David recently returned from a two week tour with the Emerson String Quartet, traveling and performing in numerous countries throughout Europe. On a rare day off, David, with some luck, persistence, and energy had a remarkable day of adventures and experiences.
in David’s words…
Friday, April 1st, London: The only free day on the Emerson Quartet’s 13-day, 12-concert Europe tour. This is what I did with it.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of total freedom once experiences on a grueling concert tour when one is suddenly confronted with no travel, no performance, no hotel, and no schedule whatsoever. A sense of euphoria kicks in and my first thought is always how I can make the most of it. In the case of April 1st, I more than succeeded, and even my first activity would have been enough to satisfy me for the day if I had simply returned to the hotel and thought about it.
After a long tube ride to the west, to a station called Kensal Green, and a ten minute walk through a quiet neighborhood, I arrived at the home of Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. Anita and I go back a long way, and I’ll share the story with you.
During the 1979-80 season, my first in the Emerson Quartet, I went to London to take some lessons with Jacqueline DuPré. I had been recommended to her by the English oboist Neil Black, whom I had met at the Marlboro Music Festival that summer (my only summer at Marlboro). Besides securing for me the attention of DuPré, Neil also told me that I could come without a cello (I could barely afford an air ticket for myself) and that he would help me find one. When I arrived, he gave me Anita’s name and address. I knew nothing about her other than that she had a cello for me.
When I arrived at her doorstep – the same one – she handed me a cello, no questions asked, that was at the time far finer than any I had ever played. I was of course extremely grateful, and went on to have three weeks of lessons with DuPré (about which I may well write in another blog post if I am reminded to do so). During this time, I asked around a bit about this extraordinary woman who gave her cello to stranger from America. Besides being a long-time cellist of the English Chamber Orchestra, Anita had had an extraordinary life: she, together with her sister Renate, a violinist, had survived incarceration in Nazi concentration camps during the war.
Knowing this of course made me see her in a new light by the time I returned the cello, but it was not until her book, Inherit the Truth, was published in 1996 that I began to understand what she had been through (the book is available through Amazon.com). Literally saved from the gas chambers by her ability to play the cello, she became a member of the Auschwitz Mädchenorchester, or Girls’ Orchestra, which performed daily for prisoners at the camp’s gate as they left to and arrived back from slave labor. The orchestra was led by the legendary Alma Rosé, niece of Gustav Mahler, who did not survive. After Rosé’s death the orchestra’s activities dwindled, and Anita, along with her sister, were sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp which was eventually liberated. They waited there many months for visas, amid horrendous conditions , and while life was not much easier, they were at least out from under the constant threat of execution. It was during this time that a British officer, seeing how desperate Anita was for an instrument, managed to find and give her a cello to play on. Upon reading this story, I immediately understood where Anita had found the generosity to so willingly and effortlessly lend me a cello. I resolved to return to her one day, both to thank her again and simply make contact with this extraordinary person, about whom I now knew so much more.
Upon coming face to face with her again, after more than 30 years, I was stunned to find her, now in her eighties, looking so much as I had remembered her. Although she has some trouble walking, she honestly looks like a healthy someone in their sixties: smooth, tight skin, piercing, clear eyes, and a vibrant, strong voice with which she says whatever she is thinking so compellingly that one feels a bit under her spell. In her modest home, filled with family photos, books and other memorabilia, we sat for two hours in her kitchen, talking about everything from cellos to musicians, her book, and of course, some of her experiences during the war.
There are really no words to describe how I felt sitting there listening to her talk about what I had read in her book. The Holocaust is easily beyond comprehension, even of people who have read much about it, as have I. (Perhaps the more one reads about it, the more incomprehensible it becomes.) Certainly, those two hours I spent with Anita brought me closer to the reality of it than I had ever been, even more than having visited museums, memorials, and Dachau. Not that we talked much about it: Anita says right up front in her book that she’s not one to talk much about the war. And yet, whenever the subject drifted to her extraordinary story – even if it was just a minor mention of some detail – I could feel myself transfixed, all too aware that I was in the extraordinarily privileged position of being an audience of one, listening to someone who could truly embody the voices of millions – of millions who perished, and the few, like Anita, who miraculously survived. I shall never forget those two hours as long as I live. They have become one of my life’s most precious experiences. In the end, Anita has continued to contribute to the richness of my life, this time, way beyond a cello.
The Royal College library, the Elgar Cello Concerto, and more
I made my way back on the tube to central London and found the Royal College of Music, a venerable institution which faces the Royal Albert Hall, venue for the famous London Proms concerts. Besides working on arrangements for Chamber Music Society master classes when we visit London this November (for a three-concert series at Wigmore Hall), I had read that the library had an extraordinary collection of manuscripts, including that of the Elgar Cello Concerto.
I had always wanted to see the manuscript to learn if the many detailed markings in the published edition were original. Cellists – even the best ones with the most famous interpretations – habitually ignore or don’t believe in the many directions in the score. It’s almost impossible to find a recording or hear a performance of this piece where the cellist and orchestra do what’s marked. After gaining entrance to the library (any reasonably serious looking person can just go in, it seems), I inquired about the manuscript on a dare (usually you need appointments to see original manuscripts) and was told of course that it could not come out but there was a facsimile and would that suffice, to which of course I said yes. It did not take long to discover that, sure enough, every single marking in the published edition is there in Elgar’s hand, he knew exactly what he wanted, and we should damn well do it. Take the transition, in the first movement, from the slow to the subsequent Allegro. Each fragment of the Allegro theme, and the subsequent pizzicato chords, has differently placed ritards and other varying instructions like articulation and dynamics. I long to hear them from someone besides myself.
