Friday, April 27, 2007

Good-Bye Time

Knowing when to politely bow out is a difficult thing to know, especially for performing artists. Dancers usually have enough physical problems preventing them from continuing a daily routine at an early age, so they gracefully exit, either to start a second career as a teacher of dance, or graduate to a completely different field. Singers normally know when their vocal chords no longer function as they once did, or their reduced lung capacity cannot sustain the high notes as long as before. Sometimes they continue singing past their retirement point, having become celebrities like the trio of men we all know; only one of them being in decent vocal shape. Conductors can become respected and honored sources of knowledge and tradition, or they burn out like a dwarf star, and have little or nothing to give. Even in the first case they are seldom a true inspiration to an orchestra, although an ensemble can play wonderfully well for someone whose knowledge and style the players admire. With instrumentalists aging is a touchy subject, and although there have been some wonderful pianists up there in years, most other seniors playing should have waved good-bye to their audiences long ago. Yet the last two decades has seen woodwind and string players enjoying their star status but torturing true music lovers by their performances, hardly reminiscent of the playing in their prime.

Today's New York Times has a review of a famed chamber ensemble giving their farewell performances. The Vermeer Quartet has been in the spotlight for almost forty years, and instead of an individual bowing out and being replaced by another, a common scenario, they decided to end while still on top. The Vermeer has left enough wonderful recordings behind for us to enjoy them for decades to come, and their concerts surely will live on listeners' memories. The sound and style of a quartet is usually a product of years of hard labor, ironing out stylistic differences and reaching a common understanding of how music should be interpreted; no easy task. Keeping the name but having different personnel is controversial. I personally feel that if one person in a piano trio or two in a quartet, sometimes one (in case of the first violinist), are new, the group should adopt a different name. Keeping a well-known and established trade mark is great for marketing but fooling the audience. Many would disagree with my opinion.

Regrettably some incredible artists perish while still young. This past week I have been listening to recordings of two such violinists. Ginette Neveu was only 30 years old when the plane carrying her and her brother (her accompanist), crashed into a mountain in the Azores. What an amazing musician she was! She played with more balls than most male violinists, especially today. Her Ravel Tzigane is surprisingly slow, yet in complete accordance with the composer's wishes; today we seem to think that the fastest performance is the best. A real find was to listen to Viennese-born Ossy Renardy's early recordings of Sarasate's gems, performed at the age of 18. This violinist would have become a household name and as great an anyone, had he not been killed in a car accident in 1953. Both violinists died on their way to work: Neveu on her way to a tour in the U.S. and Renardy (originally Reich) driving a car to play a concert.

Today's news tells us about the death of a great Russian musician, Mstislav Rostropovich, at the age of 80. There had been rumors for many months that his health problems had become unmanageable, but nevertheless such news makes one sad. A genuine product of the Soviet Union's music training machine, he represented both the good and bad of that system. The first performances I heard in my youth were not exactly to my liking. The harsh attacks on the then-not-so-common steel strings were a far cry from the refined sound of Pablo Casals and others. One heard complaints that Slava prevented other Soviet cellists from achieving his star status, and the cellist was eager to push his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, into the same international fame he was enjoying. Westerners always admired the top Soviet instrumentalists, but singing was a different story: being compared to a Russian soprano was hardly a compliment. Times changed, as did both Mr. Rostropovich's style and my taste. I no longer had trouble enjoying his playing and, while working with him on numerous occasions, his tremendous creative energy. Even if one didn't agree with his interpretation, it never left anyone cold. In his later years a new Rostropovich gradually emerged: gone was all the harshness of the Soviet era and instead one was allowed to peek inside this artist's tender soul. As a result of the Cold War, our government rushed to place him in charge of the National Symphony, after the Soviets kicked him out. It served well as a political move, even if he didn't fulfill all the expectations with his baton. I had a nickname for him: the 'National Semiconductor'. He himself admitted that when he played the cello, he suffered but the audience enjoyed; when conducting he enjoyed and the listeners suffered. Yet he was able to make many orchestras sound great in Russian repertoire as a guest conductor, especially where people weren't used to such radiating musical energy and know-how on the podium. I miss his dogs: a little pooch would follow him on the stage for rehearsals. At least one of them knew all the repertoire and would get up when the piece was nearing its end.

Life continues and great personalities live on in people's memories. Of course I will always remember fondly this extraordinary man and musician who kissed me many times on the cheeks in front of a packed audience. May he enjoy making music for and with the angels.