The Adventures of Sylvan Woods: From Bronx Violinist to Bulgarian Folk Dancer
by Jim Gold
C H A P T E R ONE: First Lessons
SYLVAN WOODS was tired: Tired of books and teachers and school; tired of baggy pants that
never fit; tired of eating potatoes to gain weight; tired of his mother’s yelling; tired of fighting; tire
of practicing . . . and he was only eleven years old. How tired would he be at twenty-five?
Outside his window, beyond the fire escape, rumbled the elevated subway. It travelled to
distant places like Brooklyn and Queens. Clouds drifted across the sky above it-they too were
travelling. And the sky? Where was the sky going? Limit-less. Mysterious. Sky, subway, globe . . .
everything was travelling. Everyone was going someplace.
Where was Sylvan Woods going?
He sat down on his bed. He was getting tired again.
His violin lay on the dresser. His grandfather had given it to him, hoping a love of music would
be passed on. It was an old instrument from Amsterdam. Its scent made him think of old Dutch
paintings, wharves of Amsterdam harbors, and merchant ships of historic Holland-ruler of the seas.
He lay on his back, imagining the canals of Holland projected across the ceiling. Holland
seemed so peaceful. He saw Reubens put aside his easel and lie down under a tree. Soon the artist
“Sylvan, why aren’t you practicing?”
He sat up. “I was practicing, Ma, b u t – “
“No more `buts.’ ” His mother walked into the room and stood in front of him, arms akimbo.
“Get on your feet. You can’t practice lying down. Why do you lie in bed every time you practice?
That’s no way to learn.”
“I was thinking about the music.”
“Never mind that. Save the thinking for later. Your job is to practice.
Sylvan defended himself: “Sam says it’s good to think.”
“You weren’t thinking. You were daydreaming again!” His mother’s tone softened. “Sylvan, please practice. I want to be proud of you at your next lesson.”
Sylvan took his violin out of the case, tucked it under his chin, and drew the bow. Grating noises filled the room.
That’s better,” his mother said. “I’ll shut the door so you won’t be disturbed.”
Although Sylvan liked music, violin lessons with Sam Ferdinand made him nervous. Was it fear of playing poorly and disappointing his teacher? Or was it Sam himself?
Sam Ferdinand was fifty years old. He walked with a stoop that made him look shorter than his stocky five feet eight. He wore pin-striped suits and combed every hair on his head exactly in place. In a bag hanging from his violin case he carried soap, a washcloth, a comb, kleenex, and shoe polish-ammunition in his fight against dirt. He also had a rag he snapped at students when they missed a note.
Sam liked to sit back in his chair after a lesson and philosophize. During these moments he
would pick his nose, concentrating his attention on his right nostril. When Sam felt good, his nostrils
flared up bright red.
Sam Ferdinand had his own approach to teaching, believing in one right way and many wrong
ways of playing. The right way was easy to define: It was his way.
Sylvan’s lessons were given on Wednesday afternoon at five o’clock-often in the middle of a
baseball, football, or basketball game-depending on the season.
“Hi, Sam, he exclaimed breathlessly as he raced into the bathroom to wash. “I’ll be right
When he entered his room, Sam was sitting on a chair tuning the violin. “I’m glad you washed,
Sylvan,” he said, looking up from the chin rest. “Always wash your hands before you play. Unclean
hands make unclean music.” He stopped tuning, put down the violin, and began leafing through the
Wohlfahrt Studies. Then he lectured: “You know what happened to Hard-Handed Harry and his
Hairy Violin. Harry never washed before playing. Soon the dirt on his hands got so hard it ruined his
music. The New York Fire Department hired him to play at burning buildings to hurry people out.”
At this, Sam moved closer to Sylvan. “Now, Harry had a style, but I would never call him an artist.
In order to create fine art, the first step is clean hands. All great composers were clean. Beethoven
was the cleanest of all.”
“I like that story, Sam.” Sylvan turned up his soap-scrubbed hands for examination. “How do you like these?”
Sam’s bushy eyebrows narrowed; he explored every fold of skin, sniffing the palms and fingers. “Not bad at all.”
“What’s on your hands?”
