May 12: Luxembourg

mask

Masks

Finale

On a gray morning on Monday, May 9, I sat on a gray bus in Munich, staring out the window at gray apartment blocks. Vyacheslav Uritsky sat beside me.

That opening is a tribute to John LeCarre, my favorite suspense writer. There was no particular need for me to write in his style; it just felt really good. It’s all true, though, except that it was a sunny day.

Slava and I won our jobs in the Boston Symphony violin section on the same day in 1975. I had arrived from Yale, and Slava, some years my senior, had recently arrived from the Soviet Union. Our first year in the orchestra we carpooled together from Cleveland Circle. Getting stuck in traffic on a daily basis cemented our friendship.

As the bus took us from our hotel to the airport, Slava told me stories about his first trip to Munich when he was a member of the Moscow Symphony. That led to mention of a mutual friend of ours, violist Misha Boguslavsky, who had been a founding member of the famed Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and who ended up in the Utah Symphony and as chair of the chamber music department at the University of Utah.

Slava asked me if I had ever heard of some other Russian musicians from days of yore, and replied that the one Mischa talked about most was the violinist Miron Polyakin. Then Slava, who has more stories than the Brothers Grimm, told one about the time when he was a student at the conservatory in Odessa. He was given an assignment to explain the superiority of the Soviet system by showing that those students of legendary pedagogue, Leopold Auer, who remained in the Soviet Union were greater musicians than those who emigrated. Polyakin was one who stayed. Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman were two who left. Slava knew he had to come up with some good BS, and apparently he did well enough to avoid being shuffled off to the gulag.

We started talking about Heifetz. Few would argue the contention that he was the towering violinist of the 20th century. But one thing Slava told me about Heifetz offstage was astounding. He said that another current BSO violinist who had studied with Heifetz when he was younger had been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the Heifetz household along with a selected few others, and had been required to pay for his dinner!

I found that hard to believe and said so. Slava invited me to talk to the violin in question, who told me the full story, which was even more bizarre. Mr. Heifetz had a vending machine installed outside his house in Malibu that dispensed wrapped sandwiches. Whenever guests were invited, they inserted their coins and out popped their meal. My colleague told me more stories about his interaction with Heifetz, which were all along the same lines.

So the question is, who is the real Heifetz: the dazzling virtuoso who combined jaw-dropping technique with passionately Romantic playing; or the socially awkward eccentric? In thinking about the answer, I considered all of my colleagues in the Boston Symphony, including myself. For us, music is part job, part passion. In either case, it can’t be anything but an extension of our personalities. Certainly we’re trying to express the composer’s intentions, but that’s channeled through our individual brains and hearts. If you listen to different violinists perform the Tchaikovsky concerto, for example, the piece will sound different each time. What does the word “interpretation” mean then, if not an expression of that individual violinist’s personality?

That’s not to say that outgoing people are going to play an outgoing Tchaikovsky concerto. It doesn’t necessarily work that way. I’ve heard some of the most timid people give some of the most powerful performances, and vice versa. So I think for some people who otherwise might be severely socially constrained, perhaps even including Heifetz, playing music is their way of saying, “This is who I really am.” It’s their true way of communicating. [Please take a minute to listen to the links I’ve provided above to hear how Heifetz and Elman begin the Tchaikovsky. You’ll be amazed.]

Why do I mention any of this? Because audiences don’t pay money for tickets in order to experience the neuroses of the hundred different people sitting on the stage. They come to hear the music. And that’s one of the things that makes the symphony orchestra such a strangely unique invention. For people with such divergent–even conflicting– backgrounds, interests, and personalities to sit down and interact on a level that would make a computer blow a gasket is really an amazing artistic achievement, and to do it night-in, night-out is almost mind boggling.

Tonight we had our last tour performance of Mahler Ninth, in Luxembourg. We had but a scant afternoon of free time here, so I only got to see hardly half the country and tomorrow we return to Boston. Though the Mahler is not one of my favorite pieces (my minority opinion) it is undeniably a “milestone” piece, meaning every musician remembers every time they’ve played it. It’s possible this might have been my last performance of it, ever. One never knows. But if it is, it has been my pleasure to be part of it.

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See you soon.

(This is my last entry for a week or so. But I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, if you need to keep yourself entertained, please take a look at the other pages of my site.)

