May 1, 2015
Bob Simon and I unknowingly walked off with each other’s nearly identical coats several months ago. Once the error was discovered, we met days later in my apartment for the great coat exchange and had a good laugh about the situation. That done, Bob and I sat down at my dining room table and talked for the better part of an hour. We talked about many things—our work, the Upper West Side of Manhattan where we both lived, politics, and music—all with his intelligence, thoughtfulness, and gentle humor on full display. As it turned out, I had often seen Bob, a masterful journalist, on television’s “Sixty Minutes” and he had heard me as a performing musician.
When Bob and I parted, each once again the possessor of his rightful coat, I had the feeling that this could be the beginning of a friendship.
Bob called me a few weeks later and invited me to an Emerson String Quartet concert. Unfortunately, I was out of town and could not accept but it prompted me to reciprocate. The Guarneri String Quartet, of which I was a proud member, retired several years ago, but every once in a while we give a concert with a colleague or two. Last February 10th it was a fundraiser with violinist Pamela Frank, as part of the Ann Ratner concert series. We were billed as the Pameri String Quintet and I invited Bob to the concert.
We performed two viola quintets that evening, one by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in C Minor, K406, and one by Johannes Brahms in G Major, opus 111. As we bowed to audience applause, I was pleased to see Bob seated in the third row. Afterwards, my wife, Dorothea, Gwen, a friend of ours, and I sat down with Bob over food and wine. Amongst other things, we discovered that he was a passionate opera lover and very much excited about the prospect of hearing Verdi’s Don Carlo, his favorite opera, at the Met in the spring. Bob offered to send me the performance dates in the hopes that we might attend together. I left the after-concert party happy to have met up with Bob once again and very much looking forward to a Don Carlo performance with him.
The next evening, I opened the newspaper and to my great surprise saw Bob’s photo on the front page. Then my heart dropped as I read that he had been killed in an automobile crash only hours earlier. I wanted desperately to will the unthinkable away, to wipe clean the newspaper print that gawked at me, to engineer the impossible—that is, to reverse time so that Dorothea, Gwen, Bob and I were still together less than twenty-four hours earlier and continuing our talk about opera over a glass of chardonnay.
How could this senseless tragedy have happened to such a wonderful man? And ironically to someone who on occasion had risked his life in the service of his profession. Bob had always been moved, as he once put it, to go where others don’t go, to see what they can’t see. In the fifth day of the Gulf War, Simon as CBS war correspondent, was captured by Iraqi soldiers, narrowly missed being put to death on the spot, and then spent forty harrowing days in jail before being released. In Forty Days, the book Bob wrote about his Iraq experience, he eerily imagined his own future: “I had long believed that irony was the guiding principle of the universe and I would picture the headline: SURVIVOR OF SADDAM’S GULAG KILLED IN CAR CRASH…”
I recoiled from even thinking about the last seconds of Simon’s life, in which the limousine he was in collided with the back end of another car and careened into the street’s center divider in a tangle of unforgiving metal.
Easier to let my mind drift back to the previous evening and to the music we had played for the assembled guests—quite possibly the last music Bob ever heard.
What music would you like to hear just before you exit this earth? Would it be sad or happy? Lighthearted or inspirational? Billie Holiday or a late Beethoven string quartet? If Bob had actually died during the Gulf War, the last music he ever heard might have been Verdi’s Requiem, a recording of which was in the journalist’s car when he was captured. Bob would have possibly chosen one of his beloved operas, but if he had been confronted the evening of our concert with the terrible news of his impending death, he might have been content with what he did hear: two exalted works by Mozart and Brahms.
The Mozart Quintet begins operatically enough with a series of dark and ominous chords. In extreme contrast, the Brahms Quintet that follows rushes to its end in a joyous celebration of life. These were the aural bookends to that evening of music whose craft, imagination, and substance have the ability to deeply stir the heart and mind. In the waning hours of my own life, I would happily accept this music as its coda.
Several days ago, Dorothea, Gwen, and I attended a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo. Each of us had independently come up with the idea as a way of honoring Bob’s memory. Don Carlo, an epic five-act historical drama, swept us away. The sheer magic of Verdi’s score, rendered stunningly and evocatively by the orchestra and singers, and the plot’s twists and turns filled with tragic conflict, all seemed to gravitate towards the celebrated opening of Act IV. In his study, King Philip II sings a poignant nine-minute monologue in which he reflects on his ability to rule an empire while failing to win the love of his very own wife. Bob had told us the night of our quintet concert that this was his favorite scene in the opera, and the rendition we heard brought the house down.
Dorothea, Gwen, and I occupied only three seats at the opera that night but Bob unquestionably was the fourth member of our little group—hovering over us in spirit as the conductor gave the downbeat for Don Carlo. In effect, the magnificent performance that followed was a gift from Bob in absentia, for surely we would not have been there without knowing him.
If Bob had lived to attend Don Carlo with us, what would he have thought of the singing, the staging, and Don Carlo himself who dies at the opera’s end with all his youthful dreams unfulfilled?
And what about Bob’s own youthful dreams? As he listened to the inspired sounds of Mozart and Brahms the night before he died, had those dreams been sufficiently fulfilled? And as the melancholy strains of the Brahms third movement segued into the last movement’s irresistible good cheer, did Bob think to himself that life was good and that he had done well by it?
I very much hope so.
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