There have been a few friends who, with their memories, their enthusiasm, their patience and their expertise, have been of invaluable help in the writing of this book and I’d like to thank them all. I think the greatest debt of gratitude goes to Nicola Schaefer who read the book right after it was first written and convinced me it was of some value. Since then, she has never stopped pushing, prodding and providing motivation until it was finally finished and sent off to the publishers.
Others who played a vital role are Judith Rice Lesage who helped me with all the foreign translations, Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld, my brother Peter, my cousin Alison Hackney, John Pearce, Linn Rothstein, Flora Liebich, Elaine Plummer and Jeffrey Swann.
And many thanks to my friends Richard Sauer and Josefine Theiner who got tired of hearing about the book as it gathered dust on my studio shelf, and found a publisher for me: Novum Publishing and the excellent and thoughtful Bianca Bendra who has expertly guided me through the entire publishing process.
Finally I would like to thank my husband Harry; quite frankly, without him, there would be no book.
Whirlwinds of Snow (“Chasse Neige”) by Franz Liszt
My eyelids flickered as I slowly drifted back into consciousness. A pale, sickly blue light filtered through my damp lashes and, bit by bit, I became aware of my surroundings. There was an unnatural stillness. Sounds were muffled, distant. I knew that I was in a hospital recovery room, and the realization that I was still alive caused a smile to cross my face before more complex thoughts were generated in my brain, dulled by anesthesia. There was a numbness in my left arm and the peaceful insouciance of a drug-induced state was soon dispelled when, in a sudden panic, I attempted to wriggle my fingers under the bedclothes. But all was well; they moved as before: pianist’s fingers. My heart continued to thud at an alarming rate and cold sweat spread across my forehead.
The world eventually shifted into focus; lights brightened, sounds amplified, and I remembered: this was a cancer hospital and I had just lost a chunk of my left arm. I could see that I was not alone in my predicament, which was somehow reassuring. That day there were many of us, lying in our cots in three tidy rows, waiting for the surgeons to deliver their verdicts. Some patients were still unconscious while others were surrounded by family members speaking in low, encouraging tones. There were those who, like myself, lay silently with a knot of anxiety growing within, and those who seemed to find delight in calling out loudly and repeatedly for the nurses, unable to cope for even a few seconds on their own. The cries of the few who were in extreme distress were heart-wrenching; I felt empathy, pity, but mostly fear in the presence of such suffering. In the bed next to me someone was moaning softly, but although I tried to turn my body around to see, I found I was more or less tied down and couldn’t budge. My left arm felt heavy and lifeless but, mercifully, I felt very little physical pain.
Nurses flitted efficiently from patient to patient, brightly cheerful, dealing briskly with the stress of a room vibrating with palpable anguish. The sounds of disembodied voices, machines beeping, curtains being pulled to and fro, wheels turning and oxygen pumping soon became exhausting. I was freezing cold and shivering so badly the bed was rattling. My body felt sticky and saturated with hospital stench, dried blood and disinfectant, and I had been pumped full of liquids during the procedure, so my bladder was constantly and painfully full and oh, how I loathed even the thought of bedpans! Also, like the sword of Damocles, the pending results of my biopsy hung perilously over me.
Presently a nurse, noting that I was awake, stopped by to ask how I felt. In a display of totally inappropriate fortitude, I reassured her that I felt fine when actually I felt quite dreadful, having suddenly been engulfed in waves of nausea. Minutes later I disgraced myself by being sick, mostly – although not completely – into the little basin conveniently stationed within reach.
From the clock on the wall opposite I calculated that I had already been in the hospital for nearly twelve hours. It was 6:00 pm on January 31st, which just happened to be Harry’s birthday. Sitting miserably in a hospital was not the way I had envisaged my newly acquired husband celebrating his birthday, but it seemed as though greater forces had seized control of our common destiny, altering the course of our lives and steering us into dangerous whirlpools and eddies.
