Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada
|Jason Stanford, orchestrator (left), Vladimir Hachinski,
composer (center), Norbert Pfafflmeyer, conductor (right)
Photo courtesy of Mark Hallett
My love of music began on a toy piano. In Caripito, Venezuela where I grew up, immigrant families visited each other often. I particularly liked it when we visited one Russian family, where one of the boys had a toy piano. He let me play on it. My father was impressed that I could produce tunes on command by ear. He loved the accordion, so years later he bought me one, although no one in town could teach me how to play it. I picked out melodies with the right hand and discovered a few related buttons with my left hand that allowed me to accompany most songs that were common in the gatherings of the immigrant families. Everyone sang. From time to time I was asked to accompany my maternal uncle, gifted with a mellow baritone voice, performing songs from Ukraine, Russia, Venezuela, Mexico and Spain. When I tried to accompany him, he often would switch from key to key, leaving me behind. When I asked him not to indulge in so many improvised variations, he said that his virtuosity would not allow him such restraint.
In addition to my uncle, other members of the family loved music. My maternal grandmother played the harmonica. My mother, as a schoolgirl in Zhitomir, Ukraine, would often play hooky by listening to practice performances at the Conservatory, either arriving late or not at all to school, incurring the wrath of her father. She loved music and was able to memorize the music and words of songs easily, retaining them for decades. My father played the clarinet in a band as a young man.
I completed my first three years of high school in Caripito. The subsequent two years were not available, so that I had to continue my schooling in a larger city, Maturin, the capital of Monagas state. At the high school around noon time we were given a couple of hours recess as it was so hot. The school had a piano and I was allowed to play it. I did so by ear. I would pick out the melodies with my right hand and accompany myself with the left in what I later discovered were C major and D minor keys and a few others.
Monagas had a state band that played at ceremonial and special occasions. The band leader also directed a choir in which I participated. One time the choir was asked to sing to welcome the first Bishop of Maturin. I was assigned a bass part, although I am a natural baritone. I was placed next to a monk who looked like Friar Tuck of a Robin Hood movie, endowed with a round, resonant belly. When singing the kyrie eleison I could only lower my voice just so far. He would lower his booming voice as he pointed his right index finger downward to signal that my voice should go lower, loWER, LOWER!
Our choir was lopsided, having very few sopranos. A girl of Italian heritage was eager to participate. She had approached the choirmaster, who did not want her in the choir. I found that strange, given the need for sopranos. I took her with me and I spoke to the choirmaster and said that she was very keen and could he please consider her for the choir. He had her intone “do re mi fa sol la si do.” She sang it off key, so he asked her to repeat, again she sang off key. I said to her “stop joking, this is serious, you really have to do it right.” I realized by the third try that she did not have the ear to recognize the notes and therefore she really wasn’t suitable for singing in the choir. That was my first realization that we all differ in our talents. One often assumes that whatever one can do, others can do and it was strange to me that she was unable to perform a very simple musical task, since I was surrounded by people who sang well and I thought that music was a natural endowment of everyone.
I admired not only the austere band director, but the deputy director, a friendly, kindly man who had his own band that played for money. One time when I was at the piano, I suddenly realized that he was listening and watching me with half his broad, smiling face peering from behind a corner. He said “you will be my next pianist.” Although I never contemplated a career in music, for some reason that compliment touched me more than any other that I have received in my whole life.
Inspired by the compliment, I decided to compose a march for my high school. I asked one of the members of the band, an Italian gentleman to write out the music that I composed on the piano. He was surprised that I knew how to modulate through the different keys. He asked me who taught me and I said “no one taught me, it just sounds right.”
I very much hoped that the march would be played by the state band at my high school at a ceremony, however my family and I left for Canada, never to return.
I continued to enjoy music and eventually acquired a piano, which I delight in playing and have composed dozens of short motifs, Latin rhythms, marches, and waltzes. However I never had a reason to compose seriously, since I had given up the hope of having one of my pieces played in public when we left Venezuela.
