the trio, with Seymour, tonight at the New York Yacht Club, at a party celebrating his 25th year as Artistic Director of Kneisel Hall! a little dark but hopefully you can see that we're all grinning like crazy :)
It’s hard to sit down and write about this man whom I love more than almost anyone in the world, and to try to give words to some of what he’s meant to me. I have tried, actually, on more than one occasion to do it, but found no way to express what I needed to express; “Seymour Blog Post” has been the first item on my iPhone’s “Reminders” application for about six months (really! ever since we started rehearsing Schubert B-flat again in the fall), but like I said: to try to sit down and write in any kind of coherent way what it is that Seymour Lipkin, that incredible artist and human being, has meant to me over the last decade – it is daunting, and I know it is impossible.
Dad and Seymour laughing like crazy after dinner tonight (Enemy loses it in the background)!
But, as Laurie said in her speech tonight, on the occasion of Seymour’s 25th anniversary as Artistic Director of Kneisel Hall – this place that started it all for me, which I still consider home, and which I have to thank for almost everything wonderful in my life – on that occasion it is worth saying a little more than the obvious (which, for her, is “I would rather be playing with him than talking about him”; for me, it is “I would rather be listening to his recording of Op. 109 or discussing War and Peace with him than talking about him”). But I will warn you with what I said at the beginning: it is hard to give words to how much I feel about Seymour, and, by association, Kneisel Hall; so this, my dear friends, will be a long one.
I have so many great photos of my Dad and Seymour laughing like mad, but this is another favorite - backstage after what I believe was a performance they gave, with Laurie, of Schubert E-flat at Kneisel, possibly summer 2009 (I'm not so hot with numbers)
I have so many memories of Seymour that it is hard to know where to begin – but one of the first really meaningful ones came back to me vividly this week when I heard Emely play Beethoven Op. 109 in a recital at NEC this week (beautiful, Em! I was proud). I fell in love with 109 at what I still think might have been the most vulnerable moment of my life – I had just left Greenwood after my last summer as a camper, and I was so utterly heartbroken I could not breathe; I spent every day crying and thinking about all these people whom I would never see and be with in the same way again; I was totally beside myself. I spent my days with my family in our house on the Vineyard, swimming a little, hanging out with my dogs, trying to cook something to make my appetite come back. But there was this profound void I was feeling, something I felt I could never fill, never getting to be at Greenwood again. And I looked in my CD case in those days, trying to find something to soothe my aches and tears. It would perhaps have killed me to listen to late Beethoven quartets – those were too immediately relatable (it was, after all, a few weeks earlier that I had played my first late Beethoven! The Heiliger Dankgesang, at that). So there I saw it: Seymour’s recording of late Beethoven piano sonatas. I didn’t know them at all, yet. But something in me knew this was where to begin getting over that loss of Greenwood, right then. I put in the last CD in the bunch, which began with Opus 109, the E major sonata. And I think I didn’t do anything for the next few days but listen to 109 over and over again. As soon as I heard those first notes – the ambling, sweet motion in E major, that key which is somehow heightened and yet youthful, gentle and still so extraordinarily expressive and often potentially chromatic – those first incredible moments of that recording by Seymour let me weep from joy, finally, in discovering this incredible new piece to love. The way he plays 109 is so human, so right, so totally natural and simple, and yet profound, full of complexity and huge emotional depth. It was the first Beethoven sonata I fell in love with, thanks to Seymour, and to hearing it at that moment in my life, and it will always be the one I love most of all (sorry, Op. 110. I do love you, too).
(An aside: a paragraph ago I put on this recording of 109, the one I am describing to you, and it makes me weep, just the way it did the first time, and every other time in between. The gentle, sweet inevitability of the first movement, the terrifying storm scene of the second movement, and the whole last movement, but especially that heartbreaking first variation – something about this piece, in Seymour’s reverent, completely understanding, self-effacing and totally masterful hands – it just breaks me down no matter where I am in my life, whether I am in the mood for it or not, and especially no matter how many times I hear it.)
an impromptu meeting with Seymour at the Fishnet - if I'm remembering correctly, he likes the vanilla soft-serve cones, but I prefer a twist. (yum.)
