Watch my face

This morning I was listening to the Dvorak String Quintet Op. 77 and I remembered a kind of funny story. I’m writing it here so I don’t forget.

Eugene Lehner (of Kolisch Quartet and Boston Symphony fame) was my chamber music coach for this piece while I was at New England Conservatory. Mr. Lehner would get after us because we always seemed to sound a bit stiff. We were playing through the first movement at a coaching session and at one point he stopped us and said emphatically “All the notes you play are fine, but you need to play with tone!” He then said, “Here, watch my face,” and he proceeded to shake his jowls to and fro like an old bloodhound just after a dip in a pond. I remember in all too vivid detail the way the skin from his face and neck moved as if completely independent from the rest of his lower mandible. But what happened next was the most amazing part, and you would have had to have been there to appreciate it.

So then he picked up the first violinist’s instrument and tucked it under his chin and started to play. This violin I always thought had a very bright, tight, almost tinny sound. But when Mr. Lehner played it, this deep, gritty, gruff, rich, throaty sound appeared out of the space where he sat. It was not that Proper Classical Conservatory Training tone… no, it was pure Demon-Possessed Mad Gypsy Fiddle tone with Extra Goulash. What a sound. Dvorak, like so many other composers, is so much more fun when you play it with a dash of the Mad Gypsy(tm) flavor on top. I always look for this sound that he showed us that day. It’s so thick and hearty, you’ll wanna eat it with a fork. It was the unmistakable spot-on audio equivalent of his jowl-shaking demonstration.

Eugene Lehner passed away in 1997 at the age of 91. He had a pretty amazing career. Bartok himself had persuaded him to follow a music career after he had heard him perform at the age of thirteen, and Lehner then went on to play several premieres of Bartok’s works with the Kolisch Quartet. Koussevitsky hired Lehner to play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra without an audition, stating that he had heard him play in Germany fifteen years prior. When he was in his mid-eighties, he was still teaching punk-asses like me at the New England Conservatory about chamber music.

He told me he loved being able to coach a bass player, which I always thought was kind of neat since I knew he was usually busy with the more traditional bourgeoisie string quartets and elitist piano trios. (The bassist proletariat does not get as much representation in the body of chamber music repertoire as we would like…) Much of the style of the way I play (or wish I played) my bass is in some part due to my experience with Mr. Lehner in that chamber group. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to have known and learned from him.