Memories - Frédéric d’Ursel & Shirly Laub

Shirly Laub is a violinist, a founder member of Oxalys ensemble. She is also a professor at the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels.

Frédéric d’Ursel is a founder member of Oxalys too, he is also assistant to the violin professor Véronique Bogaerts at the RMC in Brussels.

Frédéric: – The first time I saw Philippe was in the home of Chantal de Salaberry, after a concert by Misha Maisky. Therewere a lot of people there – Yuzuko Horigome, Hashimoto, Maisky himself – and I was very excited to see all these people together in one place. I was just 15. I asked Philippe, whether I could play for him. He replied: “Why me?” He always had a strange approach to things, different from the reaction of others. Then Philippe said that he was very busy and asked me to phone him in several months.At the end of the summer, I called him and he recollected me: “Ah, the red-haired one!”

Shirly: – Everybody called him Fred le Rouge – Red Fred.

Frédéric: – But this time we did not agree on a meeting. Some time later, I got a call and Igor Semenoff (also a student) passed along to me the information that the next day I would have a lesson with Philippe. I came and played for him (Lalo). For me, this was a lesson in silence. Then two years later, Philippe began to teach in the Conservatory, and we met again during the entrance exams. When I arrived the first time for a lesson, this was very strange once again. I brought with me the Prelude from the Suite in E major. Philippe did not stop me until the end. When I finished, silence reined, and then he said: “OK, once again.” I played the entire prelude one more time.” Play it again.” And so I played it three times in a row, from beginning to end. After this, Philippe said: “Come back next week with the whole suite.” That seemed strange to me, an unknown approach to teaching. He never told you how something should be played. Instead of that, he gave you questions. He prompted us to find the path to understanding how we want to do something, what we want to achieve, what we think about music and about life in general. Sometimes, he was missing an assistant who might discuss with us the violin’s specifics. We were expected to find our own way.

– And did you find that path?

Frédéric: – I am still seeking it. This is not the sort of question which you answer once and for all. You find the answer, then the question unexpectedly shows another facet and you have to look for an answer all over again. Philippe went through the same thing himself.

Shirly: – Questions – they were what I feared the most. Playing the violin was nothing at all, but those questions… And Philippe never gave you a pointer. Therefore, you never knew if you were answering in the right way. We always were in a state of anxiety, which never ended.

Frédéric: – He was searching for what was just our own truth. Sometimes you played and he suddenly would say: “Stop! That note was correct.” That was unexpected and amazing. You did not understand right away what Philippe had in mind, but later, after some time, we could understand that gesture which could express a thought corresponding to this note, and it was right for that instant. Philippe was looking for the link between what we expect, what we are thinking and what is happening on the violin. This gave the right sound, the right result, and it happens outside your consciousness. In the beginning we did not understand very well what he had in mind, but later, after some time, we already learned to decipher this and tried to find more and more of these “right” notes, and to do this more consistently.

Shirly: – As regards questions, I was afraid of them. When I was little, I did not understand them. Philippe often came to our house, because he was friends with my family. They had long conversations together, lasting hours. When he came as a guest, he did not teach me to play the violin. Instead of that, we played duets. And when I had a birthday, he brought a present and it was always sheet music – music which, in his opinion, I should be playing at this age. Later we would start talking, sometimes walking to the park and there the questions began. This could last around an hour.Already the day before, knowing there will be questions, I could not fall asleep. I remember some of them to this day. For example, each year he repeated the question: “what is time?” That was when I was 12 or about 12. I tried to answer, and Philippe never showed whether he was satisfied or not. We would walk a bit more, and then we returned home and played our duets. I never knew if my answers were correct, and when we returned this question still stayed with me. The same happened at the lessons.There were always a lot of people present, and what happened would be fully understandable only to the person he was teaching at that moment, while for all the rest of those listening, it was inaccessible.

Frédéric: – We could hear the difference in the playing, but we could not understand what took place between Philippe and the student, what precisely led to the fact that the person began playing differently. He had his own language for each one of us. Before I came to Philippe, I had several difficult years and these lessons with questions were for me as if the first time in my life someone asked me what I was feeling, what I want to say and what I was thinking about. Usually teachers tell you what you should do. This was a shock, but on the other hand, I was touched by the interest Philippe showed in me as a person, and it was even not important whether I was answering correctly. The important thing was just the sense that someone was asking me these questions. This was the first time for me that someone spoke about my feelings. It was like being born again.