My time as a young artist at Kneisel began the next year, right after my four summers at Greenwood, and I had no inkling at the time I started there of everything that place – this little piece of heaven up in Blue Hill – would give to me. For it has given me so much: the closest friends I can imagine, almost four years now with my beloved trio, inspiration from hearing so many magical performances by my colleagues and by the faculty there. And, in the midst of all these gifts, one specific thing that I cherish more than almost all else is that I have gotten to study both Schubert trios with Seymour. I worked on the E-flat with Brig and Solon, whom I adore beyond words (adoring beyond words seems to be a theme in this blog post), and whom I played with for an incredibly joyful summer and a half in Blue Hill. We had heard Seymour, Lucy, and my Dad play the Schubert E-flat the summer before (2005!) and hoped upon hope that they would let us play it together the next summer. When they did, and when Seymour coached us, we were astonished at the patience he encouraged in us, inspired by the amazing, all-encompassing understanding of this piece and of the time he took to talk about it and try to help us find it; and we were touched, day after day, by the total belief he had in us to find something beautiful in this music. We started affectionately calling him “Gentle Seymour” because of how loving and totally encouraging he was with us in coaching after coaching.
One of my most vivid memories of Seymour is from that Schubert E-flat experience with Brig and Solon (self-titled the “tree-o,” hence Brig’s three-pronged peace sign below). As often happens with the Young Artist Concerts at Kneisel, it suddenly became a little difficult to get groups to volunteer to play in the first set of concerts. All the groups, apparently, requested to play in the Saturday afternoon and evening concerts, but there was nobody asking for the dreaded Thursday ones (play Schoenberg fourth quartet a little early, anyone? How about Op. 131? No? Why not?). Seymour, having to put together all the concert programs, was in a pinch, and decided to throw our trio on the Thursday concerts even though we’d been counting on playing a few days later. When we found out the order, we flipped. I was terrified! Brig and Solon were terrified! I went into Ellen’s office (Ellen runs the administrative show, where Seymour conceives of all the artistic genius that is Kneisel Hall) and, in what was probably not a demonstration of my most composed and logical-thinking self, told her we would probably ruin the entire summer festival if we played on Thursday. She said she would relay the message to Seymour, but she wasn’t hopeful that he would switch us; indeed, she was right, and they told us to go ahead and get ready to play on Thursday. It must have been Tuesday: YIKES. Seymour apologized, but told us, his group that he had been coaching for a couple weeks, that he knew we would be ready. Gulp. He had to go to a Kneisel fundraising dinner with Ellen Wednesday night, he said, before we had to play the next afternoon, but would we like it if he stopped by campus afterwards, and he could listen to us a little bit before we all went to sleep that night? We said yes.
me, Brig, and Solon (tree-o!) after playing Schubert E-flat for the first time
We started rehearsing in the Fishbowl (a huge glass studio in the center of a mostly-wood campus) after we ate dinner. We were in a little bit of a panic and managed to rehearse for a few hours before we started thinking maybe Seymour’s dinner was running too late and he wouldn’t be able to make it. But sure enough, at 9:30 or so, Seymour came ambling up the hill and let himself in through the sliding glass doors. He apologized profusely – the dinner had gone late! He knew how much we wanted to spend a little time together! Would we still like to play a little for him? (Of course we wanted to!) So we started back at the beginning of the first movement, and began to play, telling him to stop us if he heard something and wanted to comment (we were sure it was still full of not-yet-wonderful-enough stuff! We wanted it to be the most beautiful thing in the whole world). But we played and played, and it was pretty beautiful, I remember. We kept looking up to see what his reaction was, and there he sat, eight or ten feet away, eyes closed, head tilted up to the sky, smiling; even the way he looks when he listens to music is the essence of reverence and love for what it is we do.
When we finally finished the movement, he just smiled and said it was very beautiful – “That was just nice!” (This is the most wonderful compliment to get from Seymour.) He talked for a little bit about certain very special elements of the piece, and then said, “You know, I have been playing Schubert for sixty years now. And I am not a religious man, but the more I play this music, the more I know that Schubert…he was talking to God, every day.” I will never forget that moment, the utter joy of playing the Schubert E-flat with these two people I loved for Seymour, whom we all loved, and then listening to him talk in such inspired terms about this piece we adored with all our hearts and which we so wanted to share with the audience the next day in a meaningful and memorable way. And, I think it was quite beautiful, in the end: a special and joyful and ultimately quite understanding first Schubert E-flat; I will always cherish that that was my first time with that piece. (Here it is, that first movement! I was delighted to find it on my computer – sounds like I remember. 01 Schubert Eb Trio I – Tree-O!)