Sam studied his palm. “Ink,” he answered. “It’s because I am a teacher and my calling is to spread the art of music. Jesus had cuts on his hands; music teachers have ink on theirs. . . . But enough of this talk. Let me hear you play.”
Sylvan raised the violin to his chin and played a C scale. Sam’s face turned pale. “Stop!” he howled. “It’s a violin, not a baseball bat. Press lightly on the strings . . . gently .. . caress them.” He held Sylvan’s wrist and guided the bow across the strings.
At the end of the lesson, Sam looked pleased. “Much better,” he said, leaning back in satisfaction. “Your playing has improved. But you still have a long way to go. You play the Wohlfahrt too gently now. Also, the Kreutzer Study is weak.” He straightened in his chair. “Practice to make those notes tough-especially the ones on the G and D strings. I want meat on them; I want Wohlfahrt and Kreutzer to rise from their graves when they hear your mighty notes. I myself want to hear your mighty notes.” Sam pushed the violin back under Sylvan’s chin. “Play them for me, Sylvan. Play them!”
Sylvan played the first two measures of the Kreutzer Study. The D string snapped.
Sam slumped back in his chair. He looked sadly at the ceiling. “He’s telling me something,” he groaned. “He’s telling me something.
“Who is telling you something?” Sylvan asked, lowering his violin.
Sam’s eyes were fixed on a crack in the ceiling. “The Lord of Music is speaking to me again. He is telling me my pupils cannot play the mighty notes. He is telling me I have failed.” Then, without warning, he sprang from his chair. “No, no,” he shouted, stamping the floor. “It’s not me! ” The Lord of Music is on my side!” He glared at Sylvan. “It’s you, you!”
“Yes, you! Sam pointed his finger at Sylvan. “But I won’t let it happen this time. I won’t let
you ruin me. You’ll practice, by God. You’ll practice until the trees bend to hear you. I’ll make
something out of you, you wait and see.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sure you will.” Sylvan glanced at Sam’s wristwatch, hoping the lesson would end soon.
Sam wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “I’m too upset to continue. For next week, keep practicing the Kreutzer. I’ve got some thinking to do about you.” He looked around the room. “I want pictures of Kreisler, Heifetz, and Stern on these walls. And I want records of violin concertos in that corner instead of a baseball bat.”
Sam packed his briefcase. “Some day you’ll thank me for the hours you’ve spent practicing here,” he warned as he left the room.
Sylvan closed the door behind him. Glancing at the base-ball heroes on his wall, he thought he saw Joe DiMaggio, in center field, catching a violin.
Mrs. Woods had just finished squeezing avocados and blue cheese into her salad dressing when she met Sam in the hallway. “A good lesson, Sam reassured her, tucking his violin under his arm.
“Sylvan shows promise.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Ferdinand, she said, wiping her hands on her apron. “He’s a good boy, even though he daydreams a lot.”
Sam sniffed the potatoes and chopped meat cooking on the stove. “Dreams are an important part of art,” he remarked. “All creative people daydream.”
“Yes, Mrs. Woods, without our dreams we would be barren and empty.”
“Then you think Sylvan’s daydreaming isn’t so bad?”
“It’s good to dream.”
Sylvan’s mother wiped her hands again. “I suppose so,” she sighed. “He’s really a good boy
even though I still think he daydreams too much. . . . And then, of course, there are his attacks.”
Sam looked surprised. “Attacks?”
Mrs. Woods reached for her pocketbook. She pulled out four dollars and handed them to Sam.
“We don’t know what causes them,” she said. “Sylvan has been to several doctors. They can’t
figure it out either.”
Sam leaned forward. “What kind of attacks are these?”
“Frightening ones. They always come unexpectedly-and for no apparent reason.”
“Go on, go on.”
Mrs. Woods squeezed her apron. “When Sylvan has an attack, he’ll yell or slap himself. He laughs; he cries. Some-times he dances.”
Sam shook his head. “That is strange.”
“Last Saturday we had the family over for dinner,” Mrs. Woods went on. “Sylvan sat next to his uncle. Everyone was eating when suddenly he started stamping on the floor. The whole table shook. I yelled, `Sylvan, stop that!’ But he went right on doing it.” Mrs. Woods wrung her hands in despair. “It’s not my fault; it’s not my fault!”
