The Street Violinist

Street musicians on the downtown mall are pretty routine—most common are guitar players—but I’ve seen flute players, harmonica players, upright bass players, accordion players, banjo players, clarinet players and a few violinists. These people run the gamut of quite good to less than good. The young gentleman in the featured image was one of the better ones.  But one violinist in particular was very special to me–and the finest I’ve ever heard.

It was on a  Saturday in early spring—a beautiful brilliant afternoon—I was prowling the mall looking for images when I heard the aching chords of the first movement of Goudari’s 2nd Violin Concerto. A small crowd of onlookers stood in a broad circle around the entrance to the Paramount Theater, enchanted by the young violinist focused on the sheet music on the stand before him—his instrument case lay open on the pavement–a growing clutter of bills inside.

Oblivious to the appreciative on-lookers, the young musician ran through the series of arpeggios after the fourth coda. I noticed a young woman—tears streaming down her cheeks—absorbed and transfixed with the haunting chords leading to the second bridge variation. Another person—a gentleman much older—wearing an ancient panama hat stood unmoving with his eyes closed—hands clasped in front of him—drifting in a sweet fusion of romanticized existential passion and dark uncertainty. Most who listened simply experienced a compelling, ethereal performance. Those of exceptional sensibility were transported to a place that was neither light nor dark—lost between divine awareness and animal existence.

The young man’s bowing technique was reminiscent of Heifetz, his fingering that of an immature Robert McDuffie. His instrument, while of competent construction and resonance finish, was mercilessly pushed to its acoustical limits by this young man’s almost arrogant command of hand and forearm musculature.

The spring day rustle, movement and murmur on the mall, somehow slipped into a sort of environmental accompanist—the notes soaring and reverberating sweetly across the brick pavement—fading into the spring green trees.

My thoughts drifted to my childhood and the first time I held a violin.

My 6th grade class had been outside for recess—on a day not unlike this one. We tromped and clattered back into the classroom, still flushed from playing ring a levio and there, on the desks of 4 or 5 kids—one of them being me—were musical instruments closed in their cases.

As I opened the case, I remembered my mom asking me a few months previous, what instrument I’d like to play. I said I wanted to play the Sousaphone. I hadn’t the slightest idea what the sousaphone was—I just liked the name. Mom had no idea what it was either so she asked for a second choice. I picked violin entirely at random. Standing there staring at the warm brown, varnished instrument it just sort of seemed like it was meant to come my way—we were destined to be together. I decided it was a worthy substitute for the Sousaphone.

My violin teacher—for the next 6 years—was Victor Gonzales—a career music teacher with the Central New York Educational District. Mr. Gonzales was a handsome, crew-cut bronze-complexioned Latin man with commanding brown eyes and a great smile. Even at the age of 12 I could see how the younger, female teachers looked at him as he strode by in the hall. He had started out at Holland-Patent School—the worst school in the district—and rapidly advanced to Staley Jr. High and finally to the top of the heap—Rome Free Academy—the high school. He was moving up rapidly in the system.

I remember articles on him in the local paper—he was quite active in local politics, civic groups and professional educator’s organizations. An ambitious, impressive young man, everybody felt quite certain he would be district music dept. chairman in his 30s, assistant principal in his 40s, principal in his 50s and possibly retire as Board of Education Supervisor.

Mr. Gonzales taught me how to play the violin but was never able to teach me how to play well—or even competently—though he certainly tried. The first 3 or 4 years I diligently practiced at home—30 min. every night. As time went by I lost interest in the instrument. From about my freshman year on, the only time I picked up the violin was for orchestra rehearsal twice a week—1st periods on Tuesday and Thursday.

At my best I was probably an average middle or high-school player—I never advanced beyond 3rd violin, third stand (there was no 4th violin section). I think it was in my sophomore year he changed me to viola—possibly because the parts were simpler and easier to learn. But what’s more likely—because there was somebody else who was a better player than me he wanted on that stand. I didn’t view it as a demotion though. I now sat in a chair where I had a better view of Rebecca Guasperi—she was first stand, first violin—and the most beautiful girl in the RFA orchestra. To this day I can see her in that strapless evening gown she wore to formal concerts. I always marveled at how beautiful she looked in that gown. When she stopped playing and brought the violin down from from her chin–placing it on her lap–the top of her gown would slip a bit and she’d tug it back up. I always got this delicious little adolescent thrill watching her keep that top up.

And as the years went by however—the smooth advancement and rapid progression of successes just did not—for whatever reason—sustain for Mr. Gomez.

In my Junior year he was replaced as high school orchestra teacher by Mr. Mathers. One day during my Senior year I overheard two of the older teachers talking—teachers who had seen many rising young educational stars start on the path to bigger things only to somehow fizzle out. One old biddy, with obviously smug and self-congratulatory gratification commented, “I understand they sent Mr. Gomez back to Holland-Patent School—right where he started.” And that was where, a decade or two later, he retired from.

I don’t remember the last time I played the violin—it was probably at an assembly or school concert a month or two before graduation in June of 1963—47 years ago.

Sometime in the late ‘80s my sister sent me a newspaper clipping. Mr. Gomez, long since retired, had been having dinner with his wife at a well-known restaurant in central New York when he apparently suffered a heart attack and (it sounds like) was dead before he hit the floor. Many years later I asked my mom what happened to my violins after I left home. She said she donated them to the city school system music department.

So I guess a couple of other little kids one brilliant spring day—tromping and clattering back into the classroom after recess—found violins on their desks. I hope they were better about practicing than I was. I hope they didn’t feel disappointed because they didn’t get sousaphones. And if they were boys—I hope they got chairs where there was a good view of the most beautiful girl in the orchestra—resplendent in her strapless evening gown–and experience that delicious little thrill of watching her keep that top up.

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