Last Sunday the world bid farewell to a musical giant – one who transformed what was possible on the piano and created a legacy as an artist, teacher, and mentor that will live on long after his years here on Earth. Leon Fleisher was a force larger than life, most often quietly so, who commanded the stage for more than seven decades. Through a battle with focal dystonia that left his right hand out of commission for much of his career, he returned to the stage with both hands in his mid-70s – something I was honored to witness. I had the chance to work with him on many occasions, both in the coaching studio and on stage; from remembering his enveloping musical soul when performing Brahms together to finding myself in tears listening to him play Schubert’s late B-flat sonata during his final recital at Ravinia some years ago, I try to carry his wisdom with me always. I quote him to my students often: when asked about his stunning command of musical timing, he said “the key is, to play at the last possible moment, without being late.” One need not say much more. Rest well, High Priest.
July 19th was his 100th birthday. On New Year’s Day two years ago, we said goodbye to another musical giant, Robert Mann – his 97 years bore witness to a musical career that is nearly unparalleled. From his earliest days as a rough-and-tumble Oregon boy assigning friends to be in his first string quartet outfitted with tree branches attached to a single violin string each, to serving in the army during World War II and reading quintets with Einstein, his life was fiercely rich. Interwoven with his venerated 51 years with the Juilliard String Quartet – creating the gold standard for Beethoven and Bartok quartets and championing new music – was his dedication to the teaching of violin and chamber music. I was lucky enough to observe the former and take part in the latter. Lessons often included stories about how he hears the crashing waves on the coast of the Pacific Northwest when he thinks about rhythm, or how hiking in Glacier National Park (which was one of the first dates he had with his beloved wife Lucy) can inspire one’s sense of artistic affect. When he was out of town on studio class days, my classmates and I would set up our own sessions to perform our works-in-progress for each other, gatherings that we lovingly termed “geek class.” My life as an artist-teacher is forever impacted by him. I tap into his wisdom often when I’m with my own students now, and when I played my last live concert for the foreseeable future on March 8th, it was his Beethoven concerto cadenzas that I braved. I have been diving into this dazzling collection of videos, recordings, and interviews that the Naumburg Foundation put together in honor of his 100th that his son Nicholas sent my way. What a life worth living. We miss you dearly, Mr. Mann.
…a life cut far too short at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. George Floyd was yes, a giant in physical stature, but his story has become a giant that has captured a city, a nation, and our globe. I saw recently the new body cam footage from the moments leading up to his arrest: an unarmed black man pleading, respectfully, with police, not to kill him. He was not violent nor posing a threat, yet a gun was drawn and pointed at Floyd’s head. My heart breaks and my soul is crushed every time I see or read about a story like this – of which there are far too many to count – and I always ask “but why?” I watched as my hometown wept and burned, crying out for there to be, finally, meaningful action to address police violence and systemic racism that has defined our country, centuries deep. I think often of my own experience with and role in racism, how my thoughts or actions have been skewed by my own ignorance or lack of understanding. I have struggled with my voice here as a woman, the child of an immigrant, an artist, and an educator. What can and what do I do through these lenses? Demonstrate, donate, volunteer, yes. Listen, read, discuss, yes. Yell, cry, express, yes. And create. I am honored to be putting together a small multimedia piece for solo violin + spoken word in honor of George Floyd with three spellbinding Twin Cities artists: actors Lou Bellamy and Sarah Bellamy (of the newly renamed Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, formerly Penumbra Theatre) and renowned St. Paul composer Steve Heitzeg, who speaks social justice and activism through music. Stay tuned for an online premiere coming soon. Rest in Power, Sir George.
And for something entirely different and distractionary, here’s a little photo diary of what life in quarantine land has looked like for me over the last couple of months. Hugs from NY.
This thing we’re calling a social life:
And family life…I’ve been lucky enough to have been together with family for much of the lockdown =)
One of the greatest silver linings of the pandemic is having time to take in so much if this gorgeous green earth, both in MN and NY…
And this has somehow become my work life…
My greatest claim to fame in quarantine land is my learning how to use a hammer drill and masonry bits to build a bouldering wall into the concrete block wall of my parents’ garage…the things we do once we’re bitten by the climbing bug…
I’ve discovered that my happy place these days is in the kitchen, apron on, cooking up a storm. Here’s my “covid cookbook…”
That’s all for now. Now it’s off to wrap my brain around how to teach this semester…Cornell is reopening in just three short weeks and there’s a mountain of uncertainty to climb! To all of you and your friends and family, stay safe and healthy.