Monday, February 27, 2006

Milton Katims 1909-2006

It was sad but not unexpected to receive a phone call today about our dear friend Milton Katims having passed away. My wife had talked to him just recently on the phone and between bites of food he commented that old age had finally caught up with him. We went to visit him five days ago but he was in deep sleep and neither of us had the heart to awaken him. We just spent a good amount of time watching him, guessing that this might be the last time we would see him. Having been born as a preemie, weighing only three pounds at birth, he again resembled a helpless baby. Life is indeed a circle.

What an amazing man and an artist Milton was. I had heard recordings of his playing since my childhood and automatically placed him in the class of William Primrose. During our years in Seattle we became friends and always admired his knowledge of music, intellect and marvelous sense of humor. In spite of being well into his 90s, his mind was still razor sharp and he could tell an endless amount of fascinating stories. Exactly a year ago the Northwest Chamber Orchestra had honored him during Bacchanalia, their yearly fundraising auction. We sat at the same table and watched him absolutely glow from the attention he was getting. Recently we viewed a video taken at a home concert on Mother’s Day in 1992 where he and my then-pregnant wife were playing duos for violin and viola. Even in his eighties his fingers were moving at an amazing speed and accuracy and his immaculate musicianship was present constantly. The surroundings both made him relax and inspired, as his living room was filled with friends and admirers.

We have an old book titled ‘Living Musicians’ printed in 1940, and Milton is featured in it as a young but already very accomplished violist and conductor. He worked closely with Toscanini and he relished opportunities to reminisce about these experiences. Seattle was fortunate to have had him as their orchestra’s music director for many years. Naturally, in such a situation one makes both friends and foes, and not everyone showed him the respect and admiration he well deserved after returning here in later years. I remember a time when I had to help Milton to have backstage access when some eager managerial person wouldn’t allow him through, as his name wasn’t on the ‘guest list’. Even in post 9-11 atmosphere I doubt the old maestro posed much of a security risk.

On a personal note, I shall never forget all the genuine support Milton gave me during my difficult period in this town. He will always live in my heart as a tremendous source of inspiration and courage, and as an example of the kind of person a great artist and musician should be.

Milton, you will be missed but never forgotten.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Does size matter?

No, this is not a study about sexual satisfaction, but rather some thoughts about human nature and physical size.

It is obvious that being much taller than average makes one stand out in a crowd, literally. Most men are not bothered by it, certainly not if they play basketball, but many women find themselves feeling akward. No high heels there! In musicians, tall people often gravitate towards certain instruments, such as the cello and double bass, where their size actually makes it easier to play the instrument in question. I remember a cellist who could pick up his instrument and play it like the violin! Pianists probably benefit from large hands, long limbs and easier reach in general. For the violin, however, tallness often makes a person seem like he is playing a toy instrument and as a general rule, short people have fared better. For young soloist-wannabees, it is easier to pass as a
wunderkind, who is a lot younger than in reality, for years longer if one's height supports this assumption.

People either prefer to get attention or not to. Being of short stature is difficult for many as they feel they won't be noticed well enough. We often talk about the Napoleon complex. I am, of course, not talking about true midgets, who will get extra attention whether they like it or not, but men and women who are considerably shorter than the average. While I have dearly loved some people belonging to this category, even some of them have developed a personality that could be described as abrasive or at least attention demanding. Some of the 'little people' have been the closest people to me. Then there are those who are outright nasty and odious people. A skunk is not a large animal, yet other creatures, no matter how big and ferocious, stay away from one. Of course, human skunks exist in all sizes and shapes, but a a disproportionate number of them are in the short-people group.

Other than Napoleon or Alexander the Great, a lot of 'little' people have done well because they have deserved it. The first time I met Barbara Streisand in a school PTA event in Malibu, I was amazed at how petite she was. Yet on screen she becomes larger than life; same is true when you hear her recordings. It is the people who are little and have little to give the society that are the problematic ones. Screaming and acting out get attention: every baby knows it instinctively. I know people who are truly scared to have a tiny woman throwing a tantrum in front of them. Something in their brain tells them it wouldn't be proper and fair to answer her back in the same manner, although they would have no problem with someone their own size. Short men can be even worse as society expects women to be smaller to start with. Women also can wear enormously high heels and platforms which some find helpful, even if they have to visit a podiatrist regularly later in life as a result, but men really don't have this option to the same extent. By instinct, I prefer to stay away from a small person with a big ego if I can avoid it. There is no real logic to this, of course, but reality has taught me otherwise. Some of the most poisonous substances come in small packages, human capsules of cyanide.

