Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Search Of Lost Time

Marcel Proust's Open Sesame and the magic lantern seem to have taken effect. While stepping into "In Search Of Lost Time" I discovered a sort of kindred spirit and guide in the voice of Proust. I picked up my first volume "Swann In Love" over this summer when I was struck by a longing to play Wagner's "Ring Cycle". Although I had sent a personal letter to the general director reminding him of my past contributions to the first violin section in previous cycles, practically begging for mercy from retaliatory behavior by the local snobs, I found myself one of many rejected artists, denied and dispossessed. I tried to be sympathetic to the general director, since he had, years ago in our house, claimed not to have understood what a concertmaster's role is, although himself a former music critic. His orders had come from above; from the dark gods, and he didn't have the spine of bendable zirconium like say, Peter Gelb.

I ordered a Proust 6-pack after perusing Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and decided, right then and there, to succumb to the thousands of  pages. Envisioning "In Search of Lost Time" as a sort of replacement for playing excruciatingly long, sinuous Wagnerian phrases—what notes are to music, words are to prose—I was not mistaken. Every Gospel-like page that I turn, transports me to salons from my past where local braggarts compared stock market successes and flaunted Bar and Bat Mitvah parties. As a music librarian once asked: What do you give the thirteen-year-old child who already has the moon?

As you can see, I get a bit worked up over what must seem like tit-for-tat. It's the Jewish New Year. I'll begin with a fresh tradition. Proust owned a theatre-phone on which he used to listen to live performances. Metropolitan Opera at the Movies will become my new tradition, which hopefully guarantees a snob-free zone featuring first-rate productions, by truly world class singers and orchestra musicians, like oboist Nathan Hughes. No hearing aids or opera glasses needed. Popcorn?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Golden Birthday

Yesterday we celebrated our daughter Sarah's golden birthday. We began by offering gifts of the spirit, for although Sarah is age seventeen, she is, I'm convinced, an old soul. A few hours after she was born, I fell asleep with her by my side, and found that the gentleness of her presence calmed and soothed me. It has been that way ever since.

When my mother lay dying in the critical care unit of Harborview, Sarah, then age 12, stood close by her grandmother's bed, stroking my mother's face with her hand, tears rolling down her cheeks, but firm in her conviction that my mother would forever remain with us. The youngest child of two artists, Sarah has sensed the sorrow of dreams gone awry, but has taught us, by thoughtful words and actions, to perceive each day as a blessing; each day another opportunity to try to improve life's ills. Every Sunday, after she volunteers her afternoons for patients at Children's Hospital, she calmly tells us that to go outdoors and bask in the delights of nature is a privilege not to be taken lightly, as is a bike ride, a swim in the frigid waters of the Puget Sound, or a sweaty climb to the peak of Tiger Mountain. She rushes outside to greet the sunshine, rain and sometimes snow; the scent of fresh air lingering on her face and in her beautiful hair.

Sarah gathers the richness of all things sublime; she is a lover of music and poetry; a believer in the transcendent ability of the arts to transform the spirit and world; a champion of the under-privileged. Her imagination soars to faraway places and galaxies. She has taught my ears to accept different harmonies, my eyes to see beyond the physical, and though I may never quite succeed, she encourages my heart to forgive.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Special Tribute

One of the benefits of creating a blog is that you have your own media platform. So, although I was not invited to share reflections of my former colleague and collaborator, Gerard Schwarz, in the local paper, no worries; my laptop awaits. The only quote from an orchestra member was from an old flute player (one has to wonder why); I suppose it was like asking Donald Rumsfeld for his opinion of Dick Cheney.

