Memories - Gudrun Vercampt

Hirshhorn’s student in the late 80-s – early 90-s.

The first time I saw Philippe was when I played in the auditions to enter the Utrecht Conservatory. At the time, I had already completed a course in Brussels with Georges Octors and was looking for a possibility to study under someone else. At the same time, I was playing in the European Youth Orchestra, and Liberman worked with the string section there, so I thought about him. I registered for the audition in Utrecht. I must say that I never was a diligent student and never practiced a great deal. I was supposed to play the Chaconne, but I did not know it by heart – precisely because I did not practice much. I was terribly nervous and I had to struggle with a lack of self-confidence. Hirshhorn was on the admissions committee. He probably saw that I was in difficulty. He came up to me, said something encouraging, helped me to set up the scores. He instantly made an impression on me, from the first glance. Liberman was also very kind, but he had a different aura – you know, these vibes which a person gives off. I was intrigued by Hirshhorn, by how he watched me (his eyes!), how he spoke. Then, unexpectedly, it turned out that Georges Octors was leaving the Brussels Conservatory and that none other than Hirshhorn was expected to replace him. I immediately decided not to go to the Utrecht Conservatory but to remain instead in the Brussels Conservatory.
You could call this my first lesson with him. I think he was already familiar with this type of student – not very well prepared and not too sure of herself. A lesson not in the sense of “play from this point,” “do this and that,” “play it again.” Studying with him, as I was later convinced, was generally a kind of search for your inner essence. Once he even told me: “I see that you are very sensitive. I don’t dare meddle too deeply in your life for fear of breaking something.” He understood these things, because he himself was exceptionally sensitive and had an evident gloomy side. This gloomy side, I suppose, he saw in me, especially at that time. A lot was going on in my life just then (I was 21), and I was not very busy with the violin as such. There were too many things that bothered me. I think that Philippe heard this in my playing.
It wasn’t so easy to study under him, especially in the beginning. He and I, we sort of circled one another, waited to see who would make the first move. He always taught on Thursdays, during the day, in classroom 14. Among us, there were several people who always were present at the lessons. Usually Philippe would ask: “Who is going to play?” And after that came a moment of silence, but almost always two or three would answer: “I will.” In the classroom, people sat forever. It was more like a concert than a lesson. It was interesting to follow how he worked with the others, because he worked in a very strenuous, intense manner. I recall a lesson – it seems, with Igor Semenoff – which continued for three hours without a break. It was so intense that by the end Philippe was very pale, with dark circles under his eyes. He gave all of himself, as much as he could… so that at the end of the third hour he could say in exhaustion: “That’s it. Go!”  With some, he was not afraid of meddling very profoundly in their personality. With some, but not with all. I think that when he felt something interesting, then he, as it were, allowed himself to plumb the soul of another person. This is something very special, but it was not easy. I remember how sometimes I returned from him with just the desire to put away my violin, lie down in bed and cut myself off from everything. It was as if someone held a mirror up to you. Philippe touched upon things that require time to understand, to understand what he said in fact. Even now, 24 years later, I still often think about his words.
I think he was able to catch in people very fine vibrations, especially those like fear or uncertainty. He was so honest that he allowed us to see his own fear or uncertainty. He also had occasion to be afraid. There were moments when it was difficult for him and he shared them with us. I recall, for example, how Philippe played the Beethoven concerto. We sat in the hall and saw how he was fighting with fear or something else that seemed to devour him from inside, and he wept after this concert, he sat and wept. Zolman  also talks about this, about how he conducted then and thought to himself: “My God, may we play this to the end!” But if you listen to the recording, it is very beautiful! It is all so strange…
This sensation is somewhat familiar to me, when you are planning to perform a concert and feel that you cannot do it, that something has taken  you hostage. When he played Lutoslawski – and played splendidly – he said: “J’ai osé” –  “I dared.”
We had a tightknit group of students, the core of the class. This helped us and him, as well. Something like a community or commune.  We often got together to have a drink in the evening. One of us had an apartment nearby. Everyone came. A huge sausage or hunk of cheese appeared and the merry-making began. Philippe would tell jokes and he did it so well that everyone was rolling with laughter… There were always interesting conversations about everything on earth.
I remember a musical course  with   Hirshhorn in ” Les Arces 1600″.Our classroom there was a room that at another time was used for teaching children. Everything there was designed for children – little desks, little seats. I remember him once sitting in one such little chair. He was so upset that he was expressionless. It turned out that his friend, Oleg Kagan, had died. And he said something puzzling which I cannot forget to this day, because it actually happened. He began to do some calculations –the age of his mother, the age of his father – and he ended with the words: “I will die at age fifty.” Thus, I see him on this small chair, gloomy, saddened, and then this prediction about himself. And he turned out to be right. Sometimes it seems to me that he provoked a tense inner life in himself, and this tension was truly monstrous.
– Was it frightening to play for him?
Frightening is not quite the word. This was something very intimate. In a certain sense, you stood naked before him. Your soul was naked, because in your playing Philippe heard everything your soul contained. This does not arouse fear; rather it is a challenge. And you could not avoid baring yourself; he would accept nothing less.
From him I heard for the first time that when you play you should not brush aside your emotions but, on the contrary, respect them and allow them to exist, because they are part of you. You should not struggle with them. You should find a way to live with them, because they will always be with you. If you accept something, you learn to master it. This includes stage fright. That was also necessary to accept and to remember that at a certain moment relief will come. The question is whether you will “dare” or “not dare” to be who you are.
Philippe often played at lessons. Sometimes it was easier for him to show than to explain, but not always. It depended on the student. He could concentrate for an entire hour on one note. “No, No. This note is important. Let’s continue.” Again and again. This was difficult. You did not always know precisely what to do. It always was work not only for him alone, but for the two of you. Therefore, with each student he worked differently.  Once Igor Semenoff was playing the Conus concerto and they spent a whole hour on one page. This was more like a master class. In a certain sense, Philippe was a bad teacher, because you never knew when you will have your exam, what you have to play there. He did not bother with the administrative side of things. In order to study with Philippe, you had to be business-like and look after these things yourself. He did not choose the program for us to play. That rested on our initiative. He only approved or did not approve. “Ah, that’s interesting. Play!”