If only people could learn to accept themselves as they were created. My first serious girlfriend was barely 5 feet tall and I still am very fond of her and stay in touch, more than four decades later. But even she had a serious complex about her height, manifestations of which probably drove us apart in our early youth. Is there a lesson in all of this? If a person, no matter what size, seems kind and friendly and continues to do so, she/he probably is. Otherwise, watch out.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Waking up early on New Year's Day was an interesting and sobering event. The night before my 18-year-old pride and joy said that this had been the best holiday time in her life. From a person of such age that is quite a compliment. Adding to that the incredibly nice and sweet holiday cards and thoughtful presents from students made me realize that I had excelled in the two things most meaningful in my life, raising children and teaching. It was nice to feel so happy, especially with my soulmate sleeping next to me. I may have had some hard times, most of them caused by abusive people, but what do they amount to compared with all that genuine love surrounding me. I realized that a long nightmare was over. One of the great mistakes of my life was what I had done as profession for so long. That job is far better suited for a person without a heart or intellect; often completely meaningless work, which I'll elaborate on more at a later date. The Guardian wrote some excellent articles on this matter recently.

Looking at my partner for over a quarter of century I realized how fortunate I have been. There is no need to chisel away all the plastered make-up to see what she really is like; neither do I have to put up with a woman who chooses to look or act like a Stepford Wife. How many of us are able to finish each other's sentences every time, or throroughly enjoy disagreeing and agreeing with each other the same? Not only is my wife one of the finest violinists and musicians anywhere, more importantly she is one of the greatest human beings I've ever met and known, honest and compassionate. I pity men who are stuck with nasty and toxic women; or perhaps they deserve them.

People don't seem to understand how it is possible that one is so fortunate with children as I have been. What is the magic of bringing them up? The secret: let them be in charge of their own upbringing; tell them if and where they have erred and encourage them to find their own path in life. None of my daughters has ever been punished: if they have done something wrong, they have known it and made sure on their own that it didn't happen again. Young people have an excellent sense of what's right and what's wrong. The motivation to do something right shouldn't happen out of fear of being punished but from reasons of conscience and moral values. At an age when most young adults want to get as far as possible from their parents and barely keep it touch, unless money is needed, it may seem odd to many that a strikingly beautiful and independent young lady chooses to drive home often weekly and call her dad daily, just to check. The children were never pressured to choose a career: they have done great choosing on their own. So many parents force their offsprings to follow in their footsteps, perhaps hoping that the children will do better than they themselves, be that in music, business or whatever field. Granted, my kids have attended a lot of concerts but it has been out of their own choice, not having been forced to show up like trained animals. Perhaps they'll end up genuinely loving music as well as other forms of art.

As far as those couples go who have chosen not to have children, having dogs or cats is not the same as little human beings, no matter how this matter is argued. A retriever may look at you as if you are a god or goddess, but a child will test your love and often put up a fight. Granted, parenthood is not for everyone, but too often people just want to care about themselves and not others. Selfishness and a family don't mix. Thinking of others before yourself is something many of us are incapable or reluctant of doing.

A little more than a month ago there was an interesting special on television with Barbara Walters regarding different religions and their beliefs in afterlife. Most of the people interviewed were incapable of thinking outside of their box. Outright frightening was a would-be suicide bomber who didn't care for martyrdom or the promised virgins: he just wanted to kill Jews. Kind of sad was the Catholic clergyman who said that when his body is finally risen, he hopes he'll have a head full of hair again. Had Ms. Walters been a Muslim, there would be handsome and pleasant young men waiting for her in their paradise, just as men have their young virgins. Hands down the most interesting and sensible person interviewed was the Dalai Lama. He was incredibly charming, to the point that Ms. Walters asked if His Holiness wouldn't mind if she kissed him on the cheek. He chuckled and after the kiss he showed how the Maoris do the same thing in New Zealand by rubbing noses. I'm presently reading his book "The Compassionate Life." There is true humanity in the world after all, although much of the time one wonders if that is the case.