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Herman Podolsky and the Brahms' Violin Concerto

Herman fulfills a dream he had when he was sixteen to play the violin at Carnegie Hall

  

When Herman Podolsky was nine years old, his parents bought him a violin and he began taking lessons at the Brooklyn Settlement House, a neighborhood community center for poorer children in the neighborhood. Isaac Mudnick, a violinist with the New York Symphony Orchestra gave violin lessons to the children on Saturdays for a $1.00 a lesson. Herman took lessons and practiced every afternoon in his room. His parents made him practice with the door closed because the shrill sour notes that came from Herman’s playing gave his father a headache and his mother couldn’t hear herself think, she told him.

For three years, Herman took lessons from Mr. Mudnick, who appreciated how hard Herman practiced, “You’re starting to play better,” he said. Herman loved the violin and asked Mr. Mudnick if he thought he could ever play in the symphony orchestra like he did. Mr. Mudnick’s answer was, “Only if you practice harder, then maybe.”

Herman’s playing gradually improved. He joined the PS 25 High School orchestra and sat next to Rebecca Moskovitz. They shared music stands. Herman had a crush on Rebecca, the daughter of Dr. Bernard Moskovitz, but was too shy to ask her out. She had long red hair, a freckled face, often wore pink or pale blue sweaters and went out with boys in the senior class. She was polite to Herman but had no idea how much he loved her. It was Rebecca who inspired him to practice harder so that she would be impressed with his playing. His new teacher at the Settlement House, Mrs. Bombeck, a large breasted woman, said, “You’re getting better. You’re becoming a real violin player.”

One day, Mrs. Bombeck gave Herman two tickets to Carnegie Hall to hear Jascha Heifitz play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto. He was sixteen and got up the nerve to ask Rebecca Moskovitz to go with him, his first date. He wore his Bar Mitzvah suit which was a little tight. The red carpets, the chandeliers, the balconies, the crowd of well dressed people thrilled Herman. When he heard the rich deep sounds of Jascha Heifitz, he had never heard anything so beautiful. When the concert ended, Herman made up his mind that one day he would play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall and told Rebecca his dream. She looked at him and said, “You’re such dreamer, Herman.”

“You’ll see,” he responded.

The years passed. After high school, Herman joined the army like the rest of the boys in his class. It was 1942 and the Second World War was raging. He was eighteen and fighting the Nazi’s was an honor and a duty; however, Herman’s flat feet disqualified him for the infantry so he was taught to be a radio-repairman. He was stationed in England. When he was discharged in 1945, he got a job as a radio repairman at Al’s Music Emporium, a store that sold radios, records and record players. He married Lily Nussbaum, the daughter of his father’s best friend, Milton. They had two boys, Lenny and Sammy and lived in small apartment on Third Avenue in Brooklyn, not too far from where he grew up.

A few years later, he opened up his own music store called Herman’s Music Emporium where he not only sold radios, records and hi-fi record players but in the fifties television sets with ten and twelve inch screens. He had two in the window, a Philco and a RCA and people would stop in front of the store to watch shows. He also carried sheet music and instruments to buy or rent. Herman worked six days a week and made enough to buy a small house and live comfortably. Rarely did he play his violin. It stayed in the closet, but, every once in a while, he’d play it for his sons when they were young.

Years went by and he didn’t touch the violin. His sons were married and had their own families. Sammy became an accountant and did his father’s books and Lenny took over running the business, keeping up with the changes, introducing stereos and then cassette players, video players and in the nineties CDs and then DVD players. They had a large selection of CDs and also the latest in large screen TVs. Herman came in everyday but didn’t have that much to do other than greet customers and keep an eye on things while Lillian was busy with the Sisterhood at the Synagogue. Then one day, a few months after his sixty-fifth birthday and the thirty-fifth anniversary of his business, feeling restless, he remembered how he felt playing the violin and took it out of his closet and started playing again. His fingers were stiff but he remembered how to read music and started playing easy Mozart pieces and Vivaldi exercises and found it enjoyable.

One night, six or seven months after picking up the violin again, Herman suddenly remembered the day he heard Jascha Heifitz. He remembered telling Rebecca Moskovitz that one day he was going to play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall and how she called him a dreamer. He stood in front of the mirror in his bedroom and looked at himself. “I want something more out of life than selling televisions and CDs. I’m going to do it. I’m going to play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall and nothing is going to stop me.”

The next morning at breakfast, Herman told Lillian his plan and she said, “Yes and I’m going to Hollywood and become the next Marilyn Monroe.”

“You’ll see!” Herman said.

That afternoon, he went to the bank and borrowed $15,000 using the store as collateral. When he told the banker, Mr. Phips, his plan to rent Carnegie Hall and perform the Brahms’ Violin Concerto in a year, there was no response except a polite smile and comment, “That’s very interesting Mr. Podolsky."

Lillian said she should divorce him for putting the store up for collateral. His son, Lenny thought it was nuts and said he didn’t think the business could afford the loan but gave up. “It’s your money, Pop.” Sammy, who saw video games and computers as the wave of the future said, “We should be investing in the future” and tried to talk him out of it but saw it was hopeless.

Herman went to the conductor of the New York Symphony, Rudolph Gorsky, a tall man with long white hair and a goatee and said he wanted to play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto with his orchestra on March fifteenth and he would pay whatever it would cost. He would pay for one day of rehearsal and the night of the concert. The conductor spoke with a thick German accent and asked if he had ever performed before and Herman told him the dream he had when he was sixteen. The conductor shook his head, cleared his throat before speaking, “I don’t think ve can do this. Ve are professional musicians. This is crazy,” but there was something in Herman’s eyes that made Rudolph Gorsky change his mind and say, “Yes. Ve vill do it. I don’t know vhy. It’s your money but this is crazy.”

