This week reaped a set of Internet-channeled treasures along with an off screen, chance meeting with a Rosina Lhevinne student at a Berkeley bus stop.
The first On Air stop-off was Seymour Bernstein’s riveting hour-and-44 minute long interview that covered his Korean war service: a rekindled journey of interspersed infantry training, piano recitals and chamber music.
Seymour’s recorded account is part of an Oral History project that’s been conceived to educate and enlighten Korean youth about a faint and distant war era. In this regard, Bernstein describes a particular outdoor concert that he and violinist, Kenneth Gordon had presented together in the heat of war where bullets were flying overhead while two musicians were thinly protected by a hill that barricaded them in.
Bernstein’s nostalgic, drama-filled memoir pours forth effortlessly in his conversation with a historian tied to the Korean War Legacy Foundation. The focus is Seymour’s four separate touchdowns that included three post-war visits, eliciting his recall of turbulent political changes in the small Asian country. Naturally, he peppers his reminiscences with colorful musical anecdotes.
Most of the pianist’s followers celebrate his time-honored book With Your Own Two Hands along with his Big Screen appearance in Ethan Hawke’s documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. In the 90 or so minute film, a piano teacher is lifted out of the ordinary cycle of giving lessons, to iconic status. Playing himself, Bernstein, a once promising concert performer, retreats to mentoring in the face of crippling performance anxiety and resurrects himself as a doting, thoughtful teacher in a singularly carved journey.
Throughout his Korean Legacy Foundation appearance, Bernstein is on location in his thoughts, revisiting a war-torn Korea, determined to include a tender scene from his early days in uniform. As he tells it, a fawn appears in the fog on the countryside, making Seymour believe that he has died and gone to heaven. The flashback, also a moving segment in Hawke’s documentary, is worth a revisit with additional memories colorfully packed into the recorded Legacy interview.
On the You Tube Playlist, I was fortunate to have spotted two hot releases by pianist, Irina Morozova:
The following performances are beyond words to describe and speak audibly for themselves. I must admit, in all honesty, that the more I’m exposed to Morozova’s artistry, the more my heart aches that this pianist’s name is not a household word. The sheer poetry of her expression coupled with an effortlessly fluid technique, should invite the adulation of local and international audiences, if only the commercial packaging of musicians, and the social/political demands of making a career did not intercede.
Finally, to cap off my week, OFFLINE, I found myself waiting for the 25A A.C. Transit bus on an overcast weekday afternoon, anticipating an easy, uneventful route to gym. Little did I foresee an encounter with a perfect stranger, a petite senior, who had a pervasive connection to the music world–one that had its alliance to my own life as it unfolded during my New York City teenage years.
The woman had arrived ten minutes after me, thinking she might have missed the bus, but was reassured by my careful scrutiny of the bus schedule that we were both “on time.” I had added that we were clear to board within minutes, if the bus had not experienced delays.
Meanwhile, I kept checking 511# on my cell phone for updates once I realized that we’d passed the posted arrival time. And it occurred to me that delay after delay was the rule of the day, without any certainty of our common means of transport.
As it happened, we were given ample room to start up a conversation that was sparked by the woman’s allusion to an upcoming “Symphony” outing. That was my immediate cue to introduce myself as a “pianist,” which was her CUE to respond, “I’m a pianist, too!”
At this point in our alternate exchanges, I had acquired my rightful turn to squeeze out a stream of details from her past which she was amenable to share.
“I studied with Madame Lhevinne at the Juilliard School,” she announced, proudly. “It was in the mid 1950’s, but I never really graduated. Well, because I didn’t like the whole environment, and then I decided to go to Europe and earn my Ph.D.”
She admitted that she had never completed her studies, coining herself, an “almost there” individual, exposing her whimsical side–the extemporaneous, coy, and self-deprecating dimension of an emerging, delightful persona.
At this juncture, I wasn’t sure if she was going to veer off from our music-centered talk or re-focus on her studies with Lhevinne. I gently nudged her back to her Juilliard days.
In the ensuing conversation, I learned that Rosina’s crop of students were part of a tight-knit musical family and one particular pupil was my would-be bus companion’s favorite: “John Browning.” She insisted he was far more gifted than Van Cliburn. In rebuttal, I maintained that Van’s Tchaikovsky’s Bb minor Concerto, No. 1, was lyrical, straightforward and without eccentricity. She insisted that Gilels had held the crucial key to Cliburn’s thawed out Cold War victory. (He’d supposedly threatened to resign from the panel of judges if Van was demoted to Silver or Bronze)
I interjected that Nikita Kruschev was the deal-maker, having to rubber stamp the Gold pick! (it was notwithstanding his shoe-banging escapades at the UN)
Obviously, I wanted to milk my newfound musical traveler for any juicy gossip that surrounded Lhevinne, in particular, although I’d viewed one or two lengthy documentaries (on You Tube) that were better than any tell all gossip column. And as it turned out, the only uniquely colorful anecdote that gushed out of my awaiting bus partner’s mouth, was one about Lhevinne interrupting a lesson to talk in Russian by phone with the famed, and often dreaded piano teacher, Isabelle Vengerova. This well-known mentor had been characterized as a tyrant in Seymour Bernstein’s tome, Monsters and Angels, Surviving a Career in Music.
(Yet, I dared not bring up, Seymour’s inclusion of the Russian icon in his list of “monsters,” aka emotional abusers.)
While the bus lingered somewhere OFF ROUTE, I had more space to impart my own Lhevinne-related memoir that rapidly shrank degrees of separation between two common bus riders.
As I recounted:
I had been present at Madame Lhevinne’s 80th Birthday celebration at the very Juilliard School that my newfound companion, who finally identified herself as “Francesca,” had attended. This was at a time when the homespun-looking building was located in the heart of Harlem on 125th Street. As a teenager enrolled at the High School of Performing Arts, I was bestowed a complimentary ticket to the event by my beloved mentor, Lillian Freundlich. The birthday fete featured soloist and honoree, Rosina Lhevinne playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C, K. 467, under the able baton of Jean Morel.
While I didn’t have the yellowed PROGRAM tucked into my backpack as hard core evidence of my attendance, I did assure Francesca that it existed, and that it had been embedded in my blog posting about my having “been there,” right smack in the center of an adoring audience.
My story became expanded during our repartee when I described finding myself years later in the Oberlin Conservatory music library, listening with earphones to a turntable spun vinyl of Lhevinne’s very performance that day at Juilliard.
What memories were rekindled, stored safely in my repository of special musical moments, now shared with a common traveler.
Because the bus ended up being delayed by over an hour due to the driver’s apologetic admission of being lost in another city on HER FIRST DAY OF SERVICE, I had been serendipitously connected to a kindred “pianist” who tore off a snatch of her paper shopping bag with her scribbled name and phone number on it. She handed it to me as she disembarked.
“As fate would have it”… I uttered these words right after Francesca’s departure.
However faint they were, they carried over to the driver who glanced with a smile at the empty seat beside me. Without a shred of doubt, she had put two and two together.