“Of course it’s not,” Sam reassured her. “The Lord of Music works in mysterious ways. Go on.”
Mrs. Woods sighed. “He stamped and slapped himself. His uncle tried holding him down, but
Sylvan just giggled until the roast beef came out of his mouth. It was disgusting. Then he blinked,
sat perfectly still, and began eating again as if nothing had happened.”
Sam asked, “Could it be epilepsy?”
“No. It’s not that. The boy has been tested for everything from epilepsy to syphilis; they even x-rayed his brain for a tumor. No, Sylvan is in perfect health. The doctors can’t figure it out.
Sam opened the door. “I’ve got another lesson,” he said, “but I’m going to give these attacks a lot of thought. The human mind is a mysterious place.”
Mrs. Woods agreed. “Especially Sylvan’s mind.”
C H A P T E R T W O: Preparation
SO SYLVAN began to practice. During the next five years, his life changed. Outdoor sports gave
way to indoor study. Afternoons and weekends he spent in his room making music.
As he improved, and the habit of daily practice became stronger, he began enjoying the violin.
Baseball, basketball, radio programs, football, pranks, and other interests slipped away. Practicing
became his way of life. In school he day-dreamed about music. He imagined the violin in his hand
while teachers lectured on math, science, and history. He didn’t care why George Washington
crossed the Delaware, or about the effects of gravity on the moon and ocean waves, or about Dante’s
view of purgatory. These things were fine-for other people. He wanted to be left alone, to let his
mind wan-der. . . . And it kept wandering back to the violin.
By age fifteen he was working on more advanced pieces. After warming up with scales and
arpeggios, he took apart the difficult passages in the Bruch Concerto, the Mendelssohn Concerto,
burrowed through Bach partitas and Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, playing them over and over until he had mastered each note. Sam taught him how to make a crescendo, a diminuendo, a dramatic contrast between a forte and a piano passage. These expressive techniques captured his imagination. Sam no longer had to tell him to work at it. In fact, Sam often had to slow him down.
Sometimes when he played, he’d feel a wonderful rush of energy. It moved like electricity-first
in his hands, then to his arms, his back, and down to his legs. His fingers flew faster and faster-almost
out of control. His bow danced on the strings. He’d sway with the music. He’d laugh, cry, shout, and
stamp on the floor. Then he’d start to dance! Gliding, then leaping across the room, violin under his
chin, bow bouncing from bridge to fingerboard, he sang orchestral accompaniments to the concertos
he played. And if a concerto or etude had no accompaniment, he’d make one up, humming a figured
bass or giving old Wohlfahrt an oriental flavor by singing in fourths.
He loved these wild moments in his room. They didn’t come often, and they didn’t last long, but when they came, they were great! He’d remember them for days. Beethoven must have had the same wild times, and Mozart, and Mendelssohn, too, Sylvan suspected. All composers had visits. He wanted more of them. He wanted to preserve them. But how could he? They were so spontaneous, so ephemeral. The energy came to you suddenly, as a gift, then left just as quickly.
Sylvan loved the wonder of it.
It was a good thing his door was closed during these visits from the Lord of Music. If his mother
or father had ever seen him dancing around his room, or stamping on the floor and shouting, they
would have called the doctor again. His parents would never understand. What adult could know
what he was talking about? Or even kids his age, for that matter.
Sam was pleased with Sylvan’s progress. “None of my students work as hard as you do,” he
said one afternoon at the end of a lesson. “I’m proud of you. And you should be proud of yourself.”
He put his hand on Sylvan’s shoulder. “Now for the big surprise. Every December, when the Bronx Symphonette gives a concert in Addington Hall, they invite a young musician to perform with them. The conductor, Vladimir Gussman, is a good friend of mine. I had lunch with him yesterday and told him about you.” Sam smiled. “He wants you to audition for him. If you pass, you’ll be the soloist at the Christmas concert.
Sam sat back. “Now what do you think of that?”
“It’s scary,” Sylvan answered slowly. “I’ve never played with an orchestra before-and in front
of all those people. It’s scary.”
