This blog post was initially about a concert on February 22nd, 2016. I wrote it in the style of a concert review, with personal experience mixed in, and subsequently did not post it because somehow it did not balance authentically. As the 10th anniversary of my oldest brother's passing approached, I realized that the post was really about him, and that very personal experience, with a focus on the music involved. Today is that 10th anniversary, and today it feels right to post, in his memory.
On February 22nd, 2016, the Juilliard String Quartet presented their New York retirement concert of Joel Krosnick, who was their cellist of forty-two years, as well as a beloved Juilliard faculty-member. Naturally, it was a stirring and emotional concert, and, as has become the customary when passing the proverbial baton from outgoing to incoming cellist, it ended with the Schubert two-cello quintet, the instrumentation of which gives both cellists a momentary opportunity to play side-by-side. After the concert, Juilliard President Joseph Polisi presented the Juilliard Presidential Medal to Mr. Krosnick, who accepted it with a heartfelt and moving farewell speech, in which he also wished his successor, Astrid Schween, “I hope you have as much fun as I did!”
The audience was one of the most caring and enthusiastic I've ever been a part of in New York, with many of Mr. Krosnick's current and former students present, some having travelled across the country to be here. I happily ran into many of my former classmates, colleagues, and teachers, including Earl Carlyss, a former violinist of the quartet, who shared with me the story of how Mr. Krosnick joined the quartet: prior to him, there had been another candidate who was perfect on paper and essentially a shoe-in, but when they all played together for the audition, the chemistry just wasn't there, which the candidate felt too, getting up and thanking the others for their time. Then with Joel Krosnick - “there it was!"
Having studied at Juilliard, and having friends in the quartet, it would never be my place, nor could I offer an unvarnished vantage point, to write about how anyone played at the concert or how the interpretation was. In that department, suffice to say that the audience loved it, the concert was a success, and the playing was honest and expressive; the feeling that all were giving their best clearly came across.
My experience during the quintet was also intensely personal, although perhaps there is something about the quintet itself that has this effect. It is widely regarded as one of the most sublime works in the chamber music repertoire, and is Schubert's last chamber work, written in 1828 at age 31, just six weeks before he died. In the program notes for tonight's concert, James M. Keller writes of the Adagio movement that legends such as pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Alfredo Piatti, and novelist Thomas Mann “were among those who expressed the desire that when their time arrived to pass to the great beyond, they might do so while listening to this movement.” Perhaps Schubert too, while writing it, felt his transition from this life to the next, and perhaps we sense this possible influence. The Adagio is not afraid to weep, amid hope and beauty. I hear in it love and recognition of what's been, while welcoming that which is to come. It sets the stage for quartet-cellist-transition not just by virtue of using two cellos, but also through its profound, intimate, expansive, and songful expression. (In this wonderful video, Joel Krosnick speaks at length about the quintet, describing the piece as "one of the great monuments" in which "Schubert is speaking to God".)
Composers often have the task of writing new material for new occasions; performers, however, often select from existing repertoire for concerts and occasions, thus not expressing our feelings directly, but rather channeling them through music that someone else has already written. Audience members too bring own experiences to hearing pieces, as I strongly did at this concert. Though Schubert did not write the quintet for the occasion of Mr. Krosnick's retirement, the match between the feelings of empathy for what Schubert wrote with the feelings of a retirement concert commemorating forty-two years, two hundred eighty-eight years later, surely influenced the meaningful performance that we heard. Doubtless the piece acquires a new strong personal connection to all quartet-members who have played it, as both a farewell and a welcome.
As promised, this post is about my brother, and the quintet is the thread that takes me write about him here, and about the day he died ten years ago today. The piece is perhaps more deeply woven into my life-story than it is even for the Juilliard quartet, and reliving the intensely personal experience largely eclipsed other emotions at the concert for me. I believe there is something about music that is especially powerful this way – the way a song at a wedding is special always, as are songs we learn in childhood.
My brother Matthias was fourteen when I was born, and all my life I looked up to him as a deep-feeling, smart, funny, loving, important, beloved person-in-my-life. Emotions came first with him, sometimes defying logic and reason, a streak I too have, and felt comfortable sharing with him. (Perhaps it's this streak that most drew me into music.) He worked nights and was there for me for late-night phone-calls when I went through romantic heartbreak in my early twenties. We didn't necessarily talk about the events that happened, but could share the emotion we felt at a given time in whatever it was we were talking about. For both of us, it was ok to be in whatever emotional state we were at the time, talking about whatever else was going on.
