Mike Cochran remembers Norman

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                A Life By Norman :  “ It Plays Itself “

 

At the Royal Festival Hall Sir Malcolm Sargent is running the rehearsal. He’s as charming and handsome as ever with a red carnation prominent on the lapel of his grubby black pea jacket. Immediately to his left sit Hugh Maguire and Norman Nelson, concertmaster and assistant concert master of the London Symphony Orchestra. Norman’s shock of shiny black hair is as noticeable as the red carnation. This is the first rehearsal of the set and I’m playing Double Bass in the number eight spot, having been “called up” from the Royal College of Music to deputize. I’m keeping my eye on Principal Bass Stuart “thunder guts “ Knussen, not realizing that this is my initial acquaintance with Norman. Sir Malcolm is raising his arms, apparently handling things from the conductors rostrum, but the players understand the silent hierarchy that runs an orchestra.  The concertmaster and assistant are top dogs….the conductor….?   Well maybe number three in the hierarchy.  In later years Norman, being so suited and accustomed to the first desk, easily relocated to the music director’s position, literally without missing a beat. As to the hierarchy, you couldn’t get much lower than double bass number eight!

Fast forward to 1997 in the tiny basement of the old St.Rose of Lima Catholic Church, across the road from EMCS High School on the Sooke Road.  We were a motley collection:  A flute, oboe, bassoon, four or five violins, a viola or two, two cellos and a Bass. And Norman with his shock of tousled grey hair. This was the inaugural rehearsal of the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra, the opening of an astonishing and fulfilling journey. Norman led us, gently and firmly through his shared musicianship, to heights of performance never imagined possible.  Even now he must be listening keenly as we perform, as proud of the players today as when we first stepped into this wonderful adventure.

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Norman is a study in contrasting character traits. When rehearsing, he drives his players relentlessly. He demands but never demeans. He is kind, loyal, patient and disciplined. Always considerate, respectful and above all, encouraging . When a passage in rehearsal is played up to his high standards, time and again he says,” well that was very nice….but we must be careful to NOT peak too soon….! “ I speak in the present tense because this IS Norman, through the music he bequeathed.  His most endearing qualities are his way with words, his quick wit and his remarkable memory.

Reliving an experience with Sir Thomas Beecham, for example. This is the story of two trumpets, one of which was late for rehearsal.

Sir Thomas [ not realizing the first trumpet was AWOL ]     “ First trumpet, you’re too loud…!’’

Second Trumpet [ who was present, responding tentatively. ]  “ First trumpet hasn’t arrived yet, Sir Thomas.”

Sir Thomas  “ Well….when he gets here, tell him he’s too loud…!”

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On another occasion Norman was remembering the formation of the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields and the selection of Neville Mariner as music director .

Norman:  “ We chose Neville because he had a wider range of contacts and knew more influential people than the rest of us “

Neville [reluctantly accepting.]” Well alright I accept.. but for heaven’s sake, don’t watch me…!”

Norman [Now recalling the scene ] :  “ He was so right !”

 

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Sooke Philharmonic was the performance of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in June 2014. Norman conducted this complex work without a score. At the very first rehearsal, knowing the challenging task ahead, he said “ Good afternoon…it’s so nice to see so many suicidal souls…!”

In the second movement of the Bartok there’s a tricky passage for Oboe.

Oboe: “there’s no time to breathe! “

Norman: “ Well that’s fine…. breathing shouldn’t be allowed just there…”  [and then mumbling ]  “ There are some people in this life who shouldn’t breathe at all ! “

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Rehearsing Khachaturian’s Spartacus Adagio, Norman commented to the keyboardist playing the Harp part : “ It’s a tiny bit too much…….not to harp on it of course..!” And later in the piece, to the strings :  “ We really need a more seductive sound. I don’t care how you do it….turn the violin upside down, if that would help..! “

 

For Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Norman on the famous “Eeyore…” passage:   “ It’s not donkeyish enough…!! ”  And later to the strings for a passage depicting fairies :  “ We need less elephants and more fairies..! “

 

Norman’s comment after a lack-luster rehearsal of Sibelius Symphony No.2, first movement.  “ If you’re alive at the end of this movement…you haven’t enjoyed it..! “

 

For Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, second movement: ”  Don’t do anything….stay out of the  way…and for heaven’s sake don’t make an exciting sound..! ”

 

And back to the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, 4th Movement .  All four trombones were joyfully showing off with an enormous flatulent descending glissando, reveling in what trombones do best. Norman stopped the orchestra and remarked, “ Well….THAT was a raspberry and a HALF..!!! ”

 

These comments are not just a memory  but Norman’s vivid eloquence that we the players carry fondly with us today as well as throughout all these years.  I see him at the back of the rehearsal hall…he has just come in to listen, to persist in his life’s work of musical immersion.  He stands by my shoulder examining the music, respectfully offering a little hint here and there…..or……maybe a moment of insight or keen wit will be heard.

 

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The above photos of Norman are from the 2015 chamber music workshop, courtesy Rick Robinson.

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2018 Don Chrysler Concerto Competition Results

Danielle Tsao Is This Year’s Winner!

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Danielle Tsao wowed the adjudicators with her accomplished, moving performance of Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher (“The Swan Turner), a concerto in three movements that is a core piece in the viola repertoire. Danielle placed second in the Concerto Competition last year with the Walton viola concerto.

Philosophical, lots of depth; very high level of music making, one audience comment read. Another said, Warm, rich, burnished tone; beautifully expressive.

 

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Second place went to Joanne Peng, who gave us the flashy and challenging Tchaikovsky violin concerto. Hugely energetic performance, slow movement was sublime! enthused one listener.

 

 

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Above, Gillian Newburn, flute, who performed the Mozart Concerto in D, K 312, showcasing Mozart’s enjoyment of the flute.

A confident presentation of this lovely piece. Beautiful warm tone. Thank you for your performance! 

 

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Carey Wang played the Beethoven Concerto No.1 in C. Exquisite, said one. Beautiful touch! Charming and inventive playing! said another.

 

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The three adjudicators. Robert Skelton (strings), Bruce Vogt (piano) and Wendell Clanton (winds) had their job cut out. According to Bruce Vogt, all four competitors would have been worth the prize that any skilled young musician longs for: an opportunity to play with an orchestra. Any one of them could have a career in music if they choose, he said.

As well as taking home the $600 gift certificate generously donated by Long & McQuade, Danielle Tsao will be performing the Hindemith with the Sooke Philharmonic in October, in Sooke and the Western Communities.

Audience Choice

Each year we invite the audience have its say. This audience had its own ideas, which were completely different than the jury. The audience favourite was Joanne Peng, whose fiery Tchaikovsky violin concerto won her the most votes. Second place went to Carey Wang, for his sensitive playing of the Beethoven piano concerto. Third and fourth places went to Danielle Tsao and Gillian Newburn. A total of 35 ballots were returned.

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As usual, it was a deeply rewarding evening: an exciting opportunity for these four  young musicians, and for the rest of us, a fascinating look at the talented young people coming up.

Weeping… Tears of Anguish

Mike Cochran muses about the tragedy behind the Elgar cello concerto.

 

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Sophie van der Sloot will play the Elgar cello concerto on Saturday, October 28th in Sooke and Sunday, October 29th in Metchosin.

Picture a grand concert hall, the orchestra warming up as we wait expectantly. We browse the program notes to absorb some further thoughts. It’s an unusual concert…  two cello concertos… the Dvorak and the Elgar. It’s almost as if we’re at Centre Court, judging the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. Which concerto to be considered a worthy champion? The answer can be found on U-Tube. “Stunning ” is a rather overused term these days but it perfectly describes Jaqueline du Pre’s performance of the Elgar. It’s a televised version from the 1960’s with her husband Daniel Barenboim conducting. There are times when your breath will be caught and you’ll feel like you’ll never breathe again.

We are fortunate indeed to experience Sophie van der Sloot’s performance more than fifty years after Jacqueline’s playing. Sophie’s resolute double-stopped chords which open the concerto, leave no doubt of her capability. The depth and fullness of her tone is remarkable from a young performer taking her first steps into the world of the soloist.

