Thursday, September 21, 2006

Remembering Jimmy

I attended the beautiful memorial service yesterday for James Schwabacher, one of the most remarkable and treasured teachers I ever had. Jimmy passed away on July 25th, at the age of 86.

At Temple Emmanuel, with the SF Opera brass in attendance along with Jimmy's closest family and various luminaries from the music world, the event inevitably turned into a pow-wow of sorts. But there were many genuine, moving moments and heartfelt shared reminiscences.

And there was music, of course. Deborah Voigt, looking positively miniscule, sang Strauss' Lob des Leidens, in a beautifully restrained, non-operatic voice. Tenor William Saertre sang one of Jimmy's personal favorites, the gorgeous "Schoene Wiege", from Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 24. The men from Chanticleer served as the heavenly choral backdrop in the touching arrangement of Aloha 'oe by Queen Lili'uokalani. We were treated at the conclusion of the service with a recording of Robert Stolz' "Das Lied ist aus," sung by Jimmy himself in his 1962 Town Hall recital debut.

I met Jimmy when I was a junior in college, when he came into Cal Berkeley's Music Dept. as a guest lecturer for a masterclass. I sang "Total Eclipse" from Handel's Sansom and Schubert's Doppelganger for him. He gave me some praise and I seemed to have done well enough that he suggested that perhaps I should coach with him. At first I didn't take up the generous offer, being both flattered and horrified that someone important like Jimmy would actually give me the time of day. The next year, when he returned to Cal Berkeley for another round of masterclasses, I took heart and approached him, asking him if he would still give me some coaching. So Jimmy gave me his phone number, and he told me that he only answered the phone between 9 and 10 am.

Coachings with Jimmy took place at his beautiful residence in Pacific Heights, where he had turned the top-level solarium of his house into a working studio, filled with a music library, autographed photos of singers, and a grand piano. Jimmy was always warm and friendly as a person, but as a teacher, he was extraordinarily demanding. Our supposed hour-long lessons would always extend into two, sometimes three hours -- routinely, the sessions would cease only when the accompanist protested that he needed to leave. At times, Jimmy would pick out something like Schumann's Op. 39 off his shelf and say, "Here, take this. Learn and memorize it for next week." Being young, in fear and in awe of him, you made sure you learned and memorized whatever it was that Mr. Schwabacher requested. And under his guidance, in a year's time I became intimately familiar with all the major song cycles by Schubert and Schumann.

Usually, I was completely spent by the end of the lesson, but it was of course a fantastic education. I studied privately with Jimmy over two years, and to this day it still amazes me that someone so respected, prominent and defining of San Francisco's upper-class echelons would have given his time so generously to me -- a fresh-off-the-boat working class immigrant kid at the time, who was barely proficient in the English language. Attending his memorial service, it was clear that Jimmy had made a difference in the lives of many people, making better persons out of those he encounters, with a generosity that transcends mere wealth.

© 2006 C. Chang

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