Fiction. Jewish Studies. Music. LINCOLN CENTER IN JULY AND OTHER STORIES is the first volume of the collected stories of Roy Lisker. Written over a period of more than sixty years, these works are a significant cross-cutting slice of the vast creative output of this American polymath, a mathematician, political activist, underground journalist, prankster and provocateur, poet, playwright, novelist, artist, composer, and above all, always, man of letters, who has carved out for himself an entirely original and authentic career outside the bounds of conventional institutions and produced a body of work of astonishing vitality and breadth. We regard the publication of these stories, all together for the first time, as an important event in American letters.
This volume contains tales of frustrated, ego-mad, and possessed musicians, and depraved and/or misled men of science; two hysterical mathematical spoofs; and culminates in the novella The Governments of Chelm, in which the legendary shtedl of fools grapples with one system of government after another, to no avail.
|Publisher:||Sagging Meniscus Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Roy Lisker was born in 1938. In 1954 he entered the University of Pennsylvania to study mathematics. Within two years he discovered that the call of arts and letters was stronger. He began writing fiction and non-fiction in 1958, returning to the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. He has been published in the United States, France, England, Canada, and Ireland. He has worked in fiction, science writing, math and physics research, criticism and journalism. Since 1980, he has been the author and editor of several privately subscribed newsletters, culminating in 1985 with Ferment, which existed for twenty years as a paper publication before going online as Ferment Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Lincoln Center in July
And Other Stories
By Roy Lisker
Sagging Meniscus PressCopyright © 2016 Roy Lisker
All rights reserved.
Sam The Messiah Man
FIVE A.M.: the early morning of December 15, 1985. Frosty and still. Walking about the living-room in his bedclothes, Sam Goldberg, violinist, vacantly absorbed the miraculous snow-flake ballets descending from the high heavens to their earthly melt. Gazing through the tall French windows of his stately house in Concord, Massachusetts, Sam watched the streetlights flicker and go out. Plenty of time remained before he would be going down through the basement to the garage to warm up the car.
The drive to Logan Airport to catch the plane to Denver would begin at 7:30. After arranging to park his car there for ten days, he would board the flight to Denver. He was expected there before noon (local time) to preside over a performance of Handel's Messiah with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.
"Breakfast is ready, Sam!"
"Be there in a minute, Sharon!" Sam returned to the bathroom and washed up at the sink. The heavy demand for his talents would keep him in the West for the next eight days. Then he was due back in the Boston area for the Christmas Day concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He and Sharon looked forward to spending the rest of that day with their three children, Abe, Simon, and Rebecca, all grown to maturity with their own families and concerns. He'd already reserved a table for the family at an upscale kosher restaurant in Brookline.
A brief respite! After Christmas, Sam wasn't expected home again until January 11th. The interim would send him trekking through snowstorms to engagements across the country and a few in Canada and England.
Sam dried his face with a towel, threw on a bathrobe and slippers, and shuffled into the dining-room. Walking to the fireplace he paused to adjust the Hanukkah decorations on the mantelpiece. Once again he compared his watch with the reading from a small pendulum clock: 5:30 AM.
As he lowered himself into a chair at the dinner table, Sam emitted a fervent sigh of contentment. The aroma of coffee and clatter of dishware signaled Sharon's imminent arrival. While he waited, Sam re-lived (as he was so fond of doing) his graduation, in June of 1946, at the top of his class at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, when so many honors had been heaped upon him. He chuckled at the high hopes that teachers, family and fellow students alike had placed in him, and simpered as he contemplated, once more, the cleverness with which he had disappointed them all!
Even Sam could not resist dropping a few tears as the faces of the teachers beloved of his youth rose up again before his mind's eye: kind, dumpy, and wise Professor Baumgartner, chairman of Violin; the brilliant, exquisitely groomed Professor Spinelli, Composition; Professor Lutoslowski, always in a hurry, never on time: Piano. Sam's laugh combined a mixture of sympathy and scorn.
Each and every one wanted him to work like a horse at the plough and starve for Art! But he (Sam Goldberg, violinist) had forever laid to rest their old-fogey European Conservatory foolishness! He had done the unforgivable and thrived! Sam shook a fist.
Sam's plan to retire in five years had already been laid out to the last detail. It would bring to an end a very successful, in fact extraordinary career. Age had not mistreated him. He was in good health for a man in his sixties, a bit overweight, his glasses stronger, his hearing unimpaired. The tonsure of silver hair stretching behind his ears and around the back of his head only added further distinction to his standing as a respected senior musician.
Sharon, sad and unsmiling (she rarely was anything else) came in from the kitchen dragging a cart holding cereal, coffee and eggs.
"Like Jascha Heifetz!" Sam cried, talking out loud to himself —"like Jascha Heifetz!" He was reminding himself that he lived like a celebrity through doing the bare minimum of work.
"I probably earn more money, I bet you," he gloated, "in real dollars, than Baumgartner, Spinelli and Lutoslowski ever did — all put together! ... And in America!" he cackled, so loudly that even Sharon, who had lost most of her hearing over the decade, could hear him:
"MONEY'S where it's AT! MONEY'S WHAT COUNTS!"
