My father, world-renowned virtuoso violinist and teacher Roman Totenberg, whose professional career spanned nine decades and four continents, died early Tuesday morning at the age of 101.
His death was as remarkable as his life. He made his debut as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 11, performed his last concert when he was in his mid-90s, and was still teaching, literally, on his deathbed. This week, as word flew around the musical world that he was in renal failure, former students flocked to his home in Newton, Mass., to see the beloved “maestro.”
Mainly, he wanted to hear them play, and several of the sessions turned into long lessons, with my father, eyes closed, conducting with one hand to keep the tempo, slowing the phrasing here and there, and at one point, asking Daniel Han, now a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to hand over his violin so my dad could show him some fingering.
Letitia Hom, who has a class of students of her own now, wanted a lesson on the Brahms violin concerto, so on Saturday, she stood at his bedside playing beautifully for him. At one stopping point, though, he spoke so softly, she had to bend her ear to his lips. His words: “The D was flat.”
Solo violinist Mira Wang, who came from China decades ago to study with him, played for hours on Sunday. Every time she would stop, he had just one word: “More.” And still they came, one after another, describing how he had changed their lives. So widespread was the outpouring, that one former student in Poland had to be dissuaded from jumping on a plane to the United States.
He was a caring and wise father not just to us, his three daughters, but to literally thousands of students around the world who had studied with him. I dare say there is not a major orchestra in Europe or the U.S. that does not have at least one student who studied with him. When Wang, who is 40-something with a husband and two children of her own, left our house on Sunday, she said to my brother-in-law Ralph, “Now, I finally have to be a grown-up.”
(via Roman Totenberg’s Remarkable Life And Death by Nina Totenberg)
Photo courtesy of Nina Totenberg