AND FINALLY: THE WINNERS OF THE CAPTION CONTEST! SINCE I WAS INITIALLY UNCLEAR WHICH PHOTO WAS THE SUBJECT OF THE CONTEST, I’M AWARDING A PRIZE FOR EACH. CONGRATULATIONS TO SUE SEEBER AND WENDY FOXMYN! BELOW ARE ALL THE FINALISTS’ CAPTIONS. THANKS TO ALL THE CONTESTANTS!

tush

“Does this plinth make me look fat?” Sue Seeber

“St. Vincent Ferrer (Patron saint of plumbers) and his apprentice establish a noble tradition…..” Dimsky Dimsky

“Are those stones cracked?” Sue Seeber

“But…but…but….” Sue Seeber

“I feel a draft.” Sue Seeber

“Which way do you Zwing??” Alicia

“Plumbers of Antiquity” Tony D’Amico

 

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“Thus Sprayed Zarathustra” Wendy Foxmyn

“186,000 miles per second, not just a good idea, it’s the law.” Cliff Butter

“You put your right arm in, you put your right arm out, you put your right arm in, and you shake it all about.” Wendy LeTocq

“I’m ZWINGEN’ in the rain, just ZWINGEN’ in the rain, with the force of this water I’m feeeelin’ some pain.” Robert Debbaut

“When you can’t breathe you can’t scream.” Sergio Pallottelli

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3 thoughts on “May 12: Luxembourg

  1. judyinboston

    Gerry, these blog posts have been so edifying as well as being a lot of fun. I think you could make a small book out of them and publish it. They were just great reading.

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  2. James

    Gerry;
    I am always a bit taken aback when I hear a musician say that Mahler’s 9th is not one of their favorite pieces. Because it was, for me, a revelation, as a teen-aged listener, and influenced me to move from jazz bass playing to classical. I find the first movement to be one of the greatest pieces of musical composition of all time; more profound, inventive, intellectually challenging and emotionally compelling than anything Beethoven wrote. It is a magnificent musical/architectural edifice. Beethoven’s jaw would have been left hanging agape by the end of that movement had he been miraculously transported to the future with his hearing intact.

    Our performance in the Frauenkirche in Dresden was the highlight of the tour for me. I must have had one of the best seats in the house for that performance, as the sound of the orchestra seemed more perfectly blended than one could ever have expected in that unusual orchestral setup and challenging acoustical space. From my seat it was thrilling. I had not been emotionally caught up in many of the performances of the Ninth that preceded the Dresden concert, but that one was the only one that rekindled the feelings of my first hearings of this great piece. In speaking with my colleagues about it afterward I found that it depended greatly on one’s perspective in the church. One young violist felt that it was like walking on eggshells; one hornist said that they could not hear the strings well at all and had to lock in to the winds (as you mentioned in your piece about that concert) to feel that they were playing with at least one group. The wind players said that they were inundated with brass sound and felt overwhelmed by it. From my place in front of (and on a platform below) the winds, I was shielded from the brass and could hear the winds beautifully clearly. I was able to play with them easily, as I think was the case for many but not all string players. The reverb of the space wove string lines together that had sounded a bit disconnected in drier spaces. With everyone working their hardest to fit their contribution into the whole, within the context of this difficult acoustic, the performance fell together miraculously well. It was one of those performances that reminded me why I became an orchestral musician.

    I know full well that not everyone can like everything one plays in an orchestra, I certainly don’t, but Mahler’s Ninth is one of the pinnacles of orchestral composition and should be appreciated as such. It is my opinion that if only one composer’s name can be chiseled above the stage of Symphony Hall, it is Mahler’s that should reside there now. Beethoven has had his turn.

    James

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    1. eliaspattn Post author

      I readily admit that I’m in a minority about Mahler in general and the Ninth in particular. So, James, I envy you because Mahler will undoubtedly remain a staple in the BSO’s repertory for a long time to come. Regarding the performance, I’ve always been amused and intrigued when walking offstage I might be thinking, “Jeez, that was a damn good performance,” only to hear a stand partner say “God, did that sound like shit!” Sometimes it might have to do with acoustics, as we recognized in Dresden. But more often than not, I think it has to do with what one had for dinner.

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