Monday, October 15, 2018

Voyaging around my father

Today would have been my father's 90th birthday. Instead, he has been dead for over 22 years. This is his obituary, by his colleague in neuropathology, Professor Francesco Scaravilli. 

My parents, Leo and Myra - very, very young.

I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now if he hadn't personally ensured that I had such a thorough musical education. However fine your teachers at school - assuming you were lucky enough to enjoy any music tuition there at all - nothing could have replaced the steeping in matters musical that I received at home. Here, to commemorate his birthday, are the top 10 things I learned from him.

1. He and Mum didn't only march me off to piano and violin lessons: they helped me practise, and Dad in particular. I remember the torture of sitting at the back of the first violins on Sunday mornings in the Jewish Youth Orchestra (yes, really) for a term or two, trying desperately to read my way through Dvorák's Symphony No.8. It was hopeless. It's bloody difficult and I was about 13 and doing my Grade VI, and I love the sound of a violin beautifully played, but I never got along too well with doing it myself - I'd turn oddly muddled above 3rd position and couldn't work out which fingering did what on which string, plus the high frequencies used to do my head in.

Dad shut himself in the study with me, a music stand and the violin part. He didn't play the violin, but he did play the piano well and knew how to practise systematically. And we slogged away, slow bit by slow bit, over and over again, gradually increasing, and it was utter torture and misery, but at the end of the session I could actually play the first page. I can't remember whether I still could by the next Sunday, but I dropped violin lessons for a couple of years not long afterwards.

2. My school was a tube ride away, so it was a 6.40am alarm clock every day. Radio 3 used to begin broadcasting at about the same time back then - was it 6.30am? 7am? - and the first thing Dad did in the morning was to switch on the radio in the dining room. He'd often drop me at the station on his way to work and the radio would be on in the car too.

So by the time I was on the platform at Finchley Road I'd likely have heard the equivalent of a whole concert. First thing on a Wednesday, perhaps something like Mozart's Symphony No.29,  Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, a quick slice of Stravinsky, and a Beethoven overture, going by in rapid succession. If you're fortunate enough to have a musically retentive brain, this is how you learn the repertoire. And occasionally there'd be some incredible piano playing. Who's that? Maurizio Pollini? Wow! Martha Argerich? Isn't she amazing? And listen to that, this new young pianist who just won the Chopin Competition, what did you say his name was - Krystian Zimerman? Let's go and hear him when he plays in London next year.

Yes, the radio was on all the time, playing music round the clock, and I soaked it up like the proverbial sponge. And occasionally I'd find Dad in his favourite chair, wrapped in a rug, listening over and over again to the same piece of music. He'd sit there comparing all his recordings of Brahms's Second Symphony, just for fun. Building a Library missed a fine potential contributor.

3. If you know your way well around the chamber music scene in London, you'll know that at the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square there are chamber concerts early on Sunday evenings. Dad used to go to the lot. When I was about 8, he started taking me along. Sometimes I was bored, sometimes I loved them. But that's where I must have heard most of the string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert before the age of 14, and I also remember the Ravel String Quartet, which I adored, and the Introduction and Allegro (I think Marisa Robles was playing the harp). Borodin 2 enchanted me and once I think we heard a four-hands concert by the pianists Anthony Goldstone and Caroline Clemmow, who became firm favourites of my mum's. Sometimes it was cold in there and often I was the youngest person by about 40 years, but life wouldn't have been the same without it.

And opera. It took me longer to get to grips with opera because there were no surtitles in those days, but I will never forget going to Count Ory at ENO and Dad virtually rolling in the aisles, weeping with laughter.

4. I remember my first orchestral concert, when I must have been about 8: the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Rudolf Kempe, with Miriam Fried the violin soloist. They played the Berlioz 'Roman Carnival' Overture, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (I think) and the Dvorák 'New World' Symphony and I spent a lot of time staring at the flautist (Susan Milan!) and wondering how she could stand the noise sitting in front of the brass like that. For a couple of weeks before the concert Dad taught me the music. We listened to it all on LPs and he showed me how to follow the scores. Myth-scotching moment: reading music is very easy to learn when you're a child. I learned when I started piano lessons, age 4. It is not elitist, it is not particularly complicated and all you need is someone to show you how it works when you're young enough not to have swallowed the rubbish other people spout about it.

Please note, it was a Sunday afternoon, so there was no school or work, and we could actually go to a proper concert like this. Not 'children's concerts' - the very small me would certainly have turned my nose up at any such notion ("Hello there, children! Are we all having lots of fun today?" ugh.)

This plan seems such a no-brainer to me when concert organisations wonder how to get in younger punters that I often wonder what planet they're on. You want your concerts attended by families, with working-age parents, children, even grandparents who mightn't like late evenings? Do concerts on Sunday afternoons! Simples.

