Memories - Gregor Sigl

– Do you remember how you became acquainted with Philippe? 

I remember very well. I was sixteen, and I was in the middle of a big crisis which was related to my changing from a capable child into an incapable adult violinist.  I was preoccupied with the question of how all this works – as regards the violin and music generally. I was very disturbed at how unclear this was. In my playing, there also was a big crisis, and Philippe Hirshhorn was recommended to me as a teacher who sees everything differently, prompts his students to think on their own and doesn’t just give instructions. That sounded very attractive, and I phoned him. I was very anxious but tried to explain my situation. Hirshhorn tolerated all of this (he laughs), and we agreed that I would come to Brussels to play for him. And so I took the night train… I remember all that very well. Hirshhorn arrived by car to pick me up at the hotel where I was staying.  He probably thought that I was too young to find my way to the Conservatory on my own. I felt very honored, anyway. Of course, I was impressed and even a bit frightened. I have in mind his remarkable eyes. Very dark, infinitely deep. But he was very friendly and calm. We went together to the Conservatory. I remember that he asked the porter whether we could use the large hall for my audition. Naturally, that only added to my nervousness… I don’t remember what exactly I played. Some Paganini, something from Bach, a Mozart concerto… He simply asked me to play whatever I wanted, then to play some more. He wasn’t busy with something, but simply looked to see who I am and what I am.  He went back to the very last row, so that I saw him with some difficulty. He then often did this at lessons. Then we spoke a little. I thought, my playing was just horrible and I tried to explain my despair. Perhaps he felt, that I was sincere and desperately trying. It was the middle of September – substantially later than when you had to submit documents to enter the Utrecht Conservatory and I was not certain that in general they would admit me. I didn’t even know if he had room for me in his class, but Hirshhorn said “yes” and promised to speak with the administration. In this way, I succeeded in “sneaking into” the Conservatory. 

I began my studies in September 1993. It turned out to be very attractive to live alone in a strange city. In the beginning, I was the youngest and felt somewhat lonely, but then I got to know Janine Jansen who was still a couple of months younger than I and Dmitri Makhtin, who was a year or two older. Now I was part of an age group. 

The nature of our studies changed over time. I have in mind that at the start Hirshhorn was a performing violinist who gave concerts, played a lot during lessons, which was, on the one hand, very inspiring, but, on the other hand, depressed me, because I did not know how to respond, given that his capabilities on the violin were so unusual.  All of this changed when he became ill and had to stop playing the violin. He began to arrive more often. He was calmer. The enormous tension disappeared, when you had to “produce,” when there were all these thousands of repetitions of one and the same passage… It is impossible to fully realize, how difficult this time must have been for him , but for us it was inspiring, because we began to feel that we were more closely tied to him, at least I was. There was the feeling that he became even more focused on us students. He had more time for us, and as it were, more space in his mind.  

To me, Hirshhorn never spoke about his illness, but, of course, it was always evident how he felt. Sometimes everything seemed to be fine. Perhaps after a successful visit to his doctor or he simply felt somewhat stronger. And then he smiled a lot, invited us to dine with him and enjoyed talking to us… And sometimes we understood that he simply was very, very tired. It was noticeable that he felt terrible and for us, young people at the time, that was so difficult. We simply did not know how to deal with the fact that he was seriously ill. But, I repeat, he never spoke about this. I only recall that once before long holidays, we had gathered around him and he said that we should not count on his returning. He did this… in his own way. I remember, that I saw him drive away in his Mercedes and had to hide from my colleagues, because I broke into tears.

I also remember how we first learned about his illness. We students felt very close then. We somehow all realized that it was extremely serious. The atmosphere was very tense, because in fact none of us had what could be called personal relations with him, which made it impossible to just ask those countless questions about his condition we all desperately wanted to ask. As for me, I never, or very rarely, spoke with him about something personal.  Of course, he asked how we were, whether I had any problems and I answered him, but I don’t know what he generally was thinking about me. In our attitude towards him, there was a lot of respect and admiration. I know, and I am especially grateful, that he really was involved with us. He was not the sort of teacher who simply passes by to teach a lesson, with an eye on the watch and then goes away. When he listened to us, he really was listening, tried to see what wasn’t right, and to help. That is what distinguished him from others – at least, with no other teacher did I feel this more strongly.