Shirly: – Each of us reacted in his own way to this approach. Like all the girls, I tried to be good. I expected to be the best, a model student and an exemplary girl. But Philippe did not give concrete indications of what is good or bad and therefore I never knew if I am a sufficiently good student. Moreover, he sometimes said with annoyance: “Well, well. You are a Jewish princess.” That meant, as I understood it, that I was too organized, had too much self-possession, was too well protected. After these words, I wanted to change something in this status of “good girl” without any pointers to “good – bad.” When I turned fourteen, he gave me the Paganini capriccios and said that within a year I should play them all for him. Some time passed, and he asked me to play three capriccios.Of course, I couldn’t. He said: “It’s not a problem. Next time you will play the other three.” And when I turned fifteen, he gave me the Chaconne. Obviously, they taught it to him when he was a schoolboy. But here they don’t do that at all, so it was absolutely amazing. Here no one gives you such difficult tasks. Not to mention that here no one gives you sheet music. You always buy your own. Once it happened that I was in something like depression. I did not study for several days. My parents were concerned and called Philippe. He came, brought some scores – the Brahms sonata – and said: “Here is what you need. Both now, and later for the rest of your life.” Then he left.

Then there was the time when I did not want to play any longer. I locked myself in my room and all the walls were covered with the words “I don’t want to play the violin.” My parents didn’t know what to do. They phoned Philippe. He arrived and spoke to my parents in the living room. From my room, I heard everything. Then Philippe came closer to my room, but stayed on the other side of the door. He asked me through the door: “Do you want to abandon the violin?” “Yes!!! I want to stop playing the violin!” Philippe said: “Good.” And he left. This was the best thing he could have done with me, because I revolted against this “good.” He knew better how to act in such a situation than my parents. It produced the desired effect.

Frédéric: – Philippe had a special quality. He could see inside you. You couldn’t trick him or try to hide something from him. Therefore, sometimes we were afraid to go to the lesson. It was too frightening. You had the feeling that he knew people better than they did themselves. For us this was a kind of challenge, to try to be honest with ourselves.

Shirly: –I wasn’t his student in Brussels, like Fred, because Philippe did not want it that way. He said that I needed to study with Liberman (his friend), but nonetheless, he would always listen to me. I often came to his lessons. And one fine day, I came to audit a lesson, but to ensure that Philippe would not ask me to play (that was too daunting), I left my violin downstairs in the cloakroom. When I entered the class, it appeared that the others also came without their instruments. They all wanted to be present when he was teaching the others, but no one wanted to play himself. Then Philippe said: “Since no one wants a lesson, I will have to work on my own things, but you can listen.”

Frédéric: – That was very interesting, because it was three days before the recording of the Lekeu sonata. Philippe had just then begun to study it. I spoke with the director of this recording (Gérôme Lejeune), who said that he had made many recordings in his life (he worked in the Liege Conservatory and plenty of other places; it’s his profession) but among them there are only two or three which he cannot forget. According to the plan, they should have been recording one movement each day. Philippe played the first movement with such effect, as if they were in a huge hall with full audience, although it was just a room. When the movement ended, he said that he needed to take a smoke, went out and smoked half a pack. Lejeune told me that on that day he came home very late and began to listen to the recording he had just made. And when his wife came in, she found him weeping – it was all so unbelievably intense. But Philippe always put his whole life into his music.

– He actually learned the sonata in three days?

Frédéric: – Yes, he learned new pieces very fast. And for others, this sometimes also is very stimulating to work like that.

Shirly: – Philippe said that getting the fingering straight is half the work.

Frédéric: – But in his own music sheets, he almost never wrote down the fingering. When Philippe played the Beethoven concerto in Beaux-Arts, he bought himself new scores. I saw them and they were completely unmarked, not one position shown, no bow direction or indication, but, surely, the work was already done.

