His tall, gaunt, angular frame strode back and forth in front of me, that perpetual smile permitting one corner a puff puff of his aromatic pipe between each declaration. Bootsie the cat, the size of a small child, sat at the right edge of the bow’s trajectory, batting away at each return. And, I, the tender thirteen year old, spread my bow stroke as wide as I could, intensifying the left hand vibrato, and pulled as soaring a sound as was humanly possible from my plywood prototype.
Dimitri Erdely, a real Yugoslavian, a true musician, held command at each cello lesson like a prince of the court. I was thirteen; I didn’t practice much. The only room in the house that provided enough physical space to play like Dimitri wanted me to was our livingroom, and most of the time the instrument and its accompanying music stand were just in the way, a regal disruption in Mom’s otherwise spotless house. More often than not, on days when I’d choose to get everything out of the case and make the attempt, any sound I made would end up competing with Mom and her vacuum cleaner, wheezing and braying around me on all sides.
Dimitri was a first-generation Yugoslav; his wife, Elaine, was an American. Her once lovely frame had already begun to curl up, succumbing to the degenerating effects of cigarette smoking. She’d meet each student at the door in her velour robe with the long zipper straight up the front, a new cigarette already lit, and then retreat into the adjoining room to have her smoke while each of us prepared to either carry the cello into the studio livingroom or pack up to take our leave.
Golterman was the first musical work Dimitri presented to me. A concerto for early players, the piece was, like most solos designed for the instrument, easy at the opening theme, challenging in the development, and virtuosic in the home stretch. I always managed a glorious exposition.
Then, there were the studies. “Etudes”, by Fredrich Dotzauer. Two pages each of a selected rhythmic motif, transmuted through every key in the Western diatonic system, and back home again with a closing flourish. I was, of course, partial to the first eight measures. Which I would polish to perfection – seeenging mit deh chellow with all my heart.
Each lesson would usually center around the ninth and tenth measures of the etude.
Sigh. I’d, predictably, run aground – first with a dramatic expulsion of air from my lungs, followed by an exasperated, grinding halt. Each week would provide for Dimitri a newer, even more imaginative reason for my “problems” with measure nine. And, each week, Dimitri would smile graciously, take the cello, sit down, and play the measure – and, all the measures that followed – with the grande, convincing ease of a true European.