"Eat up, Sam," Sharon chided, "... you have to leave soon."
His smug reflections continued in silence: "What was my secret of success?" It was not the first time he'd asked himself this essentially rhetorical question: "Cleverness! And, well ... A total lack of ambition ... Then ... A HARD-NOSED PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE! ... A capacity for realism! Far beyond that of any musician I know about."
"Sam! ... Sam!" he congratulated himself, "You've got that primitive grasp on the verities of life that puts you in the company of the likes of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Gettys ..." And he smirked.
Sharon watched him with concern. He didn't realize that he was getting old, but to her the symptoms were obvious. It worried her that he might not even make it through this season. When he settled in again, sometime after January 11th, she was going to pressure him into retiring right away. They had enough money; it was only force of habit that kept him at an occupation that was no longer required of him.
Or was he, perhaps, being driven by something else? Some personal demon, perhaps, some inner compulsion? No one understands what motivates an artist. She certainly didn't understand Sam, and she'd been married to him for 32 years.
* * *
Within his first year as a student at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1943, Sam already understood that the listening public has rejected most of the classical music written in the 20th century. As he told his doctor:
"You couldn't feed a synagogue rat on the income from contemporary music!"
By his third year at Curtis he'd realized that concert audiences have little use for most of the traditional classical repertoire as well. How often did one see an announcement of Schumann's Violin Concerto on a poster outside of a symphony hall? Salieri's operas? Hummel's piano concertos? The String Quartets of Mendelssohn? Any symphony of Dvorak's except the New World?
It was patently obvious that the audiences at classical music concerts, by and large, only want to hear a small number of established masterpieces played over and over again in exactly the same way.
The reality was enough to dampen the spirits of any aspiring artist, one still young enough to think of a career in music as a lifelong adventure.
Popular music was an alternative of course, yet it held no appeal for him: "Why," Sam argued, "should I devote my artistic life to playing music I don't like?"
Indeed, for a short time, Sam considered dropping out of the Conservatory altogether and enrolling in one of Philadelphia's world-famous medical schools.
Then Sam's imagination went to work, and in due course he discovered a silver lining within the dark cloud of professional classical music.
Any qualified musician, through mastering a few shrewdly chosen well-worn standards (the "war-horses"), could forever afterwards chuck out the sentimental garbage about snubbing the Philistines, shocking the bourgeoisie, suffering in garrets and working for nothing, and live out his allotted span of days surrounded by all the trappings of comfort and wealth. The promotional work involved would be more in the nature of a hobby: cultivating the agents, institutions and grateful audiences that would reward him handsomely for the dependable and undeviating rendition of the tried-and-trusted.
For his senior honors recital at the Curtis Institute of Music in May of 1946, Sam played the Paganini Concerto in Eb, the Wieniawski Concerto in D minor and the Bartok Unaccompanied Violin Sonata. Technically, these are among the most fiendishly difficult pieces ever written for the violin. He was never to play them again. By graduation day, Sam had narrowed down the list of pieces he intended to play for the rest of his life to a single indestructible paradigm: the first violin part of the orchestral score of Handel's Messiah, a piece of music technically accessible to any talented elementary school student after a few years of study of the celebrated Suzuki violin method.
Here it is important to note that, for accomplished musicians, there are no easy pieces in the classical repertoire. Mozart's violin concertos are an excellent example. There is little in them to appeal to the virtuoso. They lack all the gymnastic tricks one finds in the concertos by Paganini, Tchaikovsky or Sibelius; yet they aren't any easier to perform in public. A Mozart concerto is a guarantee for any performer of total exposure on every single note. He deliberately avoids using any of the gimmicks — popularized by Vivaldi, Tartini and others — that make the facile appear complicated. One finds in them no displays of brilliant effects that could be used to effectively cover up faulty intonation, bad phrasing or poor musicianship.
What applies to Mozart is also true of Handel. Even so simple a score as the first violin part of Handel's Messiah will resound, when played by a musician at Sam's level, as far above the renditions of your generic orchestra violinist, as the ravishing bouquet of vintage Château Lafite Rothschild wine will soar above the sour aftertaste of Gallo Red!
Sam therefore devoted four years, from 1947 to 1950, to the attainment of absolute mastery of the Messiah score. Every note, every tempo, every dynamic was committed to memory, bowings and fingerings constantly upgraded and revised (and in fact such experimentation with minor technical details continued all through his career). He bought all the recordings; studied the musicologists; analyzed the entire Messiah score — not just the violin parts — theoretically, historically, and artistically. Ultimately he knew every note of every part of the Messiah score, orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists, as thoroughly as the world's finest conductors.
During the years it took him to acquire this proficiency, Sam supported himself by freelancing. Several orchestras wanted to make him their permanent concertmaster. He turned them all down; he knew what he wanted. Eventually he was able to convince all the prime movers in the music industry that his presence on the stage as Messiah concertmaster galvanized orchestras and audiences in a way that no-one had ever imagined possible.
