December 1, 2007
“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations.
Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its monthly visits to the University of Maryland. Up until the previous year, Sam, a retired civil servant in the U.S. government, would often drive from his home in nearby Silver Springs to attend. Afterwards, he would take me to his favorite cafeteria-style restaurant where we would discuss everything from family gossip to the music he had just heard.
Sam was the pride and joy of my mother’s side of the family. Born in a humble Polish shtetl, he had come to this country as a child and managed to be the first in our clan to go to college. That was the pride part, but the joy came from Sam’s unquenchable humor, enthusiasm, and curiosity.
“What you four men did tonight was remarkable!” Sam would assert, waving his fork emphatically over a dish of grated carrots and raisins. “At first, the rehearsal seemed like some kind of contact sport—everyone discussing, suggesting, arguing…and then suddenly you all came together and played like angels! This is not just wonderful music making, this is showing people how to get along in the world! By the way, so you won’t forget, your cellist’s birthday is on February 24th.” Another thing about Sam: he remembered everything that came to his attention—names, dates, milestones, trivia.
I first met Sam when I was a child. In my youth and later as a music student, I saw him only sporadically. But after the Guarneri Quartet accepted a residency at the University of Maryland, we began to meet more often. I loved Sam for his wit, charm, and his eager boyishness. (This last was perhaps an unusual quality in a man over 80 years old.) I believe Sam had more than simple affection for me. He had told me many times and in many ways how much he admired my ability to play the violin, to communicate something special to an audience, and, most importantly in his view, to teach, so that I might pass on to students the exacting craft of playing an instrument and the magic of music. Sam regarded musicians and artists as high priests—in different garb but with similar responsibilities of healing and lending meaning to our lives.
Our monthly phone conversations were a relatively recent implementation, resulting from Sam’s eyesight having begun to fail, which forced him to give up night driving entirely. Now, the in-person conversations about music and politics, the stories about his humble boyhood, his mother (Rifke Raisel, who could only speak Yiddish in rhyme), and the America that welcomed him with open arms—all accompanied by grated carrots with raisins—were gone. I missed them, and I missed Sam. So the phone calls began.
I called Sam when I could. If my train arrived on time, there were often a few moments between hotel check-in and my first morning class for a quick chat. Sometimes I had a larger break before the open rehearsal. Then I was able to kick off my shoes, stretch out on the hotel bed, and talk with Sam in a more leisurely manner. As time passed, I felt that he began to anticipate, even expect these phone calls, as though they filled a need for him to get things off his chest.
But the conversations always began the same way. Sam had to know how much time I was able to allot him. “Maestro, short or long today?” Or, “How about fifteen minutes this morning? It would be a shande and a kharpe if you couldn’t give me fifteen.” A shame and a disgrace. (Sam often accentuated his thoughts with Yiddish words and expressions.) I suspected that Sam planned certain subjects of conversation in advance, and that the call’s duration was crucial for him to cover everything on his mind.
On one occasion, the initial easy-going banter took a more serious turn. “Look, you have to give me more time today. I have something to discuss. Nu, maestro? What’s the best you can do for me?” That day I had the luxury of a solid break before the evening rehearsal, or “contact sport” as Sam continued to describe it. Off came the shoes and I stretched out comfortably on the bed to hear what was up. Sam began on familiar ground by telling me again how much he valued what I did. Then he came to it. “I’m not getting any younger, you know, and I have enough money to live on. I even have a little extra left over. I wonder what you could do with it—something for music, for your students, possibly, something that might make a bit of difference in the world.”
Sam mentioned a specific sum of money. Coincidentally, it was more or less what a first-class new violin would cost. The connection was obvious. “Sam, I know a master violin maker in Philadelphia, Hiroshi Iizuka, who might be willing to make us a beautiful fiddle for that price. What about lending it out to promising young players in need of a good instrument?” I could sense Sam thinking.
“This would help their playing?” he said.
This would further their careers possibly?”
There was a brief silence on the phone. “Then we would be performing a mitzvah, a good deed, wouldn’t we?” said Sam.
“Yes, I think so.” Another silence.
“Well, let’s do it.”
I grinned to myself. “Sam, you’ve just come up with something wonderful, a mitzvah, even. But this is too good not to name. What about calling it The Sam Schloss Foundation?”
Sam laughed. “I’m a nobody,” he said. “You’re the virtuoso fiddle player. Better call it the Arnold Steinhardt Foundation.”
“No, no,” I protested, “you started this whole thing… All right, I’ll make a deal with you. Let’s settle for the Schloss-Steinhardt Foundation.” With that we both burst out laughing. Here were two guys with an idea about a violin that didn’t yet exist trying to sound like the Ford or Rockefeller Foundation.