I think Elgar wrote this work primarily with a female soloist in mind. Indeed the first recording in 1920 featured Beatrice Harrison soloist with Elgar himself conducting. There’s such remorse throughout the piece centered on the soloist; a male soloist is less likely to capture the despondency. The male of the species tends to react to sorrow and sadness rather more aggressively, more uncontrollably. Perhaps I generalize the male psyche too much but a female soloist seems perfectly suited to express the poignancy of this wonderful work.

Years ago, on first listening I imagined the soloist had suffered a heart-breaking ending to an impassioned romance, hence the persistent anguish throughout the work. And, as such, perhaps it was appropriate that a female soloist could more adequately express these emotions. But further listening and further years convinced me that the passion had nothing at all to do with romance. Elgar completed the Concerto in 1919, his last major work for soloist and orchestra. The passion belongs to Edward, the “Edwardian”, at the heart of the piece. It’s as if Elgar, consumed by disillusionment, realizes that the First World War, thankfully curtailed by 1919, not only needlessly ended so many lives, but also obliterated a way of life. The Edwardian period was the way of life he embraced but it had evaporated. His suffering cries out.

Despite Elgar’s utilization of four movements when three movements are usual, the work is really a tone poem with hints of previous despondent melodies occurring repeatedly throughout. “Weeping… Tears of Anguish”  is a suitable title. The four movements become a rhapsody with the cello singing through plaintively. Beginning with somber staunch chords, the soloist rebukes the orchestra’s glorious full-blown statements with insistent despondency. Time and again the cello prevails. The second movement presents a doleful cadenza and then suddenly more cheerful spiccato passages occur. This happier, more hopeful section, with soloist and orchestra in agreement, completes the movement. Now the beautiful Adagio is presented with the orchestra practically reduced to a chamber ensemble. Again in the fourth movement the orchestra, with a noble triumphant theme, attempts to overcome the sadness. Basses and cellos wrestle contrapuntally with a happy resplendent theme, but to no avail. The cello insists on hopelessness. An introspective pleading statement is presented with interspersed fragments of melodies from the first and third movements. Elgar creates unity with this technique and we are led to the final climax with great dignity and resignation.

This surely is Elgar’s most significant creation, confirming his place among the very greatest composers.

Melody

Mike Cochran follows the common thread in the three works presented in our June 2017 concerts

Remember those days when we relaxed on a bench, watching our kids clambering over and under the equipment in the park playground?  Well nowadays it’s the grand kids we observe, and sometimes take to the top of the slide for a whirlwind drop! Remember the days when your own four year-old commenced a musical career with a Suzuki violin? “Twinkle twinkle little star…” You can see your loved one even now with that quarter-sized violin under chin and hear the scratchy little melody. Twinkle is a transparent melody with a simple logical resolution… “how I wonder what you are“.

Music and melody are one and the same. Music is melody served by harmony and rhythm that expresses the varied emotions of our experience. A principal song, often merged with a second or third melodic notion, creates tension and release… tension and release… tension and finally resolution. At the playground when children climb around the jungle gym I’m reminded of a harmonic structure through which a melody can roam. Sometimes melody soars above… sometimes snaking through the harmonic midsection, even straying into the bass line at times.   Music IS melody, painted with timbre and dynamics, served by tempo and harmony.

Adagio from Spartacus Suite 2, by Aram Khachaturian

Spartacus: 3

Spartacus is all drama

The slave is crucified, the Roman Princess stands before him. An agony of melodic apprehension overwhelms this Adagio. The flute and oboe lead us to a tender, aching contemplation of melody in the strings. The Princess looks up at Spartacus pleading an end… falling to her knees in despair. Now the shadow of a Roman Legion looms in the distance, trudging a disciplined march.  A triumphant anguished rendering of the main theme returns… Spartacus succumbs… the soft violin solo fades away.

