Sunday, September 23, 2012

Vintage '38

The following essay was written eight years ago while I was facing the aspect of retirement from the Conservatoire de Lausanne, Switzerland. It was to be almost two years later that my destiny led me to the Musashino Academia Musicae in Tokyo, Japan.
This has become a very welcome and happy destiny.

Vintage '38

In every country one encounters, it seems to be inordinately bureaucratic, especially to foreigners. Having been through the process of immigration in several countries, I feel safe in saying that Switzerland may be the most bureaucratic of all. Foreigners muse over the possibility that this constant badgering of residents holding something other than Swiss passports is representative of a latent but chronic form of xenophobia. We all sense this, sometimes we speak about it, but as far as I know we’ve never taken action. Perhaps it’s just not all that bad.

I had been living in Lausanne, Switzerland for five years before the foreign police and the Conservatoire de Lausanne discovered I had not reported my residence; they couldn’t believe it; I must have been the first to get away with such a thing. The school had to use their lawyer to rush through a “B permit” for me, so both they and I would be legal. The Conservatoire informed me that I would be held responsible for both the legal fees and the fine. That’s the last I ever heard about it. Perhaps the school paid it, but if so, it would have been quite out of character.

Now, six years later, I have been informed that I will be given a “C permit”, which is like having Swiss citizenship in every way being able to vote; this is ironic, because as of one year ago I was deemed too old to continue my work in Switzerland because I was 65. I feel sure this is another kind of bureaucratic oversight but in any case I will accept the “C permit”.

When I went to the directors of the Conservatoire de Lausanne and protested this compulsory retirement, they went into shock. It seemed to me that I was the first person in Swiss history to complain! “Don’t you want to rest now, don’t you want to take walks by the lake?” My visceral reaction to those questions was to reach across the desk, grab the director by the collar and say, "No, I'm not tired and I have better things to do than to take walks around your lake!" I didn’t, but I was having a new concept of what was meant by “small country!”

We did find a compromise, however, in that they agreed to let me continue teaching until all the students, who were all foreign (a problem for the school) and who had come there specifically to study with me, had graduated. This would fiscally take me to August 2005 when I would be 67. Actually, this situation couldn’t have come at a better time. My work in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music was increasing. They like me and they want me there full time for as long as I am able, and they also want as many foreigners as possible; not to mention the fact that the RNCM is a vastly superior music school compared to the Conservatoire de Lausanne. In the school year 2004-2005 I will simultaneously be nearly full time at both Manchester and Lausanne and I look forward to organizing it.

Retirement remains unthinkable to me and other than the physical demands of being a tuba soloist, I have given little thought to the aging process. However, the foreign police have required me to get an up-to-date photograph for the C permit document, which I did. It was in one of those automatic photograph kiosks that are found in post offices and railroad stations. I adjusted the height, smiled and saw in the screen in front of me an older man, a little less hair, nearly completely gray and because of a diet, which is very successful, the face that was “full” was now full of jowls. I would guess from the picture that I was about 65, which is what I was!

Well, so what! I rarely see myself in the mirror, I shave in the shower, I brush my hair without my glasses and my barber seems quite amused when I ask him to turn the barber chair facing the small place (square) at the corner of rue de Petit Chene and rue de Midi so I can watch the people instead of seeing my hair being cut.

Of course, this aging process doesn’t come as a great surprise. The statistic has always been clear to me but now that I’ve seen the C permit photo, the statistic has become a little clearer. I noticed even a few years ago though, that when I would walk into a restaurant or a pub with a group of my students that the eyes of the younger women inside would go to the students, not me; I wasn’t used to that. Growth hormones, cosmetic surgery and hair dye are not my thing so I guess the only thing to do is get used to it; I’m still working on it!

Seeking a female companion at my age can be frustrating and no matter how much I try and comprehend the realities, I always seem to be most attracted to women in their late twenties ---- over and over again! And indeed I have several relationships with women in that age group, all paternal and avuncular. If I keep clear that’s what it is, these are valuable and wonderful friendships. I’m grateful my work brings me into constant contact with that age group!

Women in their thirties are equally attractive but they are just enough older to begin to fear the arrival of their own aging process and a deep friendship with a man my age scares them.

