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Music, life, and memories (Video)

I’m in a Scarlatti phase of music making that hearkens back to my days as a student at the New York City High School of Performing Arts (“Fame I wanna live forever”) when I was studying with Lillian Freundlich at her townhouse off Riverside Drive. The sonata I posted above, was her first musical recommendation to me. She insisted that I purchase the Friskin edition, and start by learning one of the effervescent essercizi in G Major, L. 387.  (K. 14) The rest is history as decades later, I recorded 28 of them for two cd albums.

My lessons with Mrs. Freundlich were an eternal awakening. She would sing over my playing, prod me to shape musical phrases, and encourage my search for oneness with the instrument. Before I met Lillian, I always knew what I wanted to hear inside of me, but, frustrated by technical barriers, I couldn’t play many notes without feeling tight and fatigued. The music I produced was boxed in, wanting desperately to flower.

As fate would have it, my studies with Lillian were all too short. Within two years I was bound for the Oberlin Conservatory, where I felt boxed in again. Practice rooms were stacked high, and Performance Majors seemed assembly line processed. I missed the West Side townhouse, and my lessons in an enormous living room with a cathedral ceiling and the love of music permeating every bit of space.

For the four years I was away at Oberlin, I yearned to return to a welcoming environment that made music spiritual. It was very frustrating to hear my pieces echoed through the walls of conservatory practice rooms. And even more disconcerting to sit through eons of student recitals, where attendance was mandatory. All over again my repertoire was regurgitated to the exponential, and not with the freedom of musical expression that would appeal to me.  Mechanical players abounded, who were happy to get through a composition with the right notes.

Lil’s living room haunted me night and day. It held a gorgeous Mason and Hamlin grand beside a Steinway. And upstairs, there was still another Steinway grand that was used when both Lillian and her husband were teaching private students. Irwin, was at the time Chair of the Piano Department at Juilliard and he had a fine reputation for nursing some very talented performers along. One, named Joseph Schwartz, became a faculty member at Oberlin during the years I attended. What a coincidence to meet him there!

Freundlich’s Sanctuary:

Like it was yesterday, I remember seeing my reflection in a big decorative mirror overshadowing a florid mahogany table that displayed programs of students like Stephen Manes, who were making their Carnegie Recital Hall debuts. They were wide eyed, young musicians, who wanted to make performing their life’s work, and their launch was special to the Freundlichs who made their home a concert hall.

I remember how excited I was to be invited to hear Stephen play, in the midst of so many older Juilliard students. I had just started with Lillian, and felt at the time like a beginner who needed lots of training and encouragement. I would dream that some day I might have a glossy photo attached to a brochure about my forthcoming public concert. That would surely mean, I had arrived.

Christina Petrovsky, one of my classmates at the High School of Performing Arts, just happened to be a student of Irwin, and turned up at one of the Hauskonzerts. She had come down from Canada to study piano.

Performing Arts High or “P.A.” as it was commonly called, was a home to a number of well known musicians, dancers, and actors. Murray Perahia, was a year ahead of me, and was probably the most pervasive musical influence of my life, besides Lillian Freundlich.

He had such a big presence at our high school that I can’t think of my years there, without his name inscribed in my memory forever.

Murray would be invited to play a Continuo part (bass) at the piano as we sat in the orchestra playing a Corelli Concerto Grosso. Since I had been studying violin along with piano, I was embedded in the ensemble drawing long bows, listening attentively to what Murray was doing over at the grand.

Perahia’s continuo just dominated the whole musical experience. He drew a gorgeous tone from the piano, and from my perspective, I saw him turn red in the face with each sonorous bass note.

Other memorable performances were his Beethoven second piano concerto, Chopin E minor,  and Mendelssohn trio in D minor. His chamber music was particularly divine. He drew a crowd of students when he decided to stay after school and read through some scores. During one afternoon, he played a Brahms symphony  accounting for every instrument, and its transposition. I was just bowled over with amazement.

I will always remember the day he ascended the podium to conduct our school orchestra. Perahia was one of a handful of students taking conducting classes with Julius Grossman, our chamber music director and he was scheduled to have his performance exam.

Until Perahia took the baton, most of us were playing as if we suffered with anemia. There was very little spark, and we were ragged out from our long commute to school very early in the morning, compounded by the volume of music and academic classes. These included Sight-singing and Dictation; Music Theory, Music History, Applied Study, Geometry, English, Science, American History, and Economics.

Perahia tweaked our energy levels in no time. He conducted a late Haydn Symphony, and drew every last drop of blood out of us in pursuit of beauty.  We never sounded better as we were drawn out of our malaise.  But then it was back to the mundane and our normal class schedules.

To be truthful, the emphasis at “P.A.” the “Fame” School,  was not on academics, and some students like myself, were ostracized for excelling in English or Math. One afternoon, my books were stolen after I aced an exam that most students failed. It was not my happiest time of life, though the school had wonderful teachers like Shirley Katz and Florence Schwager (Math) as well as Madame Gregg and Stone, (French) who encouraged me along.

The best part of “P.A.” was being in proximity to Perahia, and some other outstanding musicians such as Gerard Schwarz, Ellen Zoe Hassman, Kun-Woo Paik, and Marian Heller. These students were awe inspiring, along with other classmates and faculty members in the Drama and Dance Department: Robin Strasser, Bel Kaufman, and Norman Walker.

Now that I am years removed from Performing Arts High School as well as the Oberlin Conservatory, I still live and breathe music. Picking up a Scarlatti score just now, and recording sonatas that Lillian assigned me as a fledgling rekindles memories that are drawn from a diverse, rich and uncommonly fascinating life.

Post script: I discovered these tributes to my beloved teacher, the late, Lillian Freundlich, at a Peabody Conservatory Internet site:

http://www.peabody.jhu.edu/3817