sitting in the lobby of Mr. Friedman's Lincoln Plaza apartment alone, without my mother. I waited for the doorman's signal at the front desk to go upstairs. My father had stormed out of the house that week, driven all the way to Virginia, and finally returned days later, heavily intoxicated, only to proclaim that he had every intention of beginning a new life—with a shiksa. My mother was beside herself with panic. "I'll stay home this Saturday, Margie, to be with your father. Do you think you can get to Erick Friedman's apartment and the Manhattan School of Music by yourself? It means taking the bus and navigating your way around New York City."
"I know," I said.
"This, you've never done alone."
"Don't worry, Mom. I'm old enough to handle it. Sixteen."
She packed a huge shopping bag with woolen sweaters, music books, an egg salad sandwich, two cartons of juice, and a banana. There were tears in her eyes. She whispered so my father wouldn't hear. "I'm afraid if I leave this time for New York, he'll walk out again for good. Margie, your father's not well." And she looped circles with her index finger by her ear.
I nodded in agreement. "Really, Mom, I'll be fine."
"And don't you worry about Harry Dickson's letter. He was just cranky. Harry's Harry. What more can I say? You'll have other opportunities—"
I closed my eyes to extinguish the memory of Symphony Hall.

Meantime, I was eager to prove my autonomy to Mr. Friedman. Instead of a mama's girl, I felt suddenly  transformed into a young woman about to explore Manhattan on my own. Before I left, I had taken my mother's Maybelline set from the bathroom and packed it in my bag. In Mr. Friedman's lobby, after the five hour bus ride, I held up a pocket mirror and swabbed Blue Freeze over my eye lids. Next, I dabbed Mauve on my lips and applied a few quick strokes to my cheeks, as I had watched my mother do on occasion. I undid my shoulder length braids and held strands of frizz between my fingers, letting them fall against my face. I reached into my coat pocket for the Binaca and sprayed a few blasts, then breathed into my hand and sniffed.
"OK, young lady, Mr. Friedman says you can go up now."
"The professor's waiting for you," said the doorman. "Elevator's straight ahead."

I rang Mr. Friedman's buzzer and listened for the sound of his deliberate footsteps. The door opened and he peered down at me with soft espresso eyes. My heart pounded with pleasure as I gazed up at his unbuttoned white shirt and rolled up sleeves which exposed a dark tan and enormous biceps.
Mr. Friedman glanced across the hallway. "Where's your mother?" His voice was so low that I thought he had swallowed the last syllable.
"She couldn't make it today," I said, thrusting back my shoulders.
 "Is—is everything all right?"
"Fine." I tried to keep from smiling. At the moment, I couldn't imagine better.
The way he studied my face, I wondered if there was something wrong with my make-up.
"Please, dear, how rude of me to keep you standing there. Won't you come inside? May I take your coat?"
I walked past him, as if the apartment belonged to me, or as if I belonged to him. I peeked inside the kitchenette and couldn't help but notice a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. There were remnants of chicken bones and mixed vegetables in the garbage pail. He obviously hadn't been alone the evening before.

Klimt: sketch for The Bride, 1917
I took a few steps near the sofa by the coffee table, and placed my violin case within eye-shot of Mr. Friedman's art work. His drawings of nude ladies reminded me of a book of sketches by Gustav Klimt at the Boston Public Library that I had seen, but decided not to check out. Mr. Friedman's sketches displayed a striking similarity to Klimt, and I found them fascinating. Did women really pose like that? I wondered.
"I've been thinking of you," he said.
"Really?" I felt blood rush to my cheeks as I slowly unbuttoned my coat.
"Yes, sweetheart." His eyes lingered on my fingers unclasping the buttons.
"I've been thinking about you because your father telephoned me regarding the concert with Boston Symphony. He mentioned something about a letter, or a critique."
"Oh God." I finished unbuttoning my coat and threw it on top of the violin case.
"I don't want you to feel demoralized. Because I too—"
Just then, the phone rang. I had been spared.

"Hello?" asked Mr. Friedman. "Yes, baby, I know. Yes, of course, we'll have lunch on Thursday. I'm sorry I didn't get back to you but my parents—you know. My father erupted into one of his tirades. And I worry about him. The man eats like there's no tomorrow. He'll have a heart attack one of these days."
A high-pitched voice at the other end rattled away.
"I promise I'll call later, baby. My student is here now."
He hung up.
"As I was saying, Margie dear."
The phone rang again.
"Will you excuse me?"
"Sure," I said, as I pretended to mindlessly gaze at the sketch of a reclining nude lady with a bouquet of flowers between her legs.
"Hello sweet!" he said into the mouthpiece. (I gathered it was a different girlfriend). "How are you? Yes, I know we have a date for Friday. What about a bite to eat first and then the movie?"
He paused for a while.
"OK, OK. I'll give you a buzz later. I have a student here and she's traveled all the way from Boston."
Mr. Friedman placed the receiver back on the phone and stepped closer toward me. The gold rope chain and mezuzah pendant laid across his black-haired chest and gleamed in the early morning sunlight.
"I'm so sorry. As I was saying—"

