Over the years, I’ve come to accept the fact that if you like where you are, you shouldn’t complain about how you got there.
I held onto a cassette tape of a concert played by my Juilliard teacher Luigi Silva for more than thirty years, but I only recently listened to it for the first time. Silva was a brilliant man who spoke four languages fluently. He was a gifted pianist and an accomplished composer and arranger, who transcribed all 24 Paganini Caprices and 42 Kreutzer etudes for cello.
The last time I listened to any recording of Silva was in 1976. The American Chamber Trio was working on the Schumann D minor trio, so June went to the library and got out a recording by the Mannes, Gimpel, Silva trio. Silva always bragged to me about how fast he could play the dotted rhythms in the second movement of the Trio, and sure enough, it was very fast. However, in the gorgeous solos in the third movement, he sounded out of tune. He didn’t use vibrato on long notes, and made disgusting slides. It epitomized the sentiment behind two things he told me: that The Flight of the Bumblebee takes one minute to play; with feeling it takes two minutes, and that there is no difference between the opening of the Bach C major suite and a descending C major scale. I basically discounted everything about him because of this.
The recital recording that I listened to was from the early 1950s and took place somewhere in in Tennessee. Silva played his old standbys: his transcription of Della Ciaja’s “Toccata and Canzone.” the Boccherini A major Sonata, the Strauss Sonata, his transcription of the Bartok Romanian Dances, the Paganini Moses Variations (his transcription where he tuned his A string up half a step), his transcription of the Mendelssohn Spinning Song, and the Popper transcription of the Chopin E-flat major Nocturne. I did not love his sound or sentiment, but I did recognize that he was a true virtuoso in the Feuermann category, and that I was very lucky to have had his undivided attention for at least one of the two and a half years I studied with him.
Luigi Silva died within weeks of his 58th birthday, and my feelings about him were those of a seduced and abandoned twenty-year-old with a technique left in ruins from the tension of practicing Greutzmacher for eight hours a day. For decades I held a great deal of resentment towards Silva for the damage I believed that he did to my playing. I now understand that he was a man inundated with the difficulties of trying to establish a career as a soloist while teaching in four of five different schools, and, at the same time, was trying to create a comprehensive methodology of cello playing (a lot of his material in the archives of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). He was a well-known philanderer who to seduced (often successfully) many of his female students. With all this and his health problems, I don’t know how he managed to accomplish anything.
I now recognized that a lot of good come out of my studies with him, but by screwing up my playing he forced me to delay any solo possibilities until I was thirty. If I had decided to present myself as a serious cellist earlier than thirty, it could very likely have been premature. Sometimes life does not give you what you want but rather what you need.
Silva was an excellent teacher of what he taught, but what he taught was like music in the form of crude oil. Crude is absolutely necessary to make gasoline, but it is not gasoline in itself.
Silva permanently fixed in my hard drive open position (having a whole step between the first and second fingers and half steps between the rest of the fingers). This was immensely helpful to when I played Wagner and Strauss operas because if I held the open position constantly and shifted on half steps, I could use fingerings like a violinist instead of having to jump around the cello. Through the many very difficult and virtuosic etudes and pieces I studied with him I learned to play thirds and octaves reliably. Silva taught me the value of fingering fast-moving passages rhythmically, and it was from him that I learned to play on the inside of the A and D strings, which gave me absolute security in the higher positions.
When I worked with Silva, the position of my left hand fingers was way too high, and my right hand was extremely tight. Therefore any effort I made to play cantabile passages was futile. It was not until I was able to reposition my hands with a lower center of gravity that I was able to become a fine cantabile player. Unfortunately, Silva did not realize that on the cello you are as good a player as you sound playing The Swan.