Setsuko was twenty years older than me but she looked my age or younger. When I was first at university my brother came by and started talking to me when Setsuko was giving me a violin lesson in my practice room. He thought I was performing in front of a friend.
“This is Madame Halevy, my teacher,” I said. He nodded and left, embarrassed. She was too dignified to comment.
I was her student for over a year before she said, “My name is Setsuko” which, I understood, was permission to use her first name. She was tall and slender with long black hair and even at forty she had no lines on her face. In the three years I studied with Setsuko, I never saw her wear the same outfit twice. I wondered if she scrutinized fashion, she had the most beautiful dresses, or if she simply had an innate appreciation of style.
I learned early that I could not attend a lesson in jeans and a t-shirt. She never told me this directly. She delivered a parable. “There was once a poor girl in a Japanese Village,” she said, “and even though she only had one blouse and skirt she would wash and iron it so she always looked presentable when she went to her teacher…”
Later, when I thought of Setsuko not only as my teacher, but as my friend, she would announce that I could not wear any dress I had to the important concert coming up. She would whip us downtown in her Lexus, and into Bloomingdales. We would look at the clothes on the racks and she would bring four or five into the dressing room, chop chop.
I would try one after the other and she would tell me which looked best. I always agreed. Then she bought the dress. The whole process hardly took any time.
In my final year, when I had a lesson that was particularly challenging she might say, “You need a pick-me-up” and would take me to another fancy store, Saks Fifth Avenue, perhaps, and buy me a hundred-dollar blouse. But she might also walk out of the lesson before it was over, and tell me she was disappointed that I was so laissez faire about practicing. She must have known how hard I practiced and how many hours each day. She was very generous, but she could be brutal too.
The first time I grew frightened of Setsuko had nothing to do with her response to me. My friend Renata, two years older than me and the star violinist in the program, was performing Faure’s Sonata for Violin and Piano Op. 13 and I was sitting in the first row. Jaan, her fiancé, accompanied her. The Faure piece is popular and very romantic, spirited, though some say it is too romantic and too popular. I thought they played beautifully. Everyone did. I was honoured that Renata, older than me and more accomplished, considered me her friend. When they finished, most of the audience stood up to applaud and they played more than one encore.
When I had my lesson later that week Setusko did not mention Renata and Jaan’s performance until the hour was almost up. Then, as I was about to leave she said, “She did not ruin the sonata by playing too fast or too slow, but it had all the excitement of tea break at mid day. Though what can I say about a piece as dull as the sonata by Faure?”
If she said this about Renata, the star in the school, what would she say about my performance? I began to dread sessions where Setsuko critiqued our performance.
One student, Yongrui, was remarkably talented; everyone thought so. But Setsuko did not like him; the tension between them was obvious. When he finished performing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35 Setsuko did not speak for what felt like an excruciatingly long moment. By this time, we all knew her pregnant pauses meant disaster. Finally, she said, “You are like my maid. She never cleans the bottom of the pots.”
The class was silent as if inwardly gasping. Yongrui, whose family still lived in Beijing, was very handsome, tall and slender with thick black hair. I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic toward him.
Of course she was not hard on people who were obviously lacking talent. Like Kim, who did not speak English well. She’d left Vietnam when she was seven, had lived in a refugee camp in Laos for years before she was adopted and brought to America. “She doesn’t speak any language. That’s why she cannot play music,” Setsuko said later during my lesson. But when Kim performed the four Vivaldi concertos ending with Summer, 3rd movement, Setsuko smiled. “I see you saved the best for last,” she said. “Vivaldi is a charmer.”
I was in my senior year when she invited me to her home for dinner. My boyfriend Alain was at a biology conference that weekend and I hoped they would postpone the invitation to another day. But when I told her she said, “Good, we’ll have you to ourselves.” Ever since Alain had declared Rachmaninoff his favourite composer, Setsuko’s response to him was reserved.
The evening of the dinner her husband Isaac greeted me at the door. He was a large man, probably only a few years older than Setsuko, but he seemed decades older, his buttoned shirt stretched against his rounded belly. He reminded me of my father, another Jewish intellectual.
Their living room, bright from sun streaming through the skylights onto the hardwood floor, was immaculate with a tatami mat in the centre, just large enough for the couch and chairs and coffee table. The fabric on the couch was tropical, pink design on white surrounded by aqua, and the walls were a lemony tart green, the room radiant. A Mark Rothko print hung on the wall.
And then the meal. It was perfect with crisp asparagus, fresh fish with strawberry sauce, new potatoes, spinach salad with raspberry dressing. For dessert she served huge strawberries, perfectly sweet, (where did she shop?) and whipped cream. I understood she was not only an interior designer but a great cook. As much as she loved the violin, she was not a slave to it.
Her husband, after a few glasses of wine, held forth on how they met. She’d won an international violin competition which gave her the opportunity to tour. He’d placed third. “But I got the prize,” he said, “I met Setsuko.”
“I was studying with Szigeti at the time. Very famous teacher,” Setsuko said. “Teaching in Switzerland.” I asked if she liked him.
