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Playing for Berlinsky MAG
Uncle Mischa had never gotten over a terrible misunderstanding that happened when he was 13 years old. He was, according to family lore, one of the greatest young concert violinists of his day. Spending five hours a day practicing, he had attained technical facility far exceeding his age. For him, the violin was life’s very breath. He played with such passion and musical ardor that anyone who heard him knew this was a talent to be reckoned with.
So did his teacher, Dr. Pedagogia, who set up a recital for Uncle Mischa with arguably the greatest violinist of his day, Sascha Berlinsky. Uncle Mischa was absolutely on fire with anticipation. He didn’t sleep for weeks and could barely eat. All he did was practice hour after hour, taking breaks only for the sake of his weary, ever-tightening muscles. Imagine how he felt knowing that one of his greatest dreams was about to come true. How many kids have this kind of opportunity? The great Berlinsky was known as much for his compassionate approach to young artists as for his fiery fingers. All of life’s great rewards would culminate in that meeting. Uncle Mischa couldn’t believe his fortune, so he practiced grueling arpeggios and scales like never before, and down-bows till his shoulder felt like jelly.
“More weight in the arm, Mischa. Your bow and fingers are not quite together. The bow! Make the bow do the talking! It’s not all about the fingers. Speak to me with the bow,” exclaimed his teacher. “Your rhythm! You can’t do that to the rhythm. Who do you think you are? Heifetz? When you’re Heifetz, you can take liberties. Until then, do what the composer says.” Pedagogia was merciless. It didn’t matter how old Mischa was, he had to do it like an adult!
“Ay! What will Berlinsky say? What will he do to you?” complained his teacher.
What would Berlinsky do to Uncle Mischa, anyway? Hit him over the head with the bow? What was this man wailing about? Mischa was 13. What he had, you couldn’t buy. So what if everything wasn’t perfect? So what if he did things a little outside his teacher’s method of technique to get his interpretation across? It was his!
“Ach, you will make mincemeat of my name! What will Berlinsky think of me if I allow you to play that passage like this? You want to know what he’ll think? I’ll tell you what he’ll think ...
Here it comes, thought Mischa.
“He’ll think, what kind of teacher is this who would let a 13-year-old play the great repertoire like this?”
Weeks of nervewracking toil passed until finally the day arrived. Mischa’s mother, my grandma, had purchased a beautiful blue suit for the occasion, a crisp, white shirt with just enough room under the arms (which a violinist always appreciates), and a cobalt-blue, pinstriped tie.
My uncle spent 25 minutes shining each shoe that day. Each was a masterpiece. Grandma used to say that when Mischa shined his shoes on the day of meeting Berlinsky, you could see clear inside his heart, they were so clean.
So, Mischa drove with Grandma and Zayde two hours to Manhattan, leaving at 8 a.m. That meant Mischa was awake at 5:30 a.m. to warm up for two hours. He had an 11 a.m. appointment with Berlinsky but they didn’t want to take a chance of being late.
“You never know with that tricky traffic,” Grandma used to say.
During the whole car ride, Mischa was busy rehearsing his fingerings. The fingers of his left hand flew up and down his right wrist as he tapped out the first movement of his concerto. It was the Brahms, the same concerto Berlinsky had debuted at Lincoln Center 60 years before.
At 10 a.m. they pulled up in front of Berlinsky’s building. The awning was deep green with white letters - The Beaufort.
“Oy, such a fancy name,” remarked Grandma, “and so many floors. What do they need such floors for?”
“And you could be sure Berlinsky lives on the top,” added Zayde. “Such a man belongs on the top.”
A statuesque doorman garbed in hunter green approached the car. There were gold epaulets, shiny and new, standing at attention on his shoulders. He stood regally by the front door and opened it politely for Grandma.
“Oh, no, sir, I’m not getting out. My son, he’s playing for the great Berlinsky. Mr. Berlinsky, I mean,” she repeated his name in hushed tones.