His teaching was very inspirational, like his playing: it simultaneously inspired and disturbed. In my lessons it seemed he had a complex, philosophical approach to everything. He was not the sort of person who will tell you: “here it isn’t working, because you are moving the bow too fast.” No, he wanted you to find that yourself. He forced his students to repeat something countless times and said to them “no, listen.” He tried to sense and understand what we want, and then to improve it. Of course, for us young students this was an almost impossible task. I think that now I would know how to draw more benefit out of his lessons than then. What he said –  I remember this to the present day. Some things I am only beginning to understand, so that in a certain sense he is always present next to me. And often when I discover something myself, I recall that twenty years ago Hirshhorn spoke to me about that exact issue and I did not understand at the time.As regards technique, he was constantly concerned about pulling out sound, especially the reach and durability of the sound. When you played, he mostly listened from the greatest possible distance. He wanted you to remember the listener in the very last row. He forced us to play separate notes and chords. It seems that once he and I played the first chord of a Bach sonata for a whole hour. I got lost, because I could not see, what he wanted. I tried to do something but did not find the technical formula. Only now I really understand Hirshhorns intention. Pretty late, I must admit. So I tell my own students that we often forget to listen to what actually comes out of us. We are too focused on the instrument, but you must take a step back from yourself in order to really hear and evaluate what you are doing.

Hirshhorn’s relationship with music, in the professional sense, always led me into confusion. I have in mind that he, of course, knew what he was worth and what he could do. I am sure about that. He knew about his exceptionalism. Surely, this explains his very high expectations of himself. But this also seemed to lead to permanent disappointment. He always spoke so negatively about what he was doing and how he was playing. I never heard him say even once something like “listen to this recording of mine; I played it well.” When he intended to give a concert, he said: “Don’t come. It isn’t worth it.”  Once a whole bunch of us Hirshhorn-students went to the Concertgebouw Amsterdam to hear his concert with Elisabeth Leonskaja. I remember that day very well. When we came up to him in the artist’s chambers, it seemed he was irritated to see us.  Something like “why did you come, better if you go home and don’t listen.” That was a rather unusual incident, first, because so many of us had decided to go there and second, because on the same evening Gidon Kremer played the Beethoven violin concerto in the large hall, while Hirshhorn had his recital with Leonskaja in the small hall. In a certain way it was significant and gives you something to think about regarding them both: In the much smaller audience which came to hear Hirshhorn, I noticed many very interesting musicians. They did not want to miss this rare event. And at the same time, Kremer, the big name, was shining in the big hall, with a big orchestra and a huge audience… there was something typical to me in all that. Of course, they both knew about the concert of the other. And Kremer came to visit Hirshhorn’s artist’s chambers after finishing his Beethoven. We were all gathering backstage and felt awkward, because we had just been told how stupidly we had acted by coming, and now we saw these two extraordinary people conversing, plus several more big names around them. I truly treasure the memories of this Hirshhorn / Leonskaja concert. It was the only time when I saw him on the stage.

You said that this was inspiring. What kind of inspiration are you talking about?

This was inspiring, because the intensity was mind blowing. You saw before you a man who, when playing, never spared himself and held nothing back. It was always a full cartridge. Then there was the unbelievable sound which simply grabbed you… Sound can be beautiful, fine. But his sound went straight through you. He possessed that kind of vibrato with such speed and amplitude that it gave life to a note, without making you recognize it as an actual vibrato. It is very hard to describe. It made the sound irresistible and overwhelming. Somewhat like what Maria Callas was capable of as a singer. I have in mind how she used an incredible amount of vibration. But this is not a wave which shatters the note– it simply gives it unbelievable power. I don’t know anyone else who could do this as Hirshhorn did.But Hirshhorn did not want to be imitated. If students tried to copy his sound, he got very upset, even angry. In any case, he hated all copying that was not based on musical understanding and feeling, but simply on the lack of interest and effort to search and discover for yourself. In that context, he always used the word “silly”, having in mind something cheap or what seemed to him to be cheap, for example if a gesture, or timing, or change in dynamic, or color, or shade was used only for the sake of effect without any heartfelt, musical or intellectual justification. He absolutely rejected this. 

