I remember it as if it were yesterday.
I was eighteen years old, fresh and excited as I could be about majoring in piano in college. My early years of musical study were shaky due to family finances, but the first time I’d ever witnessed an advanced classical piano piece performed in the 8th grade--I knew I’d found my life calling. A future of rags or riches? I couldn’t have cared less. All I knew is that I’d found my true passion. My mother’s influence was enormous, since she’d played classical recordings since I’d been born.
When I first arrived on campus at my small private university and saw this attractive woman in her early seventies, I didn’t realize she soon would become my role model and hero. But the first time I heard her perform a full length recital, I was captivated, aghast in utter amazement and thrilled beyond words. I knew immediately it would be the honor of my lifetime to have her as my teacher. While I watched her perform Liszt’s spectacular Tarantella, I felt as though I’d entered a different dimension. Her hands moved so rapidly they blurred. And her fairly large body lifted, airborne at times, executing Liszt’s extreme pyrotechnic demands. Sometimes she landed on the bench with such force I wondered if either the bench or piano could survive. It was like watching a female Liszt. But then, she could play gently, singing the unforgettable melodies with her fingers like an angel.
As I began my studies with her, every second of our lessons grew more precious each week. Before long, she moved me last in her schedule, so that time was no longer a concern. I was like a sponge, soaking up every drop of instruction she so willingly gave. I remember once she even gave me a five hour lesson on one single piece, the Brahms Ballade in g minor. As she stomped around the room, pounded the piano with her baton, screaming “louder, more forceful!” or “back off now, more, make it lyrical,” I obeyed as though she was the Commander in Chief. But she was so much more than that, she was my Hero and my Idol. Following her musical leadership felt invigorating, like I’d just climbed the highest mountain!
For four years I followed her instructions precisely. She scolded me gently, and yet brutally, if I slacked off on any given week, but praised me grandly when I performed to her satisfaction. It was the greatest joy of my lifetime when I performed my senior recital with her and to this day, over 25 years later, I still have the card that she wrote to me after the recital, claiming she’d never been prouder of any student in her forty year career. I will treasure that note until the day I die.
I’ve always thought if I can have just a tenth of the impact this woman had on me to my own students, then I would feel I’d achieved more than I could ever have dreamed. And she was funny, too, once I got to know her personally, constantly performing absent-minded actions while rambling on about the wonders of Mozart and her days as an opera diva--something I never even knew until later in my studies with her.
When I created Dr. Fuddle in my novel Dr. Fuddle and the Gold Baton, I had this iconic woman in mind, a being filled with ironies, highly accomplished, yet funny, warm and loving; strict, but generous with praise on a job well done. I will never forget my Beloved Teacher and the memories of the day she passed away, many years ago, still brings tears to my eyes. May she ever live on in immortality through Dr. Fuddle.
I am a servant of the Fine Arts. I have no job, but I do have a career and a mission: to illuminate the greatness of the living art of classical music to young people.
One time after returning to Atlanta from New York City and I found myself completely undone. My visit to the Big Apple was to indulge my borderline insane fanaticism for the great pianist Martha Argerich, who is, to me, the greatest living legend in the world of classical music.
I must confess to having little interest in pop culture, but do admit to being the worst culprit of all when it comes to possessing a pop culture-like hero-worshipping fetish for Martha—I’m a true disciple. While a doctoral student under the great pianist Ivan Davis, he proudly claimed her as his lifetime best friend and asked me if I knew who she was. When I said I did not, he proclaimed "she is the ultimate pianist’s pianist. It’s time you know that.”
I immediately purchased her legendary rendition of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and from that point forward, I’ve been bowing to this high priestess of classical music. Since the opportunity had availed itself to see my heroine, I arrived in New York with enormous anticipation and was greeted with sensational news from my friend with inner connections: she had obtained tickets to a private rehearsal at Avery Fisher Hall to watch Martha, conductor Charles Dutoit and the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra rehearse.
At exactly 3:12 PM on that Thursday afternoon, my heroine came out of a left stage door and I found myself instantly overcome with tears. There she was. In full flesh and blood, the pianist of all pianists walking casually onto the stage, exchanging amusing faces with Maestro Dutoit, and then flashing a glimpse of her staggering right hand technique. I nearly passed out. The musicians proceeded to perform Prokofiev's dizzying Third Piano Concerto and I had the privilege of hearing my favorite parts of this work not just once, but over and over as she shouted directions to various instrumentals, like “the flute is a bit too loud” or “a bit more crescendo for the tympani!” It took many minutes to regain any sense of composure, but finally I managed. I had a bird's eye view of her hands.
The night of the concert proved to be one the greatest experiences of my lifetime. There I sat on the front row to the right of the piano, able to witness Martha's face directly and watch her hands from the reflection off the shiny piano lid. She performed this demonically exciting concerto with the powers of an Olympian goddess. Nothing fazed her as she triumphed her way through endless devilish passages and created the most intense, unforgettable music imaginable.
After the masterwork had been completed, I stood and cheered with thousands of others, all screaming “Martha! Martha!” as though she was a rock star. I, nearly eaten alive with the sheer electricity of that unfathomable performance, can’t remember ever sitting back down. And once again, thanks to my friend, after the concert I had the privilege of meeting Martha personally in the “Green Room.” I have to confess the magnitude of shaking the hand of THE Martha Argerich was almost more than I could withstand, and thankfully I had the wits to retrieve her autograph and the sacred pen as a keepsake. Sleeping later that night was not an option. The combined power of Martha Argerich, Maestro Dutoit, UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, Prokofiev’s Third followed by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique thundered through my veins until daybreak.
When I wrote my young middle grade fantasy novel, Dr. Fuddle and the Gold Baton, I imagined the power of Martha’s performance in the sixteenth chapter, when I described the Messengers of Music witnessing the inspirational power of the virtuoso Franz Liszt in action, right before their climactic battle to retrieve the sacred instruments and the Gold Baton.
I dream of the day when millions of young people will cheer for great legends like Martha Argerich, filling newly built concert halls to overflowing. May the immense power of classical music long live!