Chopin in Longview

Beth Levin

[April 2006.]

My trip to Longview, Texas, to perform a concerto with orchestra began inauspiciously. I haven’t admitted this to anyone (yet), but I showed up at the wrong airport. I suppose if you have thoughts about the Chopin E minor Concerto occupying your head — a concerto you’ve pondered for better than six months — correct flight information is mere fluff.

If this were a movie, I probably would have said to the taxi driver, “Here’s an extra hundred. Get me to La Guardia and step on it!” As it was, light traffic enabled my real-life cabbie to succeed without the incentive, and I caught my flight to Dallas-Ft. Worth. However, the connecting flight to Kilgore Airport failed me. There was talk of mechanical trouble and lightning in the area. What’s a little lightning when Chopin is at stake? Two hours later, a new plane was readied for take off. Strapped into 9A of an American Eagle puddle-jumper, I wondered what lay ahead.

A tall, gray-haired gentleman from the orchestra’s board greeted me at Kilgore. Dick Miller observed in his charming Texas drawl, “You must be dragged out after your journey.” I was dressed in my best suit jacket, skirt and pearls. I always think pearls help any situation, but by that time, even they had wilted.

Dick is a music lover who considered music as a career but opted for law. He would be giving the pre-concert talk, and was as eager as I to discuss Chopin on the ride to the hotel. I agreed with his idea of the concerto as an equivalent of lyric poetry. Chopin was 20 and in love when he wrote his Op. 11, with its heart-on-sleeve melodies, exquisite to the point of pain.

A dinner was planned that night with the sponsors of the concert. Pearls, definitely. The hospitable couples I met over crab cakes and wine made me feel welcome. A passion for bringing the arts to life in Longview served as a common thread. After dinner I asked Carol Mullikin, the orchestra’s manager, to let me in the hall for a late-night practice session.

When I agreed to perform the concerto, I had not yet studied the work. Time was on my side, however, and I trusted that skill would take up the slack. Still, this was the Op. 11, one of the repertoire’s more august pieces. Engaging with it is rather like submitting your hands to a mold carved out by great pianists over the past hundred years, including Chopin himself. My first teacher, the Polish pianist Maryan Filar, had performed it in Europe right after World War II.

I suppose a sane person would have gone to bed, but if an opportunity to practice presented itself, I was bound to take it. I took off my pearls and went through difficult patches: fiendish arpeggios, parallel fourths, huge trills and virtuoso turns. I immersed my sentiments in the second movement’s lyricism as well. By midnight, I looked forward only to collapsing onto a pillow.

Late-night TV can be oddly soothing. As if in a dream, I visited with Opie, Laura and Rob Petrie, learned about Tiger’s bad day at the Masters, watched the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake, and marveled at CNN’s persistent harping on Katie Couric and her Big Move — what a welcome escape from the rigors ahead!

Saturday evening, the concert; Friday’s activities included a radio interview, a masterclass at a nearby college, a play-through for the conductor, followed by the first rehearsal with the Longview Symphony. Again I searched out an early morning practice period on The First Baptist Church’s Baldwin. Speaking about music and coaching music is one thing, doing it quite another. For me, the final hours’ preparations are among the most important.

Playing for the conductor is crucial for establishing rapport and agreement on the interpretation. I quickly sensed that Tonu and I were compatible musically and that he would do everything to communicate Chopin’s ideas and to accompany the piano’s line. I had known and respected Tonu’s father, Endel Kalam, at Marlboro and knew Tonu’s reputation as a first-rate musician. He certainly lived up to it in that first musical exchange and the two rehearsals that followed. He was gently demanding of his orchestra and, best of all, he allowed me great flexibility. I sensed that in performance nothing could throw him.

One of the thrills for a pianist is to hear the orchestral opening before the first solo entrance. Sitting just behind me onstage was Isador Saslav, a concertmaster who had played under Barbirolli and other greats during his career as an orchestra musician. Listening to Isador play Chopin’s themes in the introduction was more than worth the stress and strain.

He and I joked backstage on the night of the concert about the film A Song to Remember, a Hollywood biopic from the ’40s. None of the facts in the movie is exactly true but there is a convincing quality to the picture due mostly to the dazzling Paul Muni, who plays Chopin’s teacher.

Saturday morning I ate a Texan’s breakfast including a biscuit with gravy at a spot near the hotel. Coffee was five cents! When my order was ready they called my number. I read the local paper and tried to remain calm before the day’s dress rehearsal.

I earlier mentioned to Dick Miller that the piano bench felt a bit low. The next thing I knew, the man had built a platform putting the bench at just the right height! Those kinds of gestures and the behind-the-scenes work of Carol and the board members are what contribute to a successful concert.

7:30 arrives. I’m in a small dressing room listening to Berlioz’s “Hungarian March” from The Damnation of Faust, the program’s first work. The applause subsides. I look out at the slim aisle I will walk to the piano. For me, at that moment, the passageway symbolized the creative process’s final steps.

Let me now, two days later, say that I remember an excellent concert, the enthusiastic audience response, and the moving comments from orchestra members and strangers, and from Tonu and Isador. I was presented with Texas roses which I donated to a hospital. The sweet scent of the flowers and the gesture behind them remain with me.


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