Herman made an appointment to see Vladimer Kazinsky, the best violin teacher in New York and told him his dream. “Let me hear you play something,” the teacher said. Herman played the first few notes of a Mozart Sonata and was told to stop. “You’re terrible. You will never be able to play the Brahms’ Violin Concerto.”

“Yes, I will. You must teach me,” Herman said.

Again, there was something in Herman’s eyes that made Vladimer Kazinsky agree to teach him. “This is crazy. This is impossible but I will try,” he said, shaking his head, “What am I doing?”

The months passed and Herman’s sons thought he was insane and talked to their mother about having him see someone. Herman took lessons three times a week and practiced eight hours a day. Vladimer Kazinsky tried to be patient but said, “You will never be able to do this.” Herman’s friends never saw him because all he did was practice and at night he would put on the ear phones, play his Heifitz recording of the concerto, the score sitting on his lap, listening carefully to each passage, playing it over and over, moving his fingers in his head then the next day try to play what he heard. He didn’t go to the store and except for a cup of coffee and a soft boiled egg or oatmeal for breakfast and whatever Lillian made for dinner, he rarely left his room.

Vladimer Kazinsky listened to Herman play and would demonstrate how a passage should be played but would end up saying, “Herman there is more to playing than knowing the notes and moving the bow across the strings. There are things I cannot teach you.”

“I know. I know,” Herman would say and became more determined to get a smile from his teacher and not a frown. He would watch how his teacher played and try to imitate it, going over and over this section or that, practicing and listening to his Heifitz record and believing he was getting as close as he could.

As the date of his concert got closer, Herman had large posters made with a picture of him holding his violin and put them up at several locations, including his music store. He was especially proud of the poster in the lobby and on the billboard in front of Carnegie Hall. He sent invitations to everyone he knew. He put an advertisement in the New York Times and called the New Yorker to get it announced there. He sent an invitation to Rebecca Moskovitz, who was now Rebecca Lubin, the wife of Dr. Phillip Lubin. He found her number and called her and said, “You probably don’t remember me.” She said, “Of course I do, Herman. I don’t believe you’re going to do this. It’s been over forty five years.”

On the day before the concert, Herman had a five hour rehearsal with the orchestra. Rudolph Gorsky and the others musicians wore casual clothes and were cordial to Herman and patient as he played then stopped, asking them to start again while he got used to coming in on time or going over a passage a few times. He had never played with an orchestra before though he did practice with his recording. After the rehearsal, no one complimented him on his playing but a few musicians smiled, shook his hand and wished him good luck, never mentioning the flubs and sour notes. The cello player, Morton Cravetz, talked to him during a short break about the third movement and made a few suggestions and Herman nodded, thanking him. The opening of the third movement was delicate and Herman practiced that section several times that night and on the day of the concert as well as a few other difficult passages.

Finally, the night arrived. Lillian, his sons and grandchildren sat in the first row. Next to them sat Vladimer Kazinsky. A story about Herman appeared in the Sunday New York Times and became a television news story on all the channels and people sent him telegrams wishing him good luck and to everyone’s surprise, Carnegie Hall was sold out.

The orchestra played Ravel’s Bolero before Herman’s performance and then Herman walked on stage wearing a tuxedo, carrying his violin under his arm, the bow at his side and while everyone applauded, Herman bowed. Rudolph Gorsky looked at Herman, nodded they were ready, lifted his baton, the orchestra began and there he was, Herman Podolsky playing the Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

In the beginning, Herman missed some notes, the violin was slightly sour sounding, people moved restlessly in their seats, looking at one another. Some coughed nervously, a few gasps were heard but gradually, Herman’s playing got stronger. When he finished the first movement, he was sweating and took out his handkerchief, wiping his forehead, closing his eyes and took a deep breath. The audience was silent waiting for the second movement.

Rudolph Gorsky glanced at Herman indicating they were going to begin and both nodded. He played the second movement and though he missed several notes and made a few scratching sounds, people listened and did not react to the flubs. Again, except for a few coughs, there was silence when he completed the second movement.

Herman glanced down at Lillian in the first row and noticed a smile when she nodded to him and he smiled back. Herman felt confident when he began the third movement, remembering the cello player’s suggestions. The third movement had a number of difficult passages that Herman played well, blurring some notes, making a few scratchy and sour sounds but for the most part, the audience was spellbound.

He began the fourth movement, realizing he was in the homestretch of fulfilling his dream when suddenly, while playing a particularly difficult passage, his head moving from side to side, his eyes closed, his fingers moving vigorously, the bow moving rapidly, a string broke and everyone in the audience gasped.

He was nearing the end and kept playing the dramatic, extremely difficult solo before the orchestra came in for the climax. He played with three strings and everyone could see the one string dangling, but no one seemed to mind that the music sounded odd as Herman moved vigorously determined to finish, his whole body swaying from side to side, his arms moving the bow furiously and when he played the final note, the audience jumped to its feet, cheering and clapping, shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” The orchestra stood and applauded. Rudolph Gorsky stepped down from his stand and shook Herman’s hand, grasping it with both hands. The first violinist stepped forward and hugged Herman. Vladimer Kazinsky shook his head in disbelief and applauded, holding his hands above his head. Lillian blew Herman a kiss. His sons, shouted, “You were great Pop!” His grand children clapped and stomped their feet. He noticed Rebecca Lubin, standing next to her husband, her red hair now grey, smiling and applauding, her eyes sparkling as she looked at him. Herman held his violin above his head as the audience kept applauding and shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” And Herman, smiling, holding back tears, bowed for the tenth time.

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