I spent many summers with Michael Steinberg and his wife Jorja Fleezanis at the wonderful music festival in Round Top, Texas. One day, on my way to town, I was stopped by Michael who asked if I might be able to pick up a bottle of Campari. ”I’m going to sit on the porch and drink a Salieri, which is Campari with orange juice. It’s quite a lovely drink, and you’re welcome to join me.” I did, and we talked about music, poetry, and life. We did this many times over the years, and I was never the same. Michael had a slow, lilting rhythm when he spoke, always calm in sound, but occasionally sharp and critical in content. Those flashes always made me wonder what the early Michael was like, if those words had mellowed considerably with age. When I knew him, he seemed incredibly calm and clear about what was important to him, and that was poetry. He would gather groups of students together for poetry readings. Then, after a few years, he began to coach the students on how to read poems: the meter, the rhyme, the click of a “k”, the sexiness of an “l,” the perfect pause, the expression of it all. Michael believed that the clearest manifestation of poetry was in poems, and that if musicians read poems, away from the hard work of practicing their instruments, they would naturally find poetry in notes. I remember the feeling of reading in public for the first time, away from the podium, or from my bass. Just me and beautiful words and naked expression. It was scary and thrilling, and it’s where I try to get now when I perform. It’s not easy, it doesn’t always happen, but it’s a worthy goal, and it’s one that Michael revealed to me.
So Michael, thank you, and I’ll miss you. You’ve become a part of me after all of those years, sipping Salieris on the porch. I’m glad you left so much for me to read, and I turn to your books often. They’re program notes, but I’m not looking for the history or the facts when I read your work. I’m looking for those magical turns of phrase that reveal something profound about a piece, words that inspire me and ignite my imagination. I’m looking for your poetic vision of the music. Who knew program notes could be poetry? But then again, I think your lesson was that everything could be poetry.
Here’s a poem that you read to me that I’ll never forget. In fact, it reminds me of you. The rhythm reminds me of your voice, the words of a certain kind of music and music-making. And of course you were a Romantic, in love.
Romantics: Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
by Lisel Mueller
The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.