Sam reassured him. “Sure it’s scary. Every artist is scared. You wouldn’t be an artist if you weren’t
“Of course. Fear is a great asset. All artists must learn to deal with it-and believe me, all artists
are scared. Did you know that Brahms was afraid his First Symphony would be a failure; Toscanini
was afraid whenever he conducted; and Horowitz is petrified before he goes on stage.” Sam paused.
Sylvan was listening carefully. “But fear is also good,” Sam went on. Fear can motivate you; it can
give you energy. Then you can use that energy to study more, to practice harder. Soon youll find
your fears dissolving and turning into excitement.
Sylvan looked dubious. “I hope you’re right.”
“Do you doubt me, young man? Of course I’m right. I know this business inside out. And I know fear very well. Do you know why? Because not a day goes by without my stomach churning with worry. But I keep going. I’ve learned to work with it. I’ve learned to make fear my friend.”
“I hope I can do that some day,” Sylvan said wistfully. Sam stroked his chin. “You will,” he replied. “But it takes time and practice. You have ability and talent. Hopefully, you’ll surpass me.” He put his violin in its case and snapped it shut. “I’ve arranged your audition for next Thursday at Gussman’s apartment. I’ll leave the address with your mother.”
Thursday afternoon, Sylvan stood before a brownstone on 96th Street. A uniformed doorman opened the door a crack. “What do you want?” he demanded.
Sylvan’s throat was dry. “Mr. Gussman’s,” he whispered nervously.
The man pushed the door open further. What? he asked, jangling his keys on his belt. “Speak up.”
“G – G – G u s s –
“Gooseman. Apartment 3A. Take the elevator to your right.”
Sylvan stepped out on the third floor. He pressed Gussmans bell. The door opened and a woman stuck her head out. “Yes?” she croaked.
“… er . . . I’m Sylvan Woods.”
The woman smiled mirthlessly. “Come in.”
They walked down a hallway to the living room. Sylvan looked around. The walls were papered in grey; piles of music, records, books, and papers were scattered over a Steinway Grand that dominated the generous space. Light filtered through the tall rectangular windows overlooking 96th Street-it looked like they hadn’t been cleaned for years. As Sylvan’s eyes adjusted to the semidarkness, he noticed an arm-chair covered in black velvet. Something unusual about the armchair made him focus on it. A man was sitting there. The man was almost invisible-camouflaged by his black jacket, black shirt and tie, black pants, black shoes and socks, black hair. He sat motionless against the black background of the armchair. A white face peered out of the blackness.
It was Vladimir Gussman.
Slvan stepped forward. “Hello, Mr. Gussman. I’m Sylvan Woods.”
“I know, I know,” Gussman answered. “I have been waiting for you.”
“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”
“Don’t worry,” Gussman replied in his thick Russian accent. “I like to wait.” He turned towards the dining room. “Natasha! Bring chai.” His wife entered, set a tray in front of Gussman, and tiptoed out.
Gussman poured some tea. He fixed his eyes on Sylvan. “Play!” he commanded.
Sylvan took out his violin. His fingers slipped as he tightened the bow. Then he played a Mozart sonata, two Bach partitas, and part of the Bruch Concerto.
Gussman sipped his tea. “Interesting,” he commented. “Woods, you play with much feeling. I like Mozart sonatas. You dance when you play. I like it.” He paused to reflect. “You like basketball?”
“Why . . . er . . . yes.”
“Good!” Gussman became animated. His arms wove hook-shots and set-shots in the air. “I like
Harlem Globetrotters,” he said proudly. Then he told Sylvan about his research in sports history,
his training as a sprinter in Moscow, and his new love of American basketball.
Finally, Gussman’s lips curled into a smile. “Woods, I like your playing. You like basketball. I like you. I want you for concert.”
“Thank you, Mr. Gussman.” The words rushed out of Sylvan’s mouth again, “Thank you!”
“Nichevo. Nothing.” Gussman reached into his pocket and pulled out a ticket. “For game tonight,” he said, handing it to Sylvan. “New York against Milwaukee in Madison Square Garden.”
“Wonderful!” Sam exclaimed when he heard about the audition. “What an honor! What a goal!”
“Do you think playing basketball had anything to do with it?” Sylvan asked.
