Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gates of Freedom

We're down to crunch time before Passover, and like my daughter, Anna, says in her recent post, I'm a nervous wreck. If you saw my kitchen, and the mess scattered everywhere, you'd understand why. There are piles of papers which appear to proliferate right before my eyes, and boxes of leavened products which must be dispensed with in the remaining hours. Our water heater blew this morning in the downstairs kitchen; it almost felt as if the Red Sea had come to us! 

Pesakh, or Passover, commemorates the Israelites' escape from enslavement in Egypt. Jewish people throughout the world remember the importance of the event by eating special foods linked to the bitterness of bondage. We dwell on what it means to be liberated, beyond the Biblical event, during our Seder. This year, for the Haggadah, or narrative, each participant will have at his or her place setting Chaim Stern's "The Gates of Freedom". It is a beautiful book filled with wisdom from the sages. One Chassidic message particularly meaningful to me:
You cannot be redeemed until you see your own flaws, and try to correct them. We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves. 
For it is all too easy to point out faults in others without recognizing the same faults in ourselves. My daughter Sarah reminds me that what we see in others is most often our own reflection.

Last Friday evening, I attended the SIFF theater (in association with Seattle Jewish Film Festival) for the presentation of: "Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss" directed by Felix Moeller. Veit Harlan was one of Germany's most notorious filmmakers, having collaborated with the Nazis in the making of anti-Semitic propaganda films, including Jew Süss, which was required to be watched by every S.S. member. Mr. Moeller's candid documentary focuses on the shadow Veit Harlan cast on his children and descendants, and the stigma they have had to endure throughout three generations. While a few of Harlan's descendants (he was married three times) converted or married into Judaism, the most poignant interview and perspective was that of Thomas Harlan, the first born. Left with intense shame for the actions and unrepentant attitude of his father Veit Harlan, Thomas has led a life of relentless activism in support of Jewish victims, and others who have been demonized and oppressed. Certainly, he has loved his father, but Thomas Harlan has been the most vocal critic of his father's work.

In my opinion, Moeller's documentary "Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss," is an excellent film for Passover. Besides dealing with the universal theme of guilt and responsibility, this film, though not explicitly, commemorates the Miracle of the First Born.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Birth Announcement

So, we're eating lunch today, and Ilkka glances up from his plate, and asks, "Whatever happened to the memoir that you spent almost two years working on? Why don't you just go ahead and publish it?'
"Oh yeah," I said, having forgotten about my childhood memoir. "Too busy blogging, I suppose."
"But it's all written," he says with a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Your memoir is saved online on Google Documents. You could just publish your story in weekly installments, like the Russian writers of the past."
"I'm not sure. My memoir is so—juvenile."
"C'mon," he says. "You took all those writing workshops; what was the point in spending all that money? And it shows a different side to your life. It's your childhood perspective, after all."

I take a bite of the sandwich. The combination of dark rye, pickle, horseradish, dill havarti cheese, and peppered turkey fires up my imagination. Basket Case wine goes down smooth. I remember writing the memoir with the intention of giving it to my father as a peace offering, but he went and died before the completion. Just the same, I forged my way to the Epilogue.
I gaze into my husband's greenish eyes. How can I resist?
 "Ok," I say. "I'll do it."

Here it is. Frantic: the Memoir.
Here I am at age 6.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


This video showing Minneapolis Symphony concertmaster, Roger Frisch, undergoing brain surgery to relieve him of bow shake seems like an act of desperation, and rather ghoulish to me. I agree with Mr. Frisch that a loss of bow control is the kiss of death for a violinist. By now, it's no secret that most professionals and conservatory students regularly rely on low dose beta-blockers, and sometimes alcohol or benzodiazepines, to prevent adrenaline from wreaking havoc on a performance. I feel empathy for Mr. Frisch. We've all been there—not on the operating table perhaps, but faced with a loss of control during a sudden, intense rush of adrenaline. This condition, I might add, can strike at any magic moment.

I remember in my youth watching a scary performance of Yehudi Menuhin struggle through the Beethoven Concerto. He suffered anguish during the long sustained held notes which turned into flying staccato. I was so impressionable as a youngster that the effect of watching a great artist battle bow shake replicated itself in my own performances, a week or so later, and stuck for some time. These were the days before Propranolol, commonly known as Inderal. At some point, during the mid 1970's, I became a student of Erick Friedman at the Manhattan School of Music. I never thought he had been tormented by stage fright and bow shake, as he reminded me of a prize fighter, but sure enough, Friedman was all too eager to talk about his own survival. It boiled down to this: As a youngster, Friedman played with so much underlying tension and fear that he suffered "psychosomatic asthma" before each performance. There were times when he fought to catch his breath, and wound up in the hospital rather than onstage. It wasn't until Friedman closely studied with both Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz, that he began to re-engineer his own playing, with a keen eye toward what he called, "conscious relaxation". How Friedman managed this, I still do not comprehend, but the crucial factor is that he himself believed in his methodology, enough to face down cameras during the famous Heifetz Masterclass Series on television. Erick Friedman was a marshmallow on the inside, but gave an appearance of outward unflappability.