The phone rang again. "Just ignore it," he said, waving it off as it rang endlessly.
"Again, it all comes back to the question of muscular relaxation and knowing what to do during the pressure of a performance."
"I don't get it," I said, as I had week after week, and looked up at him pleadingly.
"Let me offer you an analogy."
I waited.
"Defensive driving."
"I don't drive."
"Well, imagine operating a car during, let's say, a snowstorm.You need to understand how to apply the brakes and manage the steering wheel. Initially you might find yourself gripping the wheel but then, the moment you take control, you begin to relax. Before you know it, you're just driving; well, not just driving, but enjoying. Margie dear. Take out your violin, and we'll begin, so that you practice control."

I had brought the slow movement of the Brahms Concerto. We worked on the opening phrase for almost thirty minutes. "Balance the bow," he said. I felt his large hand over my own, to help guide the stick. "Save at the beginning of the stroke. That's right. Otherwise you might feel yourself running out of bow at the end which squelches the sound and induces panic. Think directionally. Again, like driving a car."
He pointed to the notes on the page.
"This phrase begins here and arrives there; a destination."
"Oh, I get it!" I started again.
"Now raise your elbow higher at the frog."
"Like this?" I signaled while playing.
"That's correct. That way the control is eased away from the hand and directed into the arm to minimize tremor. The hand may tremble if you're anxious, but not the elbow."
"Mine does," I quipped.
He laughed softly. "You're such a pleasure to teach. Just relax. Consciously."
He picked up his del Gesu, tucked it tenderly under his chin, and offered the first theme of the Brahms. Phrases opened like flowers; glissandi lingered as embraces; Erick Friedman's resplendent tone could melt the coldest of hearts.

Later, he put the violin down and took his seat by the piano but not without the requisite lecture. "I know all this can be demoralizing—the technique of defensive playing— because, as one becomes aware, one often feels worse before getting better. I tried to explain this to your father but I'm not sure he understood. Funny man, your father."
I looked down at the floor and didn't laugh.

Mr. Friedman continued after an awkward silence. "When you're a child, you don't know any better, you just play in front of an audience as you're told. No nerves; completely unselfconscious; that's how it was for Menuhin and many, many others. Now, if you happen to be an exhibitionist, again no problem. Because exhibitionists actually get a thrill, or a rush, from parading in front of others stark naked. But Margie dear, that's an anomaly. It's normal to sense fear and feel trepidation at your age. The adrenaline kicks in and we have a fight or flight response. Unless—"
"Unless what?" I asked, gazing into his eyes, completely absorbed.
"I'm telling you, some people are just too stupid to sense anything—"
"Really? I wondered about that," I said.
"I hope you'll attend my concerts at Carnegie Hall. I'm performing six concertos in two nights, including Brahms, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. Korngold, too. I want to play the Korngold as an encore for Jascha. He won't hear it, of course, but never mind. And you think I'm not going to feel pressure? Ha! If the Stern Mafia could silence me—"
I looked at him quizzically.
"Yes, that's right. Isaac Stern. If he had his way, I'd no longer be concertizing."
"What happened?"
Mr. Friedman stopped, remembered.
"Between you and Stern?" I pressed.
"Too long a story for today—but I'll share it with you another time."

I completed the Brahms Concerto with Mr. Friedman accompanying at the piano. Even while he stopped numerous times to point out corrections, my spirits soared. He apologized for the fistfuls of wrong notes at the keyboard, but I found them charming. "I'm a clunker," he said.
"No, you're not!"
"We'll continue next week."
The session ended much too quickly. When I glanced at my watch, I realized that we had spent two hours together, and if I didn't hurry, I'd be late for a Mendelssohn Trio coaching with pianist Joseph Seiger, the esteemed accompanist and friend to Mischa Elman. Mr. Seiger was a munificent pedagogue, able to unlock  hidden details in the score. I packed up my violin, tossed my coat over my shoulders, and looked searchingly at Mr. Friedman. If I quit playing, as I had thought about doing, I might lose him.

He got up from the piano bench and reached for the door.
"Put on your coat," he said, "it's cold outside."
As I brushed past him to leave, he stroked my cheek lightly with the back of his hand.
"You're so talented," he whispered.
Halfway down the hallway near the elevators, Mr. Friedman opened the door again and called out, "Marjorie?"
His bass-baritone voice filled the hall.
I turned around immediately, eager to return. "What? What?"
"Do you need money for a taxi?"