In this sense, he and Liberman made a good pair in Utrecht. 

Liberman, unlike Philippe, always was informed about what you have to play at a certain audition, which scales, which capriccios…

Teacher-student relationships are particular. Sometimes it is difficult to find the right place in these relationships. Sometimes you need them to tell you: “Go, practice this and that. In a week, I will expect you with this.”  It is necessary that someone tell you what to do. But Philippe did not dare to guide you. He tried to find other paths, another way to stir someone.
Sometimes you felt that he was not in a “deep” mood. Then he said something, joked, but all the same it was obvious that today is not the day. But that could change very quickly with him. Something in your playing suddenly set off the trigger, and you could instantly find yourself the center of his attention. I recall one instance… it seems this was David Grimal. He was playing a capriccio. I never know the numbers of capriccios, but one of those for “strings.” He played not just well, but very well. While Philippe was listening, he had a strange, embarrassed expression, as if he were thinking to himself: ‘Damn, can I do it that way?’  When Grimal finished, Philippe took the violin, tried something – this was very funny – and suddenly said: ‘Wait here. Ten minutes.’  And then he left to be alone, taking the violin with him. When he returned, you could at once see by his face that he was on a roll. And, really, he played the capriccio and this was not on the level of ‘very good’ – it was fantastic.  Possibly, it wasn’t very good pedagogy on his part to set up a competition, but this is an example of how he could be infected by the energy of someone. On the other hand, he also shared his own energy without thinking twice… he knew how to do the one and the other.
I remember how once in the classroom we heard the Strauss sonata, in that same classroom with the children’s furniture. On that day, he was going to play this sonata in Capitol. We all were in our places. Philippe said: “I need your ears! Teach, teach me!”
– And did you teach him?
Of course, not… but he literally forced us to try, saying: “Let’s go, let’s go. I need to hear your reaction.” In that situation, it was not important who was on what level. All the same, there had to be someone who would reflect what he was doing, and at that moment he had a real need for this. He began playing and played the sonata in a way that I will never forget. It was as if this was not something coming from human hands, as if it was poured out straight from heaven. As if the source was not the violin and the bow but something else far away. No one could hold back tears. We all cried. Love, hate, beauty, tenderness – everything was there, and it was the most splendid thing that I have heard in my life, more marvelous than one can imagine. None of us had an idea before then that such things happen, that it could be so. I am certain that everyone will say the same, everyone who was there. Since then, I have never met anyone who could do that. Philippe is the only one. It was..I don’t know.. as if someone touched your soul directly, and not just once, but for a long time. Everything that you feel, all this was open and could pour out… It’s unbelievable. When he finished playing, he asked: “Well, how was it? Good?” But I am certain he knew. I have in mind that he knew he had reached the state of heaven. I don’t know what to call it… No one answered Philippe. No one could speak. We all sat there, choked up… In the evening, he played the piece at a concert. It was very good, but it wasn’t the window he partly opened for us several hours earlier. I think that his frustrations came from the fact that not every time could he enter this fifth dimension. And something similar happened when he played Lutoslawski in the Flagey hall. There was a live transmission on radio, and I remember the commentator, who was simply speechless. “God, how good to be alive!” That was all he was in condition to say…
– It would be interesting to know whether he sometimes spoke about his thoughts on historically informed performances?
– Oh, no. He was not the person for that, not that type. Sometimes he joked: “Yes, let’s take the scores and analyze… the harmonic plan, what else is there.” He was too intuitive for that. He always began with the soul and the heart, never with history or theory. There is a type of student-intellectual with whom some other professor could do all of this, but Philippe, I think, couldn’t be bothered. He was focused on something else. He was such a unique violinist, with such unusual energy that when you heard him it never came into your head to direct attention to such things. A fantastic musician. And if he played Bach, then it was a fifth dimension and no one thought about whether the trill began from the upper note or whether the Nachschlag he made is correct.  If you have nothing to say, then you start thinking about the Nachschlag.
– Did he speak about technique?
