It really was a visit to the past, in a way, my trip to New York’s 92nd St Y to hear Leon Fleisher and Jaime Laredo.
Just the night before, I’d been at [le] poisson rouge where I’d been experiencing one part, anyway, of the future of classical music–a terrific recital by the cellist Inbal Segev, joined for part of the program by the amazing pianist Fernando Otero.
Past the bouncers at the front door, hands stamped, my friend “Cello Mike” and I took a right at the suspended fish tank and headed down the red-lit stairs to the main space. We wandered around a bit, found two black-draped chairs at a table and stared at the “two items minimum per person” sign on the table.
Segev’s beautiful Rugeri cello was amplified, as was the Yamaha piano Otero played. Colored lights, spot lights, Segev talking to the audience with a microphone, the music accompanied by cocktail shakers shaking. All streamed live on the Internet.
Me spelling “R-O-B R-O-Y” to a generally inattentive waitress whose first language isn’t English and didn’t believe me that there was such a drink. “I don’t think we have that.” “Yes you do, the bartender will know. I’ll spell it for you.”) And this, all happening sotto voce, during the performance of Otero’s intense, soulful, and not infrequently stunning Songs for Cello and Piano. (The rest of the program was two solo cello works: the Prelude from the Bach C Minor Suite and the ever-daunting Kodaly Solo Sonata.) During that Kodaly, kind of wanting another drink, but not wanting to pay for one. Luckily, the waitress didn’t come to check if we wanted something else until 30 seconds before the piece ended. No, we didn’t, and we escaped the two-item minimum.
Classical music in clubs–that’s part of the future. There are advantages and disadvantages. A cellist friend my age was there, for the first time, and found it all distracting. Mike, who makes a living busking in the subways and playing just about every possible genre of music, including some classical, said he’d much rather hear a classical concert at a place like LPR than a concert hall. Dressed in cargo shorts and a black wife beater, he looked perfectly at home in a Greenwich Village club, but would have gotten some stares uptown. So there you go.
The next night, last night, I put on dress pants and shoes, as well as a white polo shirt and a sport coat, to hear Leon Fleisher and Jamie Laredo at the 92nd St. Y.
Security guards, rather than bouncers, greet you, and you have to walk through a metal detector to get in. (It’s set to a low enough sensitivity that they tell you to hold onto your keys and cell phone, so I wonder how much good it does.) There’s a lounge area off the concert hall, with a bar, so you can get a drink and snacks there, too. You just can’t take them to your seat, there’s no minimum, and no servers interrupting you during the music.
The audience was mostly over 40, many well over 50. As is the case at most traditional classical concerts, I got to feel young. Dark wood paneling, names of great Jewish figures inscribed over the proscenium (David, Moses, Isaiah), great statesmen (Washington, Jefferson), and great composers (Beethoven, et al) around the top of the walls. The piano and music stand on a plainly-lit stage. Two legendary performers–who became legendary decades ago. The audience quiet and attentive, no clapping between movements.
This is the recent past of classical music, and the role of this sort of concert in this sort of venue in the future is yet to be revealed.
It was a visit to my past as well. I got a bit dressed up because I knew I’d greet Mr. Fleisher after the concert. As I wrote about yesterday, I had chamber music coachings from him when I was a student at Peabody, and played principal cello for him in the Annapolis Symphony. I sat in on lessons once in a while, including a couple he gave my mother. She had a faculty development grant from the University of Tampa, where she was the piano professor, to work with him on left-hand literature. “If her right hand works,” Fleisher, whose didn’t at the time, asked me, “why on earth would she want to play this left-hand stuff?” But she always had problems with her right hand, the result of a childhood injury, while having extraordinary facility with her left hand.
One of the pieces she worked on with him, in the spring of 1980, was the Brahms arrangement of the Bach Chaconne, one of the most extraordinary pieces of music ever composed, from the D Minor violin partita. I sat there in Fleisher’s studio as he discussed how he approached breaking the opening chords, two notes and two notes, as would a violin. (I thought, and still do, that if you’re playing it on a piano, play it on the piano and don’t try to imitate a violin.) There were details of phrasing and voicing and fingerings, how to bring out the key bass notes that are the basis of the variations that form the work.