Our paths crossed briefly in 1973, at the Tri-State Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma. I was the featured soloist with a youth orchestra performing Saint-SaĆ«ns "Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso". Gerard Schwarz appeared as a twenty-something-year-old trumpeter with the American Brass Quintet on the same program. As happens with musicians, worlds meet and, not infrequently, collide. When I turned nineteen, lost in the commercial maelstrom known as Los Angeles, I wandered into an audition for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Word had it that a young, talented trumpet player was to replace Sir Neville Marriner. He was an ambitious, well-connected brass player-turned-conductor, a fellow who appeared to want to be liked by all, and introduced himself as Jerry. His future was pledged in gold with backers rooting for him on both coasts. Schwarz and I realized that we had met years before at Tri-State, and with that revelation, we struck up an immediate rapport. My first professional contract was offered, and the new maestro placed me in the second violin section. I was raw and inexperienced in section playing, having concentrated mainly on solo repertoire. And it was in LACO that, after being reprimanded at least a hundred times for sticking out, I became enamored with the chamber orchestra literature enough to pursue this very course in years ahead, as a concertmaster for Seattle's now defunct Northwest Chamber Orchestra. Works such as Barber's Adagio, Diamond's Rounds, and Grieg's Holberg Suite sharpened my ensemble skills and led me on a whole different path to a form of what I'd describe as disciplined individuality. 

My professional years in Los Angeles, and later New York, is material not for a blog entry, but a personal memoir. Suffice to say, I followed Schwarz's baton in many settings: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (having ascended to the first violin section after one season), Waterloo Festival, White Mountain Festival, New York Chamber Symphony, and as a regular ringer for Seattle Symphony, while my husband served as concertmaster for over twenty years. I recount Schwarz's early years, especially before wife number three, with fondness. There was a certain charm factor in his willingness to seek answers to his questions, or the invitation for healthy debate, his youthful ability to shrug off retorts from players, no matter how snippy and sarcastic. That was before he perfected the art of retaliation.

"I am forward looking," says Schwarz at this juncture in his career. And that is a good thing, because as they say in this cruel business, Gerard Schwarz's future is behind him.
Painting of Schwarz by Roy Munday

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Teacher Shopping

The end of summer usually brings a round of prospective violin students eager to make a switch to a new teacher. Sometimes a youngster enters the studio, violin case in hand, without any music or material, expecting me to provide an instant curriculum. A parent usually follows into the room displaying an expression which reads: Are you, perhaps, the one teacher to be entrusted to transform my wunderkind into the next Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn?

And each potential student that I encounter, with anxious parents in tow, takes me back to my own young years. At the age of fourteen, my mother determined, as she did with anything related to musical education, that it was time to "move on". Qualified applicants for the task of guiding my violin lessons were scrutinized, with a final toss up going to Jascha Heifetz, Joseph Silverstein, and Dorothy DeLay. As it happened, Mr. Heifetz taught at USC in Los Angeles, so studies with him would have required an entire family relocation. Lessons with Ms. DeLay at Juilliard would have meant a continuation of the weekly Greyhound bus commutes from Boston to New York during the night. But Mr. Silverstein, then concertmaster of Boston Symphony, was in my backyard, so to speak. His regular appearances on WGBH television with BSO made him, in my eyes, an icon. To this day, I have a splendid memory of listening to an entire recital of his at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. As he performed the Adagio from Sonata in G Minor of J.S.Bach, I sat mesmerized by the choreography of his bushy eyebrows raising in tandem with the violin bow. So it was with great anticipation that I auditioned for Mr. Silverstein, back in 1973, at his studio in the Berkshires. I presented for him the very same Bach solo sonata movement as he had played at the Gardner Museum. My mother waited outside the studio for Mr. Silverstein's verdict. My father, who drove us everywhere in a pea-green Oldsmobile, and detested driving, went for a sanity walk to smoke a pack of cigarettes.

After the generous hour spent with Mr. Silverstein, a lesson which included valuable insight about bow technique and relaxation, he exchanged a few words with my mother. I believe Mr. Silverstein's message was that to choose to play in a professional orchestra on a par with Boston Symphony in later years, would be an ideal profession for a young woman, especially if that woman had expectations of balancing a family life with a career.