A librarian entered while I was studying to apologize for having to bring in a group that was there on a tour. No worries, I said, and continued to read the score, all the while becoming aware that she was heaping piles of books on the table in front of me. As luck would have it (and I do have incredible luck!), this pile contained original manuscripts of Haydn, Mozart, Chopin, Elgar (the concerto), Dvorak and other composers, plus letters from Beethoven, etc. It was an endless treasure trove, and because I was already seated at the table, the group crowded around me and the manuscripts were placed directly in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. As is the case whenever you see a composer’s hand, you learn something about their character, and it was absolutely astounding to see the variety of penmanship and style that existed between these great composers: Haydn – matter of fact, quickly but neatly written; Mozart – cramming in the piano solo passagework into measures too small because he had written the orchestra score first and kept the piano part in his head; Chopin – writing the “Minute Waltz” on a single sheet of paper with such infinitesimal notes that one could almost hear his famously-soft playing; and Beethoven – his letters sincere and passionate, heavily written sentences each looking like the opening of the Fifth Symphony.
For the second time in a day, I had connected to something extraordinary, in this case composers, by coming so close to sources. When CMS visits London, we will visit the collection again, this time with an introduction!
Wigmore Hall – Isserlis and Hough
From there it was over to the famed Wigmore Hall for a meeting with recording industry expert Jonathan Gruber, always informative, exciting and pleasurable. Jonathan’s company, Ulysses Arts (ulyssesarts.com) helps individuals and companies navigate the tricky waters of the classical music media scene of today. While having coffee in the hall’s beautiful restaurant, I ran into long-time friends Irwin and Cita Stelzer. While the Stelzers live in Washington and Aspen, they have been part-time London residents until only recently, but remain very involved with the American Friends of Wigmore Hall, an adjunct organization very much behind the Chamber Music Society’s coming appearances. It was through her that I learned of that evening’s concert in the hall by the wonderful cellist Steven Isserlis, with his long-time recital partner Stephen Hough. That was all I needed to hear to start looking for a way to get in, which fortunately, because they know me at the hall, was not too much of a problem.
Their program began conventionally with a gorgeous rendition of Bach’s Adagio from the organ toccata in C, but then quickly went into new territory with an intriguing set of variations on a Finnish folk song by Busoni. Next came the Brahms e minor sonata, but I had to leave after the first movement because I was already committed to attend the concert by:
The Tate Modern was the venue – the giant space called the Turbine Hall. The building – which was a power station – was converted in 2000 to become the modern art component of the Tate Museum. The Turbine Hall is five stories high and houses gigantic works of art in rotating exhibitions.
The occasion was a recording release event organized by Decca and the Tate, celebrating Barenboim’s first live recording of the Chopin concertos, with the Berlin Staatskapelle under Andris Nelsons. The event, which included performance and talk, was free, and when I arrived it was clear that hundreds had been waiting in line for hours, many having that camped-out appearance (food, blankets, etc.). Having received an invitation from the organizer, I in turn invited Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who was happy to go, having known Daniel Barenboim for many years. We met outside (Anita had taken the tube in and walked for blocks!) and went to the head of the line, waiting another half hour, then being seated on the upper deck of the hall near the stage. After another half hour the place was full, and we heard a roar go up which must have meant that Barenboim had entered. But he was not within our sight.
As he came through the crowd people stood and cheered, a real hero’s welcome. He took the stage with a small ensemble of musicians and performed, beautifully, the slow movement of one of the Chopin concertos in a chamber arrangement. And then, with the utmost of ease and seeming completely relaxed, he took the microphone and started talking to the crowd: about music and life, all of it elegantly spoken, assured and forceful. The music continued with solo pieces of Chopin, interspersed with talking to and sometimes with the audience, for about an hour.
I have participated in, and attended, recording release events in New York, but none I have seen was on this level. In the first place, I would guess that the audience numbered near a thousand, and I was astonished to realize, after he took his first bow, that most of them were down on the lower level where they could not even see him (it was they who had begun cheering when he first entered). They were simply there to listen. Many, many people I saw were in their twenties or early thirties. In this cavernous space Barenboim had chosen to perform some of the most intimate Chopin miniatures that exist, and he played them so softly I cannot imagine what people almost a block away were hearing. But it didn’t seem to matter: you could hear a pin drop during the performances. No one moved, talked, nor was anyone serving drinks or food. There was no amplification of the music. It was just a man playing the piano.
While it is always riveting to be in the presence of an artist as consummate as Barenboim, I was perhaps even more captivated by the total experience, of being with so many people dedicated to hearing what this great musician had to say, and to catch even a few distant sounds of his Chopin. It was one of those experiences that renew your faith in audiences of the future, and that reminds one of the powers of great music and profound music-making.
And sitting the whole time next to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, and listening to music together with her, added a dimension to the evening which ensured that this day will live in my memory as one of the most unique and unforgettable in my life.