And it was that piece that was at the center of last night’s recital. Fleisher and Laredo had started with two Schubert Sonatinas, in in G and A minor. And then this piece, the piece he coached my mother, now in her dementia dream world, on. It was the first time I’d heard him perform in person with both hands. Back when I worked with him, the focal dystonia that would cause the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand to snap shut had yet to be successfully treated. When there was a brief respite in 1982 and he performed the Franck Symphonic Variations with the Baltimore Symphony, I listened to the sold-out concert on the radio, and cried. The combination of his celebrity, his musical insight, his personal warmth and accessibility (I sat with him at breakfast in the Peabody cafeteria any number of times during my first year there)–I just loved the guy. There was a kind of a cult around him. We had his records, some of us, and compared every other pianist (unfavorably) to his two-handed recordings. And it seemed that at some point each of his male students (including me for a while) grew a beard and trimmed it, narrowly, just like his. (Not so long ago I heard one of his current successful students, and, no surprise, he was sporting a Fleisher beard.)
Whatever had happened to enable him to use both hands at that concert in 1982 didn’t last. I left Baltimore in 1984, and hadn’t even seen him until last night. I’ve heard, and rejoiced in, the two-handed recordings he’s made since more successful treatments have worked their magic, and I’ve read his memoir co-authored with Ann Midgette. So when I read about last night’s concert, I had to go. I had to see this man who meant so much to me, who taught me so much, who shared his time with my mother. And I wanted to see him play with two hands, for myself.
He walked out on the stage, the powerful shoulders (he always seemed very muscular to me, and I always wondered if that had something to do with his hand issues) now a bit stooped, the walk a bit slow. Some gray in his hair, but surprisingly little for a guy who is 82.
It was if I’d just seen him yesterday. What is it about relationships? Time passes, and yet it’s as if it hasn’t. There he was, Mr. Fleisher. I felt 23 again.
You get over the personal stuff, and the miracle of the two hands, and the miracle of being 82 and still performing (I know this is hardly remarkable any more, but by the time my dad was 82, a year he didn’t survive, he was so physically fragile he could barely make it to the supermarket, and my mother, at 78, thinks Bach visited her in person), you’re left with the playing. And as much as anything else, I went to that concert because I’ve loved what I heard in Fleisher’s recent recordings and I wanted to hear him make music with Jaime Laredo.
It was worth it. Fleisher’s playing is at once supremely lyrical and profoundly architectural. Singing and structure, in balance with each other. It’s something that’s not at all easy to do, to get that combination right. There’s a flow that, as he used to work to help us learn to do ourselves, is rhythmic without being metronomic. His sound is beautiful–rich and mellow. There may have been more intensity and high drama in his younger years; there’s still a full range, and the music he makes feels both wise and fully alive.
Jaime Laredo is terrific, too. When I was growing up, my parents treasured his recording of the Mendelssohn concerto. Somehow, I’ve never heard him before. He’s got a sound that ranges from soft and delicate to big and energetic, and played with energy imagination. They both played wonderfully. I didn’t feel, though, that they were always “clicking.” The ensemble playing was good; it just never felt magical to me. The program was originally going to be all piano, and was changed because Fleisher has been recovering from some more work on his right hand, which was still used quite a bit. So I found myself wondering how rehearsed this program was.
The highlight was that Bach Chaconne, after the two sonatinas, just before intermission. It was insightful, fluid, colorful, deep, dignified without being pompous, and moving. There was a big standing ovation after it, and no wonder. After intermission, Fliesher played a two-handed arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze.” I’ve played it in so many wedding services that sometimes I think it will make me scream, but in Fleisher’s hands it was magic. As he walked off the stage, I thought to myself, “I bet he could even make me like the Pachelbel Canon.“
I got to see him, shake his hand, remind him who was (he squinted a bit, in that way he has, and seemed to remember me), and told him what I was doing these days. He thanked me for coming, and it felt quite sincere. I let him move on to the next person. But I forgot to say, “thank you for all you did to help me become the musician I am today.” So I guess I’ll write him a note. It’s more for me than for him–I think he knows how much of an impact he’s had on the many young musicians he’s guided.
Life is full of irony. He plays that Chaconne so extraordinarily well, and includes it even in his two-handed programs. If those problems with his right hand had never happened, would we ever have gotten to hear him play what has become a kind of signature piece for him, with the mastery and insight that comes from years of performance? Probably not. He’d probably be happy to have forgone it. But that performance last night was so, well, perfect, that I’ll always be grateful. Not just for the playing, but for the pain-tinged beauty he created out of his tragedy.