February 28, 2020
Amir, a salesman from a local blind and shade store, came up to our house some time ago in order to advise my wife, Dorothea, and me about some kind of window covering. Well into our discussion, Amir somehow learned that I was a violinist. With that, all talk about blinds and shades abruptly came to a halt, and out of the blue, Amir blurted out, “Who do you like better, Heifetz or Menuhin?” I sputtered a slightly incoherent answer about great violinists being quite impossible to compare, but really what set me back on my heels was the admittedly prejudiced idea that a guy from a blind and shade store would know the names of Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. Amir ignored my vague answer with yet another question. “Heifetz or Perlman, who is better?” Again, I provided Amir with a slightly different version of the same answer. Both Jascha Heifetz and Itzhak Perlman are marvelous violinists that I’ve admired immensely but in different ways. Apples and oranges, I almost added to the conversation, but thought better than to compare these towering artists to fruits.
Amir looked displeased with the way the conversation was going and remained silent for a moment. Then without warning he asked an even more startling question. “Would you play for me?”
During my teenage years, friends who were invited over to our house by my parents would occasionally ask me to play for them after dinner. It was something even encouraged by mom and dad who were eager to show off their talented son’s progress. None of my parent’s friends were musicians, but almost all of them were music lovers. Looking back on those living room mini concerts, I’d have to say that they provided me with performance experience while soothing my juvenile ego with the oohs and aahs that followed such items as Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantelle, Bloch’s Nigun, or a movement from Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol.
As a professional musician, however, I find it hard to recall a single instance in the last half century when I’ve been asked to perform in someone’s home after, say, an afternoon tea, or dinner, or a friendly late night poker game: “Hey Arnie, how about a couple of Paganini caprices while we count up the chips and fold up the card table?” No, it would be ill mannered and inappropriate. Imagine asking your friend, Fred the plumber, to fix a leaky faucet after having invited him for beef Strogonoff. Or asking neighbor Max, the doctor, to take your blood pressure before offering him apple pie and ice cream. Or insisting that your golf partner, Sam, the CPR, look at your IRS tax returns, after eight holes.
And yet, when Amir asked me to play the violin, he looked at me so directly and with such sincerity, that the word, yes, floated out of my mouth.
I played a song I dearly love, “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern, for Amir and Dorothea who both sat at the dining room table. When the music came to an end, Amir, his eyes aglow, fairly shouted at me, “You are a genius”. I, a genius? Absurd. Even laughable. Nevertheless, I thanked Amir, for he obviously meant it as a high compliment.
Later, as Amir drove away, and as I put my violin back in its case, the thought occurred to me that for the first time in more than two years, I had just given a performance. True, it lasted not much more than a few minutes, and for an audience of only two, but so what. One or a thousand listeners, in my dining room or in Carnegie Hall, a performance is a performance.
Approaching the age of eighty, I decided to stop performing in public before people began throwing last week’s fruit at me. Since then, I’ve had no regrets about my decision and only thankfulness for the blissful life I’ve had in music. But in its modest way, the performance in our dining room brought back the heady feeling of the concert stage. Practicing by oneself, which I still do on a regular basis, is an entirely different animal. I might try to imagine an audience listening raptly to my Bach, my Beethoven, my Bartok, but nothing compares to the beating hearts and open ears I faced in the concert hall. They impelled me to offer my music as an openhearted gift, an act of common bond, a shared humanity. At its best, we musicians are in a service profession that can sooth, uplift, and nourish the soul.
And so, I played “All the Things You Are”, trying my best to deliver its alluring melody and seductive harmonies as a gift to Amir, the blind and shade salesman. Amir had unexpectedly lured me out of my practice room and for a brief moment back onto the wondrous world of the concert stage.
Thank you, Amir.
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