 

Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18 in C minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played for us by Ya-Ping Huang

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Ya-Ping Huang performed at the Don Chrysler Concerto Competition in 2014

This whole piece is melody… melody on and on and on. The first movement is straight in with the principal theme, a grand triumphant statement in the strings. When the second theme arrives there’s a sense of yearning romance. The two themes interchange until a massive buildup brings the principal theme to a climax. Now the horn leads us to the counter-melody coda, presented by cellos and violas. The Adagio commences with a sublime clarinet solo that soon carries to the soloist. This simple rambling tune radiates throughout the orchestra. Quietly and delicately this splendiferous melody returns to the violins as the soloist becomes almost an accompanist. The Finale takes a little time to come to perhaps Rachmaninov’s most famous melody. This intense triumphant theme, presented at first by the oboe and violins and passed to the soloist, swells the heart, tingles the spine. One suspects that later on this grand theme will return ever more triumphantly.  Now surprisingly, a more robust second melody appears in contrapuntal form. It’s thrown around the orchestra with the soloist melding into the drama (as far as Rachmaninov will allow a piano soloist to “ meld”). As the finale intensifies, the strings present the principal melody peacefully but the tranquility does not hold as the whole orchestra shows its full blown power. A magnificent rendering is complete.

 

 Sea Cantata,  by Nicholas Fairbank

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Nick Fairbank will conduct his work for choir and orchestra, entitled Sea Cantata

From the outset there is no doubt we are ocean-bound. The opening powerful chords picture mighty waves crashing ashore.  “O Sea” opens malevolently with rumblings from the cellos, basses and ominous choir entries.  The first melodies we hear come from the “Silver Penny” , a lovely lilting maritime folk song, the lines equally satisfying for voice or strings and delightful resolutions to each melodic thought.  Now we’re back to the ocean with “The Waves“, a canon with voices arguing pleasantly and orchestral voices exchanging contrapuntal effects. Listen for the fog horn down below. Is it time for an “Interlude”?

Let’s hear what Nick Fairbank has to say:

 I tried to paint a musical picture of a calm sea, perhaps including something of the grandeur of the wide openness one experiences in the (doldrums-calm) ocean with no land in sight.

Next come nymphs and mermaids in “Sea Spirit”. Our nymphs are sopranos… our mermaids, altos.  Rippling sixteenth notes from the piano, recalling gently swishing ocean waves, surround our vocalists. Oh watch out…! Here come the basses and tenors brandishing their tankards and bottles of rum, roaring out the hale and hearty hornpipe, “Who hath desired the sea!”  It’s hard work for the lads… perhaps they really need their rum.  The Finale, “When first I went to Sea”, is a lively sea shanty. The melody is in Aeolian Mode.

Finally the sinister feel of the opening movement returns, yet we hear the conclusion as wholesome and triumphant.

Chamber Music Workshop 2017!

Another Sooke Harbour chamber music workshop came and went, and a good time was had by all! The music, the new venues, the coaches, the volunteers — what a great week.

A few memories, thanks to our new photographer, Stewart Jack.

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Thank you, Norman!

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And thank you, Jenny!

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Thank you, cooks!

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Lee Anderson, Valerie Sim and Tom Burton discussing the finer points.

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The volunteers did us a lovely barbecue.

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Thank you, volunteers!

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Suppertime in the big tent

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The McKennas wowed us with their singing

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Dvorak String Quintet with Barb Cleary

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Terence Moore and Dorle Eason  in the Glazunov

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Susan Colonval and Don Kissinger playing the Dvorak

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Mary Jane Watson and Mark Zupan

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Michele MacHattie, Trevor MacHattie and Adrian Rys in the Dvorak string sextet

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String Octet by Bruch with Michael Cochrane

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The McKennas knew how to play! It was Mozart.

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Valerie Sim, Mary Anne Lloyd and Bruce Irschick, part of the Rontgen sextet

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Beethoven with Joanne Cowan, Ros Alexander, Ellen Himmer, Sonja de Wit

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Mary Paynter and Brian Grimes playing Nielsen

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Luiza Nelepcu and Frances Dodd in the Glazunov

Sophie van der Sloot the 2017 Concerto Competition as well as the Audience Choice Winner

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The Don Chrysler Competition jury and audience were in agreement on Saturday night: both awarded first place to Sophie van der Sloot, for her marvellous performance of the Elgar cello concerto. She was accompanied by Elfi Gleusteen.

The six soloists:

Sophie van der Sloot, Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85

Tovin Allers, Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major

Danielle Tsao, Walton:  Viola Concerto

Iris Hung, Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

 Gillian Newburn, Nielsen: Flute Concerto

Alyssa Fu, Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No.1, Op.25

Yariv Aloni (strings), Nicholas Fairbank (piano), and Lanny Pollet (winds) were the adjudicators this year.

