Letters to Friends

[We normally entitle this ongoing feature by Beth Levin, Diary Pages, but, as these are notes to friends, oneself included, written in and around the time of terror attacks, diary won’t do. Ed.]

Beth Levin

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]


Dear Christine,

I hope you aren’t overworking and knocking yourself out. I look forward to the opera scenes very much.

My Aunt Dora was in town yesterday and took me to lunch at Le Rivage in the West 40’s. We had a lovely time and I felt so pampered. She is my father’s sister and shares many of his qualities — kindness, generosity, sense of humor — and her conversation is some of the best there is. We both got just a bit plastered and I showed her some recent photographs Anna had taken. Her husband, my Uncle Albert, had been a fine photographer in his day but is sadly gone now. Some of his photography of children in school rooms hung in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but he could never make a go of the everyday portraiture work to earn a living. People wanted glossy, touched up versions of themselves and he insisted on keeping the moles and wrinkles intact. He was right I think, but it led to frustration and the shutting away of his cameras and tripods at much too early an age.

I’m looking forward to hearing Zinovy tomorrow night. He chose the new piano for the concert hall because I backed out of the responsibility, something Gary thinks I’m going to regret. Zinovy chose an instrument called an Estonia! (It’s made there.) It sounds like something out of a Marx Brothers movie (Fredonia?). I can just hear Groucho singing:

“Hail Estonia, Estonia is our name
We make a piania, it is our stock in trade
But if your Utopia is the touch of a Steinway
do yourself a favor and simply walk away!”

I only hope Z. knew what he was doing.

Early morning sighting today: an older gentleman walking down 7th Avenue, hunched over a cane singing “If you knew Suzie Like I Knew Suzie…” [Seventh Avenue is a busy commercial stretch in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Ed.]

I seem to have found luck with my new primary care doctor whom I saw today for the first time. I sensed he was kind, thorough and funny and later the nurse confirmed my suspicions. She said he was completely devoted to his patients and she feared he never took any time for himself. He’s another Soviet émigré (first Zinovy and now Grigory!) and likes classical music. He kept repeating how he can always be reached and he works at the nearby hospital where Anna and Henry were born.

I hope things are going well and I want to hear the details. Congratulations on the new apartment by the way!



* * *

Dear Joe,

The world is going to hell in a handbasket but what can we do? My niece works at NBC and I immediately called her after hearing about the scare yesterday. She told me she was fine and that she had spoken to her parents. My brother and Lonnie are probably so glad they let Alexa come to New York after college, now a terrorist hub.

Our benefit concert last night went well! We raised a modest thousand dollars but the playing was pure and the readings heartfelt. James played the Prelude to one of the Bach cello suites while a dancer improvised on stage. I was joking with him later and said he sounded so like Casals — he said he forgot to grunt.

I performed a solo Haydn work but also accompanied Christine in a song of Samuel Barber’s and Tony in two movements of a Bach flute sonata. We were so completely knit. I know Tony well and I just knew when he was going to breathe or crescendo in the music and I hope I matched Christine’s drama and beauty in the song- have the poem:

Sleep now, O sleep now, O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying “Sleep now”
Is heard in my heart.
The voice of the winter
Is heard at the door.
O sleep, for the winter is crying
“Sleep no more, sleep no more, sleep no more.”
My kiss will give peace now
And quiet to your heart
Sleep on in peace now, O you unquiet heart!
–James Joyce

There were firemen in the audience, neighborhood people and conservatory people. Our new executive director attended and came over to me almost in tears. I should have asked her for a new piano for the hall right then and there. People seemed moved, but I was mostly involved backstage with the band of musicians. Kalin, a cellist from Russia whom I had never met before, hugged me and said the Haydn made him cry. I will always love the humor, abandon and warmth of musicians especially as they come together to perform.

I found a nice piece in the NY Times online about Philip Roth’s love of Newark, NJ, his hometown. (after his note I’m on alert for anything Rothian.) Joe, has anyone written well about Philadelphia? Why don’t you?

I’m reading the Bat Poet which I think you mentioned once. Thank you.

I hope you and family are all right and coping with the depressing news. Do you see the baby often?

