May 10, 2008
Photo by Allen Cohen
Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient significance to touch a few souls. If I can affect someone in a meaningful way, it will surely cause me satisfaction. If I can do something of enough import to be passed along to future generations, a heady prospect indeed, then all the more satisfying. This is certainly not the immortality that some men and women pine for, but I would settle for being missed and remembered for just a little while after death whisks me away.
I got a call from Aaron Boyd earlier this year. Aaron is a highly gifted young violinist who lives in New York City. He asked me if I’d sit in as second violinist in a reading session of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ for string quartet. When I asked about the concert to follow, Aaron said, “There’s no concert. We’re just getting together to play the Haydn through in honor of Izzy. We’re asking you to be Izzy this year.”
Isidore (Izzy) Cohen, a distinguished violinist who played at one time or another in the Juilliard String Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio, passed away in June, 2005. His most long-standing association was with the Marlboro Music School. I had known and admired him there, at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico, and through his long-standing connection with our mutual friend, the violinist Alexander (Sascha) Schneider.
Aaron’s invitation set me wondering whether there would at least be an audience attending the read-through. “There might be a few people present,” he answered vaguely, “but the point is that we’re playing the Seven Last Words for Izzy.” Aaron told me how the read-through had come about. In the summer of 2004, Aaron, the cellist, Priscilla Lee, and the violist Maurycy Banaszek, who had all grown up with and admired Izzy’s recordings, asked him to work on a Haydn String Quartet with them. Izzy chose The Seven Last Words of Christ, a work he knew intimately. For many years, Izzy had performed it every Easter with Sascha in New York City. In the waning three weeks of the Marlboro Summer School, the four of them rehearsed often, with Izzy playing second violin. At the age of 82 and with a distinguished career behind him, it would have been natural for Izzy to simply lay down the law as to how things should be done. Doubtless, he had a great deal to contribute, but Izzy, a true chamber musician to the end, insisted on treating Priscilla, Maurycy, and Aaron as equals. According to Aaron, Izzy was an inspiration. Though they did not manage to play the Haydn in Marlboro, it was performed twice at Bargemusic in Brooklyn, New York the next February 19th and 20th. The concerts went well and Izzy played beautifully. The three young musicians had no idea that Izzy was suffering from cancer and that these would be the last concerts he would ever play.
Months later, Aaron, Priscilla, and Maurycy visited Izzy in the hospital. Weak and thin, he was still able to muster the typical kind of Izzy jokes and puns that they knew and loved so well. The next week, however, he took a turn for the worse. Within days Izzy could no longer see, rarely spoke anymore, and was asleep most of the time. At the hospice where he had been taken, Aaron, Maurycy, Priscilla, and the violist Ah Ling Neu prepared to play the last choral from Bach’s Art of the Fugue for Izzy. Erica, Izzy’s daughter, wheeled him, barely conscious and with eyes closed, into the room. She was not at all sure that her father would respond to the music. He had been having bouts of tremendous agitation, apparently not uncommon near the end of life. But when the music began, Izzy immediately became quiet, his hand settled over his face in a gesture of concentration, and he listened intently. Erica reported seeing tears streaming down at least one musician’s face as they played. Afterwards, Aaron said it felt as if Izzy might say something at any minute about tempos, phrasing, dynamics, just like he used to. Eventually, it was time to go. Aaron kissed him and the four reluctantly said goodbye. The Bach Choral was the last thing Bach ever wrote, and coincidentally, this was the last music Izzy ever heard. He died two days later.
Naturally, Aaron, Maurycy, and Priscilla were broken up over Izzy’s passing. Marking one year from the date of their Bargemusic concerts, the threesome got together and raised their glasses to Izzy, a man they all admired as a great musician. They were proud and honored to have participated in the end of Izzy’s long and distinguished life. But the toast just didn’t seem like enough. Next year, the threesome came upon the idea of having someone stand in for Izzy and read through the Haydn in his memory. They called it the Izzy Award.
Last February 19th, the violinist Daniel Philips was the first recipient of the Izzy Award. Izzy’s son, Allen, attended the event as well as a large group of friends. It must have been memorable. This year I was named the recipient of the 2008 Izzy Award. What an honor! Aaron called a few days later. “I’m dropping Izzy’s second violin part off with your doorman,” Aaron announced on the phone. “Feel free to use it but please do not erase or mark anything. Izzy’s music is sacred.”
On February 19th, I arrived at the home of Connie Steensma and Rick Prins who had graciously offered their Central Park West apartment for the occasion. This was going to be a far more intimate gathering than last year’s since Erica, Allen, and many friends were either out of town or unavailable. Aaron, Priscilla, Maurycy, and I exchanged greetings, and we were introduced to our hosts and a violist friend of Aaron’s who had come to listen and take photos. Then we sat down, opened the music, and prepared to play for an audience of three, four if you count Izzy. I’ve played this monumental Haydn work many times but the last performances were years ago and one forgets details so easily. Thankfully, there before me were Izzy’s markings- fingerings, bowings, and cues- all laid out meticulously as if he were an earnest chamber music student. Those scrupulous markings allowed me to avoid many embarrassing mistakes and the read-through went surprisingly well, not so surprising perhaps given the artistry of my fellow musicians. Thanks Izzy, wherever you are.
Haydn’s Seven Last Words, seven deeply moving slow movements followed by a harrowing depiction of the final earthquake, presents the possibility of a spiritual as well as musical experience. The overlay of our tribute to Isidore Cohen, however, gave the fifty-minute read-through yet another meaning. One musician who had worked hard and well while on this earth was still being remembered and honored years after leaving it. Afterwards, our hosts opened a very fine bottle of wine and we all raised our glasses in a toast to Izzy- Izzy the jokester, the punster, the violinist, the musician, the artist, the human being.
We remember you, Izzy.
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