February 15, 2012 at 2:52 PMYesterday, in a newsmail from The Strad, I read of the violinist Devy Erlih’s death in a car crash. Immediately my mind went back to August 1988, to the mountains of Gumma Prefecture in Japan and the hot spring resort of Kusatsu, scene of the 9th Kusatsu International Summer Music Academy and Festival. The festival was directed by Koji Toyada, probably better known to members of violinist.com as one of Shinichi Suzuki’s first child pupils and long-time concertmaster of the (West) Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and professor at the Berlin University of Fine Arts. That year the festival’s overall theme was French music (Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel). I was there not as a violinist, but as a member of the all-comers’ choir recruited and ferried in from Tokyo by special coach to rehearse and perform in Berlioz’ “L’Enfance du Christ” on 22 August. The conductor was the former cellist Maurice Gendron, by then well past his prime (he died two years later). But those were the days when the Japanese economy was bubbling, the yen was up in the stratospheres and Norman Lebrecht’s characterization of Japan as “the world’s most profitable and least critical market for classical music” was only a slight exaggeration.
Devy Erlih, however, far from past it, seemed very much in his element. The choir was having a break from rehearsals and some of us took the opportunity to observe him conducting a master class for Japanese students playing works by French composers. He was wearing a T-shirt decorated with Chinese characters all containing the element “fish” – “like an assistant in a sushi-shop,” someone remarked, and drinking from a can of that sports drink unappetizingly named Pocari Sweat; “C’est très bon,” he remarked happily at some point. The students, mostly female, obviously made him happy too. He addressed them by their first names (by no means the norm in Japan), with the stress on the last syllable, Kyokó, Hirokó and displayed a charm which conformed richly to popular stereotypes about Frenchmen. Whether the students were charmed, or intimidated (or, most probably, both), I don’t remember. I do remember him exclaiming loudly, “c’est ridicule” about a fingering, and the Japanese interpreter saying in her hesitant fashion, “well..., that fingering there, it’s a little...” Back in Tokyo I queried the accuracy of the translation with a French fellow-student, but she told me it was perfectly fitting. It was surely equally fitting that the interpreter said nothing at all when Erlih remarked in passing of a student attempting Ravel’s “Tzigane” that she did have the required technique for the piece. In my ignorance I’d thought that masterclasses were for people who could play. Now I learnt that, at least in the land of the rising yen (to borrow George Mikes’ phrase), they were for people who could pay. Still, Erlih kept his good humour. His vitality and his apparent pleasure in being there was what I remember best about him.
Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to hear him play himself (he performed “Tzigane” on the opening night, as well as playing in several chamber music concerts, but not while we were there). But I did get the chance to hear a superb rendering of “Tzigane” – a work I didn’t know previously – six months later by the 17-year-old Gil Shaham at the sumptuous Suntory Hall. Opened less than three years before, it had more seats than the organizers could fill for a violin recital, and so they sent invitations to the foreign students’ dorm I was staying in. Hearing the teenager fill that huge hall with the unaccompanied introduction impressed me greatly. Nevertheless I cannot hear “Tzigane” without the image of a happy Devy Erlih in the Kusatsu mountains, basking in the summer heat in his sushi-shop T-shirt, clutching his Pocari Sweat and hurling advice and exhortations at Kyokó and Hirokó.
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