I called Hiroshi Iizuka the next day. Hiroshi, one of several outstanding luthiers in the country, was a natural choice. I knew him well and had actually purchased a violin and viola of his several years earlier. Both were meticulously crafted instruments with pleasing and healthy sounds. I had played them with pleasure many times in public. Hiroshi knew how to make instruments that would serve a young player superbly.
Hiroshi was clearly intrigued by our “foundation.” “Normally, I have over a one-year waiting list,” he explained, “but this seems like such a lovely idea! I’m going to put you as near the front of the line as I possibly can.” This prompted a special call to Sam with the good news.
“What do you think, Sam?” I asked him.
“I think we’re mitzvah-bound,” he chortled.
In the next weeks, I thought often about our proposed violin-lending service. Old instruments with huge price tags are out of reach for most young musicians. New violins may not have the textured sound that 200 years of playing bring or the exalted names and history of the Cremonese masters, but the best of them enable a young player to realistically pursue a career. Sam’s money was going to buy only a single violin and help only a single violinist at any given time, but thinking about it gave me a sense of satisfaction. Sam had said it differently in our last conversation: “What we’re doing gives me real naches.”
I looked forward to speaking with Sam on my next visit to the University. We had cooked up a project to qvell, to gush over. But when I called, I knew from Sam’s tone of voice alone that something was amiss. Gone was his enthusiasm, the affectionate teasing, the Yiddishisms. Sam got quickly to the point. “I’ve got bad news. My sister needs an operation and she can’t pay for it. I’ve got to help her out with the money I promised you. I feel terrible about this, but I see no other way.” I assured Sam that he was doing the right thing to come to the rescue of his beloved sister, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment when I hung up. Our incipient enterprise had already found a place in my heart.
I called Hiroshi and broke the news. He, too, was disappointed. He, too, had been taken with the idea. “Well,” he said quietly after we had spoken for a while, “I’ve suddenly got a violin without a home on my hands.”
As far as I was concerned, this was the sad death of a lovely idea, the rise and fall of the Schloss-Steinhardt Foundation, an idea apparently conceived by naïve dreamers. I tried to push the subject from my mind and move on, but several days later I received a call from a woman I hardly knew, Diane B., a music teacher looking for a violin, who had gone to Hiroshi to try his instruments. Most of Hiroshi’s instruments were made on commission, but there was one instrument in his workshop that she had particularly liked, and quite surprisingly, Hiroshi said it was available. Diane kept asking Hiroshi if it was true because she could not believe her good luck. Hiroshi told her the story of cousin Sam and how he had commissioned the instrument for the purpose of lending it to young violinists, but was unable to purchase it for financial reasons.
Ultimately, Diane bought the instrument which she treasures and still uses, but on that day she returned home and told her husband, Larry, of Sam’s wonderful vision. They started toying with the thought of similarly commissioning instruments for young artists. The idea of a quartet of instruments made by Hiroshi Iizuka took form. And that’s when Diane called me. She and Larry wanted to be sure that such a quartet would meet a real need, thinking perhaps they could lend the instruments to students or recent graduates of a music school. And because the idea came from my cousin, they wanted my opinion of the project. Of course, I encouraged them to the sky. Sam’s idea had suddenly grown wings.
Hiroshi finished the two violins, viola, and cello a year later. I played each of the two violins and the viola as they came freshly made out of Hiroshi’s workshop. Now there were four exquisitely crafted instruments, an entire string quartet, ready to make a journey that might easily last for centuries. Some of the first musicians to play Hiroshi’s children (as Diane likes to call them) were four graduate students who had formed the Amabile String Quartet at Rutgers University, where I teach. They, like the instruments they held in their hands, were also about to embark on a long journey as professional musicians. I listened with elation to those first sounds that floated forth from the two newly met quartets, one made of wood, the other of flesh and blood. Their journeys had begun.
I think about my cousin Sam often. He passed away a few years ago—a shande and a kharpe, if you ask me. Of course, my great affection for Sam has nothing to do with the story he set in motion, but the story itself is remarkable. Here was a man who had nothing more than a powerful longing to do some good in the world, yet his generosity of spirit was irresistible to me, then to Hiroshi, and then finally to Diane and Larry, who managed, as if by alchemy, to turn a single musical instrument into four. I’ve heard people say that powerful emotions are infectious: love begets love, hate begets hate. I would argue that the same holds true for generosity. After all, what could be more satisfying than helping others while adding meaning to one’s own life? And if generosity is indeed contagious, I can’t wait to hear about who will be infected next!
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