A novel idea | AspenTimes.com

A novel idea

Stewart Oksenhorn
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In 1976, Eugene Drucker and three associates launched the Emerson String Quartet. Over three decades, the ensemble has yielded practically unimaginable fruit. The Emerson’s output includes recordings of the complete quartet literature of Bartók and Beethoven, both of which earned the quartet Grammy Awards. Over a period of three summers in Aspen, spanning from 1994 to 1999, the Emerson, an ensemble-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival and School, recorded the complete Shostakovich quartet repertoire (and earned another two Grammys for the effort). Last month, Drucker and his mates – Philip Setzer, who shares first and second violin positions with Drucker, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist David Finckel – released the complete Brahms quartet series. This latest is a relatively modest achievement, comprising just three string quartets, and rounded out by a piano quintet, with pianist Leon Fleisher. The Shostakovich package, by comparison, is a monumental 16 pieces occupying five CDs.Simultaneously in that bicentennial year, there began another artistic stirring inside of Drucker. Rehearsing for the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Belgium, the young violinist toured the country, playing in the less-notable venues. “I played in hospitals, psychiatric wards, drug-rehabilitation centers, a veterans hospital. Convents and churches as well,” said the 55-year-old from his home in New York City. “I wanted to get as much practice as possible for the competition on solo violin – a Bach sonata, a Ysae sonata.” Playing for the wounded rather than the well-heeled, Drucker’s mind turned from the music itself to the relationship between artist and audience. And he found himself wanting to explore that connection not in music, but in words.Almost immediately, Drucker began writing a story about the push-and-pull between a musician and his listeners. The project advanced in fits and starts; the Emerson’s increasing success and staggering ambition were, in their way, distractions from writing. Drucker also had to develop his technique as a writer, the story he wanted to tell. There have been numerous distinct versions, but the 14th of those turned out to be the charm. Last summer, while in Aspen, Drucker got a call from his agent, informing him that he could add “novelist” to his résumé.”At our last concert [last summer in Aspen], I was shaking with excitement,” said Drucker, who will see the publication of “The Savior,” by Simon & Schuster, July 17.(By fantastic coincidence, Drucker is also featured – as a character – in the recent nonfiction book “The Violin Maker,” John Marchese’s living history of the craft of making string instruments. For a review, see page 65 of this edition of The Aspen Times Weekly.)

“The Savior” is still centered around the original germ, that a particular audience can have as much impact on a musician as the music has on the listener.”In the course of playing for those patients, I found myself having to put up with a lot of distractions,” said Drucker, who performs as part of the Emerson on Saturday, June 23, in the Benedict Music Tent, with a program of Ives, Beethoven and a piece by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, “Terra Memoria,” debuted by the quartet last month in New York. “In the alcoholic ward, they were upset I couldn’t take requests. They wanted me to play ‘Flight of the Bumble-Bee,’ and I had to explain that that I wasn’t prepared. One women watched the whole concert with her back to me, facing the wall.

“I was trying to train myself to deal with anything a performer might face. I was looking at the dynamic between a performer and an audience pushed to extremes.”There is a confluence of extreme components in “The Savior.” The novel is set in Nazi Germany, in the final months of World War II, when the eventual triumph of the Allies is both apparent and a verboten topic among Germans. Gottfried Keller is a meek man and a gifted violinist, making him an ideal participant in a Nazi experiment. Gottfried, who has been appalled by Third Reich policies, is ordered to perform for a select group of Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp, in an effort to see if their hopes can be resurrected. Surrounded on one side by the cruelty of the Nazis and the dismal conditions of the camp, and on the other by the emaciated, beaten-down Jews, Gottfried examines his own role, even culpability, as a German, as a musician and as a human.It is evident from reading “The Savior” that Drucker’s day job in the Emerson Quartet has not entirely consumed his creative ambitions. The structure, for one, is ambitious, as the novel flashes back multiple times to the mid-1930s, examining Gottfried’s relationships with a pair of Jewish musicians who have begun to feel the pressure of persecution. “The Savior” is complex both in its variety of themes, and in its ambiguity. Drucker has left it an open question how guilty a person Gottfried is – for being a silent German, for finding pleasure in making music in the most inhumane conditions imaginable, for being repulsed by the prisoners, for wanting to escape to the comfort of his apartment.Drucker has long been an avid reader of stories about the Holocaust. One aspect of the subject that caught his attention was the people caught in the middle: “Not the victims or the perpetrators, but the hypothetical witness,” he said. “I’m interested more in the normal person – not a saint, not a hero, but someone trying to get on with his life in these horrific circumstances. I tried to imagine a conflict between his desires as a musician and the thought that he should be helping people in his audience.”

Musical issues have a major presence in “The Savior.” Drucker’s depiction of the emotional quality of various pieces – especially Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” inspired by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus – is illuminating in a way that music journalism rarely achieves. That music can have a profound effect on a listener and on a performer – that it can tilt the balance between life and death – is made in convincing fashion. And there is the question that lingers over the entire novel: How could a culture that produced Bach, Mozart and Beethoven also yield Hitler?Without music – or at least, Drucker’s decades of experience with it – “The Savior” would likely not have been published. Drucker credits the publication, after numerous rejections, to his persistence. And his persistence he credits to his musical career.”That probably does come from the thousands of hours I’ve practiced,” said Drucker, adding that, of his partners in the Emerson Quartet, only Setzer knew much about his writing. “There’s a lot of frustration; things aren’t working out in a performance the way I’d hoped. That continues to this day. But each time you come back to that piece, you try to improve the approach, the bowings.”Drucker improved his literary technique by writing several short stories, one of which was accepted into a literary journal, and magazine articles. Regarding his novel, there were at least two major breakthroughs over the decades. One was switching from a first-person narrative to third-person, a move that seemed to spur other improvements to the story.The other was more personal. In the mid-’90s, Drucker’s father, who had been a violinist in prewar Germany, died. Only after the death did Drucker learn about a friendship his father had had with an associate of Albert Speer, who had been known as “the first architect of the Third Reich.” The discovery deepened Drucker’s inquiry into moral issues and also led to the addition of the flashback scenes, which are crucial to developing Gottfried’s character and backstory.”I was thinking, this person knew my father, probably knew my father was Jewish,” said Drucker. “I wish I knew what his political affiliations and associations were. Once I found out about that, it made me feel, even more, that this was a story I had to write.”

There may be other reasons besides personal history that pushed Drucker through 14 versions, 30 years and continual tinkering.In one of his performances for the prisoners, Gottfried, rattled by the moaning and protests of his audience, but also feeling that the music was getting through, enters a new plane of performing. Playing Bach’s Sonata in A Minor, “he didn’t even try to convey the stately nobility of the prelude. He knew he was diverting the music from its true course, twisting it to serve the purpose of the moment … . [F]or the first time in his life, he was playing Bach with total abandon.”

Drucker has spent his professional life interpreting the creative efforts of others. But in that memorable passage, he is giving his character the gift of pure creativity. It is an experience Drucker, now a novelist, has given himself as well.”As a performer, I’m an interpreter and there’s a limit to how creative I can be,” he said. “There are musicians who are freer, and can give more free rein in the performance. I’ve sometimes chafed against those limitations.”I imagined things in this story that other writers would not. The frustration and accomplishments of a performing musician – bringing that to it, and a particular historical perspective on the Holocaust. Combining those things, that’s my original idea.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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