I thought I'd share something from the archives - a remembrance of Hermann Prey and my experience performing with this legendary bass-baritone artist.
"Accompanying Hermann Prey"
from The Depot Beat - Autumn 1998, vol. V
This July the world lost one of its greatest baritones in Hermann Prey. Hermann had just become a friend and the news of his death brought great sadness to me, as I am certain it did for many.
In 1994 I received a call from Trudy Miller at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, asking me if I would like to participate in the Schubertiade accompanying Hermann Prey. Little did I know how life-altering the experience would be; I did know how inarguably lucky I was and would be always.
Having prepared three songs – Heidenröslein, Nachstück and Der Schiffer – I arrived at the 92nd St Y early, and I was nervous. “You’re playing with Hermann Prey?” my friends said. “You’d better practice.” I had worked myself into a frenzy. He entered the room, took off his coat, and, after a brief hello, said, “Let’s go.” The first two songs went wonderfully (he kept saying “Wunderbar!”). Most of Schubert’s songs were arranged for the guitar during his lifetime. Der Schiffer was less guitaristic than the first two, making it more difficult. I began my intro and I could tell he was worried. he said, “It’s difficult, yes?” Not being a quitter, he continued, “Why don’t you strum it? Make it flamenco-like.” When I improvised a new accompaniment sounding like Pete Townsend-meets Schubert-meets Paco Peña, he loved it! “Yes, that is it. Strum the whole thing!” I went home and arranged the song in this new style.
The next day at the dress rehearsal hours before the concert, he said, “Maybe you could do both – strum some, and pluck other sections.” So I went into the dressing room and rearranged it again. Hermann’s enthusiasm and love for the music made you do anything. I thought that his attitude and approach would be one of a purist. However, he was anything but a purist, and would do anything to serve what he felt the song was really about, even if it meant strumming like a wild man.
A year later at a rehearsal for our second concert together, he asked me to improvise a little introduction for another Schubert song, exclaiming, “Go ahead – I don’t care what the critics say!” This was a great teaching.
In 1997, during several rehearsals in Cologne for the second concert – the entire Die Schöne Müllerin at the Schubert festival in Bad Urach – we really got to know each other. I shall never forget the profound discussions we had over meals – topics ranging from the various pianists that had accompanied him to what it was like being a boy in Germany during the Second World War. “Hermann, you really should write an autobiography”, I said. To which he replied, “I have, it’s called First Night Fever.”
In any case, he had recorded Die Schöne Müllerin three times and said to me at the first rehearsal that he had just realized the key to the song cycle. He had really just discovered how it should be sung. He felt each song should, within reason, resemble the tempo of the first song, which is about the stream. The rhythm of the stream is the thread that holds the whole cycle together. He was thrilled with how beautifully the sound of the guitar fit the music. We would change color and even register of phrases in each rehearsal just to get closer to what he felt the song meant. It was inspiring to see such a champion of this work constantly seeking a new meaning to the songs.
But when we began the eleventh song in rehearsal, he looked at me in horror, and I asked, “What’s wrong?” “The key,” he said, “I can’t possibly do it in that key.” This was a huge problem, as changing keys in the middle means a whole new arrangement on my part. He realized this and looked at me with pity and exclaimed, “Shitissimo!” It will always be one of my favorite expressions. Off we went to buy some music paper in a nearby shop so I could get busy arranging it in the proper key.
Just before we began the performance at Bad Urach, he shot me a glance, as if to say, “I’ll see you at the end.” He waved his hand in tempo, and I began the first song, and, like an actor who goes into character, Hermann became the miller. How deeply this man felt each phrase and mood, both of the music and of the character. We did the entire cycle without a break. At the end of the last song (there are twenty in total, the piece takes fifty minutes to perform) he slowly came out of character. The audience began their applause, and he took my hand in his and said, “What a journey – what a journey.”
One of the great joys about making a recording is how it develops a life of its own. Musicians often use recordings as promotional tools and I certainly have done that, but the greatest rewards have come when I simply give them away with no expectations.
That is not to say that I’m completely free of wanting a favorable response – The making of a recording is no little matter. Recordings are our musical paintings. They document what we are feeling at a given point in our lives. Whether it is an interpretation of J.S. Bach or music of our own, recordings reflect our deepest being.
Back in 1984, I had the honor of giving the actor Dustin Hoffman my newest recording.
It was 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, and my wife Rie and I were living on West 72nd Street, three floors above guitar maker Thomas Humphrey. Rie went out to buy cat food for our high-spirited cat Yuki. “You are not going to believe who is at Cake Masters right now!” “Who?” “Dustin Hoffman!”
Cake Masters was a shop next door to us. Dustin lived in the neighborhood. In a crazed state, I grab my recording of Bach Transcriptions for Guitar. I put on the closest footwear near me (clogs!!!), run down the stairs, and walk in to the very narrow bakery. Less than a room away at the end of the store is His Greatness. As my daughter Mitsuko used to say, “OMG!” Next thing, my knees shake.
I was so paralyzed by nerves that I was literally stuttering. I couldn’t get his name out. There I stood in front of my hero, unable to produce a full sentence. “I,IIII ammmmm noooottttt an acccctor” – you get the idea! – “I’m a musician and you have been a great inspiration. This is my new recording that I wanted you to have.”
He looks up at me and replies, “Thanks.” I turn and begin my exit. As I reach the door, Dustin shouts out after looking at the cover of the cassette, “Hey, so you’re Benjamin Verdery?” “Yeah, that’s me.” “You in the book?”
I walk back to my building. As the day passed, I thought he would most likely dump the cassette in the garbage. So be it. I met him and it was an encounter I will never forget.
But the next day, when I get home, Rie greets me, asking, “Guess who called you today?”
I immediately turn on the answering machine and hear this man’s voice saying, “Hello, Mr. Verdery, this is Richard from Punch Productions regarding your meeting with Dustin Hoffman. Would you please call us at your earliest convenience?”
I call the next day and Richard tells me that Dustin liked my cassette very much and wanted to offer me two tickets to the show he was in at the moment, Death of a Sales Man. If I were to come on a Wednesday, please come to the matinee as he didn’t feel he always did his best in the evening performance. He said Dustin insisted on meeting me. I stood there, gaping at the answering machine.
Rie and I went to the Wednesday matinee – a memorable performance, to say the least. After the curtain fell, we both were so taken emotionally drained we could barely move. Then began the journey back stage to meet Mr. Hoffman. Perhaps a hundred people were hovering around the back stage door waiting for the stars to emerge. Somehow, we managed to get ourselves close enough to holler my name at the guard who found Verdery on the guest list and let us in.
From there we walked through a series of checkpoints manned by fellows speaking through walky-talkies. Finally, we reached the Great One’s dressing room. It was tiny. There he was, lying back on a sofa like couch, looking exhausted. He looked at me and with out missing a beat exclaimed, “Ben, Come on in, your tape is great, my wife and I make love it to it all the time!” This is the review I probably should have put at the tops of my clippings a long, long time.
I am not sure if there really is any such thing as failure – in music or in life. With any given performance, you have an opportunity to learn, to improve and move forward. Whether you think you have crashed and burned or had the artistic triumph of the century, you can always learn from it and improve. The key, as the great Zen Master Suzuki said, is to maintain a beginner's mind. Music, like life, always flows forward.
Through the years, playing the guitar has become for me a great spiritual practice. In the course of this journey, I began to notice how my practicing mirrored my emotional state of being. When I find myself rushing a phrase, for example, I realize that I am feeling a lack of patience. Simply by noticing such things in your playing, you can make a little adjustment and be your own best teacher!