Sunday night Michael and I watched a 2013 episode of Live from Lincoln Center on Youtube – the episode featured a chamber music setting for a tribute to Mendelsohn, the great composer. Playing for us were none other than Emanuel Ax on the piano, Yo Yo Ma on the cello, and Izhak Perlman on the violin. The three legends also happen to be great friends – Ma has collaborated with Ax as his primary accompanist for many years, and the three often get together to play with each other. They played, in fits and starts and intermingled with witty banter, Mendelsohn’s Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano. As they chat they poke fun at one another and tell stories.
One story in particular gave me goosebumps because I’m a total sucker for this stuff – they did it on purpose because they can; the best musicians in the world get to rub shoulders with the best musicians in the world, of course. Perlman started the semi-rehearsed story by saying how important it is to speak with our elders, how they hold stories that can greatly enrich our lives, and that can help us access music and other kinds of history.
Back in the 1970s, Ax was working with legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein on the Brahms Piano Concerto. Ax was playing the opening bars for Rubenstein – wow! – and he had started out with a somewhat rapid tempo. Rubinstein suggested Ax slow it down. Ax questioned, “Why?” Rubinstein proceeded to tell Ax that when Rubenstein was a young man, he was playing the Brahms for the legendary violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim, who had worked with Brahms on the original composition, so Joachim knew how the composer intended it to be played. Brahms and Joachim were one of the great prolific partnerships of their day.
Connections to our past can also be made by old instruments – as I mentioned at the beginning, the trio was playing Mendelsohn on the 200th anniversary, more or less, of the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano. For one movement, Ma brought out his famous Davidoff Stradivarius Cello. Ma informs us that this cello was the instrument on which the concerto was first played. In other words, Mendelsohn himself heard the piece played for the first time on the cello Michael and I watched Yo Yo Ma use to perform the work on Sunday night.
You really have to watch out for grand narratives in history – they tend to be told as the teller wants them to be told. But gorgeous little anecdotes are really what it’s all about.
Thanks for reading.