Trio Cleonice, right after playing Schubert B-flat for the first time! Exhausted and pretty overwhelmed.
Three years later, I was back at Kneisel with another group I adored, which (as you know: you’re on our blog after all!) is still together as I write. When Trio Cleonice went back to Kneisel all together – before this, we had all had summers there as individuals and played together in various pairs – we knew that one thing we wanted above all else was to work on the Schubert B-flat trio with Seymour. I had told Ari and Em about my magical experience with him in the E-flat, and, of course, we had each loved the Schubert B-flat for as long as we had loved music. So, that July, when we began to work on it and began to coach it with Seymour, there was this incredible sense of meaning and reverence, once more, for the music, and for getting to learn it in this context with this amazingly inspiring mentor of ours. We struggled with the piece mightily (and still did this year, when we carried it again for most of the fall and through the winter), but sharing our trials and explorations, our valiant attempts and, sometimes, successes with Seymour, was so memorable and so special for all of us. When we rehearse the Schubert B-flat now, we still talk about what we talked about with Seymour, we still talk about listening to him play Schubert – that incredible feeling of both flexibility and inevitability in his playing, the almost-impossible soft sounds, the earth-shattering loud ones – we laugh and cry, remembering these things, and we just feel lucky, each time we return to this beloved friend Schubert B-flat (not always entirely a close friend; the slow movement still makes me cry from fear some days), to have had that time in Blue Hill studying that piece with him. (Here is our latest recorded attempt at the slow movement, still imperfect and far from what we will someday be able to do! But still, full of everything we are hoping for and dreaming about… Schubert B-flat, II – Trio Cleonice!)
right after our first Schubert B-flat, with Seymour. blurry and possibly not the best picture of us ever! but still, lovely to capture this moment with him. (we felt totally uncomfortable in that performance and were worried we had been walking on eggshells the whole time. he said that, on the contrary, it was just soft enough in all the pianissimo dynamics...!)
Each experience – both of the Schubert trios that I was so lucky to learn with Seymour – was full of all that he has emphasized in his own playing and his own exploration of music; he encouraged both groups that I played with, day after day, to search deep and find in ourselves meaning, humanity, and total devotion to this music. Working on these trios with him was so incredible – each coaching was so full of joy and humility, of reverence for the music and yet a willingness to laugh and smile. The patience that he had with us, and the constant encouragement he gave us, the belief that we would find meaning on this first of many journeys and the understanding that yes, this was the first of many, many journeys – it meant a lot, and means a lot even now.
I would be remiss if I left out a picture of what is now Seymour's famed wiffle ball pitch... almost impossible to hit, except sometimes for my Dad, who is Kneisel's star batter
So here I am after nearly 2,500 words, and I feel I haven’t made a dent in talking about what it is that makes Seymour so important in my life – what has made him a hero to me as an artist, a teacher, a person. But I do know that I am lucky to have loved Seymour not only from afar, listening to CDs, but as a listener at actual concerts, hearing both of those Schubert trios (and the Archduke, the Ghost, 70 no. 2, and all else) from ten feet away. I am lucky I have loved him as a young artist at Kneisel Hall, coaching with him and learning from him – from his dissatisfaction with anything but the deepest involvement in these pieces, and from listening to him talk about music in that reverent, humble way; and I am lucky that I continue to love him after my time at Kneisel, in the coachings my trio has had with him from time to time, in the concerts I keep hearing him play (including a heartbreakingly wonderful 70-2 and Tchaikovsky with my Dad and Laurie in February), and in the all-too-infrequent times I run into him at the Zabar’s bread counter (or, better of course, the Fishnet, when we are both in Blue Hill!), where we talk about books, rye bread, and, yes, Beethoven. I still don’t know where to begin or continue, but perhaps, for tonight, this is enough. Seymour, for all this and for much more, I love you, and I am grateful you have been a part of my life and will always be.
here it is: my very favorite picture ever from Kneisel. this is in between pieces at an afternoon young artists concert! (aside: Seymour is the one person in the world who ever has, and probably ever will, affectionately called me "Gwenchik," perhaps from our mutual love for War and Peace and lots of other Russian novels...!)