Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Abandonment (Ch. 15)

It was the day after my seventeenth birthday, summer of '76. We had sold our house, driven cross country to Los Angeles, and rented a place on La Cienega before my father made this declaration:
"Frances, we're getting a divorce. I've had it."
My mother and I learned eventually, through Uncle Harry, that my father had been involved with another woman, a Swedish masseuse, during the years I took lessons in New York. The affair began when Kris, the Swede, had strutted into Kransberg's Furniture to purchase a highboy, and offered each of the Kransberg men a massage for a discounted price on the piece. My father lowered himself onto a LaZBoy recliner, and succumbed. After the massage, Kris got the highboy, wholesale.

I imagine that my father must have felt somewhat conflicted about dropping us off in Los Angeles like two duffel bags. The moment we arrived in the smog-filled, sprawling metropolis, he must have missed his sweetheart, Kris, who probably plied and tugged his body like a lump of dough. My father begged to be let out of the prison that was his marriage, to be relieved of the ball and chain that was his violinist daughter, to finally start a new chapter and, borrowing a line from Frank Sinatra: "To do it his way."

My mother called him crazy, told him that he was exhausted, over-wrought from retirement, the relocation, the sale of our house. At the time she knew nothing of the extra-marital affair. My father responded by pounding his chest like a penitent Jew at Yom Kippur. Our small living room on La Cienega had turned into a Wailing Wall. I covered my ears hoping the neighbors would be spared.
"Forgive me, forgive me, Frances! I waited all these years. I waited till Marjorie finished high-school and turned seventeen. She's gonna take care of you from now on. I can't go on pretending—"
My fifty-five year-old mother slumped to her knees on the brown shag carpet, sobbing. An eternity seemed to pass before she found strength to respond.
"You're sick! Cruel! Mixed-up in the head, John. We've been married thirty-seven years. No, wait." Her lips moved frantically as she counted. "We've been together over forty years. I was thirteen, you were fifteen—I'd walk all the way from Derby Street in Salem to Cabot Street in Beverly just to be with you—remember? The Willows. Forest River Park. Our parents, may they rest in peace, never knew from a divorce in the Old Country! It's a shande, a disgrace. You can't abandon Margie and me at a time like this in a foreign city. Oh God, why, why, why are we here?"

I threw my arms around my mother. Her shoulders convulsed with grief.
"Please, please," my mother barely caught her breath. "At least stay for Margie. Our baby just turned seventeen. She needs us both. I'll be good. A good wife—"
"Mum, it'll be OK," I cried. The man standing at the door was a stranger; he meant nothing to me now. "Shhh! Really, let him go," I pleaded. "Can't you see? Daddy doesn't want to be with us."
She reached for my father; hands out-stretched. "I thought—I really thought, John, that we were to begin life anew." Her voice broke between sobs. "But as a family."
Moments later, he stepped out the door. The man that had been my father was gone.

♭♩ ♬♮♬ ♯♪♮♩ ♯♬ ♮♩ ♫ ♯♪♭♩

About a month after my father's grand finale, I sat in the backseat of the car while my mother drove to Jascha Heifetz' house in Beverly Hills. It was a deliciously warm afternoon. I rolled open the window of our Oldsmobile to catch a breeze and feel the sun on my face. My father had left the car to my mother, along with a six figure check from the sale of our New England home. She cried the whole way, through stop signs and traffic lights. "Your father will return, precious dolly. I know he will. Almost forty years of marriage. You don't just throw it all away. He'll come back. He will." A few miles later. "Won't he?"

I alternated between chewing my nails and practicing the scales mentally in the car.
G Flat; yes, six flats. E Flat, the relative minor. Starting in first position and immediately to third, all the way up and down three octaves. I had worked diligently on the bloody scales, for I had to make it into the masterclass, had to. I dressed for the audition in the manner that Claire Hodgkins, his former assistant, had suggested: skirt slightly below the knees, about two inches, blouse with 3/4 sleeve, hair loosely tied back, eye-glasses replaced with contact lenses. Jascha Heifetz would not accept a female that looked like a male, especially a bespectacled one into the class. Light mascara and lip gloss had been dabbed but not coated. I wore flat-heeled and well-polished shoes.

My mother lurched along Sunset Blvd; drivers honked and swore. "Yo! Dudette. Step on it, will ya?" "Let's see," she said, ignoring the rude gestures and comments while holding notebook paper up to the windshield. "This says: Turn right on North Beverly Drive to Coldwater Canyon. Right on Lindacrest which becomes Lloydcrest. Up the winding hill to 1520 Gilcrest Drive." I was beginning to feel carsick from the sudden starts and stops. "Almost there."
She tapped her foot from gas pedal to brake, gas pedal, brake.
"Look, dolly. The wooden security gate!"
My mother announced our names into the intercom; I folded my hands prayer-like: calm down, calm down, calm down.

