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from the November 2008 issue

Music, Maestro Berenson, and Yours Truly

Father cultivated in us an appreciation for classical music from an early age, playing Bach fugues, Mozart sonatas, and Chopin nocturnes on his old wind-up Victrola with a steel needle and humming arias from Italian operas in his weak but melodious tenor voice. But Father died quite young, taking to his grave his culture of musical passion and breaking off our musical education, which would have faded away and possibly been extinguished altogether had it not been for Teodorito and, above all, the appearance in Lima of Maestro Hans Marius Berenson.

Teodorito was a classmate of mine and notorious not only for his short stature but for the long-winded and tedious way he told every story, no matter how simple it was, such that by his second or third digression his audience had already vanished. Teodorito, however, had a secret characteristic: he was an ardent aficionado of select music. I discovered this one afternoon as we were leaving school, a bit apart from the crowd, when I overheard him whistling Liszt's "Dreams of Love" with the elegance of a goldfinch and the virtuosity of a soloist.

This discovery was enough to make me befriend him and, from that day on, pay him visits two or three times a week at his house on Avenida Pardo, where an aged and childless aunt and uncle—Teodorito was an orphan—had given him lodgings in a large room to the rear of the back patio. There Teodorito had erected a temple to music replete with: a Victrola like mine, though larger and more modern; shelves filled with dozens of record albums; portraits and busts of his favorite composers; an open space for dancing, for Teodorito, at moments of particular enthusiasm, could not resist the temptation of expressing his musical delight with his body.

Thanks to Teodorito, my affinity to music was reborn and strengthened, and I would never finish if I even started to describe the endless nights I spent in his temple listening to symphonies—heroic, pathetic, Italian, fantastic, and new world—as well as sonatas, overtures, fugues, suites, and concertos. At home, on my own, I spent more long hours with my ear glued to Radio Selecta and writing down in a notebook the names of the pieces I heard. Thus, upon finishing high school, I could consider myself, if not an erudite devotee of music, at least a young and enthusiastic aficionado of the art. Unfortunately, however, my knowledge of this art suffered from one serious deficiency: it was purely bookish knowledge, so to speak, for I had never attended a public concert nor listened to a live symphony orchestra. Never, until the appearance of the maestro.

How in the world did Hans Marius Berenson end up in Lima? Through a series of circumstances in which Führer Adolf Hitler played a principal role. Berenson was a young, brilliant, and multifarious instrumentalist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra of the 1930s directed by the celebrated Bruno Walter. Though he began his career as a cellist, he continued as a violinist, then became first violinist, then was promoted to assistant music director. Everything seemed to indicate that one day he would replace the aged Bruno at the helm of this prestigious orchestra. But clouds were gathering over Europe, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the Second World War broke out, and Bruno Walter and his disciple, both Jews, were suddenly forced to leave Austria or risk losing their lives as well as their jobs. Berenson spent some time in Paris, then London, then emigrated to the United States, where he spent a few years and had difficulty finding work, for there was extensive competition and the best positions had already been taken by European musicians who had arrived before him. Through a friend he found out that Peru's symphony orchestra was being reorganized and in need of a competent musical director. Thus he decided to play the South American card and landed one day in Lima with his wife, his violin, and a trunk full of musical scores.

It was Teodorito who informed me of the presence of this "genius of the baton," as he called him, and the compelling need to go to hear him. After only a few months in Lima, Teodorito told me, he had managed to make the national symphony orchestra come up smelling like roses. It was summer and Sunday concerts were held in the open air, in the outdoor amphitheater of the Campo de Marte.

One Sunday I decided to accompany him. I was excited and terrified. I wondered what it would be like to see an orchestra as well as listen to it, if the live and visual experience of the music would enhance or detract from my pleasure, which until then had been purely auditory. The experience was decisive. Although at first it was unnerving to have to associate melodies I knew so well with a hundred-odd gentlemen in suits laboriously playing their instruments, in the end I understood that the two things were inseparable and that my entire knowledge of music had been, until that day, purely phantasmagoric. To all this one must add the presence of Hans Marius Berenson, his fragile and elegant silhouette, his winged baton, which seemed to weave and unweave the chords with infallible accuracy. My devotion reached its zenith when the orchestra attacked Beethoven's Fifth, the centerpiece of the program. I had listened to this symphony hundreds of times and knew it almost by heart, but when that fourfold stampede of chords announced its opening, I leapt out of my seat as if "the blow of destiny" had resounded within me. I listened to the entire piece in a state of ecstasy and when it ended to thundering applause I could not budge, and Teodorito had to pull me by the arm to remind me that we had to leave quickly if we wanted to get to the bus stop before the rest of the audience. I obeyed him like a zombie, staggering over the lawns of the Campo de Marte, making my way through the thousands of spectators who continued applauding, watching Teodorito running to the bus stop with his back to the stage, but in homage to the orchestra leaping into the air every few minutes and making a hundred-and-eighty degree turn in the air and clapping his hands before his feet touched the ground, only to regain his original position and continue along his way.

