Monday, November 22, 2010

Stendhal's Mozart

Last week, while playing as an extra for Oregon Symphony's program "Mozart and Shakespeare," I couldn't help but wander into Powell's. The hotel where I stayed, the Mark Spencer, is just a stone's throw from the beloved book store. I was on a mission to find the works of Stendhal, having just been introduced to his "Life of Rossini." This is not only a fascinating but controversial biography of Rossini, but an honest appraisal of the mutilation of Mozart's music as performed by Italian orchestras of that period. Those Italians! To play Mozart meant to play strictly in time, a principle which the lazier musicians referred to as barbaric, for each instrument would have to enter and finish exactly where Mozart had said that it should.

At Powell's, you never know what you might discover. I walked by a placard on the first level which said: I read dead people. How true, I thought. I went upstairs to the Music and Arts section to browse. There I discovered a hardcover book about violinists, opened the pages, and delighted in finding an unsealed envelope with the obituaries of both Mischa Elman and Louis Persinger from The New York Times and The Oregonian, circa 1960's. I bought the book, of course.

Stendhal  (Marie-Henri Beyle)
Downstairs in the Blue Room, I found two magnificent hard cover and illustrated Stendhal novels, "The Red and the Black" and "The Charterhouse of Parma." It would be a cinch for me to spend all the earnings I made from subbing in the symphony in that book store. I remember one time trying to hide a rare edition of "Revolt of the Angels" by Anatole France. I thought Ilkka would be angry at me for spending money on more and more books. They are, after all, falling off my night stand and cluttering each room in the house. But when he saw the beautiful work, with pages not yet cut, Ilkka took out a knife and carefully separated each thick page. "This is how books used to be made in my youth." Indeed, I have learned more about art, music and philosophy from the great French writers, Stendhal, France, and Proust than from any classes or private lessons in conservatory.

While perusing the shelf stocked with Stendhal's works, I stumbled across another title that beckoned, and whispered to me: "Memoirs of an Egotist". I laughed for a moment because I, too, have been writing a memoir. Am I an egotist? I picked it up and read the back cover:
The only things I have passionately loved in life are:
            and Shakespeare.
In Milan, in 1820, I wanted to put these words on my gravestone. Every day I would think of this inscription, firmly believing that I would have no peace of mind except in the grave. I wanted a marble slab in the shape of a playing card.

Well, of course, I had to purchase this on the spot, and take it back to the hotel with me. It was as if Stendhal himself was reminding me how fortunate I was to have been hearing Mozart's "Prague" Symphony that week and playing Elgar's "Falstaff".  Edward Elgar was an ardent Shakespearean, and Oregon Symphony's Music Director Carlos Kalmar had recruited actors to link Elgar's composition to the Shakespeare's text that had inspired the music.

Wine was being served at the hotel. I sat down with a glass and listened to my egotist friend:
At the age of ten, my father, who had all the prejudices of religion and aristocracy, vehemently prevented me from studying music. At sixteen, I learnt successively to play the violin, to sing, and to play the clarinet. Only in this way did I manage to produce sounds which gave me pleasure. My music teacher, a kind, good-looking German by the name of Hermann, made me play tender cantilenas. Who knows? Perhaps he knew Mozart? This was in 1797, Mozart had just died.

Later, at the concert, I sneaked upstairs to the balcony of Arlene Schnitzer to hear Mozart's "Prague" Symphony as performed by Oregon Symphony under the direction of Maestro Kalmar. The hall was filled to capacity. Stendhal accompanied me in heart and soul. This was Mozart at its loveliest; each note filled with warmth, sensitivity and precision. The orchestra, demonstrating enviable refinement and good taste, was a pleasure to behold.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Real Music of Remembrance

Last evening, Ilkka and I had the pleasure of performing Mozart's Requiem at St. James Cathedral for All Soul's Day. We always look forward to this event, as the beauty of the cathedral pared with Mozart's sublime music offers an opportunity to reflect upon the lives of the deceased in a powerfully spiritual way. It is gratifying to watch the multitude of people as they enter the sanctuary. No matter what age or social strata, all seek refuge and transcendence in Mozart's Mass for the Dead. In his homily, Father Michael Ryan acknowledged Mozart as the greatest preacher, and the Requiem as Celebration.

Prayer of St. Francis
Before the service, Ilkka and I went downstairs to warm up, as the musicians are encouraged to arrive early. One half hour prior to the event, St. James is always packed; many people are left to stand for the entire service. We set our violin cases down on a chair. Ilkka reached into his coat pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his violin, but out fell a prayer card in loving memory of Robert H. Knopp, M.D.—his funeral having been months ago at St. James. We took the unexpected appearance of this card as an affirmation of Bob's presence with us.

Bob Knopp enriched the lives of so many people; it is no wonder that this guest book is filled with heartfelt words of affection, deep respect, and gratitude. Bob listened to people in a special way. I remember the thrill of playing Northwest Chamber Orchestra concerts when he and his wife Judy were in the audience. They treated the players as family and hosted numerous parties and receptions at their elegant home near Lake Washington. The musicians and guest artists had tremendous respect for Bob's accomplishments, as he was an internationally acclaimed research physician at both the University of Washington and Harborview Medical Center. But we also knew that having been a pianist and trombone player, he was a discerning listener; a musician's musician; a person who didn't just listen to notes but got inside the music.

