September 12, 2009

Michael Steinberg - revisited...

While there are so many things that I have experienced about which I want to write, this one is somewhat difficult - perhaps the difficulty is the usual thought that someone may see this. Perhaps it comes from the thought that I am now about to write about a REAL writer, one of the most important musicologists of our century who was also one of my chamber music coaches during a summer at the International Festival-Institute at Round Top - a man who, along with Jorja Fleezanis, truly opened my eyes to the world of poetry and musical research while also inspiring so many of us with his openness to life, infectious curiosity and beautiful spirit?

I met Michael in 1999 at the Round Top Festival - during his three weeks on Festival Hill it was absolutely delightful to listen to him as he narrated Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" as well as to have a coaching on the Ravel String Quartet. It was also during that summer that I experienced what I can only call "creative happenings": Jorja and Michael reading poems about music and musicmaking (including a brilliant work that explored the nature of interpersonal intimacy while very strongly doing away with the question of the relationship that Johannes Brahms had with Clara Schumann, another that captured the gentle nature of playing pianissimo, and many by Alfred Brendel)on one day in the chapel, followed by a later afternoons featuring recordings of "Dead Violinists" and "Dead Tenors" - the latter two organized to open our eyes to the immense world of sound that we as musicians should understand.

While not having been able to spend as much time with Michael as I would have liked to from that summer until May of this year, it seemed that he was always "with me": after devouring his book The Concerto: A Listener's Guide in 1999 (I was learning the Elgar Violin Concerto at the time and had the great privilege to study it with Jorja during that first summer on the hill) I continuously found myself surprised when upon opening a new recording (or an old one - new to me) I would find his notes - Mahler symphonies, an EMI Great Pianists recording of Alfred Cortot - as well as read his notes in programs and see his other books in the Listener's Guide series as well as the collection of essays For The Love of Music. The greatest surprise came in 2008 when, on my last day in Toronto, I found the book of Alfred Brendel's poetry from which Michael read in 1999.

I did have an opportunity to spend some time with Michael this year. While our time was short - could it have been longer, could I have stayed? - it was truly humbling and inspiring to be in his company. While we tend to "idealize" many of those that we hold in high regard we must be remind ourselves of their humanity: upon talking with him about his future plans (which included two Mahler biographies?!) I was deeply impressed and inspired by his gracefulness and gentle nature - and reminded that while "life happens", it is how we respond to what life brings that shapes us.

"Life gives and life takes away...say yes to life." - James Baldwin

It is so important for us, when able, to spend time with those who came before and truly listen to their stories, to return the gift of attention that they have so willingly and freely given to us.
Those that we regard as mentors, as well as those in our own families, have a wealth of love, knowledge and insight on all things to share, and as we grow into our lives and routines we too will find ourselves trading places - becoming the ones with insight who are sharing with the world. While I did not consciously think that my short time with Michael would be the last, I found myself and still remain so deeply grateful for having that beautiful moment with him.

I recently spoke with an old friend who although never having had the opportunity to meet him nevertheless found herself inspired by Michael's work while preparing a vocal recital: "I wanted my program notes to be like his - to take the reader on the journey with me," she said. Perhaps many of us have had that desire - honestly, I must say that his writing did indeed inspire me to keep going deeper, to find out more than "the lay of the notes" - and while I am indeed grateful for his example as it has informed both my research and my writing, there can only be one and I can only hope that my work both past and future will be infused with the knowledge of man, music and history that Michael shared with the world.

My issues aside: while I wish that I could write something as eloquent as Mark Swed's Los Angeles Times article, I can only say thank you, Michael, for giving the world the best of yourself and continuously keeping out minds, souls, ears and imaginations open through your work - which included serving as the world's program annotator and penning three books of musical essays that rival if not suprass the work of Donald Francis Tovey , and being the mentor and champion of hundreds of us who have continued in this wonderful, crazy world that we call the business of musicmaking.

May your soul rest peacefully as your spirit - through your priceless contributions to our world - live eternally.

More from the road,

Minnesota Public Radio
San Francisco Examiner
San Francisco Chronicle
Baltimore Sun

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