Life - Part 18

In the summer of 1976, upon the personal request of the King and Queen of Belgium addressed to Leonid Brezhnev, the Leningrad artist Nina Alekseeva was released from the Soviet Union and allowed to travel to Belgium. Her release surprised everyone, including Alekseeva herself. It came after three years of hopeless and rare telephone conversations with Hirshhorn from a public telephone center on Gertsen Street, near the Arch of the General Staff building. And the phone conversations did not always get through. It was widely assumed that she was going just “to visit her young man,” about which, without mincing words, the local party boss criticized her. This was the petty official whose signature was needed on the character reference letter which was part of the application process to travel abroad. He took a dim view of the whole enterprise, notwithstanding the orders from above. Nonetheless, for the small bureaucrats there was nothing to do but to whine. All the problems were solved by one phone call. A foreign travel passport was issued with lightning speed, the whole process taking a week. It was difficult for the  motherland to let her go, but now that the decision had been taken, it was like a kick from behind: you had better clear out as fast as possible.

Philippe met Nina in the Brussels Airport after waiting there all day for her. The departure of her plane from Sheremetyevo had been delayed due to the arrival there of some foreign delegation. This was long before the age of mobile phones, and everyone’s nerves were on edge. It was August, 1976. In October, their marriage was registered in the town hall of the Commune of Uccle Soon afterwards, the elder Hirshhorns moved into a home of their own in the village of Ciplet. The house was bought by Philippe in his own name, and he paid the mortgage. The young family preferred independence, though it turned out not to be very easy. Years later, when they also moved into their own home, in Brussels, they looked back and calculated that before their daughter Veronique was born in 1980 they had moved around twenty times.

In 1981, Hirshhorn, who was until then an unattached performer, was offered permanent work. The Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonia had been created by the well-known violinist Lola Bobesco back in 1958, but, despite its impressive sounding name, the orchestra was in fact something more like a chamber ensemble. It numbered just 12 musicians. At the beginning of the 1980s,  the group, which had already long existed without its founder, was gradually fading away.  Hirshhorn was appointed “musical director,” meaning concertmaster and conductor all in one person. In his typical manner of doing everything to perfection, he not only took up this job, but literally got immersed in it.  He cast aside his own solo performances and came home late from rehearsals, often after midnight. This bore fruit: he succeeded in a relatively short period of time in breathing new life into the ensemble. They really began to play; for the first time in many years they went on tour, and they made recordings. It is curious that despite wild speculation on how in his capacity as principal conductor he “would show off,” in fact he turned out to be “pleasant and patient” (quotation) with the musicians of the ensemble. “He never humiliated those who were weaker,” we are told in reminiscences about him. His pupils also speak of his endless patience, as we will see further on.

However, despite the successes of the orchestra and its intensive development, Hirshhorn was unexpectedly removed after two years – as unexpectedly as he had been hired. (for more details on this, see the reminiscences of Kristina Kiprianides). What remained from this work was a vinyl recording and a television recording of the “Winter” movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is entirely possible that some other recordings may exist to this day in the archives of the Belgian television company, but they have been very unwilling to respond to communications addressed to them, or have not replied at all.

His dismissal from the orchestra, which was unexpected in itself, had also another unexpected consequence. On the pretext that he had lost his income and could no longer pay for the insurance, a demand was made that Hirshhorn return the Ruggieri violin on which he was then playing.

In general, if you consider the history of his relationship with instruments, you get a strange, even a sinister picture. He got his own violin only in the last two years of his life. He had not managed to play a single concert on it, only practiced on it at home. In fact there is nothing unusual in his not having had an instrument of his own: many soloists play on Italian instruments which are loaned to them, and it is rare for a performer to be able to buy a first-class violin by himself. But these instruments loaned to Hirshhorn were taken away so many times that it no longer seems to be coincidental. This happened the first time right after the Queen Elisabeth Competition, for which Vaiman gave Hirshhorn one of his own violins, a Balestrieri.  When Hirshhorn returned to Leningrad, the violin was taken away and placed in a cabinet, where it remained for twenty-five years without a note being heard from it.  That time the bitter pill could be swallowed since, as laureate, Hirshhorn had the right to a violin from the State Collection, and he in fact was registered there as the “subscriber” to a Guarneri.  Of course, he could not emigrate with this Guarneri, and he arrived in Israel with a factory-made violin (and even that one could not easily be taken away from the Soviet Union; he needed some help from friends of the family).

In Belgium, with some help from Queen Fabiola, he was given on loan a Ruggieri violin from the collection which nominally belongs to the Competition but in fact is part of the collection of a private person, Count de Launoit.  It was this Count de Launoit who demanded that it be given back when relations with the orchestra were terminated

It later became known that immediately after Hirshhorn returned it, the instrument was loaned to a third party, though they never told this person from whom it was taken and how it came to him.

One other instrument was given on loan to Hirshhorn when, in response to a newspaper announcement, he began to teach in Brussels (see the reminiscences of Kristina Kiprianides). This was a Bergonzi violin, which he did not like at all and always hoped to improve something in it by trying various bridges, moving the soundpost, changing the strings. But he somehow coped with it until it too was taken away from him.  Here we enter the realm of the tragic: it was taken away when he fell ill. They demanded that he bring it in for the annual inspection and then did not return it to him. Not long before this, in 1994, via some friends, Hirshhorn bought from Mikhail Vaiman’s widow the very same Balestrieri on which he played at the Queen Elisabeth Competition and which lay in a cabinet while its violinist lived his life. The sad thing is that he had very little time left to live at this point.

Hirshhorn began teaching initially in Brussels and then, as from 1985, in Utrecht (The Netherlands). No one could foresee what this would lead to, but as it turned out, from these two classes, in Utrecht and Brussels, over the course of ten years, there came a respectable number of well-known violinists – soloists and performers in ensembles – as well as concertmasters of major orchestras. Usually you don’t expect great achievements in teaching from outstanding performers, especially in such a brief period of time, but nonetheless his achievements were beyond doubt. The reminiscences of Hirshhorn’s students can be read in the section of memoirs. It is curious how they speak about him now, twenty years later, with such eagerness and in such detail. They recall so much about him. It is not every pedagogue who can boast having left such strong impressions on his students. As regards music, many say that Hirshhorn achieved his true musical heights most often in chamber settings, among his own people, and none of them can forget or will forget to the end of their days what they heard from Philippe in the classroom. It is exciting just to read about this (see, for example, the reminiscences of Gudrun Verbanck).

Judging by the words of Philippe’s students, his instructional credo can be understood as follows:  to help them to express themselves at fully as possible – exactly themselves, and without regard to whatever else was going on. Discussions about discovering the individuality of pupils have been going on since time immemorial, and only lazy ones are not repeating the worn phrases about the value of one’s musical personality. But where do words end and deeds begin?  In the case of Hirshhorn, we see precisely deeds, which he considered to be of primary importance and which he took with all possible seriousness. Possibly that is why, though he was not a pedagogue for “instrumental technical solutions,” and was not enthusiastic about giving advice on fingering, he managed to achieve such outstanding results.