“Of course, madam,” replied the doorman, without batting an eye. He wasn’t impressed. He got to see Berlinsky every day. He promptly opened the back door for Mischa.
“Ah, but, you see, we are just a little early, sir. Can we wait?” asked Grandma.
“Of course, madam. For how long?”
“Oh, just a little while - 50, 60 minutes.”
“I see ... well, madam, you’ll have to move the car. You can’t sit here for an hour.”
“Okay, sir,” Zayde chimed in. “No problem.”
My grandfather proceeded to spend the next 55 minutes circling Berlinsky’s block during which time no one said a word.
At 10:55 they again stopped in front of the building. The doorman returned to the car and opened the back door ceremoniously.
“Now?” asked the doorman.
“Yes, now,” Grandma piped up.
Mischa got out and never looked back. He was afraid if he saw Grandma’s face, he’d remember his age and limitations and never regain his courage. The doorman led Mischa to the elevator.
“Press P for the Penthouse Suite,” enunciated the doorman with an explosive gust of air. “Then turn left out of the elevator. You can’t miss it.”
So Mischa went through the shiny, mirrored elevator doors, pressed “P,” and was off on a life-changing adventure. As Grandma tells it, when Mischa arrived at the top floor and saw the massive mahogany doors of the penthouse, he was momentarily paralyzed. Could he pull this off? Best not to think about it. Just press the bell. When he did, he heard the first two lines of Eine Kleine Nacht Musik playing.
Oh my gosh, thought Mischa, even his doorbell can play. Startled but thoroughly energized, Mischa waited until the door opened.
“Ah, you must be young Mischa Golub. Come in, I’ve looked forward to hearing you.”
My uncle began photographing every inch of the apartment with his mind, registering memories with his senses. On the left was a white wall lined with photos - the most precious photos. Each was of a great violinist or conductor, and autographed personally to Berlinsky. On the right was a long, low wooden bench laden with art objects from around the world. Directly in front were two white French doors leading them to a grand parlor. It must take great care to keep them so white, thought Mischa. As he entered, a nine-foot grand piano, a Bosendorfer, lay before him. Its top was covered with pictures of ... whom else? Berlinsky. Berlinsky with pianists, Berlinsky with cellists, Berlinsky with the president. What a life, thought Mischa. To the left were the fluffiest-looking sofas he had ever seen, nine pillows on each - a row of huge ones, a row of medium-size ones, and a row of tiny fancy pillows. In front was an ornate Turkish mahogany coffee table, with delicately carved legs, and a grand, silky ottoman. To the right was a wall of bookcases, filled not with books, but with records, hundreds of them.
“So, what will you play for me, young man?” Berlinsky asked, shocking Mischa out of his reverie.
“The Brahms, sir. I will play the Brahms Concerto.” Mischa was beginning to feel more confident. He pushed back his shoulders and felt as if he had grown a head taller. How nice this man seemed, this idol of his. Warm and open. Genuinely interested in the young man before him.
He placed his case on the ottoman, not wanting to take a chance of scratching the table. He gave his bow a gentle swipe of rosin, curled his fingers for the down bow and went deep into that place all performers go when they play - inside the music. All you feel there is passion, all you hear is velvet, all you see is space. Time stands still. You are nothing, there is only the music. It was a spectacular place to be - away from the traffic, the noise of humanity, away from the teachers and critics, off in a world of perfect freedom, expression - the ultimate gift of God. He never wanted it to end. Was he doing his fingerings correctly, was his bow straight, his vibrato even? Who knew? Who cared? He was there.
The last notes played themselves. Mischa was afraid to look up. An explosion of applause rocked the parlor.
“Bravo, bravo, young one! What emotion! What ideas! Where did they come from? So much talent. I’m very impressed. You must continue to work hard, you know. You will be very great. This is just the beginning for you, so don’t think this is it. You must do further work on your bow control, string crossings, and remember legato, legato, legato. All these things will give your sound greater facility, more depth.”
