A happy-sad farewell to the violin

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RICHMOND — In 2011, Cecylia Arzewski realized a lifelong ambition: She recorded Bach's six unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin, the Everest of the solo violin literature.

She then put the violin down and never played it again.

"I haven't touched the violin since the recording," she says, "because I feel I have nothing else to say. I mean, I can't tell you I just put it down and felt nothing. I felt tremendous sadness. But I knew it was the right thing to do."

She consoles herself that she can always pick up her 1714 Petrus Guarneri (known as "The Beast") and play it again if she's so inspired. She still loves music, she says, "but to put this thing under my chin and start scrubbing — I don't think so."

The year 2011 was a landmark in another way for this daughter of Holocaust survivors and former Boston Symphony Orchestra assistant concertmaster. She returned to the Berkshires for a visit and, under the spell of the earth smells and sky, "decided this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life."

After five years as summer residents, she and her husband, Paul Lennard, a professor of neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, settled last May in a year-round house they bought in Richmond. Thus ended a journey that led from birth in Poland to successive concertmaster positions in Boston, Cleveland and Atlanta.

"Everything I have accomplished so far has proven to me to be insufficient," she writes in the notes to the two-disc Bach album. "The work I have done and the talent I have been told I possess are so small in comparisons to Bach's genius. The performances on these discs have been the bravest of all my life's dreams. ... I can only hope that Bach's passion and spirituality can be heard and felt in these recordings."

Between bites of a croissant, the slender, intense violinist gratefully accepted a compliment that her playing on the recordings suggested the depth and range of an organ's tones. It turned out that her concept of sound began with an organ.

Roll back the years to childhood and Jewish parents in Krakow, Poland:

"I was always attracted to Bach, and that started in Poland when the housekeeper, instead of taking me to the playground or to the park, she would take me to [Catholic] church. And she threatened me not to tell my mother. And I said to her, `Well, I'm not going to say anything, I want to go to church.' The reason was, because there was an organ.                                                                                                                                                      

"I think that that's where my concept of sound came in. And I used to also lie taking naps under my father's piano while he was practicing. And that sound was always coming at me. And I would sometimes ask him to play a really loud chord and hold it so I could hear it die down. When I think about those days, I think what replaced that sound was the orchestra."

And the orchestra was to be the BSO. The family emigrated to Israel when she was 9, to the United States when she was 12.

She joined the BSO in 1970 at age 22. She stayed in Boston 17 years, winning promotion to assistant concertmaster — fourth chair, first violins. She left in 1987 to begin three years as associate concertmaster second chair — with the Cleveland Orchestra. In 1990, after an invitation to audition, she became full concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony under Yoel Levi. She stayed until she retired in 2008. Solo opportunities in concertos came with the Cleveland and Atlanta appointments.

"My Fair Lady" may be a great musical, but it was a shock for Arzewski in her first year with the Pops, the BSO's alter ego.

"When I auditioned for the Boston Symphony," she recalls, "it never occurred to me that I would have to go through eight weeks, six nights a week — six nights a week — playing music like `My Fair Lady.' I said to myself, `This is not why I practiced the Brahms concerto, or anything else.' I was miserable. Miserable."

Thus it was a relief to come straight from Pops season to Tanglewood for her first summer, 1971, and, during a break in her first rehearsal here, sit on an outdoor bench and breathe in the Berkshire air. When the time came in 2011, she hadn't forgotten.

Bach was still on her mind during the BSO years. In 1978, she made a Carnegie Recital Hall debut, playing three of the sonatas and partitas. She "was admirably equipped to play these uncompromising pieces," The New York Times wrote. "Steady tone, precise intonation, bowing skill and reliable musicianship were combined in performances that maintained admirably high standards throughout."

Similar reviews greeted the Bach recording.

In 2008, she retired because "I realized I was 60 years old and it was time to do it because of the wear and tear of the orchestra life," which could include wear on the muscles, cartilage and ligaments. She moved from Atlanta to live amid the snakes and owls of the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, where she prepared for the Bach recording.

Three years later the recording was done. She started writing, beginning with a children's book, "Gustav's Gate." It has "to do with enticing children to listen to music — classical music — and to read books and to go to museums."

Designed for ages 7 to 12, the story is told through the voice of her dog, Gustav, who was found in the middle of the forest near a gate 13 years ago. The book awaits an artist to do illustrations. She has also embarked on a memoir recounting her life as a child of Holocaust survivors and her career as a musician and mother.

A lodestar through all of this has been former BSO concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, who died two years ago. She remembers driving down from Maine in 1967 to Boston to audition to study with him. The audition lasted not more than 10 minutes. He was her teacher at the New England Conservatory.                                        

"I feel almost like I never really stopped. I feel that everything I know is because of Joe Silverstein."     

Another influence was her BSO stand partner, Max Hobart. He never hesitated to tell her or Silverstein when something they were doing could be improved. Silverstein referred to him as "my conscience," she says.     

Silverstein left in 1984 to pursue a conducting and solo career, but that was only part of her reason for leaving the BSO three years later. "The biggest part of it was, I really felt I wanted to be an associate concertmaster, ready to be an associate concertmaster. And Cleveland had an opening."                                                  

Through it all, Arzewski remembers the inspiration of her first BSO rehearsal, back in 1970. William Steinberg was conducting Holst's "The Planets" — the progenitor of interplanetary soundtracks of the future — in a special sound set-up for a recording. The orchestra was arrayed in the middle of the hall, where the audience usually sits.                                                                                                                                                           

She had to stop playing a moment to take it all in. The sound "overwhelmed me." She thought, "Wow, this is bigger than life." That's what a passion for Bach, Brahms and the other masters will do to you.


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