 I remember the legendary pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, admitting in an interview that he felt the need to find one person in the audience to play for; one individual among the crowd of listeners who could inspire him to perform his best. I suppose in Rubinstein's case, he meant a gorgeous young female. But I can recall scanning  Kane Hall to locate where Bob Knopp was seated, so that I could play for him. Because I felt that he understood and appreciated the subtlest shadings in musical interpretation.

I felt honored when I was asked to teach violin to Eleanor Knopp, Bob and Judy's youngest daughter. I don't mind sharing with my readers how intimidated I initially felt whenever Bob would attend those lessons in my home, for I knew that he was a much sought after and renowned professor. Could I possibly measure up to his stratospheric standard? But I was quickly made to feel at ease the moment I heard his boisterous laugh on my staircase. Teaching and learning for Bob and his family offered a limitless supply of joy; lessons were seen as an opportunity for personal growth and enrichment. He was always engaged at our lessons, taking notes, asking probing questions which, now that I think back, brought my own teaching objectives more into focus. If a lesson went particularly well, Bob would sit down on our piano bench and offer up Bach-Gounod's "Ave Maria" to accompany Eleanor. Although he made fun of his own playing; "I haven't practiced enough," he'd lament; to these eyes and ears, father and daughter played like angels.

Speaking with the Knopps' eldest daughter, Elizabeth, last night after the service, I learned that Bob gave every patient his home and cell phone number, and insisted they were to call any time for help, advice or just reassurance. That's how Bob Knopp was; the rarest of souls. Is it any wonder that one person signed the guest book with these words: He had more compassion in one little finger than most other doctors. And musical fingers, too.

In photo left to right: on top Bob and Judy; bottom Terese and Irv Eisenberg, Eleanor, me and Ilkka

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chopin and Beyond

In 2001, I was briefly introduced to pianist Byron Janis during an inaugural concert for the Tacoma International Music Festival at the Pantages Theater. Mr. Janis was to have been Artistic Advisor to the festival, but like many other musical organizations in this region, Tacoma International Music Festival died at birth. At the gala and final concert, Mr. Janis performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major K488 with violinist Erick Friedman on the podium. It was a sad affair; two incomparable artists who were no longer at the peak of their careers, battling for a come-back, or so it appeared. Mr. Friedman was soon to be diagnosed with lung cancer, and would die a few years later at the age of 64. Mr. Janis had been practically crippled by arthritis but he performed through his pain and rendered a charming and elegant Mozart. With the help of his wife, Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of Gary Cooper) has written Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal.

In Chopin and Beyond, Mr. Janis tells the story of his extraordinary life in music; his many friendships with renowned artists, writers and celebrities. Most fascinating to me are the accounts of various teachers who influenced his career, from the stern Abraham Litow who slapped young Byron Yanks (his name before being changed) with a ruler whenever he played a wrong note, to the loving couple Rosina and Josef Lhévinne, who impressed upon Janis one of the most valuable lessons of all: there's more than one viable way to approach something. As the Lhévinnes' travel schedule increased, they engaged Adele Marcus to mentor their star performer. Shortly after his studies with Marcus, Janis was accepted by the legendary Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz would say, "Something is not right. You know, you should go home and find what is the problem and work on it yourself and bring to me next time." The master pianist insisted that his pupil not play for anyone else during his first year of study because his goal was to make Mr. Janis into a "big" pianist. "You are a pianist who could play more in oils, not just watercolors." Encouraging Mr. Janis to exaggerate that bigness Horowitz would say, "Don't worry, Byronchik. You can always subtract but you can't add on."

In Chopin and Beyond, Mr. Janis delves into the frequent experiences that took him beyond the reach of the senses; episodes of psychokinesis, synchronicity, automatic writing, and clairvoyance which became a regular facet of his reality. Admittedly, some of what Mr. Janis shares in Chopin and Beyond recalls pianist Rosemary Brown, the spirit medium who claimed that dead composers dictated new musical works to her. Brown reported that Franz Liszt appeared  dressed in a black cassock and controlled her hands a measure at a time. Chopin appeared to her and pushed her fingers down on the keys, and Franz Schubert sang to her.

For Mr. Janis, who has had a lifelong fascination with Chopin, he reveals for the first time some of the paranormal events he has experienced relating to the composer. The most spectacular is an account of a death mask of Chopin "crying" in 1973. Mr. Janis had recently struck up a friendship with the Israeli psychic Uri Geller. After dinner one night, Mr. Geller asked to touch the mask, which had been given to the pianist by the family of Chopin's lover George Sand. "We were standing around holding this mask and in about 15 seconds we noticed a liquid coming out of the eyes," says Mr. Janis. "It was gushing, it was unbelievable. I put my hand on the liquid and said they were tears. I am convinced of one thing, the strongest power in the world is love and I loved Chopin since I was a young man, and that may be what caused this to happen."

For those who are skeptics, acknowledging the impossible is crucial to great playing for Byron Janis. "In performing Chopin it is so important to touch that other world. In playing, sometimes you feel you are being played—that happens to me a lot."

Music is to Byron Janis his life's oxygen. To his audiences and many admirers, there is little doubt he breathes music. As to the paranormal, if you are a nonbeliever, writes Byron Janis, in his new book Chopin and Beyond, I hope I may have persuaded you to say, "Maybe."