Shirly: – There was a funny occurrence when we traveled to master classes in Germany. It was a terrible place, a very dirty building which first had to be cleaned before we could work there. Philippe arrived the day after us. On the third day, there were lessons with him, then we were expected to practice on our own. Each of us was in his own room, and then we found out that Philippe sometimes was listening to us through the door while we were practicing. But what we really wanted to do was to listen surreptitiously when he was working at the violin. When later there was the break for lunch, we ate our sandwiches and a kind of religious silence set in, because no one dared to say anything. Suddenly Philippe broke the silence. “When I went to the toilet, I heard how someone was playing Gubaidulina.”

Frédéric: – I was the one playing Gubaidulina. “Fred, when you play this page in Gubaidulina, don’t change the tempo!”

Shirly: – Once Philippe and Viktor Liberman agreed with the management of the Utrecht Conservatory to get the Conservatory for the weekend (usually the Conservatory was closed on Saturdays and Sundays). They were given the keys. All the students came and began to practice in the classrooms, and the condition was set down that whoever practices best of all will get a lesson. Encouraged by this, we worked with all our strength, thinking that they are wandering the corridors and listening to us. At the same time, I am not certain that they planned to do that.
In the evening, we all gathered together, drank coffee and we had no other choice than to drink with our coffee cognac or vodka. Such weekends were organized then for about two more years.

Frédéric: – Once we had a rehearsal of the student orchestra. Before it, very few of us looked at our parts. This was largely sight reading from the sheet. Suddenly Philippe entered the hall and there was a general panic, because he saw everything. That was something special, because for us he was like a spiritual father.

Shirly: – In the beginning you thought – “ah, this is simply a teacher.” But, then you began to understand how profound this was, because it was not only about music but about life, about your personality.

Frédéric: – It was, on the one hand, frightening, and on the other hand, we felt that beyond this was something correct – that we were fully accepted by him as we are. In general, there was also the teacher Viktor Liberman and they often taught in tandem. The students of Liberman took lessons with Hirshhorn and vice versa. It is interesting that the students of Liberman were very afraid of Hirshhorn, and the others feared Liberman. This was an interesting experience for the students. This bond between the two of them was very special. I often went to the lessons of Liberman, and can say that people arrived from the whole world, they arrived after they took lessons from others, because this was a very specific atmosphere between the two. People studied, studied, studied, and everyone liked to be together and drink (coffee) after the studies because of the atmosphere. It is also interesting that the students of other specialties also valued this.I know a pianist who now, after many years, suddenly began to talk about that time which is completely finished, but back then it was so unbelievably intense because there were the two of them.

– Did Liberman teach differently?

Shirly: – Yes, he was very analytical. He knew how to translate a concept into something realistic. Where Philippe would speak about the direction of a phrase, Liberman said “make a crescendo.” On the one hand, these were different, but on the other hand, it was about one and the same thing. Liberman expressed himself simply, with easy words, while Philippe was more difficult to understand, talking more about philosophy, about life. But sometimes you also needed analytics, since we did not know how to reach what we wanted. If you played one and the same work for them both, then they never contradicted one another. They spoke about one and the same thing, but using different language. Philippe expressed himself more philosophically, and often he spoke in such a way that you wanted to copy it down.I recall one lesson, it was when they both were on the jury of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. My parents invited them to dinner, and I used this opportunity to play something for them. They listened and after this there began a long and lively discussion between them. I didn’t understand Russian, knew just a few words, and the longer they discussed among themselves, the more nervous I became, casting my eyes now on one, now on the other. And suddenly they said almost simultaneously: “The crescendo was too early!”

Frédéric: – What I can add about Philippe is that he was always worried about something. Just tense and we never knew how he would be at the time of the lesson. When he was gloomy, that was really gloomy. Maybe the cause was something that happened before the lesson… and, in addition, he always spoke about survival. The only thing he would say before an exam was: “I wish for you to survive it.” Or, after the last lesson, we heard “I wish for you to survive.” Once in the Conservatory the student orchestra was playing with Philippe and one student from another class who did not know him began asking who he was. The student was amazed that you can play thus on the violin. Then he went up to Philippe and asked: ”How do you manage to play in this way?” And Philippe answered: “I am trying to survive.” That was the gloomy side of his personality and sometimes it looked very pessimistic.

All of this could be heard in his sound – simultaneously both dark and light, deep and tense. Listening to it, you could never just relax, as happens naturally from beautiful music. It was concentrated, strong and at the same time fragile, as if it could break up at any second. In particular, you hear that very well in the recording of Lekeu, the tension of fragility.