At the audition, I tossed whatever scales Heifetz requested with uncharacteristic ease. To my surprise, it felt as if we were engaged in a game of ping-pong, his favorite leisure activity. Heifetz served a key and I returned the scale. He inquired as to what else I had prepared, and I replied with the Vieuxtemps Fifth Concerto. Ayke Agus, a beautiful Indonesian woman, accompanied me at the piano. Heifetz tapped against his desk with a TV antennae for us to stop right before the cadenza.
"Marjorie Kransberg, Marjorie Kransberg," I heard him say, slowly at first, then faster, as if recalling my initial audition from years back. I was thirteen at that time and had failed the scale test.
"Is that your name?"
I nodded apologetically. "Yes."
"That's rather a mouthful, I would say."
 And I found myself wondering: Why did I have to get stuck with such a crummy, polysyllabic name? Kransberg, the name of our ancestral village in the Ukraine, was bad enough; worse, it reminded me of my father and all the other cantankerous Kransbergs.
"Do you have a middle name? Most people do."
"Jill." My tongue rested against my front teeth.
"Marjorie Jill Kransberg," he said, accenting the Jill. "An even bigger mouthful."
I agreed whole-heartedly.

"Well, Ayke? What's your verdict?"
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye.
She smiled up at me, then at him, and nodded. Her voice was soft and kind. "I thought Marjorie's audition went very well, Mr. Heifetz."
There was an awkward silence as he fidgeted with the antennae and gazed out the expansive window. After clearing his throat, he said matter-of-factly, "You will begin in the fall."
I nodded. Ayke nodded. Heifetz nodded.
"Well, since we all seem to be in agreement here— Ayke, you may inform her mother."
"Shall I bring Marjorie's mother into the studio, Mr. Heifetz?"
"No, Ayke. You may not."
"Yes, Mr. Heifetz."
She raised herself from the piano bench, and stepped gracefully out of the studio.

While I went to pack away my violin, he edged near. "Who, may I ask, have you studied with—recently, that is?"
I gazed up at him, trying to read the piercing blue eyes. Had he noticed a marked improvement in my playing from my prior audition, because, if so, it was the result of Erick Friedman, his protégé's teaching.
"Erick Friedman," I stated, and loosened my bow hairs.
"Erick Friedman," I repeated, thinking Mr. Heifetz must not have heard.
 "I don't know the name," he said.

Class party at Heifetz' beach house in Malibu

I was to become enlightened at the first session of the Heifetz Masterclass. Mr. Heifetz entered the room without fanfare at the Thornton School of Music at U.S.C, took a seat behind his large desk, and, after wishing us all a good morning, had the students introduce themselves to one another: Jacqueline Brand, Sherry Kloss, Tony Sen, Christian Bor,  Daniel Mason, Barbara Nord, and Stacey Phelps. Mr. Heifetz then made an attempt to ease our jitters by espousing his philosophical views about teaching. He said that he hoped to inspire the class to learn and never stop learning, for that was, in his opinion, the goal of every dedicated teacher. The students, lined in a row against the wall, listened with rapt attention. Mr. Heifetz concluded his brief introductory remarks by urging us to remember that each and every human being is, indeed, a member of the animal kingdom.

Perhaps that explains everything.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Warnings (Ch.14 Pt.3)

Backstage at Carnegie Hall, I watched as my father inched up the receiving line to speak with Erick Friedman. As he made his way to the violinist, surrounded by enthusiastic audience members waving program books to be signed, I huddled closer to my mother. I had an inkling that my teacher would be upset by the news of my departure from his studio. It was all so sudden. Mr. Friedman took notice of my father, smiled, and then cast a glance in my direction. I could tell that he was expecting the kudos he well deserved for having played three concertos splendidly plus an encore in one evening. His eyes signaled to me, "If I can do this, you can too someday." But then, my father whispered something into Mr. Friedman's ear, and my teacher stepped back, wounded.  I could imagine my father's words. "You understand Boychik. It's for the best. We're talking Los Angeles and Heifetz now."

David Oistrakh sketched by Friedman
The following Saturday I went to my lesson, as usual, with my mother. The man that towered over six feet, and opened the door to the apartment resembled Erick Friedman, but his manner was aloof. My mother, sensing his displeasure, was full of apologies.
"I know Erick. I know. It's difficult to lose a fine pupil. But my husband. Well, if we don't mind him, there's no predicting what he'll do. This is sort of a mid-life crisis, I suppose."
Erick Friedman paced from piano to music stand, the mezuzah pendant bouncing across his broad, hairy chest. I glanced up at the wall while unpacking and noticed my teacher's drawing of violinist, David Oistrakh, next to the nudes. I wanted to inquire about the picture but felt inhibited.