And that was Joseph Silverstein's fatal flaw with Frances Kransberg. Because, you see, my mother's daughter was not to become just an "orchestral" player, but something, in her mind, much more.
photo of Joseph Silverstein

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Gift

My twelve year old student, Lev, arrived for his lesson holding an antiquated composition book of Mazurkas and Waltzes for solo violin. Gino, the composer of these compositions, awaits his 100th birthday in a small village in the mountains of Tuscany, with a longing to hear his music before he dies. Of all the treasures in Gino's life, the violin remains his dearest, though at Gino's age he can no longer play. And it is for this reason that Lev clutches the composition book written in 1930; he will gift Gino with a recording of these never performed, cherished works.

My little Lev dutifully sets the composition book onto the music stand. He opens the first page to a Mazurka. The composition is nearly impossible to decipher; ink blotches conceal many of the notes, and some others have squiggly tails for stems covering the bar lines and rhythm. "Is that note a D," I ask, "or a B?" Both tones could belong to the key. Lev plays the D. "It's this," he asserts, and repeats the phrase from beginning to end. I observe closely as my young student strokes the thin, frayed paper with care, slowly turning to the next page: Waltz. The opening measures of this Waltz have faded over time. Other notes appear to have vanished. "What's that?" I point with my bow. Lev squints. He strokes the composition book as if it's a piece of parchment of Dead Sea Scrolls. We play our violins together and try to telepathically reconstruct the score. "That's called artistic license," I say, as Lev adds a flourish to a final measure, psychically sensing his way to the end. The creation makes musical sense, and we are both satisfied.

Gino's music has taken up much of the hour; it is time to work on the beloved Mendelssohn Concerto. Lev's sound is sweet, his interpretative style, innocent; perfect for the classicism of Mendelssohn. But an occasional incorrect rhythm and wrong note stubbornly reappear week after week, like an uninvited guest. "Lev" I say. "Play for Felix the way you do for Gino, with regard for every note, as if he, too, will hear his music for the last time—as a gift."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pistachio Anniversary

A few days ago, we triumphed to our 25th wedding anniversary. Ilkka returned the day before from Iceland and Finland, in honor of our event. How, exactly, did we celebrate? Well, I found my husband glued to the television as he watched Ted Kennedy's funeral, a carton of Haagen-Dazs Pistachio ice-cream on his lap, the spoon lovingly held between his fingers.

"It's our anniversary," I said. "Are you just going to sit there, stare at the funeral procession, and pig out on ice-cream?"
He looked up, spooning the remainder of the ice-cream, which had melted into a sweet syrup. "What more appropriate way to celebrate a wedding anniversary than by watching a funeral?"
"Like, you mean, it's symbolic?"
"Kind of—" he shrugged.

Which reminds me. My daughter, Anna and her fiance Andrew Blick will be getting married in a matter of months. Twenty two years ago I waddled around Green Lake, in my almost tenth month, while desperately trying to prompt her out of the womb. Anna was a large baby; just under nine pounds, with elbows and feet that kept jabbing my insides. Ilkka was given time off from one of the Wagnerian operas to assist at her birth. I seem to have a hazy recollection of trying to use all the various labor techniques with my husband, like deep breathing exercises and whooshing sounds, only to conclude that his presence in the delivery room fueled my discontent, though admittedly, he looked handsome in scrubs. After two grueling days of non-stop contractions, Anna Mirjam Talvi announced her way into the world with a piercing scream, while bewitching the entire birthing unit by her fine, cherubic features. "No Cone-Head for us," muttered my husband. "She's beautiful."

"You smell just right," my husband says to me, alluding to pheromones and their powerful means to attract, which results in a "perfect genetic match". The ice-cream carton is emptied; the television switched off; Facebook can wait for one more day. I inhale. He smells of pistachio. I can tell you, I'm good for at least another twenty five years with this man.
Photo by Sarah Talvi