|CELLIST, the autobiography
of Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
The janitor of the conservatory let me sleep in one of the classroom. When Professor von Glehn heard about it, he said that I should have come to see him. He gave me some money and loaned me a cello. It was rather small and girlish, and the sound matched its appearance. It did not respond to my masculine style. "This cello will help you develop a taste for lyrical and elegant music," said the professor.
"Do you know Gospodin Kachouk?" the janitor asked me one day.
"But you know Chaliapin?"
"Well, Kachouk is his manager, and right now he is in a jam because Chaliapin's regular stopgap got sick."
"Yes, someone to fiddle while Chaliapin rests between numbers. You were recommended, and I said, 'Piatigorsky is your man.' We made the deal."
"What deal?" I asked.
"It's a proposition for three concerts. He left a deposit-here-see?" He showed me the money and quickly put it back into his pocket. "Congratulations! You sure can use a few rubles." He produced a slip of paper and handed it to me. I read: "For Piatigorsky-rehearsal with Professor Keneman Thursday at four in the conservatory. Wear a dark suit and a clean shirt at the concert." The word "clean" was underlined and it was signed, "Kachouk."
"Thursday! That is tomorrow!" I thanked the janitor and hurried away.
The next day I met Professor Keneman. His age could have been anywhere from forty to seventy. He wore a high collar that covered the sides of his face but left an opening in the middle for his goatee. Our rehearsal was easy and short. There were no questions asked, and I heard his voice only when he said, "Uha," or "Aha," which meant that he took notice of everything essential.
The first concert was two days later. The news of my engagement spread fast at the conservatory. Students congratulated me and said they would attend. "Your genius will illuminate the world, and put Chaliapin in the shadow," one of them said, to the enjoyment of the others. I took their mockery stocally. I had no time for them. I went to practice.
At the big conservatory hall, the backstage was dark and empty. I listened to the rumble of the oncoming public and waited to be called on stage. A short, round man rolled into the room. He puffed and was out of breath. "What's the idea-puff, puff-of hiding yourself? It's time to start. My name is Kachouk."
"I am ready," I said.
"Don't you know that tonight is a gala? Chaliapin? Premiere?" I passed through the narrow stage door with Professor Keneman. Blinded by the bright lights and deafened by noise, I stared at the tremendous audience. There was no applause to greet us. No one seemed to have such a notion-they greeted each other instead. As soon as I sat down, Keneman proceeded with the Polonaise by Popper. It was surprising to hear such a restrained gentleman play suddenly with a devil-may-care gusto. I took over with no less bravura. But despite our effort no one seemed to pay any attention to us. Quite the contrary-the general noisiness increased. When we reached the middle of the piece, I was startled to feel someone's hand on my back. Behind me stood Kachouk. "Chaliapin is ready-let's go," he said. Keneman stopped playing only after he saw us leaving the stage. Chaliapin stood in the wings. I looked at him admiringly. There was a man who, like a formidable mountain, did not need to give proof of being gigantic. He did not need to sing or act-just be there, high above the world. I was so impressed that I forgot my disastrous appearance of a few minutes before.
"Hey, Kachouk, tell the electrician to put the lights off and on-blink them, Chaliapin boomed.
"Yes, yes, certainly," said the little man.
Chaliapin cleared his throat tna sang a few notes. "Devil-my throat-it's good for spitting, not singing!" He crossed himself. The instant he entered the stage, the possessed and frantic mob roared.
At the intermission I asked Keneman what piece we would play next. "It does not matter. No one will notice a couple of fleas on an elephant's back."
After the concert I was met by my fellow students. "You certainly drew a terrific crowd tonight!"
My wounded ego asserted itself the very moment I faced the audience at the second concert. Angrily I shouted for silence, but got no reaction. When Keneman finally began the Polonaise, it sounded pitifully lost, and I entered my solo in a mad rage. I stamped my feet, screamed, tossed my bow in the air, caught it, and twirled my cello before playing again. I must have done even more incredible feats of clowning, for the public became attentive, and at the conclusion of the piece there was an ovation. I had to play one encore and then another.
Chaliapin was standing in the stage door, completely filling it with his massive body. His anger was terrible; his threatening looks and gestures frightened me. I dared not pass through that narrow door. The only safe place for me was where I was-on stage. He shook his fists at me and swore, as I obliged with more encores.
The second Chaliapin moved away from the stage door, I broke off and dashed out. I just made it.
A few minutes later Mr. Kachouk said to me, "Chaliapin won't forget you. And you will not forgive yourself for your cheap tricks. Now pack your cello and good-by. I will get someone less eccentric for the next concert. You will hear from me."
Kachoul was right. Chaliapin did not forget me. Much later, when we had become friends, he recalled the incident, much to our mutual amusement. Kachouk was correct too in predicting that I would not forgive myself. I am still ashamed. And his last words, that I would hear from him later, also came true when he asked me to participate, with Serge Koussevitzky and Vladimir Horowitz, in a Chaliapin memorial concert at Hunter College, New York, about thirty-four years later.