As I teach students with the goal of successful future performances, I have come to rely on wisdom from psychiatrist, logo-therapist and concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl. In his important book, "The Will To Meaning", Frankl devotes numerous pages to the topic of hyper-reflection and the confrontation of fear. In a sense, this is the crux of what performers go through during an anxiety attack; hyper-reflection means excessive attention. A performer undergoes a case of nervousness, for no obvious reason, and then becomes fearful of the event reoccurring. This presents an "anticipatory anxiety" which turns into a conditioned response, and continues indefinitely, growing into a performer's worst nightmare. In "The Will to Meaning", Frankl gives his patients permission to do the very things they actually fear, and perform them with abandon. The practice is known as paradoxical intention:

"We know a case in which a violinist always tried to play as consciously as possible. From putting his violin in place on his shoulder to the most trifling detail, he wanted to do everything consciously, to perform in full self-reflection. This led to a complete artistic breakdown...Treatment had to give back to the patient his trust in the unconscious, by having him realize how much more his unconscious was than his conscious."

Of course, I have come to believe in the power of suggestion. I think a person is capable of being transformed by healing words. At one point, I recall Erick Friedman offering his blessings for me to take a risk and "mess up". And here, I must include Friedman's words which I've never forgotten: If you played the notes upside down or backwards, you'd still sound like an angel to me.

Many parents have solicited advice on how to minimize the nasty effects of stage fright for their youngsters. Here are a few suggestions, although this is not a one size fits all approach: Make sure that your child is given permission to make blunders or mistakes, and that he/she will not be measured by any performance or compared to others. Please let teachers know that to push a bit is acceptable, but to assign works which are beyond the student's capabilities have the potential to turn disastrous. Accept challenges in small steps. Have your child perform for family, friends, teddy bears, cats and dogs. If those performances go well, great, take the next little step. It's normal for children who have previously been unaware of the public to become self-conscious during adolescence. Lastly, not every talented individual is destined to be onstage, or viewed under the lens of a microscope.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Last Metro

This past week has brought tragic news of the sudden illness and death of violinist-violist, Ruth Sereque, my colleague from the Northwest Chamber Orchestra and Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra. When Ilkka told me the upsetting word of her passing, I screamed. In all honesty, I thought Ruth would outlive us all. She might have been the poster child for Whole Grains, Nature's Path, or Erewhon; her youthful looks belied her age. Even when I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn't keep pace with Ruth's stride up the Queen Anne counterbalance, her viola strapped to her back. After poking around thrift shops, garage and rummage sales (as she taught me how to stretch a buck), we'd head back to her place for fresh baked bread or pizza, and a steaming bowl of vegetable or bean soup. We compared notes about stage fright and how our husbands were spared the condition. She marveled that Chris, her husband, would appear years younger whenever he played concerts as principal clarinetist for Seattle Symphony, that his face radiated the delight and innocence of a child whenever he played a solo. Meanwhile, we'd joke how the strain of performance nearly killed us. I'm not sure which of us, Ruth or myself, was more phobic about auditions—I think our score was just about even.

It is said that old age and death are the great levelers. I'd even hedge a bet that a depressed economy guides people to think and behave differently, as in a reassessment of values. Which leads me to a sense of awe and gratitude for an impromptu visit and gift of "The Last Metro" I received from a musical genius friend a few days ago, who probably has felt every bit as dispossessed and exiled as I have. My only regret was that our rapprochement was long overdue, and I wish I had gone to him first with an apology, requesting a second or third chance.

François Truffaut's film "The Last Metro" takes place in Paris during the Nazi Occupation. The narrative, based on images of Truffaut's childhood, revolves around life backstage and behind the scenes at the Montmartre Theatre. The title refers to the practice under which Parisian theaters ended shows in time for audience members to catch the last train before the 11:00 curfew. People flocked to the theaters for warmth as heat was lacking in their homes. At least they could huddle together in the theater.

Madame Steiner, played by actress Catherine Deneuve, unbeknown to her colleagues and friends is hiding her director husband, Lucas Steiner, a Jew, in the cellar of the theater to protect him from the Gestapo. Steiner has been forced off the stage and, as a result,  faced with a profound sense of loss and displacement. At one point in "The Last Metro", Lucas Steiner climbs up to the stage from his makeshift set in the cellar at night accompanied by his wife, "Let me just breathe in the smell of the stage." 

