Friday, July 01, 2005

Diamond in the Sky

While overseas I was saddened to learn about the death of David Diamond, an important American composer for more than half a century. I met him numerous times, and recorded his Second Violin Concerto for Delos, presently out on Naxos, as well as some shorter pieces for the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

To most listeners Mr. Diamond’s best known piece is his “Rounds” for string orchestra, an early work. It is a very rhythmical work, full of unexpected and tricky accents, and a lot of fun to play. Being European, I didn’t know this piece, nor had I heard of the composer, until I came back to L.A. from abroad. My intention was just to hear the chamber orchestra concert in Pasadena but I was asked to sit as principal second and sight-read the work in the performance. My eye-sight was better those days and I could always basically play what I could read, so I ended up enjoying the challenge and the composition. At the reception afterwards, a lady came to talk to me and told me how she had enjoyed watching me and gave all kinds of compliments. Then she popped the question: had I ever considered becoming a professional?

Perhaps Mr. Diamond unintentionally became a victim of writing rhythmical pieces, as his initial success was with this style. Personally I always felt that his melodic, slow works were deeper and had tremendous beauty in them. In the concerto I recorded, I started counting the number of accents he had written in one fast movement alone and the total came to several hundreds. Like Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto, having that piece played on a percussion instrument might have done it more justice (Neeme J√§rvi told me once that he had recorded that work in the Soviet Union long time ago, playing the solo on a xylophone or marimba; I can’t remember which).

Just like Sibelius, David Diamond was a violinist by training and, like my countryman, tried to write some almost unplayable passages for the instrument. In one of his smaller works for violin and piano he uses tremolo for the solo violin, something that is only successful with many people playing simultaneously. I had to change those passages. Late Stephen Albert also wrote tremolo passages while he was composing In Concordiam, which I also recorded. I asked his for the reason as he thought the sound would be louder, like in an orchestra. Needless to say, I managed to make him change his mind quickly.

Mr. Diamond would have made a good honorary Finn, as he was very serious and seldom smiled. After my performing and recording his concerto, he sent me the nicest letter with a $100 bill with it. He knew I wasn’t ever paid for any of my solo work and wanted to give me something. I promptly donated the money to some good cause.

One time I was driving him to his hotel in Seattle and told him that he had become a household name in Seattle. He took it as a great compliment, but then I pointed at a sign “Diamond Parking”, very popular in this town. He may have got mad at my prank, but I knew that deep inside he was amused. I will always miss this man, my Diamond in the Sky. At least his compositions will continue to live with us.