"It's not that I wish to prevent your daughter from studying with Jascha. Quite the contrary.
She should, of course, have the same opportunities that I myself had. It's just that—"
And his voice broke off. I already missed being called "Margie dear." I'd return to Erick Friedman someday though; this much I knew.
"It's just what?" asked my mother.
"Your daughter's not prepared. This is all premature."
My mother looked askance.
"What—what do you mean?"
Mr. Friedman turned to me. "Begin with a three-octave F Sharp Major scale in single notes, followed by arpeggios, then thirds, sixths, octaves, fingered octaves and tenths."
I propped the violin under my chin.
"You better dispense with that shoulder rest. Heifetz won't tolerate it."

The sudden irritation in Mr. Friedman's voice rattled my nerves. My hands turned cold. I unclasped the pad from the back of the violin and set it down in my case. I attacked the scale going up but fell apart on the way down, as my fingers stiffened.
"Again. Start from the top," Mr. Friedman ordered. I lingered on the first note.
"In tempo!" And he tapped against the piano lid which he had never done before.
I resumed the exercise and stumbled.
"You're going to play for Heifetz—like that?"
The tears came. My mother dug into her pocketbook for a hanky. I reached for it.
"We have much work to do," he growled. "I don't want another one of those phone calls from him."
I wiped the tears and blew into the hanky. "What do you mean?"
"I set up an audition for a former student of mine not long ago. And I warned her about the scale test. Oh, Jascha was perfectly polite to her, but me..."

Mr. Friedman began to pace more agitatedly, and thought aloud. "Imagine, I get a call at two in the morning. Half asleep, I pick up the phone. He doesn't even announce his name. Never does. I hear the familiar clipped speech. 'Erick', he says, 'you have no respect for me'. And he hangs up. Just like that. All because my student wasn't prepared—"
I heard my mother gasp. "My Margie'll be prepared! Don't you worry!"

Mr. Friedman persisted. "You'll see. The man is fantastically dedicated to perfection. He's a martinet when it comes to those scales."
"I know," I said through tears, as I recalled my audition from a few years ago.
"I have a theory, actually, that Heifetz's attitude toward scales is predicated on the need to reduce his own emotional tension. Inside, he's a seething volcano. But I learned to cope with this because I observed and analyzed his playing."
"Margie'll learn too," reassured my mother from across the room.
Mr. Friedman shook his head. "The shoulder surgery was unsuccessful. Heifetz can no longer lift his right arm to demonstrate. It's not the same, his playing; in fact, he can barely play at all. Your daughter won't have the benefit of analytical observation that I had."
My throat went dry. What a cruel fate for a concert violinist.

"He's not one to spoon feed his pupils, Marjorie. You'll find out. One time when I lifted the stand up in his studio to conform to my own height, he lowered it to the original height and said, 'It's fine for me.'"
Mr. Friedman paused.
"And if you're accepted into the class, but fail to meet his requirements at any time, you'll be out.  Students are dismissed at the slightest provocation, including romantic relationships. I felt as if I was living in a convent when I studied with him. What, I was supposed to be married to the violin? I'm going to turn into a monk all of a sudden?"
Words failed me.
"All right. I should have heeded his advice and not entered the Tchaikovsky Competition. He called me up, middle of the night, in that cryptic manner of his, and emphatically advised me not to go. 'Erick, you'll see what will happen there.  I'm warning you—' But I went to Moscow anyway at the insistence of David Oistrakh. I figured since Oistrakh was head of the jury and a friend—"
I gazed up again at the sketch of the Soviet violinist, and admired the likeness.
"That's a beautiful drawing," I muttered.

Ignoring my compliment, he continued. "Heifetz suspected that I was being set up by his detractors; after all, he was anti-Soviet, and they were anti-Heifetz. I was rather naive back then in the 60's. After the competition Heifetz phoned me. 'You see, Erick. I told you this would happen. You have no respect for me.'"
I bit down on my lower lip. It pained me to find my teacher so upset; I knew that having placed sixth in the Tchaikovsky Competition, at a time when he already had a concert career along with a recording contract, was a terrible setback.
"My relationship with Jascha was never the same after that," he confessed.
I looked up at Mr. Friedman, sensing the desperate yearning he felt for his mentor's validation. I wanted to throw my arms around my teacher. And, most urgently, I wanted to repair the trust that had been broken between Heifetz and him. I was determined to play a successful audition with scales backwards and forwards, if that's what it took.
"Always remember, Marjorie. A student grappling with difficulties is, to Jascha Heifetz, a contaminant; an infection to be gotten rid of."