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."