Monday, May 16, 2011

The Violinist and the Sunset

    Sergiu Luca was shocked and irritated that I had never heard of him. He was a fiery, forceful man who obviously expected to be treated with deference. I wouldn't have complied, except that he both intimidated and intrigued me. In exchange for my good behavior, I was treated to one of the most memorable evenings of my life.
     "Don't you read the New York Times?" he demanded. "I am in there three, four times a week. And in New Yorker magazine, too. All the time!"
   Ironically (or maybe not), I rarely read either publication while I lived in New York, but I've read them both religiously ever since.
    I learned earlier this month that Luca succumbed to cancer at age 67  this past December. I would never have had the chance to meet him if a very appealing, modest young woman I met at a party in the mid-1970s hadn't invited me to join her for a drink the following week. I generally avoided hanging out with women, because I always felt shy and inarticulate with them. Virtually all of my friends since college had been men, and I guess I had lost my knack for relating to women in a relaxed way.

    But for some reason, I agreed to meet Tessa at The Library, which was essentially my "Cheers" bar in New York, a place where not everybody knew my name, but a lot of people did, including the owner, Michael, and the two waiters, Tinoa and Gregory. I used to go there when my apartment was too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter, and they let me sit there for hours, even if I only bought one drink. I had many great conversations there with film students, professors, Eastern European intellectuals and musicians.
    Tessa and I spent a reasonably pleasant hour or so having a drink, and she invited me to come home with her for dinner. Her boyfriend was cooking, she said, and he was a master in the kitchen.
William Bolcom - Violin Concerto (Serfiu Luca, violin); Fantasia Concertante; Fifth Symphony - American Composers Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies (conductor)
One lf Luca's many challenging recorded works.
    She didn't mention that he was a world renowned violinist from Romania, where he had enrolled at the Bucharest Conservatory when he was five, and who had emigrated to Israel and performed with the Haifa Symphony when he was nine.
    After studying in England and Switzerland, he had come to the United States to study with the influential Armenian violin teacher Ivan Galamian at the Curtis Institute.
    Soon after his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965, he was chosen by Leonard Bernstein to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic for a special CBS program.
    He was a legendary classical recording star and had been a featured soloist with the greatest orchestras in the world.
   "If you haven't heard of ME, who have you heard of?" he demanded. I wanted to believe that he was kidding, but I really couldn't tell. He had piercing eyes that turned furious quite easily. And when he spoke, it felt as if he were prodding you in the chest, for emphasis.
    "Well come on in anyway -- the striped bass is waiting," he said.
    It was one of the most spacious apartments I'd ever seen in New York. The entire west-facing wall was glass, and it overlooked Riverside Park, the Hudson River and -- off in the distance -- the Jersey shore. The decor was minimalist, but the tenant certainly wasn't.
    "Come talk to me while I cook," he ordered me. "Tessa, go buy a bottle of Stolichnaya and some Brut."  He handed her a hundred-dollar bill. I had never seen one before. I didn't like the way he treated Tessa, but perhaps she saw it as the cost of living with a famous and formidable man.
     While Luca assembled filo h'or dourves with spinach and cheese filling, he subjected me to the most intense grilling of my life.
     He asked me questions as if I were a hostile witness and he was a prosecutor trying to poke holes in my story. He challenged me to explain, justify and elaborate upon every statement I made.
    If his intent was to make me feel like a red-faced, stammering fool, he was wildly successful. I would have said, "I don't have to take this shit," and walked out, except that his mind was so elaborate and incisive, I wanted to stick around for the show. If this was how he played the violin, I thought, I could understand why he had mesmerized audiences around the world. He was a brute, but a brilliant one. And, as I later realized, he really was trying to know and understand me. Most superstars would have been talking about themselves instead.
    He was making  a garlic and ginger-infused black-bean sauce for the bass, which he had dredged and tossed into a frying pan. Tessa finally got back with the booze, and Luca poured each of us a glass of straight vodka. He tossed his back, emitted a sigh of intense refreshment, and launched into the preparation of a Caesar salad. We were eating the h'or dourves while Luca demanded to know why I was dabbling in the "lower media" of public service and journalism when I could have dedicated my life to Real Art and The Life of the Mind. He said my skirt was too short (which was true), my hair was too long and my posture needed improvement. "Pride, regality -- project with a sense of command, chin uplifted!" he declared..