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The jury awarded Danielle Tsao second place for the Walton viola concerto, but second place in audience voting went to Tovin Allers’ for his performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major.

The audience’s third choice was Danielle Tsao on viola.

As always, all present were impressed by the skill and musicianship of the young players, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

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Prizes were once again donated by Long and McQuade and presented by Matt Charbonneau, who congratulated the performers and expressed astonishment at their level of performance.

Sophie van der Sloot will perform the Elgar with the Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra at the Celebration of Young Artists concerts in October, 2017.

 

Audience members were enthusiastic about all six soloists. Here are some comments.

Iris Hung:
“Words fail me .  That was such fun.  Loved it”
“Wonderfully romantic”
“Beautiful colors.”

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Gillian Newburn:
“Excellent technique, lively and confident performance.”
“Beautifully played, very sensitive, quite lovely.”
“Great articulation.”

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Alyssa Fu:  
“Fluid, gracefully, lyrical, lovely, lovely playing.”  “Beautiful tone and phrasing.”
“Great depth and emotion”

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About Sophie:
“A complete performance that bought me to tears and goosebumps everywhere.”
“Sophie was the most moving performance I have ever witnessed.  Thankyou.”
“Just amazing; heart-wrenching and stunning.”
Such excellence and so young.  Wow.”

About Tovin:
“A splendidly thoughtful and exciting performance of this brilliant piece.”
“Beautifully restrained.  Appeared effortless  I was enthralled!!”
“Fantastic.”

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About Danielle:
“Impressive.  Mature beyond her age.  Confident.”
“Fantastic playing.  Beautiful sound and nuances.  Great feeling for the music.”
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Pride Of Ownership

Mike Cochrane sent us these thoughts about the Khachaturian violin concerto on the program in preparation for our concerts this weekend, October 29th and 30th, performed by Kevin Chen.

Khachaturian in the 1930’s

Aram Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor was completed in 1940, dedicated to David Oistrakh, and first performed in September 1940. It is worth noting that while the rest of the world was preparing for the nightmare of World War II, the Soviet Union and  Nazi Germany were conspiring allies. This concerto displays none of the intense patriotism that flowed from the pen of Dmitri Shostakovich just a few short years later.

First Movement: Allegro con fermezza. The movement is in Sonata form, although hardly Mozartian or Haydnesque. Slavic folk song melodies abound.  Khachaturian’s birthplace was Armenia, so perhaps his ear remembered some country dances from his teenage years.


Second Movement:
Andante sostenuto.  This movement is notable for its variety of moods and highly expressive solo passages in dialogue with the orchestra. An impressive dialogue between violin and clarinet appears and a soft yet intense conversation transpires.

Third Movement:  Allegro.  A fanfare commences the movement. A Rondo follows based on the second theme from the first movement.  This is another Slavic country dance with rhythmic challenges that keeps the orchestra on its toes. There’s a need to drive the music forward….whatever happens we mustn’t  D..R…A….G..!!

When Khachaturian dedicated the Concerto to David Oistrakh there must have been some camaraderie between them. They were both born and raised in the “Soviet Empire” ….Aram in Armenia, David in the Ukraine, so perhaps there was some antipathy, even in the music itself, towards the Russian masters. This antipathy may well be demonstrated in the following anecdote. It has often been assumed that Oistrakh was a proud owner of as many as 12 Stradivari violins. One would assume that he would treat his violins with tender loving care.

Norman Nelson has the following story:

During an intermission of a rehearsal of a violin concerto, probably Shostakovich, the great man left the violin, probably one of the state-owned Strads, and went off for a coffee with the conductor. Of course, we violinists swarmed around the violin, and the point of the story was that the poor thing was smothered with a thick crust of rosin from the bow hairs, obviously lacking the slightest sign of any loving care by its custodian. Oistrakh. If he had owned it, I can’t imagine him leaving it unattended in the hall, never mind looking like a buskers instrument lying in an open case along with a few coins, unloved and deserted, as it were.  

A few short years later the Soviet Union itself, just like an old rosin-crusted violin, was abandoned in its shabby case, without any accompanying coins, on a lonely pavement.

 

Khachaturian in 1964