Mind you, this was a young man, still in his twenties. Once he started playing, everything came together; the effect was dazzling. Musicians, bored to tears through having played the Messiah a hundred times over, suddenly discovered new excitement in its pages. To watch Sam at the helm was to be witness to a revelation! What the orchestral sound gained in homogeneity, sophistication and style was truly incredible. Conductors were known to comment that Sam's presence on stage made them superfluous: he knew the score so much better than they did!
By the early 50s, Sam could — and did — call the shots. He never played anything but this one piece, even for pleasure, even in his own home; never accepted a position lower than concertmaster; never gave interviews; or solo recitals; or lessons. (He did, however, love to give autographs. Sam appeared to revel in being seen as something of a character.) In 1963, a few days before the Kennedy assassination, his combined bank accounts passed the million dollar mark. Financial insecurity henceforth became a thing of the past; while wise investments protected his old age. By his own lights his crowning achievement had been the creation of a brand new profession within music: roving Messiah concertmaster!
The basic routine that had evolved over the 50s would serve him for the rest of his career. For most of January to mid-March, and the 6 months from May to November, Sam's fingers did not so much as graze the strings of either of his two prized Old Italian Masters violins. His Guarnarius, purchased during a sudden drop in the market for old instruments, was appraised in the 80s at $2 million. Two weeks' steady training in November, and again in March, sufficed for the cruel workloads of Christmas and Easter.
Between Thanksgiving and Twelfth Night and again for one month around Easter holidays (we're speaking of a maximum of 80 days) Sam slogged over 150 gigs! By the mid-70s his fees were averaging $3,000 per concert, while his yearly income was never less than $500,000. And rising with inflation!
Sam never disputed his friends and associates when they criticized him for having no ambition. He had no more desire to be super-rich than he did to be a great violinist. His goal in life, oft proclaimed with fatuous unction to friend, family and associate as "Sam's practical philosophy," was to do as little work as possible, yet live like royalty. It just happened to be the case, that this intention had, over four decades, translated itself into three months of back-breaking labor followed by nine months of delicious hibernation.
Sam was enormously proud of himself, and there is no doubt that he ought to be given credit for shrewdness: if there is one musical masterpiece that the world will continue to demand after a billion replays, it is Handel's Messiah. Handel's Messiah will outlast McDonald's hamburgers. Sam's nest-egg was indestructible as long as Christianity remained a force on this planet; nor was he about to lose any sleep worrying about the possibility of its sudden demise.
Of course, after 40 years in the music profession Sam hardly needed to hustle. Within the world of the performing arts everyone knew him as "Sam, the Messiah Man." Many anecdotes about him were in circulation. One of them, which is probably apocryphal, centers on a New York booking agency. Every year shortly before 11 AM on the third Monday in September, the entire staff gathers around the telephone. As they wait they place bets on the exact minute when Sam's call will come over the line. Sam always calls between 11 and 11:15. In the first ten years (so the story goes) he introduced himself with "Hello. This is Sam. What's the Messiah been up to?" Then he drops the "This is Sam" bit. Finally, after a decade or so, somebody picks up the receiver and barks (to the tune of "Yes, we have no bananas"): "Messiahs for Hire, Incorporated!"
* * *
Christmas Day in Boston, 1985. The Messiah concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra was scheduled for the 3 o'clock matinee. A steady snowfall had begun early in the afternoon. The wind was high, the day bitterly cold. At 2 PM, true to form, Sam Goldberg's Lincoln Continental pulled up in front of the stage entrance on the north side of Symphony Hall. He stepped swiftly out the front door, retrieved his instrument case from the back seat, then handed the keys to the doorman to park the car in a lot on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue.
The previous 24 hours had strained even Sam's resources to the utmost. The ordeal had begun the day before with a flight from Denver to St. Louis to perform at a gigantic midnight mass concluding an Evangelical Congress at the St. Louis Convention Center. What sleep he'd been able to get that night had been done on the plane: immediately after the concert in St. Louis he'd flown to New York, arriving at La Guardia Airport in time to preside over a 9 AM Messiah concert at Columbia University's Union Theological Seminary.
His brother, a rabbi on the faculty, had been sitting in the audience. Although everyone else stood up during the Hallelujah Chorus, he'd remained seated. This breach of protocol may have reflected religious scruples, or, more likely, had been intended as a criticism of Sam's way of life. He couldn't wait around to find out: a chartered limousine took him to Newark Airport; there he boarded the 45-minute Continental Airlines shuttle to Boston. Sam had raced his car from Logan Airport through heavy Christmas Day traffic to get to Symphony Hall on time.
Nor did his commitment end with this matinee performance. At 1 A.M. that night another flight was booked to take him back to Chicago. Then onwards to Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and St. Paul, Minnesota: eight engagements in all, between December 24th and 27th!
Excerpted from Lincoln Center in July by Roy Lisker. Copyright © 2016 Roy Lisker. Excerpted by permission of Sagging Meniscus Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction by Jacob Smullyan,
Sam The Messiah Man,
Willy van Fritz,
Lincoln Center in July,
Amplitude of the Cosmos,
The Tale of the Guru,
The Revelation of Doctor Snew,
Recent Advances in the Measurement of π,
The Hotel Quagmire,
The Governments of Chelm,