Mischa was shaking. Happy, but shaking.
“I loved that you tackled this concerto so early, and that you were able to fill it with such meaning. No one can give that to you.”
Mischa was awestruck. Berlinsky approved. He felt like shouting from the highest mountain. Berlinsky approved.
“Thank you so much,” Mischa bowed.
“What am I, a king? That you bow to me? Never bow before another man, because there’s always a possibility that you’ll be greater. Will you remember?”
“Yes, sir. I will,” laughed Mischa nervously.
“Keep up the wonderful work and promise you’ll come back to play for me next year, yes?”
“Oh, yes sir, I promise,” exclaimed Mischa, winded by his own exuberance.
Then he was back in the hallway and the mahogany doors closed behind him.
Grandma and Zayde were silent as he got into the car. They both turned their heads and stared at Mischa. Five or six seconds passed. Grandma couldn’t take it anymore.
“So, say something!”
Mischa smiled contentedly and looked at both of them for a split second that felt like hours. “He approved. Berlinsky approved.”
My grandparents beamed. What an honor had been bestowed upon their talented son. He would always be able to speak of this experience. If he never did another thing, he would have this to remember. It was something he could be proud of his whole life.
When Uncle Mischa saw his teacher the next day he was quite pleased. Dr. Pedagogia had already spoken to Berlinsky.
“So, I hear my boy made quite an impression. He thought you were such a talent, and he wants to hear you in one year. Isn’t that exciting?”
Of course Mischa knew all this, but it made him happy his teacher was so delighted!
“You have that certain charisma in your playing, Mischa, just as I always told you. A certain flair. You are a performer. Berlinsky saw that! They don’t all have that, my boy.”
Dr. Pedagogia always called Uncle Mischa “my boy” when he was pleased. So all was well with the world. Pedagogia gave Mischa the okay to send out his resume and tape to all the major conductors in the country. It was time for Mischa to play his Brahms with an orchestra.
Mischa spent the next week typing up letters, duplicating tapes, and listing his accomplishments: competitions he had won (and there were several), solo recitals, notices of critical acclaim from performing in major halls, and the one thing that was foremost in his mind that marked the biggest day in his life - playing for Berlinsky.
Mischa sent out each letter with a headshot and a kiss for good luck. He knew it would be weeks, possibly months, until he heard from any of these orchestras, but from everything he had been led to believe, he would definitely get called. He would wait.
Amazingly, two, then three major orchestras got in touch immediately. They loved his tape and wanted to hear him in person. When could he come play for them? What were his bookings like for next year? They would make the appointments and speak to his teacher and a few others who had heard him and that would be the whole process. Mischa was overwhelmed and overjoyed.
Then the strangest thing began to happen. Days before Mischa was scheduled to play for each conductor he received calls from their secretaries. They all said the same thing: “We are terribly sorry but we’ll have to cancel due to circumstances beyond our control.”
Circumstances? What circumstances? All of them have the same ‘beyond control’ circumstances? thought Mischa. What has happened?
“Why don’t they want to hear my boy?” wept Grandma.
“Something out of Mischa’s control has caused this,” mused Zayde. “Some external source. They loved Mischa’s playing. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Mischa’s insides were burning. His head was swimming. His heart palpitated as if inside several ironworkers were swinging hammers on their anvils. He cried. I don’t know for how long, but Grandma said there was a sea of sadness in their home for the rest of the week. He couldn’t eat, and drank sparingly. He couldn’t look at his parents.
Saturday came. Saturday was lesson day. Mischa arrived on time, dutiful as ever. A storm was brewing. The clouds hung low in the sky like lids before a deep sleep, yearning to fall, pressing release. Mischa walked into the studio with a heavy heart. How could he tell his teacher that all his orchestral auditions had been cancelled? It turned out that he didn’t have to.
“Mischa, how could you do such a thing?”
“What did I do?” asked Mischa, weak and exasperated.