“Well after six months I quit. It was too hard. We had lessons every day. I was engaged to a Japanese boy at the time, and I told my teacher that I’d decided to return home. It was tempting to dwell on violin technique, but I knew to be excellent you had to go beyond that.
“What did he say?”
“He said okay. If I want to go fine. He had a present for me, a bar of soap. ‘But I will only give you half,’ he said ‘I keep the other half here.’
“When I am home and finish the last of my unpacking, I put the half bar in the bathroom. The next day my mother asked, ‘What is this?’
“A present from my teacher.”
“I explained that he kept the other half. She said, ‘So, you are not finished. You must go back.’ And the next month I did fly half way across the world and returned. I never did marry the Japanese boy.”
“I have Szigeti to thank for that. And your mother for telling you to return,” Isaac said, looking at his wife with adoration. “Setsuko`s name means melody. Everything about Setsuko is harmonious,” he said.
“Melody does not concern me,” Setsuko said.
At the end of the meal, after the strawberries, she served meringues and small round shortbread cookies with coffee. Delicious.
When I saw Yongrui outside the practice studios next morning, I told him about the dinner. “It was very elegant,” I said.
Yongrui`s face is long and narrow and his hair, usually slicked back, fell over his forehead, as if he’d been caught in the rain. His skin is so delicate and smooth it’s difficult not to stare at his face. He took out a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. “You smoke?” I asked.
“What piece are you working on?”
But Yongrui didn’t answer. He smiled and said, “When I get it right, I’ll play it for you.” Then he nodded and turned to enter the building, still smoking. He looked like a bad boy about to crash a party. I believe his name is accurate. I looked it up on the internet. It means Lucky Forever. I was certain even Setsuko’s disparagement would not deter him.
When I was getting ready for my final concert of the year, Setsuko was not at the university to approve my choice of pieces. She’d had to fly back to Japan. Her mother was ill. But she let me know she would return in time for the concert. As it turns out she returned on the morning of my performance.
I’d chosen the Beethoven violin concerto in D, Op. 61, which I studied with her and knew she would like. But I also decided to play the Stravinsky D major violin concerto, an unusual piece, the third movement, for me, the most beautiful. The fourth movement made me almost giddy. I felt like dancing when I played it. But I was not sure what Satsuko would think.
My performance went well, it seemed to me. The applause was enthusiastic. The audience insisted on an encore. Afterwards, Setsuko and Isaac came backstage. Setsuko apologized for being jetlagged. She’d flown in from Tokyo that morning, she explained, and could not stay for the party. She said she came backstage because she wanted me to know she’d heard the performance and, smiling, she kissed me on the cheek before she left.
Did that mean she liked it? Or was being jetlagged an excuse to hide her disappointment?
Afterwards my parents gave me a bouquet of long-stemmed roses. “You were impeccable,” my father said.
“I don’t know if Setsuko liked it.”
“How could she not?” he asked, eyebrows arched.
At the party Yongrui said I was as good as Gil Shaham. I laughed. “Did you see him play with his wife at Carnegie’s Hall?” I asked. What I thought was, Is there any greater joy than playing violin with someone you love.
I introduced Yongrui to my parents. “He is one of the school’s great violinists,” I said and Yongrui laughed.
“Your daughter is the one with that honour,” he said.
“Hmm,” my mother murmured, turning to me after he’d walked away, “movie- star handsome,” she said, arching her eyebrows.
My parents took me to lunch the next day but I was too nervous to enjoy the meal. “I don’t have a lesson for four days,” I said to my father. “How can I wait four days, to find out what Setsuko thought?” I felt as if I were white knuckling hairpin turns on the edge of a cliff. “I can’t bear it.”
My mother sighed and my father tapped the table with his fingers, a nervous habit he had.
“I don’t understand this worry,” he said.
“Dad, Setsuko is very critical. She can’t bear listening to Ithzak Perlman. She says he plays like a nice Jewish boy.”
I realized I had gone too far. My father was enraged. “This woman should be reported to the administration. She is an anti-Semite. She should not be teaching young violinists.”
“Dad, her husband is Jewish. She’s not anti-Semitic.”
“The fact that she`s married to a Jew has nothing to do with it. This is exactly the reason I don’t approve of mixed marriages.”
He approved of Alain, which allowed at least that part of my life to be free of conflict. Alain, who was majoring in both biology and math, lit candles on Shabbat and went to synagogue on Saturdays. I would have found these rituals tedious, but Alain was French and everything he did had, for me, had an air of novelty.
My father continued fuming, but my mother said, “Let’s eat lunch without arguing” as the waitress brought our orders.
I did survive the next four days and was still breathing when I met with Setsuko for my lesson. When she and I were alone she said, “Isaac and I agree you are the only artist in the graduating class.”
I nearly cried with relief.
Setsuko knew I was going to graduate school in Cleveland but not that Yongrui was going there as well. I stayed in touch with Setsuko when Yongrui and I were living together, though at no time did I did mention him or our approaching wedding. When she learned from a friend that we’d married, I never heard from her again.
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