Take good care,


* * *

Dear Mike,

Are you glued to CNN? I guess we all are. I listened to a moving editorial by Alistair Cooke on BBC radio Saturday night. He loves this country well.

In the light of the bombing, my concerts over the weekend seem a bit irrelevant.

Boston seems to be a place that means so much to so many people. For me it’s my youth and going back is always a bit sad but renewing. Gary being with me was so nice. He acted out of a kind of empathetic nervousness, drove me to rehearsals, took me to lunch and stayed within ear shot of the performance. And helped me not bomb.

The red On Air sign in the studio at GBH alarmed me a bit and resulted in some hair raising playing- the Haydn unfolded faster than ever and the Schumann may have trespassed into the avant-garde from the merely romantic. It was all good warm up for the recital the following evening.

Right before I left for Boston I got another note from Philip Roth! What do I do? I’m sitting here trying to compose a thank you note to Philip Roth and it’s very hard. I mean at the very least it had better be grammatically correct. It’s all my fault — I was zealous in mailing out flyers to friends, family and even strangers. He said he would tune in to GBH from his home in Connecticut and he wished me good luck.

He’s probably just a nice guy, although there may lurk a terrifying underbelly.

Dire news aside, enjoy Fall and this fine chilly weather.


* * *

Dear Mike,

I hope you are feeling better. Lee as well.

Sunday I gave a recital on Long Island in a little town called Southhold. The program was the same as in Boston.

Several friends drove out (it was So far) and an old friend from Shelter Island and it was nice to look up and see their faces. John Serkin was there, Rudolf’s eldest son who plays French horn and whom I knew slightly at Marlboro. His face is so like his father’s now.

I think I played better than in Boston with more focus. More things were fulfilled in the music and there may have been more nuance. On the downside, the piano was a lemon. As I warmed up on it I said out loud, “It’s gonna be a bumpy night!” à la Bette Davis except that I wasn’t in satin, I didn’t have a Martini in my hand and I don’t have those eyes.

I spoke a few words about the music mostly because it was a small space and keeping too formal a distance seemed artificial. The warm audience rewarded me with a standing ovation, but when you end with Liszt the chances are much increased. Mike’s Fugue was received well and he was there to take a bow. He was in a bright orange T-shirt which I found endearing.


* * *

Dear Mike,

The family has gone up to Rochester. I haven’t been all alone like this in some time. Feels nice but odd. I hope I meet the challenge of so much open space and time.

Yesterday I framed three of Anna’s recent photos and now I’m simply enjoying them in their places around the room. I also just scrambled some eggs, first sautéing onions and asparagus in the same pan. It made me think of my father’s Sunday morning meal: first there was very dark pumpernickel on the table, sliced. Butter. My mother would scramble him some eggs and open a can of sardines. My father would add a little raw onion to the eggs and sardines and then pour white vinegar over the top. Coffee.

The voices of Jussi Bjorling and Benjamino Gigli ascend from the stereo. Just when you think Bjorling has pierced the Italian soul you hear Gigli and realize you are really in the tomato paste.

Up the street from me growing up was a man, the father of my friend Diane Hafner, who developed the first transistor. Needless to say the family soon moved to more elite parts.

But I remember Diane’s mother coming to the door one day after school saying she had to pick up Diane and get home in time for the masseur. I found that so glamorous. I guess I still do.

The phone just rang. Hallelujah! Dr. Goldenberg asking about Gary who is in his sixth day of non-smoking. We discuss Gary, cluck our tongues and cross our fingers. I ask Dr. Goldenberg if he has gone on vacation this summer. He says yes but keeps his doctorly tone. I wonder if he would melt after a few vodkas. I sense that he hasn’t really left Russia and no matter how bad it was, it was home.

Tomorrow I’m invited to a brunch in Washington Heights. That should pull me out from my inner space.

It may storm tonight. I’m frightened during severe thunder, so this may be a real test!

With luck the Bach unaccompanied cello suites will come this week and I can listen in solitude. Bliss? Anna heard one the other day and asked me to find all of them. I ordered the Casals version because I think he gets to the core of things. Music isn’t something I ever go to expecting something or asking to be thrilled or enchanted. But there is hardly a practice or a listening session when something in the music doesn’t make me physically resonate in some remarkably transcendent way.

Battening down here….