Meanwhile, a young rising star, Bernard Granger, played by Gérard Depardieu, joins the troupe for a play called "The Disappearance" which was supposed to have been directed by Steiner. Bernard Granger (Depardieu), who we come to regard as a hopeless womanizer, is at the same time a partisan for the  Resistance. A parallel to the meaningless flirtations with the ladies are the risks Granger endures while working for the underground to rescue his country from the German Occupiers. And it is, of course ironic, that Lucas Steiner (who is in a different sense underground, in the cellar), wishes to be on stage while Granger is on stage but desires to pursue his work underground. Bernard Granger is the only member of the troupe who refuses to collaborate, on any terms, with members of the Gestapo. In one riveting scene, Granger, who has received a glowing review as a "rising star" even though the play and the rest of the cast is panned, attacks the sinister critic from the Right Wing paper "Je Suis Partout" (I Am Everywhere). The critic, who has strong ties to the Gestapo, has panned the play because he himself desires artistic control of the theater. Granger forces an apology out of him to the entire cast. While everyone else in the Montmartre family makes nice to the duplicitous critic and nods an acceptance to the Gestapo officials for reasons of sheer survival, Granger refuses to comply. He lashes out at the others: The theaters are full but jails are just as crowded.

The sparse score by Georges Delerue which serves to heighten tension proves that less can be more. My daughter Sarah walked into the room during the middle of the film, heard a strained motif and asked, "Who is that character? I can tell from the music he must be evil." As it turns out, Truffaut had collaborated with Delerue eleven times throughout his career; I must point out, collaboration in the positive sense of the word.
"The Last Metro" is a film which recognizes that the theater imitates life, and life imitates theater. I hold Truffaut's masterpiece dear, and in my heart, the person who gave it to me.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Sereque. Photo of us together in Manhattan during mid–80s

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tous les matins du monde (All the World's Mornings)

One of my favorite past times over the last few years has been the almost daily walk to the local library in Queen Anne. It saddens me that hours have been reduced due to budget cuts. I have met countless friends and kindred spirits there. All I've had to do is reach round the shelves, and the borders between past and present have seemed to melt away in my fingertips. For a while it was Russia and everything Russian. I couldn't leave my local branch without a bagful of Gogol, Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Russian films were another matter; my Finnish husband pleading with me to turn down the volume on our DVD player; the Russian language reminding him of the difficulties his family endured during the Talvisota or Winter War. He is, no doubt, relieved that I've moved on to French films, but what my husband doesn't know--yet--is that I have a harmless crush on French actor Gerard Depardieu.

My interest in Depardieu began with a viewing of "Le Pacte du Silence" a psychologically gripping film with this underlying message: There are two sides to every secret, especially when the truth behind the secret is a lie. In this movie Depardieu plays Doctor Joachim Ferrer, a Jesuit priest devoted to a life of service for the church while seeking refuge from a violent past.

Searching for Gerard Depardieu films on a regular basis causes my daughter, Sarah, to stifle giggles; her mother has reverted to adolescent behavior. A few days ago, I struck gold when I laid eyes on Alain Corneau's 1991 film "Tous les matins du monde" on the return video cart. Although "All the World's Mornings" was one of the most celebrated motion pictures to explore the art of music, I wasn't aware of its existence. I glanced at the cover while fingering Depardieu's name, then clutched the DVD and headed straight for the check out.

Set in seventeenth-century France, "All the World's Mornings," based on the short novel by Pascal Quignard, weaves a tale around the life of composer and viol player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, a solitary widower and musical genius who rejects the king's invitation to be a court musician. He chooses, instead, a reclusive life dedicated to the service of music, and the upbringing of his two young daughters. He lives in a hut on a remote country farm. The private, ghostly visitations of Sainte-Colombe's deceased wife, as she sits by a candlelit table topped with a flask of wine, urging her husband to write his compositions down in a manuscript book bound in Moroccan red leather while he plays the viol, enables the onlooker to sense the timeless communal bond transmitted between souls through music.

One spring, an ambitious young man by the name of Marin Marais, approached the master in his hut to be accepted as his student of the viol. Marais had heard of Sainte-Colombe's fame which was received by the placing of a seventh string on the instrument. This enabled the instrument to encompass all the registers of a human voice; that of a child, that of a woman, that of a man, broken and grave. Sainte-Colombe expressed his reservations of accepting the new student after hearing the eager youth play for him:  
You know the correct position of the body.Your ornaments are ingenious and sometimes charming. But I did not hear any music. The master continues. You could be a help in the dancing of people who dance. You could accompany actors who sing on the stage. You will earn a living.You will live surrounded by music but you will not be a musician. Have you a feeling heart? Have you a thinking brain?