Up until that day my life had been a seesaw of the glorious highs and desperate lows typical of a performing artist with a demanding schedule. Nevertheless, over the years both body and mind had received quite a battering, which I had ignored. I had managed to bounce along unchecked, riding on my innate stubbornness, basic good health, and a large dose of childish naivety.
This time, however, the events leading up to the biopsy had been simply too much even for a tough campaigner. The camel’s back was succumbing not to the proverbial straw, but to a giant bale of hay. As I waited for medical science to reveal the next phase of my life, my mind, in a futile attempt to disassociate itself from the present, harkened back not to a happier distant past but to the past year, starting with another birthday and another life and death drama that had occurred eight months previously.
We should have been celebrating my fiftieth birthday, but the day was spent in transit from Knoxville, Tennessee, where I had been playing on tour, to Montreal, where my mother had been rushed to the hospital. I spent the next two weeks at her bedside watching her die. She had a virulent form of leukemia and had developed bronchitis, a fatal combination. I learned a lot during those two weeks about courage and dignity, about unconditional love and about the incalculable power of a sense of humour. My mother showed no fear, was invariably courteous and accommodating to the overworked nurses, and made witty comments to try to lessen my concern and grief, right up until the moment she slipped into a final coma. She had taught me how to play the piano with honesty; she now taught me how to die with integrity.
Shortly after, at the beginning of June, Harry and I were married in a private ceremony held in the Bavarian village where he had grown up. It had required the written permission of the Highest Court of Bavaria and an onerous, transatlantic quest to assemble all the correct and pedantic documentation (not helped by the fact that, fifty years prior, the wine at my christening must have been flowing quite freely, as the officiating priest had misspelled both my father’s and my names on the baptismal certificate). Considering the death of my mother only weeks before and given that neither Harry nor I had ever wished for a huge wedding, only Harry’s mother and brother and a few of our closest friends were present. Everyone except me seemed to be shedding copious tears during the service. As for myself, I was intent on understanding what the nice lady registrar, who was marrying us, was saying. My comprehension of German was somewhat feeble at the time, and I was desperately trying not to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. However, in the end I managed a resounding “Ja.” at the appropriate moment, which was a colossal relief.
In the back of the room, Sena Jurinac, legendary star of the Vienna State Opera and one of Harry’s closest friends, commented in a clear stage-whisper that the registrar’s speech was unintelligible: no one seemed to know how to project their voices nowadays. The sobs now became punctuated by an occasional giggle.
Our wedding lunch was held, romantically, in the little country restaurant where Harry and I had had our first meal together alone.
There was no suggestion of a honeymoon due to time restraints. Instead, we had a weekend in the mountains at a delightful bed and breakfast, accompanied by three of our closest friends who had come from Northern Germany and California. It rained the entire time, but our party was merry, and I regretted having to go back to work on Monday.
Over the next three months I flew back and forth to Germany as often as possible between concerts in North America, trying to maintain some semblance of a normal married life. For years I had firmly maintained, both publicly and privately, that marriages and concert careers for women were incompatible. I was now determined to disprove my own theory. Being the spouse of a performing artist can be a thankless task; always tiptoeing around the neurotic spouse on concert days, making sure there are no disturbances, always playing the secondary role, the person in the background, the support, the nanny, as well as the lover, suffering right along with all the pre-concert anxieties but never having the opportunity to dispel the personal stress. The performer has the cathartic concert, the applause, the compliments, while the spouse continues to suffer long after the concert reception is over. Then there are the long separations – I didn’t know how we would manage, but I was determined our marriage would work.
Harry, who was running a “period instrument” festival in the Allgäu region of Germany, had a hard time getting away, so I did most of the travelling back across the Atlantic. He did, however, manage to escape for a weekend in July, when I performed the Paderewski concerto in the pouring rain during an outdoor concert in Quebec City for a sold-out crowd of umbrellas, followed by a wonderful memorial party for my mother in the old family home near Montreal. My brother and I celebrated her life with family and best friends showing old family movies dating back to the 1920s and consuming vast amounts of delicious food and champagne. It was a marvelous party; my mother would have loved it.
