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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

On gentle Harvey Shapiro and the pressure of New York,
with classical music agony aunt ALICE McVEIGH

? 'Hi Alice,

What? -- Didn't you even know that Harvey Shapiro died? -- around a year and a half ago. He was the best cello teacher I ever had.
Marie, New York

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Alice Dear Marie,

No, not until you told me.

Not that we were close: in fact, we met only for one afternoon, and he might well have held it against me that I auditioned to study cello with him at Juilliard, and he accepted me, and I went to Indiana instead (1978).

But it was still a magic day, and he still made a great impression on me. He lived on about the 95th floor (OK, a little exaggerated, maybe the 25th floor?) of a New York building, and took me into a room overlooking New York. It was autumn, and the leaves below left an impression of blood oranges and red flares -- and light. It was so light. I can't remember a room so light: I was dazzled with light.

Mr Shapiro had bushy eyebrows, long fingers and a gentle smile. He encouraged me to relax and not to worry.

I played Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations (starting from the third variation) and something from the last Bach viola da gamba and possibly a bit of the George Crumb solo sonata: I can't remember for sure, but I remember that they were all in my competition programme for MTNA, that I remember. I also remember his smile, and his good-nature, and how he put me at my ease. It certainly wasn't Harvey Shapiro who made me decide against Juilliard: no, that was the three or four cellists who swivelled their heads like threatened cobras as I entered with a cello case. That was what my ex-principal cellist in the DC Youth Orchestra told me about the competitiveness. (I was young and dumb -- no question -- but I was smart enough to know I couldn't cope with that kind of pressure.)

In fact (what an awful admission!!!) I think it was New York. I've been there since, touring with the Hanover Band and with Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique. And, while I'm not exactly saying that I absolutely loathe the place, it's too big and too nerve-racking for someone born in the US diplomatic concaves of the Far East, who spent her teenage years in the dull and gentle suburbs of DC. I met a guy near Grand Central Station who summed up New York to me, an intense chappie with a grey beard and a gangster-style hat.

Him: 'That's a cello, right?"
I told him that he had summed up the situation to a nicety.
Him: 'I played guitar once.'
(At that time I considered the guitar the lowest of the low, but forbore to say so.)
Him (flaring up): What I want to know is, why is the cigarette not compulsory? That's what I want to know. Why is it that some people aren't even allowed to smoke? Is it the FBI? Is it Watergate? You want to know something? The cigarette is the magic wand of civilization, that's what. The magic wand! You want to know what I think?'

But somehow I didn't. So I buzzed off, and caught my train back to Washington.

(And that was why I went to Indiana School of Music, instead of Juilliard. Nothing to do with gentle Harvey Shapiro.)

Your friend,

Copyright © 21 August 2009 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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