“You wrote in your biographical letter that you were invited to play for Berlinsky. Berlinsky doesn’t like that. Why didn’t you ask me? Why didn’t you ask permission?”
Mischa’s head was spinning. Ask permission for what? For telling the truth about an important event? It may not have meant anything to Berlinsky, but it meant everything to him!
“So the conductors won’t see me because they know Berlinsky doesn’t like his name linked to students he doesn’t teach?” Mischa hypothesized.
“No, the conductors won’t see you because Berlinsky won’t let them. They called to ask him what he thought of you, since you used his name on your resume. Berlinsky was fuming. If there’s one thing he can’t stand, it’s when students use him as a steppingstone, trying to impress people by linking his name with theirs.”
“What kind of a steppingstone? What are you saying? I’m 13. I was excited. It was a big moment in my musical life! I didn’t say he thought I was the next Heifetz, or that he thought anything in particular about me, just having been approved to play for him was enough for me. That belongs in my bio. Not everyone gets to have that experience. It should make him feel good that it meant so much to a 13-year-old boy.
“He doesn’t look at things that way. You should have asked me to read your bio before you sent it out.”
“So there is nothing I can do without prior approval? Soon I’ll be afraid to call myself a violinist without asking permission, because maybe I should have said a ‘violin student.’” Mischa had never spoken out like this before. His teacher was dumbstruck.
“What did he do to me? What did he say to them?” Mischa prodded.
“He said that they are not allowed to engage you because you used his name, and he doesn’t want to be linked to every student he hears - he feels he is being used. Oh, Mischa, it hurts me so to tell you this. I never thought such a thing would happen when I arranged that meeting. Never.”
“What can I do to fix it, Dr. Pedagogia? Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
“Nothing, I’m afraid. It’s over.”
My uncle was ruined. He tried to keep his spirits up, telling himself that perhaps other orchestras would call. But they never did. Mischa sank deeper into depression. Grandma could no longer pick up the pieces. Mischa stopped going to Dr. Pedagogia, and stopped playing violin. He finished high school and went to college just like any other kid but inside he carried with him the secret that he was not like any other kid. He could have been extraordinary. It’s funny how greatness can make one life and destroy another.
Years passed and Mischa ended up teaching violin. He had studied philosophy but I guess he never found the answers he was looking for. He was in his heart and soul a musician, no matter what he studied or attempted. He became a sought-after teacher because he maintained his wonderful technique and beautiful musical ideas. It was a rare combination in a teacher. He taught with great kindness, Grandma always said, but never offered to make an introduction for any of his students to play for the new, great artist of the day - he knew better.
“If you want to send your tapes out, go ahead, and my best wishes are with you. If a conductor wants to call and talk to me about your repertoire, that’s fine, but you’re on your own. I’d rather you play for the love of the art than the need to be famous. That way, you’ll never get hurt. The music itself will never hurt you.”
One day I asked my uncle a question that had been burning inside me.
“Uncle Mischa, you gave every hour of your life to become a renowned violinist, and it was taken from you. It wasn’t even your fault. How can you continue to make music?”
“Joey, blaming music for that is like blaming God for the Nazis or the terrorists. God is goodness. Music is beauty. They’re both miracles, really. Only people can hurt us and keep our world from wholeness. Whether you choose to believe me is up to you, but I feel more whole now than I ever did. I teach the beauty to other young artists, and I have gotten to mentor and adore you, my talented nephew, who will bring new life to the world with his fiddle.”
“So there’s no more hurt, Uncle Mischa?”
“I’ve found my peace, Joe. It can take a lifetime, and look how lucky I am that I’ve found it. Many people live in quiet desperation and you don’t know who they are. They don’t even know who they are. But one day they wake up and can’t hear the music in their lives. They become very sad. You will not let that happen. You will not let idiots keep you from your path. You will not let difficulties keep you from your path. You will not let failure keep you from this path, either.”
I listened to my uncle and caught every word, greedily, and held them in my heart, in a place where naysayers can’t enter; deep inside ... where the music is.