May 8, 2009 at 11:16 AM
. . . I want to be like Phyllis Spence.
The Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra, where I have been playing for the past year and half, celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year. Phyllis has been a violinist in this orchestra for 74 of those years. The only reason she hasn't been there for all 75 years is that when she was 17, the bylaws of the orchestra didn't allow high school students to be members. She joined when she was 18, in 1935, and has played with the group ever since, serving as concertmaster for many years. These days, she sits in the 1st violin section, sort of in the middle, on her own stand, with large- print music that someone (it has been me) copies for her. Her granddaughter, who is my age or a little younger, also plays violin in the orchestra.
Last week during the first rehearsal for the last concert of the year, Phyllis approached me and asked if I wanted any music. She said she had a lot that she wasn't going to play anymore. She had already promised her quartet music to the principal cellist, but she still had sonatas, short solo pieces, things she had played in church. "Give me a call," she said. "I'll be home."
Such has been the busy reality of my life that I just wasn't able to find the time. Not for that, not for driving to Johnson to try some more violins to compare with the Lamberti that I still haven't bought. (My "tendonitis" or whatever it was is feeling better, but the little practice vacation I gave myself wasn't good for me mentally. Back to re-establishing the 21-day habit). But yesterday was my work-at-home day. I had a doctor's appt. in the a.m. and decided that, after that, I would visit Phyllis.
We spent about 45 minutes, which is all I had, going through a big drawer in one of her end tables. Starting with the B's, I now have a box that covers Bach to Mozart to Weber, mostly sonatas, but other interesting stuff as well: Winter from the 4 Seasons (which was in my wedding), Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite, "Religious Meditations, A Collection of Eighteen Solos of Moderate Difficulty Adapted for Sacred and Concert Performances for Violin and Piano (or Organ)." And my favorite title: "Hexapoda, Five Studies in Jitteroptera" for Violin and Piano by Robert Russell Bennett.
And, a well-worn and marked copy of the Cesar Franck Sonata for Violin and Piano, Copyright 1915, by G. Schirmer, Inc. It's marked with a little name-and-address sticker, the way I mark my music too. It has her maiden name. "I played that for my high school recital," said Phyllis. "Are you sure you don't want to keep that one, just for sentimental reasons?" I ask. "I thought about it," she said, "but I have to have another eye operation soon. I'm not going to be playing it again." Like much of my music, it's a Schirmer edition. Unlike much of my music, it cost $1.50. Schirmer editions looked different back then: they weren't so yellow. In fact, the designs of different sheet music companies (Schirmer, Peters, Carl Fischer) were all more alike back then: a grayish background with green flowery, classical detail arranged in a square design on the front cover. In the collection there is a Faure Sonata from the "Boston Music Company" that looks, font-wise, a lot more like modern Schirmers. Whatever happened to the Boston Music Company? Inquiring minds want to know.
Here in this little box I have more violin music than I had previously owned. Although I have served as concertmaster of the orchestra, and am doing so now, I can't fill Phyllis' shoes. But I feel honored to be the custodian of this bit of history.
What a wonderful story. Your colleague Phyllis is surely an incredible person and an inspiration to all who know her. You are so lucky to be the beneficiary of her generosity. I hope you will be able to play long enough to acheive 75 years in your orch.
I have a similar story. When I took music theory/history for several years recently, my teacher gave me a number of Dover miniature scores, a book collecting G. B. Shaw's music reviews, and his extra copy of Roman Vishniac's, Vanished World, a wonderful book of photos of Central European Jews between the two world wars.
Enjoy the gift you have received!
Lovely story with such sentiment...the next step would be learn the Franck and play it for Phyllis
What Sam said. You should particularly learn the gorgeous last movement.
So true! I love this story! Yes the last mvt of Frank sonata is simply wondeful... I just hope this lady will be able to play and recover well from her eye operation also! It's a luck to know such a person!
It really is a heartwarming story. I agree that it would be fun to learn the Franck sonata (or another piece from her collection) and play it for her. She must like and respect you, just as it's obvious that you like and respect her. It sounds like an awesome collection of sheet music, the kind of things I'm always looking for. Enjoy it!
I'm actually thinking about learning one of the pieces from the church collection first, because I can play it in church. But learning the Franck, or at least a movement therefrom, is an interesting idea and I bet my teacher would love it. I wanted the collection in part because I wanted some more non-concerto violin music. I had been doing pieces like that on the viola and finding it very rewarding--why not on the violin?
Karen, I bet you would make Phyllis' day if you sought her opinion on your new violin quest too. She sounds like a very interesting woman
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