Several times I asked him for some kind of simple advice – for example which fingering to use. Most often he tried to avoid answering, but if he answered, then I was very grateful. He wanted us to find the answers ourselves. But here is one very important thing for which I feel special gratitude. At the very first lesson in Utrecht, I spoke with Hirshhorn about my technical problems about which he did not know, about how to solve them. When I was a child, everything worked out for me naturally – practically everything, and that was good. But when I began to think things over, then everything broke down and stopped working. At the time, he had an assistant named Arjen Beintema. He was a very interesting person and I liked him a lot for his tranquility and modesty. One of his passions was making copies of the great masters such as Rembrandt, van Gogh… He also built hot air balloons, experimented with different shapes of the neck of the violin and even wrote his own School of Violin Playing… This Arjen Beintema studied under Viktor Liberman and was a very, very good violinist. His technical abilities were extraordinary. He could play anything at all. Hirshhorn had the highest opinion of him. He told me that I should go to Arjen and study with him once a week or as often as possible. As for me, he literally saved me. He worked on the most elementary things, on the basics. Lessons from Hirshhorn alone could possibly have ruined me. Or if they would not have ruined me, I would likely not be playing the violin today, I would not have found a solution to my problems. This combination of Hirshhorn-Beintema was for me just what I needed.  With one, I could once a week work on fundamentals, while the other acted as an inspiration, subjected everything to doubt and forced me to search on my own. 

Can you remember something amusing?

Amusing… Hirshhorn had a way of suddenly breaking out into a laugh over some nonsense that suddenly seemed funny to him… This was a very contagious laugh, so that once it began it had no end. It was always over some petty things.

Could he be malicious with students?

Yes, he could… But I would not call him “nasty.” “Nasty” – means to be a destructive teacher, and he was not one, decidedly not destructive. But, of course, when he was not satisfied with something, he let it be known very clearly. He usually began long philosophical conversations which lasted several minutes… I am deeply sad about the fact, that only now I feel that I would be ready to study under him. That’s what I think. Perhaps, or maybe not, but it seems to me so. It would mean the world to me to hear now what he would say. Of course, I have recollections, but recollections are not reliable, sometimes they can mislead you. But, as I have already said, I still remember a lot and up to the present this helps me. This concerns the general approach to music and to violin playing. Now I feel myself something of an adult – just a bit! – and now, perhaps, I would dare simply to sit next to him and speak to him and tell him about what I find, perhaps, strange or erroneous. At the time there was no such possibility. Now I would ask him why he had such a destructive approach to himself and tell him that this has always confused and concerned me. I have in mind that every musician confronts this and you have to find a balance between making demands on yourself and self-destruction, when you think that all you do generally is bad. This is everything but easy and I think you could say that the more extraordinary the talent, the more sensitive the soul, the more driven by the urge to express through music, the more difficult it gets to actually be satisfied with what you are producing. I am uncertain that he generally was at some time at peace with himself as regards music – possibly not. I found it very disturbing to hear how Hirshhorn commented on his past… He made it clear to me that basically everything he did and how he played was somewhat silly and poor and he especially pointed out the audio and video footage of the Queen Elisabeth Competition. Yes, it is only natural and an absolute necessity that an artist grows and might drastically change his view on music and music making over the years. But, nonetheless, you have to somehow value what others have found to be excellent. Perhaps, he did not do that.

Perhaps he was not interested in what other people think?

Well, I don’t know, but I don’t believe that. We all seek recognition and we need it. We need attention, love, respect. That is all natural; you cannot deny it. I don’t think he was really indifferent to what others think. Not indifferent to anyone. If you ask me or any other musician whom I knew, everyone will say that Hirshhorn should have been one of the best-known and most sought-after musicians. But the fact is that he never went beyond the bounds of a certain circle. He knew with what very high respect people in his world and in his circle held him. I have in mind great musicians bound with him in personal relations. I am certain that it was pleasant and important for him to know this.He refused to take advantage of a politically correct, but obviously dishonest behavior and clearly showed us students his rejection of people, that went through life that way. All this was complicated for him. He was not the person to take some steps in order to land here or there. Certainly one reason, why he did not climb to the very top of the music-society. There are a lot of big, big egos out there and if you fail to flatter them and tell them exactly, what they want to hear, they will not support you. And although he kept openly ridiculing such “diplomatic talents”, as he called them, I always thought I could also sense, that he was somehow mad at himself, for not having these abilities. You could feel in him a certain bitterness… I might be completely wrong about this. But that’s how I always felt.In that context, I remember one sentence he used to say to me on several occasions: “Nobody will help you! Don’t expect any help. You are on your own.” It makes me sad to think about this now.