I was President of the World Federation of Neurology which was going to hold a World Congress of Neurology in Vienna in 2013, and I knew it was fairly typical for Congresses in Vienna to have a heuriger evening, held in a rural tavern where fresh wine is served along with food and accompanied by band music. I had composed a waltz and I thought that if I were to go a day early, I could play it on the piano and the band could learn it and play it during the hueriger. To my disappointment, I discovered that there would be a heuriger, but no band. However, there was going to be a gala concert in the Gold Room of the Musikverein, one of the foremost musical venues in the world, where the famous New Year concerts are played and broadcast. I began to fantasize that perhaps if I expanded my composition, it could be played at the concert!
At a Christmas reception in 2012, I ran into Carol Herbert, the former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario and I asked her what she was doing since she finished her second term as Dean. She brought me up to date, including her involvement with the Faculty of Music. I said half in jest, “Carol, why don’t you talk to the Dean of Music to find a composer who could help me orchestrate my waltz?” Within days of our conversation she had spoken to the Dean of Music, Betty Ann Younker, who identified Jason Stanford, a young composer of electronic music to meet with me. I had recorded my waltz on my Blackberry device and sent it to him, so he was able to hear it ahead of our first meeting. We met in my office and had a very long conversation about music and I had a hunch that he was going to let me down easy. I am very aware that just because people excel in one area does not guarantee that they will excel in another. At the end of the meeting, he said he thought that the waltz had promise and we discussed that if it had any potential to be played in a concert hall, it would have to be a longer piece, preferably with a programmatic theme. I imagined a young woman who after a long day in the vineyards south of Vienna, falls asleep. She perceives distant music, slowly getting nearer and nearer and becoming more rhythmic. It is a waltz. She finds herself in the middle of a ball at one of the Viennese palaces. Men line up to dance with her. She smiles, and twirls and flirts. She becomes the “belle of the ball.” The music becomes more intense, faster and louder; and then, abruptly it stops. She wakes up. It was a dream!
Thereafter I composed several variations, recorded them on the Blackberry and sent them to Jason. He would then put them on a computer program that would transcribe the music into notes and which could simulate the sound of different instruments. We would meet, play the latest variations and discussed and shaped the developing waltz. I kept on sending him variations until he told me to stop! We ended up with a 7½ minute piece. The question remained, was it realistic to expect it to be played in a concert hall?
I had a chance to go to Vienna in March 2013 to make sure that the scientific program and all the arrangements for the World Congress of Neurology were in place. I took the opportunity to ask for an audition with Norbert Pfafflmeyer, the conductor of the concert. Professor Eduard Auff, the President of the Congress, had arranged for us to meet in an office that had good acoustics.
The waltz with the orchestral simulation was played and Pfafflmeyer said immediately “Ah, a Viennese waltz.” I continued to watch him apprehensively across the table. At the end he simply said “Yes, we can play that.” I was awed. I realized that the program featured Verdi’s Forza del Destino, Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier Suite, Bedrich Smetana’s the Bartered Bride, and several Johann Strauss Sr. and Jr. polkas and waltzes. I asked whether it could be played anonymously. He looked astonished and then exclaimed, “Why would you want it to be played anonymously? You will be the only composer who can come on stage to take a bow!”
After a few reluctant moments, I agreed that it would be played with the appropriate names, i.e. myself as the composer and Jason as the orchestrator. Subsequently, Jason had the major job of providing all the sheet music for the 76 instrument Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, the second largest in Czechoslovakia that would play the concert.
When the evening of September 24, 2013 came, when the Dream Waltz was to be played, I looked forward to its premiere, more with curiosity than anxiety. It was received with a standing ovation. It was hard to believe that with toy piano beginnings, without the benefit of a musical education and the chance to learn to read and write music, that I would have one of my compositions performed at the Musikverein.
Even undreamt dreams can come true!
, CM O(Ont), MD, FRCPC, FRSC, DSc, Doctor honoris causa X4, is a distinguished University Professor of Neurology at Western University in Canada. He earned an MD from the University of Toronto and trained in neurology and research in Montreal, Toronto, London, UK and Copenhagen. He pioneered with Dr. John W. Norris, the world’s first successful acute stroke unit and discovered vital and fatal brain/heart relationships. With David Cechetto and Shawn Whitehead he discovered treatable links between Alzheimer disease and stroke. He has authored, co-authored, or co-edited 17 books and over 600 publications which have been cited over 28,000 times. He was Editor-in-Chief of STROKE and President of the World Federation of Neurology.Follow Hektoen International via social media to see more featured content.