The next day I drove back to the States and Harry returned to Germany. I had a string of concerts to perform and a CD to record, which translated into over six hours a day practising hard at the keyboard. I never minded this kind of intensive work. In fact, I loved seeing the pieces slowly taking shape and reaching performance level. It’s a little rough on the body, but I had always been one of the lucky ones, never having suffered from the normal pianistic ailments of tendonitis, carpal-tunnel syndrome, or just plain old muscle strain.
By the end of August the concerts were over, the CD of Liszt Etudes was complete, and I slipped eagerly into my unaccustomed role of “Frau Intendant” or “Mrs. Director” throughout Harry’s festival. The “Klang&Raum” (Sound and Space) festival was Germany’s premier period instrument festival and had been administered and nurtured by Harry since its inception nine years previously. It was a unique blend of excellent concerts and recitals, all performed on historically accurate period instruments of the baroque and early classical eras. It was held in the church and in the adjoining seventeenth-century Benedictine monastery (now transmuted into a hotel/conference centre) of the picturesque village of Irsee in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. Coincidentally, the festival’s orchestra in residence was the Canadian-based Tafelmusik, so at least half the orchestra members were people I already knew.
There were also marvelous meals, excursions through the lovely Allgäu countryside in horse-drawn carriages, and picnics in Alpine meadows. Harry, who had built the festival up from scratch, was on friendly terms with just about everyone who bought a ticket, and there was a family atmosphere that encompassed not only the public but the administration, the kitchen staff, the stage crews, the musicians, and the sponsors. People
returned year after year from as far away as California and Japan.
But smooth-running, happy festivals don’t happen by themselves, and a price must be paid by someone. It was an intensive two weeks – rehearsals, then six days of performances with up to three concerts a day, intertwined with gourmet feasts, official dinners, sponsor events, lectures, and endless speeches. I loved it all – except for the speeches, which tended to drag on for hours, and the cocktail parties, where I attempted to converse wittily and intelligently in German. I took my role of “Frau Intendant” very seriously, but most likely failed miserably, since the art of small talk, even in my own English and French, eludes me totally.
The music, played on unfamiliar instruments and tuned in a way to which I was unaccustomed, sounded alien to me at first. But the performers were, for the most part, outstanding, and good music played at a high level will always stir the soul, whether the instrument is a Stradivarius or a tin whistle.
For a week we hardly slept, so that by the time the last good-byes were said and the final post-mortems were over, we were beat. I had two days before I had to fly back to the US for a cruel two-month separation. To have had the good fortune of finding the love of my life well into my middle years, only to be faced with the constant prospect of future separations, was hard to bear. In an attempt to alleviate the pain as best we could, we planned a brief trip to Paris, a city we both loved but had never visited together, for two nights before I continued on to New York. We were both so exhausted that jokingly we told all our friends that we were flying to Paris to take a nap. Which is exactly what happened – unintentionally. When we foolishly lay down on the bed after our arrival on a golden Parisian autumn day, we promptly fell asleep, losing the entire first afternoon.
Luckily the next day was also glorious and we decided to do all the touristy things that for years, as seasoned, snooty Francophiles, we had scorned. So, we climbed to the top of the Eiffel tower, drank tea and ate pastries in Montmartre, and rode the Bateau Mouche at sunset. It was a heavenly day; my first day of true relaxation since well before the death of my mother.
A few days later, on September 10th, I was in New York City for a meeting with my accountant and my financial advisor. The meeting wasn’t very taxing, and I didn’t have to fake looking interested or nodding in deep understanding when, in truth, I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about, which was normally the case; the hour passed very pleasantly.
The next morning was so beautiful and the sky so crystal clear and piercingly blue that Bill, my financial advisor, made the spontaneous decision to walk to work even though it would mean he arrived a bit later than usual. As he approached his office at the World Trade Centre, he saw a huge passenger jet crash into one of the twin towers. The Solomon Smith Barney building, where Bill’s office was located, was the third and last building to completely disintegrate as a result of the brutal attack on 9/11. In seconds, America the complacent was plunged into chaos.