– When you listen to him, is there sometimes the sensation that we are not secure?

Frédéric: – That was always so with Philippe. That distinguishes him very much from the present day manner of playing and from today’s concerts, when you listen and know that nothing can go amiss. For example, with Hilary Hahn. Nowadays people go to concerts to get this feeling of security. In Philippe, the music can be sublime and at the same time you are not safe and secure.

Students of the other classes did not like us, because we stuck together. In our class, there was something distinctive. It was also so unusual that he could really touch someone, and when contact was made, then it was something impossible to forget. You can call it charisma or magnetism. When we meet someone who knew Philippe, we instantly begin to talk about him. Right up to now. Even if we see one another for the first time. It is a special feeling. It has happened to me very often: “Oh, you knew him! Tell me about it!”

Shirly: – It was like a large family, those who were connected with him.

Frédéric: – Some could not even have known him, only heard about him, and for them that was very interesting. He did not have a career like Gidon Kremer, but having contact with him was something which had nothing in common with a career; it comes from an entirely different domain. All musicians who knew him have this feeling.

Shirly: – There was a kind of jealousy between the students in Brussels and those in Utrecht.

Frédéric: – Until we went to Germany, we only knew that there was another class. Between us there was a kind of competitiveness. But when we arrived for those master classes, when we were just given the keys and they said “make yourselves at home,” although in fact they had just done some work in the premises and there was a layer of dust as thick as your finger. There was nowhere to eat. It was an entirely empty house. It was a hostel building just after repairs. We arrived from Brussels and from Utrecht, and the first thing we had to do was to clean up after the construction work. We did it all together and after that the competitiveness was over and done with.

Shirly: – To a certain degree, he was the cause of the competitiveness. In Brussels, he said that they work harder in Utrecht, and he told us that in Brussels the students are more dedicated to music. Initially, he created such a feeling, very personal, that you know him, when in fact it was he who knew us. To each of us it seemed that he had particular relations with him, and only later did you become convinced that others are in the same situation.

What else characterized him in his teaching in Brussels is that sometimes, when a person came into the class for the first time, he often did not understand what is going on. Once a girl came in, a very good girl, but not too dedicated to music. Philippe asked her: “Do you have a garden?” She said: “Yes.” And he answered: “It would be better if you went home and worked in the garden.” With that, the lesson ended. Such things led to legends circulating about his cruelty. He never was diplomatic or proper. What he said possibly was much milder than what it was customary to say in Russia, but here we could not even imagine that you could say something like that to your own children or students. Now it is unthinkable to say to a pupil: “you are shit.” Philippe had a reputation for being severe. And he acted hardly.

Frédéric: – He was capable of acting hardly.

– But not always?

Shirly: – Since he knew us so well, he also knew our vulnerabilities.

Frédéric: – But when he did not want to see someone in his class, he did not say that he would not accept him, he did not forbid him to come. Without saying anything, Philippe knew how to create such an atmosphere in the class that the person felt simply terrible. Once someone came to audit the lessons and at the end said: ”I like how you teach and I would like to study with you.” Philippe wasn’t pleased but said nothing and only at the end of the day proposed that he play something. He began to play. Philippe was silent but gradually this student began to be covered in red spots, felt himself more and more squeezed and in the end was unable to move the bow. He said: “I don’t understand why I became so tense, where this stress came from.” Philippe responded: “But during the entrance exam you will also be under stress.” The story ended there.

Shirly: – Once someone came, played and Philippe said: “I cannot do anything for you.”

Frédéric: – After a certain time, this man met one of Philippe’s students, who explained why this was said – “two madmen together – it’s impossible.”

Shirly: – What he taught was more a lesson in life, but sometimes, very rarely, Philippe said something entirely concrete, some technical indication or advice on what fingering to use. He said it to someone in particular, and then that person suddenly repeated it for everyone. That was precious, because it happened so rarely.

