Monday, March 10, 2008

Stool Sample

Recent emails and calls from my native country prompted me to think about the situation with performing artists with various degrees of physical difficulties in their profession. Most of these have to do with the ability to stand or walk, although there are occasions when someone has injured him/herself, usually resulting in a temporary problem or nuisance. I do remember a principal violist in the Bamberger Symphoniker (Bamberg Symphony, originally based on the pre-war German Philharmonic Orchestra of Prague) who had lost his right thumb. Some genius had fitted his viola bow with four silver rings so that he could go on playing. As a young kid I was truly amazed to see him manage so well during the orchestra's visit for the Sibelius Week in Helsinki.

It turns my stomach when I see a soloist, often a female violinist, show up with a minor cut in a finger but a big white bandage, perhaps with a white bow tie, large enough to be seen by even the visually impaired. "How can she play?!" is the usual comment and an automatic standing ovation is a given, no matter how bad the performance. Some walk onto the stage with crutches, sit on a stool, and then exit in the same manner, often throwing the "needed" walking aids away as soon as the audience doesn't see them. And they don't need to be soloists either. I well remember, from decades past, an assistant concertmistress, whose husband, the concertmaster, would for months push her to her place in a wheelchair and then take his "bow movements". As soon as she was off the stage she would hop up, put her violin away and act normal. Yes, she had sprained an ankle or something at some point, but the charade was too good to give up. No business like show business. When I broke a joint in my left pinky three decades ago, I was hoping that nobody noticed, and continued working with just three fingers for many months, having taped the finger to the next with clear tape. I needed the money and managed even to play a solo or two by re-fingering the works.

Polio was, and unfortunately continues to be in parts of the world, a horrific disease. I was seven or eight before the mandatory vaccinations happened. An entire school class would march down to the health clinic and everyone would be given a shot. However, there were major epidemics when I was younger, and most kids were infected but only showed flu-like symptoms, so I easily could have been one of those. The unfortunate ones were paralyzed to a various degree, depending on how far in the spine the virus managed to wreak its havoc. Many lost their ability to walk and some even to breathe, ending up in "iron lungs". Today there are more portable alternatives for these unfortunate people. When there was a power outage near downtown some years ago in Seattle, one woman, unable to call for help, was shocked to find out she was able to breathe on her own.

Yes, there was Wilma Rudolph who was told as a child that she would never walk again, and yet she beat the odds and became the fastest female runner of her time. But most polio victims only regained some of the use of their legs, if any. The most awful part of the story is that polio's symptoms and pains tend to reappear after many decades. Some musicians have been victims of this disease and yet managed to achieve greatness. Everyone automatically thinks of Itzhak Perlman, the splendid Israeli violinist, but there is also James dePreist, a gifted conductor who came down with the illness a bit later in life. They both give a smile to the audience, yet I have seen expressions of great pain when they think no one is looking.

Although I am grateful for the permanent "handicapped" parking permit I have, for a person with disabilities, I would never dream of performing a solo sitting on a stool or chair, at least as long as I am somehow able to do without. Yes, it hurts to walk and to stand up, but I want the audiences to pay attention to my music making, sound and artistry, rather than wondering what is wrong with me. I work with people who limp and obviously are often in pain, yet these people do their work as a "normal" person would. If a conductor can do it, so can I.

This brings me to the communication from my homeland. It turns out that two people from this part of the world had shown up there to perform Wagner, among other loud stuff. As the conductor was using a stool, I was asked if he might be suffering from sciatica, or if American baton wielders often sit down, perhaps to cash in on the "pity factor". Most Finns have seen footage of the famed James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony and know that he uses the support of a stool. Also, James dePreist used to be the principal guest conductor of the Helsinki City Symphony, now known as the Philharmonic, until a critic with sharp writing skills and a mean personality (a dangerous combination) practically ate him alive with his reviews in Finland's leading daily. So, seeing American conductors sitting down in concerts is not a foreign concept. The Finns have a conductor of their own who is quite heavy and to my knowledge prefers (or needs) to balance himself on his tochas instead of feet. One email asked if perhaps the wrong person was using the stool as it might have been meant for the Wagnerian singer. I did not comment on this but said that the conductor had supposedly suffered a bone-fracture, as a result of having too much fun for his age months ago. If Hashem sees it fit to send him pain, who am I to criticize that. We all should realize our limits which increase every day as we age.

Our Creator gave a toad-stool for the toad.

"A Rubberband Fiddle" ©