” SEEENGH! mit deh chellow! SEEEEENGH!”
His tall, gaunt, angular frame strode back and forth in front of me, that perpetual smile permitting in one corner a puff puff of his aromatic pipe between each declaration. Bootsie the cat, the size of a small child, sat at the right edge of the bow’s trajectory, batting away at each return. And, I, the tender thirteen year old, spread my bow stroke as wide as I could, intensifying the left hand vibrato, and pulled as soaring a sound as was humanly possible from my plywood prototype.
Dimitri Erdely, a real Yugoslavian, a true musician, held command at each cello lesson like a prince of the court. I was thirteen; I didn’t practice much. The only room in the house that provided enough physical space to play like Dimitri wanted me to was our livingroom, and most of the time the instrument and its accompanying music stand were just in the way, a regal disruption in Mom’s otherwise spotless house. More often than not, on days when I’d choose to get everything out of the case and make the attempt, any sound I made would end up competing with Mom and her vacuum cleaner, its wheezing and braying around me on all sides.
Dimitri was a first-generation Yugoslav; his wife, Elaine, an American. Her once lovely frame had already begun to curl up, succumbing to the degenerating effects of cigarette smoking. She’d meet each student at the door in her velour robe with the long zipper straight up the front, a new cigarette already lit, and then retreat into the adjoining room to have her smoke while each of us prepared to either carry the cello into the studio livingroom or pack up to take our leave.
Golterman was the first musical work Dimitri presented to me. A concerto for early players, the piece was, like most solos designed for the instrument, easy at the opening theme, challenging in the development, and virtuosic in the home stretch. I always managed a glorious exposition.
Then, there were the studies. “Etudes”, by Fredrich Dotzauer. Two pages each of a selected rhythmic motif, transmuted through every key in the Western diatonic system, and back home again with a closing flourish. I was, of course, partial to the first eight measures. Which I would polish to perfection – seeenging mit deh chellow with all my heart.
Each lesson would usually center around the ninth and tenth measures of the etude.
Sigh. Predictably, I’d run aground – first with a dramatic expulsion of air from my lungs, followed by the exasperated, grinding halt. Each week would provide for Dimitri a newer, even more imaginative reason for my “problems” with measure nine. And, each week, Dimitri would smile graciously, take the cello, sit down, and play the measure – and, all the measures that followed – with the grande, convincing ease of a true European.
And, then it would be my turn again.
What happened next represents the fuzziest part of my memory. There’d be some technical maneuver, easy for him, flummoxing for my little piano hands, and around we’d go again. Mostly, I’d take with me the whole display of his performance – the tone, the vibrancy, the song that burst forth from him every time he sat to play.
My favorite part of the lesson was what happened at the end. While I was packing up to wait for my mother’s car to arrive, Dimitri would pick up his classical guitar.
He’d place his right foot on the special steel shoe platform designed for classical guitarists. He’d set the angle of the instrument high, and drape his right arm over the strings at the tone hole. His fingers were endlessly long, lean like the rest of him, and they’d begin their quiet runnings across the strings as he set the music alight with his gentle left hand. His smiling head would dip over the guitar, then raise its face to me, then down again, as the lone melody rang out over his feathering underlayment. In those moments, he was my minstrel, my Medieval knight, a dim reflection of my father in the costume of an ancient, exotic civilization.
Then, the clock, or the front door, and that burst of cold air signaling the arrival of the next student, always a stranger who interrupted my reverie. And, Elaine, appearing right on cue, to take a coat and speak a gravelly greeting.
These exquisite encounters marked the beginning of what would ultimately become my life with the world’s richest music. Most would call them private cello lessons, but they were my weekly visits to Dimitri Erdely’s command performance. He was in every sense an artist, an authentic character of a generation now lost to history, my first embodied orchestra, a profound gem of humanity. As my father would so often fondly intone, I say now to him:
“Thank you for living.”
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
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