Friday, December 20, 2013

The Essential Always Remains Invisible

A few days ago, I went to a memorial service at the Music Institute of Chicago, in Evanston, which is in a fine temple-style Christian Scientist building not far from the campus of Northwestern University:

I was there to commemorate Gertrude Grisham, the mother of a dear friend of my wife Patty who died recently (Gertrude, that is) at the age of 87. Gertrude was a remarkable woman who was born in Austria, came to the States in the 1950s, and then had a career of notable achievements, perhaps the chief one being her decades long post as diction coach for the Chicago Symphony Chorus. The deep affection and gratitude of the musicians who were helped by her was in full evidence on Wednesday night. The Orion Ensemble played two of Gertrude's favourite pieces of chamber music (by Mozart and Mahler), and no fewer than 60 singers from the Chorus took to the stage to sing Brahms and then Handel. There were moving speeches by family and friends, and Austrian wine to drink in the lobby afterwards.

I met her a couple of times at the Steans Institute in Ravinia, which is the summer program of chamber music and vocal master classes that takes places at the same time as the famous music festival. A college friend of mine who is a classical pianist was one of the accompanists, and I would go up to Ravinia to hear him play. When I told Gertrude that my friend was playing, she said something like "Delightful!", and then a little smile appeared on her lips, and she said: "Watch what he does when he first takes the stage: he always adjusts the stool, no matter what." 

The bell sounded, the audience took their seats, the lights dimmed, and the singer and my friend walked onstage. Sure enough, as he sat at the piano, he leaned first to one side and the other to adjust the height. At that moment, Gertrude turned round to face me, a sly smile on her lips again, and she just nodded slowly. 

It's a moment of humour and warmth that I will never forget.

And how marvellous that she was sent off into the Underworld to the sounds of music, the greatest art, and by Viennese composers, its greatest practitioners. Few of us would be fortunate enough to be eulogized in such a manner. 

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