Did you ever go to the master classes?

Yes, once, in France. There were a couple of us Utrecht students. Together with a fellow student, I went there by train. The train was jammed in to the rafters, and it was terribly hot. We could not find a seat, so the trip was torture. We passed through the first class railcar and there we saw Hirshhorn, who sat there in a first class compartment reading a book. He immediately invited us to travel together and paid for the upgrade of our tickets. That spontaneous generosity was also typical of him, by the way. But it was still more typical that the first thing he said when he saw us was: “Why are you here?” It sounded like: “Why do you need more lessons from a lousy teacher; it doesn’t pay to travel to France for that.” That was his first reaction! We arrived in comfort and I remember that he even offered us his eau-de-cologne, which we declined. I did not want to smell like my professor. He often spoke German with me, especially when there were many people around us. His intention was to give me the feeling of privacy and comfort, to be less nervous. For the teaching sessions, he traveled to Utrecht for a day or two, and for us it was something of a marathon. We always felt the importance of the event. The school building was closed for the weekend, but Hirshhorn had his own key, so that we could go there together with him.  It’s a special feeling when there is no one else around… We felt privileged and proud. But all of this was also rather difficult, because to be there you had to work the whole day, waiting for when they will summon you to the master. Attending lessons of our fellow students, was also an important part of those Hirshhorn-days. For example, I remember the time when Dmitri Makhtin was preparing for the Paganini Competition. His lesson often was the last of the day and he simply continued, and continued and continued… for four hours, five hours, six hours.  Yes, sometimes it was really long. My own longest lesson lasted almost five hours. It was extremely difficult to maintain your concentration – not for Hirshhorn, but for me.

These days of lessons were something special. If he was teaching during the official instruction hours and not on the weekend, then there were always many auditors in the class. Everyone knew that Hirshhorn will be there today, and many wanted to be present. By the way, he sometimes chased out all of the public.  When he wanted to remain one on one with the student, he said: “Please leave.” That happened with me several times. He sensed very well what the other person felt. If I was especially vulnerable this time or felt myself under scrutiny, then he suggested that everyone leave and did not continue the lesson until he was sure that everyone had left. That was very good of him.

And what if someone asks you what he gave you?

A lot. First of all, he forced me to think. This was the most important. In those years, I learned to think for myself, discover things myself. And still today, this helps me more and more. I encourage my own students to do the same, because students are inclined to trust too much what they are told and to hope they will be told what to do… But that is the general problem for society as a whole, when people are waiting too much for instructions, both in the political sense and in all others. They want to be told what to do. They don’t like to really think. But Hirshhorn supported all of his students precisely to ensure they thought; he saw this as exceptionally important. Moreover, it takes a lot of time to force a young person to understand something. You have to be very patient. And he was patient. I never had the feeling that he gave up. I am certain that he saw when I did not understand what he was saying but all the same he continued and did not show any impatience. It was complicated to study under him, but I think that he had a clear concept of what he wanted to get from the students. He wasn’t the type of teacher, who speaks very simply and understandably, so that you can write it all down in a notebook. By the way, he often was unsatisfied with what he had said. I mean he searched for ways to explain something, he got lost in thoughts which sometimes led here and not there. He tried to extricate himself. This became more and more complicated… At a certain point he stopped, called himself “silly” and began over. But this is good when there is someone not striving to simplify everything. We students often suffered, but we sensed, that he tried so hard just for us. We felt, that we were taken seriously by this great artist. And he was not a teacher-destroyer. I have in mind that somewhere a person has limits and it is useful to sometimes go no further. He never went so far that the student could not hold out. And, of course, he dealt with students variously. That was obvious when he understood that here is someone’s limit; he then began to work on something else. He had this feeling, that is for sure.

Did you ever dream of him?

