Thursday, July 31, 2014

Yehudi Menuhin changed my life

Most days, I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche when he said, "Without music, life would be a mistake." I could live on a deserted island without DVDs or even books, I think, as long as someone let me take along a library of music -- about two-thirds of it classical -- to pass the time. But I never knew I felt that way until I heard something like this 40 years ago this month:

I had never been to a concert by a professional orchestra when a fellow reporter asked me to accompany him to an outdoor performance in 1974. I was a 19-year-old summer intern at the Burlington County Times, a suburban paper in southern New Jersey, and he knew a guy in the cello section of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (More importantly, I had a dependable car.)

I don't remember the shorter pieces on the program, but it concluded with Beethoven's only violin concerto. If you know this piece, you realize the first movement lasts as long as some concertos in their entirety. When Menuhin finished, I clapped wildly and hollered "Woo-hoo!" -- until I realized nobody else was applauding. "Ummm...we clap at the end," said my cohort, not realizing I hadn't known. And by the end, I was hooked forever on Menuhin, Beethoven and classical music.

You could simply walk behind the stage at Robin Hood Dell, the outdoor venue in Fairmount Park, so my buddy shuffled off to say hi to the cellist he knew. I stood around on the grass, eyes goggling, until an old lady (or so she seemed then) approached, her features obscured by too much makeup and a scarf.

She asked if I'd enjoyed the concert. I began to gush incomprehensibly, leaving out the "Woo-hoo" incident. "Ah," she said. "You should meet my brother." She turned around and called, "Yehudi. Come and talk to this young man!"

The great violinist obediently ambled over. "Larry chose you for his first orchestral experience ever," she said. (I later learned this was Hepzibah Menuhin, a talented pianist.) "That's an honor, isn't it?"

Menuhin acknowledged, smiling wryly, that it was. He said he hoped it wouldn't be my last classical concert. I made incoherent noises of approval. Then, to the best of my embarrassed recollection, the chat went like this:

Him: "Are you familiar with Beethoven's music?"

Me: "Not as much as I'm gonna be. I really like the Fifth Symphony, though."

"That's a good place to start. You should really get to know the violin concerto, too. I never get tired of playing it."

"Yeah. Uhhhh...did you ever make a record of it?"

He smiled. "Well, yes. Six recordings, I think."

"Really? Which one is the best?"

Another smile. "I recently recorded it with Otto Klemperer and the New Philharmonia. That's closest to the way I feel about the music right now."

I knew I could remember THAT name, because Klemperer's son played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes." I was probably going to blurt that out when Eugene Ormandy or somebody called my pal Yehudi off to another conversation.

A few minutes later, the other reporter came back and said, "Sorry I took so long. Hope you weren't bored."

"Nah," I said. "I had a nice talk with Menuhin." He replied with an unprintable expression of disbelief, and I never did get him to take my word for it.

I bought that Klemperer LP the next day in a record store. I played it until I knew every breath Menuhin took before a downstroke. (I have the CD version now.) I later bought his wonderful performances of the Beethoven and Mendelssohn concertos with Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Menuhin, who died 15 years ago, influenced a lot of people as a teacher and humanitarian -- but in one way, none more than me. I have listened to classical music with attuned ears, an open mind and a devoted heart since the day I heard him.