When his wife of seventeen years left him in February 2006, he had less support and ability to handle his major heartbreak than I had for my minor one, and at fourteen years his junior I could be there as much as I could, but could only imagine what it must feel like. He spun out of control, a tailspin into depression, hopelessness, substance abuse, and finally, stress-induced schizophrenia. He showed up at my parents' doorstep one day and checked himself in; they worked out a system with his other parents (his father and step-mother, whom our mother and my father had not had contact with in a long time), to split caring for him daytime at one home, and nighttime at the other home.
This continued for a few months with medical help and also that of friends looking in on him when possible, with an interim time in the hospital. He remained unstable and distressed both emotionally and physically. I flew to our hometown after finishing a school-year in a Doctorate of Musical Arts program in New York and sorting out my working visa renewal (the latter a headache all foreign musicians know too well about). I was shocked to see the change in him: he was afraid of daylight, of his own cats, the weather, and believed cameras were hidden under tables and chairs and in corners. Having lost his instinct, there was nothing and no-one he could trust, his medications maybe helped or maybe harmed, but he did not see a way forward.
A few days after I arrived, on the morning of July 7, and we'll never know how aware or not Matt was at the time, I awoke to a terrible scene: he had hung himself on his fancy exercise machine in the basement, my dad had found him and taken him down, the EMS had arrived and were moving him from the carpet, next to a few drops of blood, onto a stretcher, he was still breathing but unconscious and our mother was watching, helpless. After having breakfast, he had just gone to the basement, pulled the door shut and -- .
In such a moment, there is a flood of emotion and I nearly passed out, but the importance of doing what needs to be done takes over. I put an arm around our mother and said he was still breathing, both of us hoping there might be hope. We followed the EMS to the hospital by car, and his other parents joined us there. We waited for news in a small waiting room, our mother pacing the hallway. No-one knew what to say and the clocks ticked loudly.
And the piece I had last played poured through my brain: the Schubert 2-cello quintet. I cannot stop the music in my head, and I didn't know if I wanted to, but I knew the piece would never be the same for me again. It comes back as I write now.
Eventually news came: Matthias had no brain activity, but had been put on life-support in case a little might return. Hope existed, perhaps, but barely; even if he were to live he would be severely disabled for the rest of his life.
Our sister flew in from Vancouver, and we visited again in the evening. The machine made him breathe artificially but otherwise he showed no signs of life. Still, during silence, I heard Schubert in my head.
In the morning of July 8th, the doctors advised us that hope was unwarranted – and a sad, bleak hope it would have been – and the decision, almost a relief then, was made to take him off the life-support. In my head, he passed away to the quintet.
Could his spirit hear me hear it – as he lived on in my thoughts and prayers and dreams – could he hear the music I heard and be consoled? (Could I imagine he experienced Rubinstein, Piatti, and Mann's dream and found the solace they thought it brought?) And when he became an organ donor and his heart saved another man's life, is it conceivable some of the experience became embodied and passed along? Or is it all but my dream and experience? As you can see, the music is not consoling to me now, for it brings back these vivid memories. Yet it hasn't lost its beauty and import, especially the second movement, and its requiem-like quality, a memory of deepest love and beauty, through tears.
Will I be able to play this piece again sometime? I don't know. As a professional, I'm sure I will do it when there is the occasion, and I'm sure it will stir these feelings again strongly. I can say that playing the Ciaccona of the Bach D Minor Solo Violin Partia has similar connotations for me, as I first played it in the fall of 2006. I played the heartbeat movement, the Andante, from Bach's A minor Sonata for Solo Violin at Matt's funeral, and always remember that too.
I do know that life continues, and that new performances and new experiences constantly change the narrative and meaning of what we play and present. Including my experiences, I was grateful to be at the meaningful and beautiful Juilliard Quartet/Quintet concert. As a musician, one can never know what memories one's playing brings back for our audience, but if we can touch the soul, then it is how it should be.
Matthias was not much into classical music, and his tape collection included Billy Joel and non-classical artists I didn't know. Would the quintet have been meaningful to him? He was always really supportive of me, and I know it would have meant a lot to him for it to mean a lot to me.
As much as my worlds come together, or don't, I miss him still, think about him often, and honour his memory and spirit in music, in words, and with the others who knew and loved him.