“No.” Sam was emphatic. “It was your violin playing-although playing basketball never hurts. Knowing a sport is al-ways good. Felix Mendelssohn liked hiking. In fact, I think you should play his concerto at the concert.
“The Mendelssohn Concerto?”
“Only the first movement. It’s tough, but you can do it. You know most of it already. All the notes are fingered; you know which ones to accent; the triplets and double stops in section A are good, and you play the cadenza well. Your main weakness is too much rubato-you take too many liberties with the tempo. The Romantics loved rubato. But performers in those days had more freedom than we do. They even added notes and improvised. Still, too much freedom destroys the character of the music.” Sam put the concerto on the music stand and opened to page one. “We have three months to re-fine this. You’re going to learn not just how to play Mendelssohn, but how to perform him.
Sam pointed to the opening measures. “The first thing to do is memorize every note. My method is to play a passage fifteen times one day, eight times the next day, and four times the next. The key is: Play the sections you are memorizing every day. That way, you’ll know this concerto so well you can read the New York Times while playing it or even carry on a conversation with me. By using this method, I am still able to remember pieces from my childhood, even though I haven’t played them for years.”
Sylvan tried the “Ferdinand” method, but somehow it didn’t work for him. Once he started playing, he found it hard to stop. Repeating passages over and over again seemed mechanical and boring. Haunted by the beautiful melodies, he’d just play the first movement from beginning to end. By playing it many times, it became part of him. As for Sam’s comment on Sylvan’s approach: “I think it’s lousy, but if it works, use it.
“We’re in good shape,” Sam said after five weeks. “You’ve memorized the concerto. Now it’s time for mental preparation. Learn everything about Mendelssohns life. How did he sleep? What did he eat? What books did he read? How did he feel taking piano lessons from his mother? What was life like in Berlin and Leipzig? And what about his journeys to En-gland and Scotland, or his delicate health? These questions are important, because to perform Mendelssohn, you must learn to think and feel like Mendelssohn. You must become Mendelssohn! Then, when you play his concerto, you’ll be playing your concerto.
Sylvan spent many hours in the library learning about his new hero. Mendelssohn’s achievements were fantastic; he could do almost anything. He was one of the finest pianists of his time and a great conductor and organist, had a perfect ear and marvelous memory, was well read, liked poetry and philosophy, painted well. Sylvan took long walks and tried to see the world through the composer’s eyes. He practiced being Mendelssohn.
“When you make your debut, bearing will be important,” Sam said one afternoon. “I’m going to show you how to bow.” Sam taught Sylvan to stand erect, walk with pride, put both feet together, look straight into the audience, part his lips in a smile, and bow forwards from the waist. During the following weeks, he practiced at supermarkets and at school. The results amazed him-check-out clerks congratulated him for being such a polite young man; teachers complimented him on his manners.
One week before the concert, Sam sat opposite Sylvan and observed, “A job well done. Everything is in order. The Mendelssohn has become a part of you. Added to this, you bow beautifully and can walk on stage with dignity and grace.
There’s not much more I can teach you for this performance. All we can do now is hope for the
“The gift?” Sylvan asked.
“Inspiration, revelation, gift, or whatever,” Sam explained. Its hard to describe. No one knows how to make it happen. But when it happens, when you get the gift, you know it. And the audience knows it, too. It’s a great moment. Suddenly, you realize your potential-what you can do if you give everything you’ve got.”
Sam rose from his chair and closed his violin case. “Think about that, Sylvan, he said.
Sylvan thought about it all week.
C H A P T E R T H R E E: The Concert
It was a wintry December evening when Sylvan arrived at Addington Hall, a stately building
constructed in the Greek Revival style of the late nineteenth century. Although it was an hour
before showtime, most of the seats in the auditorium were already taken. He hurried down the
aisle, past the re-prints of Velasquez and El Greco hanging on the walls, and glanced at the domed
ceiling above the orchestra. Behind him someone whispered, “There he is; there’s the soloist.”
Sylvan’s stomach rumbled. He had never been so nervous before. Parents, relatives, friends,
teachers, critics, everyone would be sitting in that audience watching and listening to him.
