Updated: 3 days ago
I performed the first movement of this concerto at the Boston Conservatory in the fall of 1974. The love-of-my-life, who also played this concerto and subsequently judged Wieniawski competitions in Poznań, Poland, played it better than I did (and I was damn good).
My mother played the second movement, the Romance Andante non troppo, for her senior recital at Wheaton College in 1946. My father had returned from bombing Germany in WWII and they together answered the call to return to Europe as missionaries, to complete my father’s 35th air mission with something more constructive this time. In Wheaton, when my father wasn’t riding chaperone in Billy Graham's jumpseat while shuttling Billy's fiancée back to the train station, he was taking my mother to Singspirations and performing or preaching with the Sacred Sax Trio. Later in the little store-front Baptist churches in Portugal, he would accompany my mother’s hymnal violin arrangements on his marimba (she made him give up the saxophone), which my brothers and I learned to set up and tear down like efficient little roadies. Occasionally Mom would play this Romance, though, unaccompanied, or another favorite, Jules Massenet’s Meditation on Thaïs.
My teacher in the Boston Symphony won first prize at the Paris Conservatory after the war, when Henryk Szeryng was also a student. Szeryng won it the following year. We knew our teacher by his French name. Once we all followed him out to Tanglewood for the summer, where we gave him a coffee table book on wild mushrooms for his birthday. His hobby was collecting edible mushrooms. About the time I was preparing to play the Brahms violin concerto, he gave me an old piece of sheet music. His name was written in Polish at the top. Mushrooms, woods, the Resistance, survival…what had he seen in his lifetime? All of it poured so eloquently and hauntingly into his violin and later, into his students.
Before I went to the Conservatory, I auditioned for Roman Totenberg at Boston University. This was before one of his students stole his Stradivarius, which wasn’t returned until after both he and the student had died. His daughter Nina told the whole story on NPR. Back in 1973, since there were no violin teachers at the small religious college where my freshman year tuition was paid (I only lasted there fall semester in any case) I decided to try and study with Roman Totenberg at BU. I played my standard audition piece for him, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, which had gotten me Assistant Concert Mistress in the St. Paul Youth Orchestra as well as a scholarship to Eastman Conservatory in upstate New York. I adored every minute of the youth orchestra, from the moment I found myself in the middle of the ethereal Barber Adagio to our performance of the enigmatic Tod und Verklarung by Richard Strauss. I never accepted the scholarship to Eastman, though, because of the immobilizing combination of being an utterly disheartened high school senior and having a family utterly disinterested in any future for me that did not involve a nice Christian college and nice minister husband (and playing nice church offertories). I even tried to go back to Europe by myself and work in a Portuguese orphanage in Porto, teaching English and music for room and board, but got cold feet at the last minute. I guess I was just too seventeen.
That fall, Roman Totenberg gave me the strangest compliment, or constructive criticism, I ever got, after watching me play the first movement of the Lalo: “There’s no way you can sound that good with your technique!” His grad student put me on a steady diet of scales and Ševčík for the next semester, considerably improving my next audition. I ended up Assistant Concert Mistress of the Boston Conservatory orchestra as well.
One of the last times I spent with the love-of-my-life was at a Joshua Bell concert where he played the Lalo. It was a horrible performance—he played it like a silly étude. We decided he must be having an off day or had become so bored with the concerto that he couldn’t even be bothered to put any soul into it anymore. But why play the lilting and lovely gypsy songs at all then? We had each played it so much better than he did that night! We made our way through cold slippery snow from Orchestra Hall to the hotel bar across the street. Did we know it would be one of our last nights together? Maybe. So much nonverbalized sadness hiding in our passion for the music, for each other, like the unspoken stanzas of a gypsy love, our brown eyes melting like the ice in our Black Russians, drowning the promise of a future together.
She had a crush on me when she was fifteen. Forty some years later, we met again...she gave me her recorded album, which included the Wieniawski. Breathtakingly beautiful, soaring and courageous, crisp and lyrically stunning. I don’t listen to her playing it often because it is like taking a tiny spoonful of chocolate mousse so intense and powerful that you can’t have any more of it again for a very long time afterward. I will never love like that again.
30 SEPTEMBER 2018