Frédéric: – I remember my last lesson in the Conservatory for which I was, possibly, not entirely prepared. Philippe began to tap, beating out the rhythm, then sent me into the next classroom to practice for three hours. After that he began to speak about principles of the violin, such as the frog of the bow, the middle, the tip, changing the direction of the bow at the tip, shifting, positions… and this was the final lesson! I remember this lesson every day. Once he asked: “What did I give you that you will take away from your lessons with me?” I said: “A lot.” “OK, but what?” And then I, like a fool, began to talk about this last lesson. But I really remember it all my life.

Shirly: – Very often, still before we began to play, he would say: “Show me how you feel.” And suddenly you, even without thinking especially about it, began to ask yourself how you are doing, how you will show this on the violin. This led to your approach even as you tuned the instrument; you were asking yourself “what the devil am I doing here?” It was not just to play some composition. It was the question “how am I?” and you did not know how you were.

Frédéric: – Once, already well after the time I had graduated from the Conservatory, I asked Philippe if I could continue to study under him. I was almost certain that the answer would be positive. It was at the end of June. I spoke with him and he said: “Good, I agree, if in September you will arrive with the twelve capriccios.” Good God, I thought! For two months this was a very big task and it meant that I will have no summer vacation, although my get-away was already planned (I intended to go to Israel with my girlfriend) and all the hotels were reserved. Nonetheless, I tried to work on it for a couple of days. But it was all so bad that in the end I put my violin back in its case. Not only did I not appear in September with the twelve capriccios, but I did not play at all for half a year, and began to work at the violin again only in December, just for myself, setting my own tasks.A new life began. I no longer practiced for a lesson or to be accepted by him or to meet his expectations. I asked myself, why I am doing this. Now I am certain that Philippe already knew in advance that this is what would happen. He acted very wisely. Later we made contact and we continued to meet, but this was the most powerful lesson that I received from him.

Shirly: – He also taught us how to play in an ensemble, together with others. He said: “You should not just understand, you should anticipate what will happen next.” We were expected to be open to new ideas and not to pass judgements.

We went to all his concerts. When he was content with himself, you could come into the artist’s chambers. And when he wasn’t content, then not.

Frédéric: – But even when everything worked out for him, he could be very gloomy. Sometimes he would request of us: “don’t leave, stay with me.” And sometimes though everything was good and the audience was delighted, he did not even turn his head in our direction.

For this question, about what you want, it was always open, and the answer always changed. I think that was his way of life.

– Does this mean that he put the same question to himself?

Frédéric: – Possibly. But it was a provocation of sorts. When a person comes, let’s suppose for the first time, and hears the question “how are you doing?” then he does not understand what they expect of him. He wants to come, play something and get some advice. But what kind of question is that? “How are you?” A provocation! This was also a way to communicate to us that by our playing he will know how we are. He was reading people. By the way, when he was in a jury, then he could find out how someone would play just by the way the person came out onto the stage – by his bearing. Thus, I believe it was too much for him to hear all three rounds. He already knew everything after the first few seconds. During the auditions, he usually was drawing something on a scrap of paper that came his way. Once the operator spotted this and turned his camera on him from afar. Philippe noticed it and when everything was finished, he went up to the operator and held out his drawing with the words: “if you need to see it up close, here it is.” Yes, that was the way he joked. He was being provocative. Once he asked one of his female students to write a letter to the government in Flemish. The issue was that Philippe had to present his diploma in order to receive a place in the Conservatory, but his diploma had not been translated or it did not satisfy the administration for some reason. In the letter, he asked whether it would suit them if instead of a diploma from a Soviet conservatory he presented them with the diploma of winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. We were shocked, but he said: “Don’t laugh. This is bureaucracy. It exists not only in Russia and everywhere it is the same.”

Shirly: – When someone played one-dimensionally, without any clearly expressed musical intention, Philippe would say: “Music is not Communism. Notes are not all equal. Don’t give them all the same importance.”
When I was small and Philippe and I played duets, this was more for pleasure, than for learning to play. And insofar as Philippe was not a teacher of children, he discussed things with children the same as with adults. May be it was not always understandable, but it produced a very favorable sensation, that you were being taken seriously.
All of us were undergoing change back then, but not so much as violinists as in how our view of the violin changed. Listening to music, Philippe valued above all the attitude towards it. Before beginning to play, you must decide what precisely you like in this music, what gives you pleasure. With Philippe, sooner or later you came to the idea that it’s not enough for you to like a piece of music if you are going to play before an audience.