    He interrogated  me about my "pedigree," which was Scotch, English and Irish on my mother's side and Polish and Russian Jew on my father's.
    "Jewish, of course! That explains this thing I see your eyes: deep and melancholy. Watchful! Wary! I thought you might be one of us."
    I tried to explain that although my father was born to ethnically Jewish parents, neither he nor they were observant.
    He would have none of that.
    "You are Jew in your blood, in your heart, in your DNA!" he practically shouted. "It fills up your brain with power. Be grateful!"
    He wanted me to express my devotion to Zionism, which I refused to do. "My sympathies are with the Palestinians," I said.
    He lunged toward me as if in attack mode, but instead he held me very tightly for just a moment. It wasn't a hug. I think he felt like shaking me but did the opposite for both our benefits.
    "You little fool -- some day you will understand," he muttered.
    The intensity of our dialogue continued even as we ate the delicious meal he had prepared. I was so focused  on holding my ground that I failed to notice that Tessa was being ignored completely. I am so sorry, Tessa, that I lacked the presence of mind to ensure that you were included. It still makes me sick that I can be so insensitive, even inadvertently.

    After we ate, we went into the living room, which was darkening. The sun was starting to go down and the massive windows were filled with color.
    "Now, I will play for you," Luca said.
    Tessa and I sat on the floor. Luca stood with the flaming oranges and purple of the sky as his backdrop. For close to two hours, without pause,  he -- and we -- were transformed by his music.

    He began with Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, and also played works by Dvorak, Bartók, Mendelssohn, Janacek and Schumann.
    It was a scene I will always treasure. This man, who had been so brutish and haughty up to now, gave himself over to the music in a gesture of breathtaking humility. He appeared to subsume himself entirely in order to become an outlet for the genius of others. It poured through him, and then emerged from his instrument, and his face trembled with the beauty and anguish of these masterpieces.

    His eyes were closed the entire time, as if he were lost in an extended prayer of love, dedicated to man's capacity for compassion and suffering. I was getting very choked up, and I glanced over at Tessa. She was openly, silently crying as she looked up at him. Perhaps it was this aspect of Luca that made it all worthwhile for her. It was getting dark. The music slowly devolved into melodies of tenderness and stoical resignation.
    When Luca finished, he collapsed into a chair and took a swig of vodka straight from the bottle.
    "Goodnight, Sylvia," he said abruptly. "Thank you for gracing our evening."
    I leaned over in an attempt to give him a light hug of gratitude, but he waved me away.
    "Go, go, I am spent," he said.
    I never saw Luca or Tessa again. About six months later, he sent me a postcard from Zurich. It read: "I think you will have a good life, if you can learn to love yourself more."

    I read about his triumphs over the years. He made a sensation with his recordings of the complete unaccompanied works of J.S. Bach, the first rendering on an original instrument.
   He founded and was musical director of the Chamber Music Northwest Summer Festival in Portland, which attracted musicians from around the world. He also founded Context, a one-of-a-kind classical music ensemble devoted to the presentation of music from a wide range of styles and eras using historically appropriate instruments. He created the Cascade Head Festival (which celebrated its 20th anniversary in June 2006) and Da Camera in Houston.
    Luca was known for his big personality and diverse interests. He was an avid collector of period instruments, a fine cook and a wine connoisseur, according to the Houston Chronicle.    
    "He was very demanding, moved very fast in rehearsals, kept everybody off balance, experimented constantly," former colleague Brian Connelly says. "He was the funniest and quickest person I ever met."
    "He was an absolute magician," says former student Greg Ewer, who plays violin in the Oregon Symphony. "He had every student in the palm of his hand. They left his classes speechless, jaws on the floor."
    He is survived by his wife, pianist Susan Archibald, and a four-year-old daughter, Lily, who live in Houston.
    Thanks for the memories, Luca. But my sympathies remain with the Palestinians.