Philippe Hirshhorn: A Remembrance
I had the good fortune to work with Philippe Hirschhorn in the Orchestre de Chambre de Wallonie, in Mons, Belgium, in the mid-1980s. Philippe was the music director of this small string chamber orchestra and was attempting build it into a first-class ensemble. I am primarily an early music specialist (Baroque cello and viola da gamba), which brought me to Belgium in the first place. Although initially I wasn’t interested in an orchestra playing on modern instruments, I soon realized that playing under the direction of a musician of Philippe Hirshhorn’s eminence was an extraordinary opportunity.
Unfortunately, there were political forces that wanted to replace Philippe with a Belgian musician, and the administration of the ensemble was harassing him in hopes he would quit. We would arrive for a rehearsal and the hall would be unheated or filthy after a reception the night before. Once, there was a boxing ring set up in our rehearsal space! When these things happened, Philippe would shrug his shoulders and we would all go across the street for coffee. My former husband, violinist Daniel Spektor, was also from the USSR and played in the orchestra. We became quite close to Philippe during that period, and worked with him to save his position. Philippe and I spent many hours writing letters and visiting journalists and other important people in the Belgian musical establishment, all to no avail. I think the politicians were not ready to welcome a foreign-born musician of Philippe’s stature as the director of a government-supported ensemble. When the details about what was happening in the orchestra came out in the press and on the radio, Philippe was fired. <...>
After his experiences with politics in the Soviet Union, he was not surprised by anything like this. Sardonically, Philippe put an ad in the main newspaper in Brussels: "First-Prize Laureate Queen Elisabeth Competition offers private violin lessons." This caused quite a stir in Belgium, particularly at the office of the competition. First-Prize winners are supposed to be successful concert artists, and not have to advertise in the local newspaper for students! Eventually, he was appointed professor in the Brussels Conservatory.
Shortly after Philippe was dismissed from the orchestra, my husband and I moved to Germany. I saw him for the last time in the hospital about a year before he died.
Philippe Hirshhorn was, in my opinion, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. He had incredible physical gifts, and was so supple he could play Paganini Caprices while doing Cossack squats or hopping up and down stairs on one foot — never missing a note. But Philippe was always serious when he rehearsed and performed. He had a strong personality, intense and often mesmerizing. His virtuosity and the depth of his musical understanding were compelling to everyone who heard him play. At the same time, he could be kind and patient with the musicians in his chambῥr orchestra, even when we did not come up to his high standards. Actually, none of us could come up to his standards.
Philippe should have been more widely known to the public, but he did not want to be a part of the system of impresarios, concert halls, recordings, and the like; he refused to sell himself to the money-making machine of the classical music business. His untimely death was a huge loss to the musical world, as both performer and teacher. I hope he will not be forgotten, and that his recordings will reach the wider audience they deserve. Thank you for your efforts!