Ralph Berkowitz and the artist’s command, and dilemma

 When my grandfather, Ralph Berkowitz, died today, less than a month shy of his 101st birthday, He took his leave in exactly the way he had arranged.

He was in his home. His friends were in the other room. His doctor monitored his vital signs and eased his way to, and then through, the last threshold. In the dining room his trusted lawyer played stage manager, guiding the players through their roles in precise accordance to his client’s instructions. His daughters, their children and every other member of the family were thousands of miles away.

Ralph slept quietly, then became still. And then when everyone was looking the other way, he drifted off. No muss, no fuss, no histrionics.

Not in an old folks’ home. No life support. No beeping and whirring. And did I mention that he had the whole operation purring along to his precise plan? Nice job, sir. If there’s a better way to go I can’t think of what it would be.

Also worth mentioning: The guy had quite a life. Check out his Wikipedia entry here. Realize also that he started out in the Bensonhurst corner of Brooklyn. The son of an immigrant auto detailer, (who knew they even had auto detailers in 1910?) the boy had the piano chops to earn private lessons in Manhattan, then won a highly-prized slot in the first class ever admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He joined the faculty after graduating, passing along what he’d learned to an ambitious young Lenny Bernstein, among others. In 1940 the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky tapped Ralph to be his full-time accompanist, and he spent much of the next 30 years performing duets with the master in halls all over the world.

(light a stogie and follow the jump…)

Watch the guys go at it here and here and here. Note the high-strung woman keening after Gregor (Grisha to his friends) then ask yourself: What the hell am I watching?  Essentially a pre-tread of “A Hard Day’s Night.” in which a great musician attempts to perform on a radio show, and certain amounts of hell break loose during rehearsals. Ralph has a line of dialogue, which boils down to a solitary word: “Yes.”

More cool stuff: He spent five years as Serge Koussevitsky’s administrative assistant in the academic center of the Tanglewood Festival. When Koussevitsky died in 1951 Ralph took the top job, overseeing a faculty that included a grown-up Lenny B, A. Copland, Z. Mehta, and more. In 1961 he moved to Albuquerque, NM to become the manager of what would become the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Somewhere he found the time to tape 63 episodes of a local educational series called “The Arts,” and entertained himself by painting (pretty well, I think), reading voraciously, drinking good scotch and smoking cigars. Stogies, he told me a few years ago, were his favorite vice. “It’s a filthy habit,” he said. “But it’s worth it.”

He was funny and charming and called everyone sweetie. Which was fortunate because he was also emotionally distant and mind-bendingly stubborn.

Family was more complicated to live with. Maybe it was all that time spent in trains, on ships and on the far side of the footlights. Or maybe an existence splayed between the rigid bars on the musical staff and the Delphic spirits swirling behind and through the melody. The discipline required to learn the notes, and the artistry it takes to locate the music hiding within.

It takes drive and focus to become a professional, and then even more of the same — along with a willingness to abandon virtually every other aspect of your life — in order to make it your life. Other things go by the wayside. A marriage, say. Quantity time with the children. There would be another, more successful marriage later in life, but when it came to family, the top of his Steinway grand told the story: Lovingly arrayed pictures of Ralph with Lenny, Aaron, Grisha, Zubin and Yo-Yo. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren…not so much.

There’s more to tell — whatever became of the long-planned 100th birthday party that he cancelled with less than week’s notice? — but not tonight. This night is for scotch and cigars, a tip of the proverbial hat and the sound of my son preparing for his weekly piano lesson. His first instruction came from his great-grandfather Ralph, when he was four. We’ve got that picture up on the wall.

Just as I keep a version of his quest, and his failings, hidden inside. I think of him when I’m flying off into the night, frantic to find the spirit inside the story I’m chasing. I think more when I’m too preoccupied to speak at the dinner table, and when I realize I’m not watching my son play the piano as much as hearing the music come down through the ceiling. I’m writing, is the thing. Writing about Ralph, and in my own watered-down way, walking the same path.