The orchestra musicians were warming up on stage. Their tuxedos, white shirts, bow ties, and bald heads shone under the lights. No one smiled. Sylvan knew they meant business. Gussman appeared in the wings, hurried down the stairs, greeted Sylvan, and led him backstage. “You look wonderful,”
he exclaimed. “I like tuxedo and white shirt.” He faced the audience and swept his hand theatrically before him. “They will love you. And they will love me. A perfect combination!”
Sylvan gulped, squeezed the violin case under his arm, and followed Gussman backstage. He spent most of the next hour on the toilet while the orchestra warmed up with scales, arpeggios, and short passages from the score.
At 8:30 the lights dimmed. Applause greeted Vladimir Gussman. He walked proudly across the
stage, bowed, pulled his baton out of his vest pocket, and stepped to the podium. You could tell he
had been a runner by the way he conducted Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Although he held his baton
in his right hand, both arms moved back and forth like pistons racing along with the rhythm of the
music. The musicians could follow either hand with equal ease.
As Mozart was being performed onstage, Sylvan took out his violin and started to fiddle.
Sam came backstage. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, throwing his coat over a chair. He saw the
pleading look in Sylvan’s eyes. “Don’t worry. Relax. You can do it. You know this concerto so well,
you can perform it in your sleep.”
Sylvan’s fingers slid off the neck as he played an arpeggio; his bow skipped on the strings. “Who’s
worried?” he answered, as his bow popped out of his hand and fell on the floor. Only the greatest
restraint kept him from escaping through the fire exit.
The Jupiter Symphony was followed by a 10-minute intermission, after which Gussman again
climbed to the podium. He leafed through the score while the orchestra tuned up. Then he raised his
hands. The orchestra and audience be-came quiet. With a nod of his head, Gussman signalled for
Sylvan to make his entrance.
Sylvan’s knees felt like buckling as he walked across the stage. At the first violin, he turned, faced the audience, and put his feet together; his lips parted in a sickly smile as he bowed stiffly from the waist. Then he unlocked his teeth and turned to face his conductor.
Gussman winked at him and lifted his baton. The melodic opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto sounded through the hall. Sylvan got the violin under his chin just in time to start his solo. Although the score said “Molto Appassionato,” he had no “appassionato” in him. In fact, his mind went blank. A few mousy notes squeaked out of his violin. His bow bounced all over the strings, destroying the flow of the opening measures. Luckily, some notes were in place, but that was about it. Down bows turned into up bows, accented notes were left out, and new ones put in their place. When the triplets in section A arrived, he substituted rests in their place. Whole measures disappeared. Yet, when his first solo ended and the score called for silence, he inserted all the double stops, triplets, and arpeggios he had previously left out.
Gussman, gritting his teeth, kept conducting with iron determination, but his knuckles were
turning blue around his baton.
Suddenly, thanks to Sylvan’s training-the countless hours of repetition-his fingers and bow began to move automatically. Gradually, he began to relax. His fingers performed what they had been trained to perform. He played with poise, though his shirt was drenched with sweat. From that point on, he didn’t miss a note. Soon he was totally immersed in the concerto. His solo soared above the orchestra’s accompaniment. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gussman smiling happily to himself. Sylvan made his violin speak, cry out, sing; cascading arpeggios and dramatic runs poured from his heart into the music. He forgot the audience as memories of Mendelssohn flooded his mind. Swept along, he began humming. Then he sang softly to himself. His feet tapped as he swayed from side-to-side.
Sylvan entered the nineteenth century. He was performing in Leipzig before barons and aristocrats, before Mendelssohn’s fans, his friends and musical world.
Having forgotten about the audience, Sylvan also began to forget about Gussman’s happy
When he came to the cadenza, the orchestra stopped playing. This was Sylvan’s solo. Mendelssohn had written it for the performer to show his stuff, and to show it ad libitum. Sylvan attacked the opening note of the cadenza with such force his bow almost broke. He raced through the next few measures before arriving at the fermata on low B. Most musicians held that fermata twice as long as written. But Sylvan held it so long, the orchestra and audience thought he had either fallen asleep or was in a trance. Gussman signalled the first violinist to tap Sylvan’s shoulder. The young soloist then left the low B only to play an ascending arpeggio and arrive at the high B. He held that fermata even longer.
“Move on, Sylvan!” Gussman muttered. Nothing happened, so he poked Sylvan in the ribs
with his baton.
