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A little bit of teenage hero worship
from Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

I sent you an article from the Washington Post about the history of the National Symphony Orchestra. Did you get it?

L H from D C

Dear L H,

I did, many thanks. It put the whole history of the orchestra into perspective, from the Antal Dorati days of my youth (he was ace) through Rostropovich's times of glory (if less brilliant music-making) up to their current disaster-zone conductor, Leonard Slatkin. But what particularly riveted me was the quote from their long-time principal cellist, John Martin.

What he said was not so surprising, given that the orchestra, pre-Dorati, was by all accounts pretty pedestrian. (He said bluntly that, 'In those days, if you were good, you left!') No, it was simply the thrill of seeing that name again, that name that was, of all the names in the world, the most exciting to me as a twelve-year-old. (I know it's not a super-duper thrilling NAME in itself: I mean, John Martin, how Joe Bloggsy can you GET??)

Because, when I was a teenager I had THE BIGGEST CRUSH on John Martin. I used to hang around the artist's exit just in the vague hope that he might emerge, carrying the Strad that was the property of the orchestra, the Strad that (and this was typical of this wonder-man) he broke his arm rather than allow to be damaged, when he once fell off a stage.

John Martin was (still is, I guess) extremely tall and distinguished-looking, with a noble brow and deep-set eyes, but what riveted my attention on him and him alone, out of all the players in the orchestra (and they had at that time a very charismatic timpanist, used to leap around like Nijinsky) was they way he played. I don't mean just his solos, although of course I found them thrilling, but they way he played EVERYTHING. He had a way of leading, a style of showing, just by the quirky lift of a distinguished eyebrow, a lifting of his head, a turn of his shoulder, what the piece expressed, what the music was about ... He was so demonstrably yet elegantly 'into it,' -- too demonstrably for some fellow cellos who thought him stagey, but I thought he was JUST ABSOLUTELY FINE. I used to play in front of a mirror, less to check my bow angle than to experiment with playing with at least the appearance of John Martin's power, passion and style ... I'm sure I drove my own (youth orchestra) section insane with various affectations ... And yet, you know, perhaps a touch of the John Martin magic transferred itself, because I have been told, here in the Bromley Symphony orchestra, by various benighted members of the audience, that they love WATCHING me play (shame about the noise that comes out, may be the subtext here!!!)

The other thing about John Martin that fascinated me was his relationship with his motherly-looking number two, a lady called Dorothy Stahl. Now I do not wish in any way to imply that there was anything funny going on (because, if there had been, I'd have been the first to know about it, as I clocked them together during concerts and open rehearsals for hours at a time). They simply had a brill time together. After negotiating a toughish bit, they would twinkle at each other, when a horn blasted in too loudly they'd just subtly roll their eyes. During his solos she wouldn't move a muscle, you could feel her pulling for him so hard, and afterwards the person clapping John Martin with the most enthusiasm was Dorothy Stahl. There was not a particle of jealousy or ill-feeling in their relationship; they had their little in-jokes (some of which I gleefully figured out), the conductors who made them tense and the conductors who inspired them.

In fact, I was so inspired by their friendship and by what I imagined might be other relationships in the orchestra (of various kinds) that my first three novels, written in my teens) were about the National Symphony Orchestra, and starred (you guessed it) one John Martin, principal cello supreme. (As I recall, I imagined -- despite his wedding ring -- that he fell for the lovely Jacqueline in the seconds, the one with a fountain of endlessly long soft-brown hair, and that it worried Dorothy.)

In real life I met them both, but only once. John Martin played a concerto for four solo strings and orchestra and I got up enough courage to ask for his autograph. Exactly as I would have guessed, he couldn't find a pen, but Dorothy could ... And then, about two years later, when I had gotten pretty good on the cello, who turned out to be the judge at the biggest concerto competition in the whole D C area but Dorothy Stahl!!!!!!

I'm sure that's why I won it, and somewhere have a photo of us together, me avec cup, Dorothy wearing the same smile of amused tolerance with which she regarded John Martin's numerous little asides. And I wanted to say, 'I feel as if I KNOW you,' and 'You and John Martin have given me so much pleasure over the last five years,' and 'You are looking at the first desk of the National Symphony Cellos number one fan,' but I was only a rather nervy teenager and a bit overwhelmed by winning so what I actually said was, 'Thanks.'

So here it is: better late than never ... Thanks for the memories, you two; you were my heros. Thanks for so inspiring me. You guys were brilliant and I really and truly did know you -- more, I'll bet, than you could ever have suspected.


Copyright © 23 September 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK

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