Yes, of course. Especially about the bow. Balance, filling in, long lines… He could give detailed instructions, for example, on how to practice thirds. But mainly he prompted us to listen to ourselves; he taught us to listen in a new way. He presented technical things in a complex and always started from emotion. Someone should have sat and recorded what he said, because it was unbelievably valuable for all violinists of the world. Sometimes, when I am listening to the final round of the Queen Elisabeth Competition – where violinists of the highest technical level perform – I am thinking, “All of this is splendid, but if you could just take a few lessons from Philippe Hirshhorn!” No one will tell you any longer the things he spoke about.
This was an ascent to the heights of music, even in technical questions. He tried to speak about this in an entirely different key… It is hard to explain. To put a new light on things, to color using emotion. Philippe always began with emotions. For example, as regards vibrato.
He wasn’t so concerned about technical perfection and a model playing of notes. Once a technically excellent violinist came into our classroom and played the Franck sonata. He played flawlessly, but when he finished, Philippe asked him: “Good, but what is you objective?” And the visitor replied: “To play it better than Heifetz!” Philippe was terribly surprised and could say nothing. In such instances, he could be malicious in a certain sense.
In his jokes, he knew no limits. He could go very far. But he did not say any really malicious things, and I would not call him cruel. Sometimes he took risks, but he felt people very well and was in a position to influence them. For example, there was one pianist who always came to our classroom to listen. Yes, it happened often that students from other specialties sat in with us. He now says that at Hirschhorn’s lessons he learned how to play the piano… At the time, he was terribly dependent on everyone, unsure of himself. He was afraid to drive, etc. Now he has a driver’s license, lives far from his homeland, is married and has two kids. This is largely thanks to Hirshhorn. If you find your music, you also find yourself.
– If Philippe were here now, what would you ask him about?
A good question… You know, I would be terribly pleased by the thought of playing for him, for him to hear me now, twenty years later. And perhaps I would say: “Help me.”  Finally! (she laughs). When you are already an adult and especially if you have children, then you become someone different. It would be very curious how it might look now. Then I was not so concentrated on practicing. I had the European Youth Orchestra, which constantly went on tour, so that Philippe joked when I finally came into the classroom: “Aha, the tourist! Where were you? What did you do?” Now I have my regrets. I could have taken from his lessons considerably more. He was an exceptional man and he gave us so much… Sometimes I think that I began to play the violin only with him. Yes, of course, I played earlier, but I was not conscious of what I was doing. It’s not about notes, it’s about something entirely different.
I would be happy to see him again. Of course, we miss him. I myself teach and I am always talking about him. I am sure that the same is true of Shirly and Frédéric, and all the others. I tell my students so that they might search for, listen and see him. What he gave me, I am trying to pass along to them, if only something, so that it goes along further, so that in this sense he has not died… Ah, yes, that’s what I would dream. I now have another violin and I would so much like for him to see it. I got it not long ago, and we are in love; it seems to me the feeling is mutual. And this is something he knew a lot about. I would say that Philippe knew how to look into the soul of a violin and see it as something human. Once, a student came into our classroom who made her own instruments. He took her violin, began to draw long notes from it – one, another – listened and pulled some more, changed something. You could see how in his hands the violin seemed to awaken before our eyes.
And one more thing about which I would ask him. If it were now, then we would both be adults, already no longer teacher-student.. and I would ask him about himself.  He generally spoke very little about himself. As I am today, I would ask him how he felt, what caused his pain.
It is very difficult to choose the words when you talk about Philippe. They always seem banal… He was not an easy person. At our parties, when he felt well, he joked, clowned around, took his pleasure, felt like a student. But then the moment came when he left and you could see how a sadness came over him. Sadness was inside him. A lot of it.
– How long did you study under him?
Around five years. But then I came to him in his classroom for a long time, for years. Like everyone, I think. When he fell ill, everything changed. He himself changed. Other students arrived, and then we began our independent professional lives. But for us then, it was very good at the time when Philippe just began to teach in Brussels. That was a marvelous time.