5. Exams. Oh my God, exams. Well, I had to do them, and I think that may be what gave me nerve complexes about performing. These days I will happily stand up and speak to a concert hall of 500 people without a quiver, but just don't ever make me play the bloody piano... But Dad was kind. He would ferry me there and back, put up with my nerves – "Don't make such a matzoh-pudding of it!" he'd say – and when it was all over we'd go to a record shop and I'd choose the ones I wanted. Not even that could quite erase the memory of standing in the ladies' room somewhere in the RCM soaking my hands in a basin of hot water, which was the only warm-up available. I still shudder every time I go in there.

6. Music lessons. For years and years and years, Dad would ferry me to my piano lessons and usually sat outside in the car while I was being put through my paces. He must have had the patience of an angel. Because he also ferried me to violin lessons until I fell out with the instrument.

Occasionally he was rewarded with a surprise. My piano teacher for about eight years was Patsy Toh, the Chinese pianist who lived with her husband Fou Ts'ong in Hampstead and later Islington. In the first house, Patsy had a teaching studio upstairs while the big Steinways were downstairs. One day, when I was about 10 or 11, I arrived on Saturday afternoon to hear some sublime Schubert emanating from behind that closed door. "That's Richter in there, practising," Patsy whispered to me. I'd sort of heard of Richter and I knew Dad would be impressed. I hurried out to the car, where he was sitting listening to Radio 3, and said "Dad, Richter's in there." I never saw him run as fast as that again. While I was doing Hanon and Grade Whatever upstairs, the great Russian continued his world of Schubert beneath and I think Dad sat in the hall with his ear to the door.

7. I once tried to refuse to go back to university, because I hated the music course and pretty much everything about the place. (Actually I wanted to go and study piano in New York.) I think I was virtually manhandled into the back of the car with my suitcase and bags of books and files and shoehorned into the bedsit on Jesus Lane. I had tendinitis, glandular fever, fear and loathing. Many years on, I think it's good I stayed, because I got a very decent degree plus a one-year postgrad thing, I know how to write a fugue (for what that's worth), and it is definitely healthy, on principle, to stick with your creative projects and finish them properly. He made me do that and it's something I insist upon to this day - hence Odette, finished at last after 26 years. I do regret not going and studying piano in New York, but that's another issue.

8. There were certain things Dad used to do that I don't think anybody else would have dared try. He was a quiet, unassuming personality. He was rather shy, and definitely chary of British society traditions. But if someone was in trouble, he would step in and try to find a solution. Once we had a close friend who had lived in Britain for many years, gone back to his native USA, and then returned to the UK a year or two later to take up a new job. Unfortunately, the company he was to work for had screwed up his work permit, so he arrived at Heathrow without it and they promptly wanted to deport him. He owned a small flat in the middle of London and was renting it out - to someone who was a high-level civil servant. Dad took it upon himself to get the phone number of this important gentleman, call him and ask him to intervene. Although this didn't sort the whole situation, which was the result of a singularly incompetent company, it meant our friend was not confined to an airport cell, but was permitted to stay at our house until such time as. (Happy ending: friend got the necessary permit and job, eventually.)

9. The more I hear about the Vilna Gaon, an ancestor of sorts according to family legend, the more like Dad he sounds. He was a leading figure in the Jewish Enlightenment in Lithuania, not a rabbi but a kind of Talmudic sage, a wise man who led by principle and writing and example. He was, as I understand it, a polymath with a wide knowledge base ranging from science to music, and his thinking was the opposite of the mystical Chassidic approach (which is kind of happy-clappy-feel-it-in-your-bones). Academic exactitude, logical argument and realistic precision were uppermost and if that seems antithetical to the idea of religion, I think he was one of the few people, perhaps along with Moses Mendelssohn, who showed that it didn't need to be. We need more of this characteristically Enlightenment thinking today and less of the believing-in-gut-reaction-alone stuff because, frankly, look where the recent vogue for that has got us.

10. I miss him. Admittedly, Count Ory aside, he could be strict, rather joyless (as teenagers we weren't allowed short skirts or make-up - my sister defied both, but I didn't - and pop music was banned at home to the point that I even used to watch Crackerjack with the sound turned right down, and when my brother gave me a Glenn Miller LP for my 18th birthday, it was radical.) But where would I have been without him? Anything I have done, anything I am, anything that has worked in my life, I owe to him. And I miss him like the blazes, every day still, after 22 years. He has two grandchildren who remember him, but probably not all that well, and two younger grandsons he never met, but who resemble him, one in capacity for scientific application and the other, littlest one, in an instinctive musical overflow.

It seems so unfair that he should have been taken from us all so early. He could still have been here now.

Thank you, Dad. Today we should have been celebrating your big birthday. We will do so and hope you can see us raise a glass to you tonight.