The psychological impact of that day’s events was horrific and far-reaching. The fact that human beings could be driven, by whatever motives, to plan, execute, and rejoice over the murder of thousands using planes filled with live individuals as grotesque battering rams – and all this in the name of God – defies comprehension. But then, evil has always existed, and human nature has clearly not progressed since our days in caves. It is just that our methods of harming each other have been modernized, and 9/11 was a particularly shocking new twist on man’s moral depravity.
All day we were glued transfixed to our television screens, Harry in Germany, myself in our house in Connecticut. The pictures of devastation and destruction were replayed over and over again, forever branded in our memories.
Somehow, life had to continue, and it limped painfully along over the next few weeks. In spite of the turmoil, I had contracts to fulfill and concerts to play – with the considerable impediment caused by the temporary closure of all American airports. To get anywhere I either had to drive myself or find circuitous routes via Canada and Canadian airports. I managed to reach all the venues in time for the performances, but missed a few of the vital orchestral rehearsals – once with dire consequences, since putting together the massive Brahms D minor piano concerto in a small town with a good but secondary orchestra requires more than just a quick run-through before the concert. I was quite mortified by the flawed result, every bar a nightmare of insecurity, though there was a form of redemption when the concert was repeated the next day and Brahms was treated more honorably. The whole experience wore me out completely.
Even when US airports reopened, there was an atmosphere of hysterical paranoia everywhere, as new, oftentimes defective, security machines were being installed, and security personnel floundered. Passengers sweated and waited in the long, hot lines, unused to the removal of shoes and jackets for the airport scanners and to the unpacking and scrutinizing of computers and telephones. Delays became routine and, although no one complained, tension was omnipresent.
It was ironic that this was one of my busiest fall seasons ever. The repertoire I had to prepare – seventeen concertos for piano and orchestra, two full recital programs and a Lieder recital program – was enough to tire out even a seasoned veteran. I barely noticed when my upper left arm felt sore after a weekend in Kingston, Ontario, where I had just performed all five Beethoven concertos. It had been a thrilling experience, but by the end my arm felt like lead and throbbed with pain. I ignored it and moved on to Chopin in Calgary and Bartok in Stavanger, Norway, where the December sun made only a vague appearance at midday and Harry and I shopped for Christmas tree ornaments. Harry had joined me there and the orchestra had put us up in a rustic little cottage near the hall. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly;
the concerts went well, and we were finally together again.
After Norway there were no more concerts until January, so we booked ourselves into a “Wellness Hotel” in the Bavarian Alps for three days. I had generously given Harry my lingering cold, which I had caught in Iowa months previously, so he spent two of the three days in bed reading books and surrounded by mounds of Kleenex. The mercury dropped to –20 and a winter storm raged outside. Gone were all thoughts of picturesque hikes in the snow-covered mountains. We were more or less prisoners in the hotel, but I had discovered they had a beautiful swimming pool and was using it frequently. I remember quite clearly walking past a mirror clad in only my bathing suit and noticing that my left arm appeared to be quite swollen. I remarked on this to Harry, who took a look at it, but neither of us was particularly perturbed. I had read somewhere that tennis players often develop big muscles in their right arms from overuse and decided that in my case the over-development just happened to be in the left arm.
Christmas, our first as a married couple, was pleasant and greatly enhanced by our newly acquired Norwegian ornaments. There was plenty of snow in Bavaria, and the Christmas markets were enchanting. I slipped back into “Frau Oesterle” mode and found myself caught up in the intense social whirlwind of a German Christmas. For a shy person like myself, this was sometimes intimidating, but people were very tolerant and I was eager to fit in amongst Harry’s vast circle of friends. I was becoming more and more enamored of Bavaria and its Baroque churches, awe-inspiring abbeys, fairy-tale cities and divine countryside.