Then it started. Sylvan descended from the high B, skipped eight measures, and started trilling. He trilled on A; he trilled on C; he trilled on E. Then he trilled on A and E together, pounding his fingers on the fingerboard with such in-tensity and breath-taking speed that he made Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata seem like a kindergarten warm-up exercise. Then he began adding “new” notes to the cadenza, notes Mendelssohn never dreamed of. Gussman winced, but let the “mistakes” go, thinking-hoping-that Sylvan was simply nervous or had forgotten the original score. He felt better when Sylvan, after bowing wildly on a descending arpeggio and playing diminuendo and piano where the music was clearly marked accellerando and forte, arrived at the famous spiccato bowing passage-the ending of the cadenza. It was here that the orchestra rejoined him.
Gussman lifted his baton and brought his musicians in gracefully. The opening measures were lovely. Sylvan played all the written notes correctly-in tempo and in tune.
But then Gussman heard something strange. For a moment, the music Sylvan was playing
didn’t sound like Mendelssohn at all.
He was right. Sylvan wasn’t playing Mendelssohn. He was playing the Beethoven Concerto!
Gussman didn’t know what to do. He was about to stop the orchestra when Sylvan wandered back
to the score.
Relieved, Gussman relaxed. But Sylvan suddenly switched again-this time to a Bach partita. Then
he jumped to a Mozart sonata before playing parts of Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. The audience
didn’t know what to make of it. Some sat with puzzled expressions; others shifted uneasily in their
seats. Whispering began to fill the hall.
“What’s going on here?” asked a man in the fourth row as Sylvan started to dance.
“Isadora Duncan’s choreography,” answered the ballerina behind him.
“Theater of the absurd,” put in the music critic from the Riverdale Gazette.
Yes, the audience knew something unusual was happening.
But Sylvan was no longer aware of the audience. He stamped his foot; he shook and twisted
his hips; his dancing got wilder. “Whahooooo! Haaaaiiiiiiup!” he cried, kicking his legs high in the
air and hopping around the podium. He forgot who he was. He forgot where he was.
He was having an attack.
At first, the other musicians played along, hoping for the best. Now, however, they were totally confused. They would have ground to a halt, but Gussman spurred them on, though he didn’t know where he was going either. He had never heard such music before. Sylvan was no longer playing Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or anyone else. No, Sylvan was improvising!
The orchestra kept doggedly playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. Strangely, Sylvan’s improvised
melodies blended perfectly with the orchestral accompainment. Learning to think and feel like
Mendelssohn had obviously had its effect.
The orchestra came to the end of the concerto. But Sylvan didn’t! His playing resounded above Gussman’s cries of “Stop! Stop!” Gussman was about to drag him off when he suddenly stopped
playing, put the violin under his arm, bowed to the audience, and walked off the stage.
The silence was broken only by the sound of Mrs. Woods sobbing in the first row. Then Sam leaped out of his seat. “Bravo, Bravo!” He hugged Mrs. Woods, but it only made her sob louder.
“I enjoyed that one,” Mr. Woods said, lifting his accountant’s pencil from the figures he had
been adding on the program.
Scattered applause could be heard in the balcony; a woman in an aisle seat began sobbing; high-
pitched giggles rose from the back row.
“What’s going on here?” repeated the man in the fourth row.
Gussman remained dumbfounded while the audience clapped and wept. A Juilliard student
began dancing in the aisles.
Finally, Gussman signalled his orchestra to rise. He turned to the audience, bowed, and stepped
down from the podium. The cheers were getting louder as he walked off the stage.
Pandemonium had broken loose in the auditorium when Gussman arrived at his dressing room.
Screams, bellows, howls of laughter, applause, sporadic hissing, giggles, booing, crying; it sounded like
the Bronx Zoo in summer. Torn between depression and rage, he slammed the door so hard, the
mirror on the wall shook. He pulled off his jacket and was about to throw it over the armchair when he
noticed someone sitting in it. It was Sylvan. Gussman nearly kicked him, but something about the boy’s expression made him stop. Sylvan was leaning back in the armchair, one leg sprawled over its side. He looked relaxed. And there was a satisfied smile on his face.