In her forties, if a woman is still single or has become single, she is often soured and embittered by something in her history and with the inevitability of her biological changes; a friendship is frequently volatile.

By fifty, most women are set in their ways, they can be lovely companions but, frankly, they scare me!

I recently renewed an old friendship with a girlfriend from my conservatory days, who had just had her sixtieth birthday. She was equally successful as I and very opinionated. When I was asked a question, she would answer for me ---- always, and in public places she would apply new coats of lipstick every 10 minutes. I can’t attribute these things to her age, she’s the only woman in that age group I have had a friendship with, but let’s just say she seemed to have changed through the 40 years since I had seen her and the attraction was no longer there!

Quickly, I must point out that I’m quite aware that forty years of time has also changed me ---- a little!

I’m curious why 65 has come to signify the age of retirement. Who determined 65 was the age to quit work, why and when? Was it religion? Maybe it was political or maybe it was so long ago that the cultures simply realized most people would be dead by that age so it was mostly a hypothetical number. And what of the economics, what of the baby boomers who are all very close to that mysterious age now and in a few years will become eligible for the social pension payments from already over-stressed systems? It will be curious to see when this time arrives if suddenly the retirement age is changed. If so, what will the result be regarding unemployment? The bottom line is clear to me, this planet is over-populated, and that problem needs to be alleviated.

But how? Perhaps it’s AIDS, or something even worse will cut back world population the necessary 75% or 80% needed. Maybe a real all-out World War III would be a good thing, or perhaps cannibalism could be the answer; I know from my years in Italy how easy anything goes down with a little garlic and a little extra virgin olive oil. Or consider this; maybe the North American Indians were right; When a person has nothing more to offer, it’s time to take him or her to the top of a mountain, make a comfortable place, say goodbye and leave him or her there to catch the next spaceship to the happy hunting ground. Maybe they had it right hundreds of years ago. Anyway, something has to be done!

Personally, I hope I can continue teaching for the next 35 years. 100 seems like a rounder number than 65. Equally, I hope when I start to deteriorate I will recognize it or, if not, that some trusted friend would tell me.

I like very much the vintage wine analogy; no one knows the cellar life of a wine for sure, some reach maturity quickly and some become better and better.

In 1979 I gave a masterclass in Moudon, Switzerland. One of the students (now the tubist of l’Orchest de la Swiss Romand in Geneva) was from the very small town of Feshy. After the last day he invited all the class to his farm in the country; there were 12 or 15 of us. Tables were set up in the cross roads of the village. We ate and drank and it was clearly an exceptional evening. Soon we began to play tuba ensemble music in this isolated rural crossroads. Across the street was another party and the host of that party was also a musician, (everyone in that part of Switzerland had some connection with the band community). Soon the two parties converged and very soon after, the padrone of the party across the street invited us to visit his wine cellar. Shortly, it became clear that this gentleman, whom I was very sure was about my age, was not only an inhabitant of Feshy, but also a principal wine merchant of the region. Perhaps the principle wine merchant of the region. To this day I can’t remember whether he had twenty 40,000 liter casks of wine or forty 20,000 liter casks. In any case he had more wine than I had ever encountered, and he quickly began to encourage us to sample all of it! Soon he suggested, instead of the 1979 vintage, that we sample the 1978, and then the 77. It was an education and a religious experience. We were moving backward through time and I was amazed how different the wine was from year to year. We went through the 70’s and into the 60’s when he began asking birth dates from my students. Upon hearing the birth years he would disappear for a short period and reappear with a bottle of vintage Fechy from that year. He went through the whole class and finally asked if there was anybody else and looked at me with a fraternal smile.
“Well, my birth date is 1938” I said. “Oh, that’s my birth date too”, he said. He left for a long time and we all began to think the party had come to an end when he arrived back with a crusty old bottle with a big 38 rubber stamped on it like the rubber stamps we used in grammar school when I was a boy. He opened it, poured it and it was both a great wine and a religious experience. I hope to find him again someday and remember that evening together.

There was another time I tasted a vintage from 1938. For my 60th birthday present, my good friend and manager Emily Harris gave me a bottle of 1938 port. It was magnificent.

It’s difficult to realistically assess one’s own aging process, but I’m convinced vintage ‘38 was a great year.

Fiesole, Italy, March 2004

Republished and retouched September 23, 2012