Friday, September 5, 2008

The Song of Names

Like an addict, I need to walk around with a book in my hands. In the past few days the drug of choice has been Norman Lebrecht's The Song of Names, which I'm reading for the second time. I'm an admirer of Norman Lebrecht's music commentaries, so reading The Song of Names, winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, offers a refreshing contrast to his reviews, posts, and non-fiction works. The novel brings the lives of two Jewish boys, Dovid Rappaport and Martin Simmonds together, on the eve of WW II London. Dovid is a wunderkind violinist from Warsaw. His parents have left him in the care of the Simmonds family in London, in order to pursue studies with the eminent Carl Flesch.

The boys Martin and Dovid become inseparably close, like halves of an indivisible whole. On the day of his prominent, international debut, Dovid disappears from the Simmonds household, taking the Guadagnini purchased by Martin's father with him. Martin spends years searching for his boyhood friend, referring to Dovid Rappaport as the missing part of himself.

It isn't until forty years later (forty years wandering in the desert?), that Martin Simmonds, now middle-aged, desperately bored, and condemned to adjudicate a provincial music competition, hears the familiar rubato of his friend Dovid in a young violinist's rendition of a Bach solo work. The competition participant, Peter Stemp, reveals an interpretive style that suggests the influence of his mentor. Martin Simmonds forges ahead on his mission to find the elusive Dovid Rappaport. Through young Peter Stemp's lead in the alleys of London's Orthodox Jewish quarter, Martin reconnects with his long lost friend, Dovid, who has changed beyond imagination. In this captivitating narrative, Lebrecht offers a first-rate glimpse into the business of classical music, as well as provoking the reader to think of the consequences of treating music as competitive sport. Lebrecht reminds the reader of violinist Josef Hassid's young life and career, and it's tragic end.

The description of chassidic Jewish life also reawakens my fascination with the Good Book. I recall years of Torah study with Rabbi Kornfeld, here in Seattle. What do we do after we complete Deuteronomy? I asked. Return to Genesis, he replied, stroking his scraggly beard. And I realized that Jascha Heifetz taught Kreutzer 42 Etudes in a similar manner, with no end in sight.

After reading The Song of Names I appreciate the indelible stamp of an artist/teacher on a talented pupil; recordings of Erick Friedman with shimmering tone and vibrato reminiscent of Heifetz, come to mind. When I collaborated with pianist Randolph Hokanson during our Beethoven Sonata cycle in 2005, he recalled memories of Myra Hess. Of today's aspiring artists, a Seattle area treasure, Camden Shaw, the prize-winning cellist extraordinaire now at Curtis, will always possess a spark of his late teacher, David Tonkonogui.

Ironically, if you listen carefully to side by side concerts with Garfield and Seattle Symphony, you might detect some Talvi.

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