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7 September 2009

Wisdom Circles

Elena Kats-Chernin commission for Felix Bochner's 70th birthday

Elena Kats-Chernin Image: Elena Kats-Chernin  

It is an enduring question and is entirely valid even when it may seem a cliché: on his 70th birthday, what does one get for a man who says - especially to his family - that he needs nothing?

I must confess that even though Professor Felix Bochner of the University of Adelaide is my oldest friend (indeed, we met on our very first day as medical students in Brisbane), I shamelessly took perfectly literally the clear instruction on the invitation to his party that there should be no presents. Plainly, though, such an austere course was not available to his immediate family.

That family - an essential element of the good fortune which, as he insists, renders entirely redundant the need for anything else in his life now that he has retired after a distinguished career as a clinical pharmacologist and physician - devised a brilliant solution to their challenge. They decided to commission a piece for solo cello from Elena Kats-Chernin and, as a bonus, it would be presented to him at his birthday lunch in a performance by his son Nicholas, who is Deputy Principal Cello in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

And so it was that, after an over-long but well-tolerated speech from me (the interjections were surprisingly few but witty), I and all of the guests had the inspiring experience of hearing that first performance and seeing Felix's response to it. His surprise was complete, his delight extraordinary: this warm-hearted man was enormously moved. And so were his guests, whatever our disparate musical tastes.

How is such a gift managed and how does a composer - not knowing the recipient - approach her task? The family chose Elena because they all enjoy her music and because they were confident that she would deliver the score on time, early enough for Nick to learn it. There were many clandestine conversations between her and Felix's eldest daughter Melissa (who is a justly prominent surgeon in Adelaide), in which the composer was told everything that she wanted to know about the septuagenarian to be honoured and celebrated by her music.

All of these aspects made the commission 'more serious than many' to Elena. Furthermore, Nick (who had made the first contact) wanted 'something for the cellists' repertoire'. Elena therefore sought to write a 'multi-layered' piece because, in those extended telephone and email discussions with Melissa, Elena realised that the lucky recipient was, whilst an internationally respected medical scientist and a formidably educated cosmopolitan, 'very innocent, almost childlike'. (I can attest to that: Felix has not an atom of malice or guile in his splendid character.)

When the piece was written she realised that 'it was very challenging for one person to play', so she was entirely amenable to Nick's suggestions about slight revisions, though when we spoke about the process she was very anxious that I realised that some of those amendments made the piece even harder. Nick then made a recording which he emailed to her in case she wanted any more alterations and soon enough the piece was ready.

Then came the important question: what should it be called? Conscious of her father's European background - his late father was a Czech businessman and his late mother (a wonderful woman who, incidentally, had an enormous civilising influence on me when I was an undergraduate) had a PhD in philology from the University of Vienna - Melissa sought a possible title in German poetry and found what she wanted in a line by Rilke: Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen ('I live my life in ever-growing circles') and Elena devised the variant, Wisdom Circles, which perfectly epitomised both the form of her piece and the essential character of its recipient.

The slight pity was that Elena could not be present to see Felix Bochner's radiant delight as this wonderful gift was presented to him by his family, through his son's expressive and accomplished playing.

John Carmody has written and broadcast about concert music and opera for more than 30 years in national and international media. He is based in Sydney and is also known as a book reviewer and a medical historian.


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