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.
(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!
“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
“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