What unfolds in the narrative is a relationship fraught with conflict and rivalry, complicated by the young Marin Marais' passionate love affair with one of Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe's daughters.

An opening shot of the film is sustained for an amazing six minutes on Marin Marais (Depardieu) now powdered, bewigged and elderly (but still, in my eyes, handsome) as a court musician in Versailles, while he reflects in a remorseful tone of voice reminiscences about his beloved teacher, now dead:   
I had a teacher and the shadows took him. He was all austerity and rage, as mute as a fish. I am an impostor. He was Music. 
But, alas, the specter of Saint-Colombe appears in the doorway, and reassures Marais:  
I was proud to have been your teacher.

"Tous les matins du monde" is a profound meditation on the sacred relationship between master and student on a quest to discover and attain the highest realm of music. The shadows took Sainte-Colombe, as his student recalls, in the sense that we are left without knowledge of when or where the composer died but, thankfully, we do have many of his compositions, as featured by Catalan viol player Jordi Savall, the King of Spain on the film. Savall's performance throughout the movie bathes the listener in a wash of dreamy sonority. To hear the beauty of Savall's tone and interpretative style of works by composers Sainte-Colombe and Marais on the soundtrack of "Tous les matins du monde" is a lesson in itself.

This is one DVD that I will have to purchase and own before returning it to the library; another life-long friend.
Illustrations: Cover of All the World's Mornings
Painting of Marin Marais

Monday, March 1, 2010

Proust and Transfiguration

Jeremy Eichler, classical music critic for The Boston Globe, shares his deep appreciation for Marcel Proust in The Proust Project: "When I go to concerts, I often bring a colleague or a friend, but my most frequent companion, the one who always arrives just as the lights have dimmed and the silence fallen, is Marcel Proust. Indeed, ever since I first read Proust, his musical sensibilities have joined me in the concert hall, for in addition to being the poet of love, of longing, of memory, and of loss, Proust is the poet of listening."

I, too, feel as if Marcel Proust is by my side whenever I listen to music, especially during my sessions with young people. While teaching the Saint-Saëns "Havanaise" to our gifted concertmaster from Garfield High School, I reached into the book-shelf  and found a recording of the legendary French violinist, Jacques Thibaud, performing the same work. During many of my teaching sessions, I encourage students to listen to the masters from the past, to glean from them, to endeavor to copy the subtlest nuances for purposes of refinement. A performance of Brahms "Hungarian Dance" rendered by Joseph Joachim proves a more valuable tool for learning than any of my words or gesticulations. I'll admit there are times when it's best when I remain silent for a short period during the lesson, and allow the disembodied voices of Fritz Kreisler and Pablo de Sarasate from the CD player to fill the studio, and speak for me.

Proust's invented composer, Vinteuil, is regarded as having been inspired by Camille Saint-Saëns, whose artistry Proust revered. Of his pianistic ability, and his performance of a Mozart Concerto at the Paris Conservatoire, Proust noted: "In Saint-Saëns' playing there are no pianissimos where you feel you'll faint if they go on any longer, and which are cut off just in the nick of time by a forte, no broken chords sending instantaneous shivers down your back, none of those fortissimos which leave you bruised from head to foot, as if you had been surf-bathing, none of those pianist's writhings and tossed back locks of hair, which infect the purity of music with the sensuality of the dance..."

The young, dashing fictional violinist, Charles Morel, who sweeps through the Parisian, aristocratic society performing in the most sought-after soirees, causing the ladies to swoon in their own salons, is portrayed as an up and coming rival to violinists Enescu, Capet and Thibaud. Hearing Thibaud's purity of sound on the recording of "Havanaise", the nobility of phrasing, mouth-watering portamenti, and almost imperceptible vibrato, I feel myself going back a hundred years, as if stepping right into the pages of  "Remembrance of Things Past". Thibaud "French to the tip of his bow" was born the same year as Proust, 1880.

As I revisit Proust's depiction of the violinist Morel, his artistry, and the elixir of seduction that was Vinteuil's music, with notes and phrases painted in sublime and dazzling colors, I begin to hear Thibaud and Saint-Saëns in a different and more personal way, as if my old ears have been replaced with newer, more attuned ones. Marcel Proust has composed "Remembrance of Things Past" in various keys of solemnity and joy, a symphony of colors, with words that sing, dance and are loved, reminding the reader that Art is Eternal.