Monday, October 12, 2015

“Go to sleep Mom, I will call you later”

In memory of Vera Stern 


I cannot remember how many times I heard Michael say these words to his mother, moments before we walked together onto the stage to perform another piano concerto. Whether it was in Memphis, or Kansas City, Newark or Colorado Springs, he was always on the phone with his Mom when the stage manager knocked on the dressing room door asking him to come. “Go to sleep Mom, I will call you later”. When I heard Michael say this for the last time at Ms. Stern’s memorial service last month I broke into tears, as I do now. Can I hear it just one more time? Please?

What can I say about a person who could show me reason in places that others saw chaos, and who gave me the feeling of a warm home at a place that others considered a jungle.  Ms. Stern, as I often addressed her, made New York City feel like the warmest place whenever I came to perform. She also made me focus, in the sometimes confusing life of music on what is important.

The first time I met Ms. Stern was in 1991, when I played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a competition. At the reception following the concert she stood on top of a sofa with bare feet addressing the people, the conductor and myself standing on either side. A few months ago I came across pictures from that event and enthusiastically told Ms. Stern about them. She remembered where it was, the sofa she stood on top of, what she said, and the purple dress she wore!

It took eight more years till we met again, and started what was to become an unforgettable friendship. I came to New York to play a recital and was offered to practice at her beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park. My manager told me some time after the concert that Ms. Stern noted that I could come again to practice on her piano because “I did not break any string”. Needless to say that was the end of me practicing any Prokofiev or something above "mezzo-forte" on that piano…

Slowly and with much caution she opened herself to me in ways that made me shiver each time all over again. 

Ms. Stern enjoyed getting to know people. She loved helping people. To help was a life’s mission, an ultimate pursuit worth any sacrifice. Helping, also meant being there. To miss a concert of someone she cared for was inconceivable - if there were 50 stairs to climb she would fly; if there was 3 feet of snow on the ground she would slide with elegance. Not showing up was not an option. One of my vivid memories was playing at the People Symphony Concerts when it was below zero degrees outside following a snow storm, which resulted in dangerous icy conditions. She was not only there, but also brought along others!  I think her presence at the concerts made people play better. It made the audience experience more than usual. She knew that, and therefore it was not an option that she will miss a concert.

But it was not just the concerts. Ms. Stern cared for everything, and wanted to help in all sorts of ways. I remember once she cut a newspaper article for me and kept it for months till we met. It was about the importance of spending time with family. I guess she did not feel I understood that enough. Sharing was her way of caring. I did change after reading the article, and it gave her great pleasure. Over the years I received many more articles...

What always brought tears to her eyes was her family - reading in the newspaper about Michael or David, seeing an old video of Mr. Stern, getting a picture from a grandson or granddaughter - this would immediately bring tears in a most humble and inspiring way. She was so preoccupied with giving to others, her family gave it back to her. It was extraordinary to witness some of that.

And so, I learned over the years that orange was her favorite color, and each time I visited I would bring orange roses, tulips or lilies. That color belongs to her. Even though she had a great sense of authority and will-power, greater than I have ever seen, it was always special to see her child-like reaction when seeing a good chocolate, or getting some blueberries. 

A couple of years ago when she was at the hospital for two weeks I came to visit and saw a piano in the dining hall. Within minutes we gathered around the piano and I played for her a private concert. Ms. Stern was a magnet, and so within seconds people came for this private little soiree. I remember playing a Schubert Impromptu among other things. Two days after she past away I had a recital in New York City and dedicated the encore to her memory - it was a Schubert Impromptu. 

The day before she died I came to practice at her apartment. It had been some time since I have been to New York. She was not conscience, but I was assured that she knew I was coming and had the piano especially tuned the week before. I want to believe that she waited for me to come just one more day to practice. 

Ms. Stern, I miss you!
with lots of love 
Alon



Monday, March 9, 2015

Beethoven surprises us / Schubert surprises himself!