Of course. But not right after he died.  This began two years later.  And when he was still alive, he sometimes frightened me in a dream (he laughs)… His funeral was an exceptional event for me. And a changing point. For the first time in my life, I lost someone from my near surroundings. It was a shock with which I could hardly cope. It remained in my memory forever.I should also say that it is still very emotional for me to listen to his music. His sound is so unique and you immediately see and hear him himself. You simply know it is he. And then I really miss him. Insofar as I don’t have many recordings, I know them all very well and it is enough for me to hear one note, just one, in order to recognize him. Some years ago, during an interview on a German radio station, each of us quartet members had to present two CDs which meant a lot to us and one of my recommendations was Hirshhorn’s live recording of the Geminiani violin sonata and Ysaye’s “Caprice d’apres l’Etude en forme de Valse de Saint-Saens”. I gave them the disk, but refused to listen to the broadcast. I was afraid to get carried away. I know there were amazed comments, because not so many people know Hirshhorn. There were those who heard him for the first time in their lives and they were electrified by the power of his playing.

And what was his way of forcing students to think?

It is possible that for this website this is an inappropriate word, but he hated what he called “bullshit”. He wanted us to be honest in our playing and not to strive to cater to our listeners, or not to do what we thought would please them.  We were supposed to seek what we really felt and not fear doing that. He had an allergy to those who taught young musicians to play in a special “competition-jury-pleasing” fashion, for example – to do everything properly, see to it that nothing fell afoul of some ideal image, that there was nothing headstrong, nothing that could be criticized. He absolutely hated this. He prompted me to forget about this and instead to play music, to bring to the surface my wishes. And at the lessons, he tried to force us to understand what we really want, what kind of sound, what kind of phrasing. He was unbelievably patient and uncompromising in this. As for me, at the same time I was not in condition to give voice to this. That is inherent in many young musicians, when they are asked what is the nature of this piece of music, what is the atmosphere there or shading, what properly speaking you intend to express. Very few can answer. They simply remain silent, then begin to ponder the questions and there comes something like an awakening. He tried to force us to find the sound we wanted – or he thought we wanted. I am afraid that back then it was too much for me. But if suddenly we succeeded in finding something, then he shouted: “Yes! Yes!” or simply “Oh!” – and that was good.

But did you feel in yourself something new, as if something unexpected came out of you?

Yes, but I feel that I profit from this work mostly now and that I am finally beginning to understand, much more than back then. At that time it was most often beyond my powers. But what an atmosphere there was! So many talented people around!  And something like a tension, a positive tension, and inspiration from the single fact that Hirshhorn was simply “in town”, and hearing how he was working with others while they were playing so well. That meant so much for me and kept me “afloat”.

It was interesting to hear his lessons with Janine Jansen.  Of course, Hirshhorn immediately understood how talented she was, and at the same time as he said once to me, he was aware that he could not change her, and it would be wrong to change her, because if someone feels this strongly as she, and is so original, then, possibly, it is better not to touch her. That’s what he said.  I think that he was somewhat afraid of such a situation, when you pull out one stone and the whole building comes down. But, of course, they worked a lot together and Hirshhorn gave her a lot. I think he said that in a certain sense she was “ready” as a violinist.  Already back then.  I remember one incident… We were discussing about the importance of all the notes, that not one remained without attention, and he said that with Janine  “There is Christmas in every note.” You know, when every note is an event, filled with feeling, each note is like a holiday.  Generally speaking, he obviously had a lot of heartfelt and sincere respect for the achievements and abilities of other artists and pointed out that he envied when someone could do something especially well… But at the same time he also often laughed mercilessly at mistakes, failures and – of course – the “silliness” of others. I saw him as a very fair person in terms of not really caring about the “status” of a person. The way he approached a waiter at the cafeteria of our school was not in any way different from the way he approached the director of that same institution. Both had equal chances to get his attention and interest. Or his rejection! He either liked a person and opened up, or was pretty repellent and short-spoken. He behaved “honestly” and did not hide his likes or dislikes. I absolutely loved that about him, because I believe it takes a lot of courage to behave this way. 

If you saw Hirshhorn now, what would you ask him?

I would so much like to understand who he is, to speak with him now, because I never really knew him. Face to face, without the subordination of teacher-student, without any rush… About life in general. To just listen, so that he might speak. To invite him for a concert, so that he could tell me what he thinks about my music making. That would be very interesting.  But first, I would probably ask him “why were you so critical of yourself?”