Prior to performing Schubert’s towering sonata in c minor D. 958 I addressed the audience with the following remarks -


I recently spoke with a close friend sharing with him the program for my upcoming solo recitals. When he heard that I will be playing a late Schubert sonata he asked whether my intention is to put people to sleep! He then recommended that I ask the audience to turn on their cell-phones, and feel free to send text messages or check e-mails between movements.  Well, He was not completely wrong.  During the second half of the 19 century concerts were a much lighter affair.  A program would normally consist of a movement of a piece, followed by two arias, then perhaps an improvisation on a popular tune and so on.  To play a full Schubert sonata was inconceivable, not to mention that these works were pretty much neglected back then.

We seem to be living in an era in which in order to be taken seriously one has to program four Beethoven sonatas. Programming Liszt transcriptions, or Brahms Hungarian Dances means you won’t be considered as a serious artist. Playing only a movement from a sonata means you will be vetoed altogether. And yet the programs of Horowitz or Rubinstein from the first half of the 20 century show much greater variety and imagination.

The Schubert sonatas remained unappreciated until well into the 20th century. When the great pianist Artur Schnabel was recording the B flat sonata, in the early 1930’s, Sergei Rachmaninov came to visit Abbey Road Studios in London where Schnabel was recording. Apparently each time the Russian virtuoso came to the studios there was a ritual that everyone would line-up to greet the great maestro. Schnabel decided to play along and stood in line. When Rachmaninov saw Schnabel he asked him for the reason he was at the studios that day. After Schnabel told him that he was recording the last Schubert sonata, Rachmaninov asked whether he could listen. Upon hearing this monumental masterpiece Rachmaninov turned to Schnabel saying “…but this is great music!” Schnabel replied “I know!”

What was it then in the sonatas of Franz Schubert that puzzled so many important figures in the 19 century? Robert Schumann in his review of these works in 1838 criticized their "much greater simplicity of invention", claiming the sonatas "ripple along from page to page as if without end." Schumann in his review of the great C major symphony, however, remarked so poignantly about its "heavenly length." This, in my opinion, suits the sonatas just as much.

Music is an art that happens in the dimension of time. Schubert’s perception of time is unlike any other composer. I guess one can say that about almost any composer. But there is a uniqueness to the way Schubert’s works unfold in time.  I like to say that Beethoven surprises us, whereas Schubert surprises himself.  Beethoven has a very clear idea where he is aiming, and how long it is going to take - the goals, the climaxes. With Schubert you get a sense that he is unsure where the piece is going to take him. I played some years ago the big A major sonata to Claude Frank - a wonderful pianist, musician and teacher. I remember him telling me that when he played that piece he always felt that he was a driver of a Trolley somewhere in the Austrian Alps, and just before launching onto the last movement he wanted to call the audience “ALL ABOARD”.  

Listening or playing one of the grande Schubert sonatas indeed you are on a journey - you might discover along the way a hidden brook. Please stop for a moment and try to speak with it. Most likely the brook will answer. You might also encounter severe weather that will throw you out of your way. Confront it, fight it, you might succeed. I also hope that on your journey you will meet a beautiful maiden. Do fall in love with her, though let me warn you, she is most likely already engaged to the hunter. Still you should fall in love, and get hurt, and feel some hope together with despair and anger. Oh, and beware of the evil spirit. He is there somewhere, most likely disguised in the most beautiful seductive music. Perhaps what you are looking for is a place you can call home. You might never find one! These are all important awarenesses on the path to the heart of this music, to the heart of Romanticism - nature, a beautiful maiden, unfulfilled love, a talking brook, a storm, the Erlk├Ânig, being a wonderer and a stranger in any land - all of which come to life in the eternal beauty of the music of Franz Schubert.      

The c minor sonata has four movements which suggest a large symphonic scale. Also the choice of the dramatic key of c minor is obviously a homage to Beethoven (the Pathetique sonata, the variations in c minor, the 5th symphony). But there is also a homage to the divine lyricism of Mozart. It is a piece of vast dimensions written moments before the composer died at the young age of 31. It was published more than ten years after he died.

Ladies and gentlemen before I begin, please allow me to take the driver sit and call “ALL ABOARD!”