From that moment on I became an avid fan of the national symphony and Berenson, and I came to swell the ranks of Lima's not-very-numerous but highly select crowd of music aficionados. After the summer season was over, the concerts started up again in the Teatro Municipal, and not a week went by in which, either alone or with Teodorito, I didn't climb, panting, the five flights of stairs that led to the gallery, the theater section that offered the best acoustics in the house, according to the cognoscenti, as well as being cheap. The gallery was always full of a mostly young and well-versed crowd, and in the aisles there reigned a festive air. Here came students from the conservatory, one or another composer, painters, aspiring philosophers, poets, journalists, and a few beautiful or emancipated or sophisticated girls who embodied for me the full flowering of artistic intelligence. It was the audience in the gallery that clapped most heartily, whistled loudest when necessary, and whose clamorous bravos summoned the orchestra's encores.

But my musical passion did not end there. When I began studying law, I had no choice but to walk past the Teatro Municipal to get to the building where my classes were held. As I was always in a hurry, I barely had time to glimpse out of the corner of my eye the posters announcing the next weekly concert and to hear a few muffled chords of the orchestra rehearsing. One morning, I could no longer resist the temptation and snuck in through the artists' entrance. From there for the first time I could witness from backstage a concert being rehearsed, and see, from just a few feet away, Berenson in shirtsleeves, incisive, sweating, watch as he executed the perfect performance piece by piece and after thousands of interruptions and repetitions, like a writer who achieves the long dreamed-of page after infinite corrections. My admiration for the maestro grew, and from that moment on, most mornings, when I walked past the Teatro Municipal, I sent my law classes to hell and allowed myself to get sucked in through the artists' entrance. My musical education flourished while my law studies floundered. By the end of the year I could recognize with closed eyes the sound of a violin as opposed to that of a viola and could distinguish the slightest wrong note from one of the trumpets, but I failed to pass my exams in family and civil law.

This was not the only effect my musical passion had on my life. It also had consequences in my family circle and in particular on my older sister's destiny. Mercedes was eighteen years old and had a multitude of suitors. After giving several of them the boot, she kept two and was unable to decide between them as they both were more of a type than each an individual. Both were cadets at the military academy—young, handsome, well-built, the sons of well-known families of the Miraflores bourgeoisie and equally dogged in their courting and assiduous in their visits. In addition, they came together to see her, both taking advantage of their weekend leave. My brother and I had no preference and were wholly indifferent about whom she finally chose—Hernán was perhaps better-looking, but Genaro was more intelligent—until, that is, we found out that Genaro was a fan of classical music and that his family had a noteworthy record collection. Genaro, also aware of our passion for music, immediately understood the advantage he could thereby wield over Hernán, and from then on a Saturday did not pass in which he did not bring us a record from his house. For the most part they were operas sung by Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Amelita Galli-Curci, rare recordings worthy of a collector and that made my brother ecstatic, for he disdained symphonic music in favor of bel canto. As Genaro's record collection diminished, our affection for him increased. And this affection turned into open complicity and underhanded combat against his rival. Not only did we disparage Hernán's qualities and glorify Genaro's within the intimacy of the family circle, but because Mercedes remained undecided we employed the lowest of means, such as failing to pass along phone messages from Hernán, or even worse, inventing romances he was carrying on in other neighborhoods of Miraflores, employing vague and unverifiable allusions, such as "I think I saw him," "I've heard say," et cetera. Mercedes, who was jealous and possessive, was easily deceived, and without Hernán ever understanding why, she sent him packing for good. Two years later she married Genaro.

Teodorito and I, as it were, could not marry Maestro Berenson, despite adoring him quite as much as my sister did Genaro, but we continued to pay him our respects by attending his concerts at the Teatro Municipal. Other conductors passed through Lima, such as Erich Kleiber or Fritz Busch, but we continued to prefer the nervous, fragile, and elegant Hans Marius Berenson and his flying baton, which—through its finesse and intelligence—seemed like yet another musical instrument.

One night, finally, we decided to wait for him after a concert, approach him, and confess to him our great admiration. Stationed at the main doors, we watched as the audience dispersed and some members of the orchestra departed. We then realized that other musicians were leaving through the artists' entrance around the corner. We got worried and decided that Teodorito would watch the main door and I the other one. At last Teodorito came running to announce that the maestro had left alone and was walking toward the pedestrian street, Jirón de la Unión. We turned to follow him and when we got there we saw him heading toward the Plaza San Martín. We followed, about twenty steps behind, hesitating about how and when to approach him. At moments we would lose sight of him among the other pedestrians, then quickly hasten our steps. We watched him pause indecisively at the Plaza San Martín. We thought he might be trying to decide whether to take a taxi or the express bus back to Miraflores. But suddenly he turned toward the Romano Bar with a resolute air. A few minutes later we entered and saw him in that noisy, bustling establishment, leaning on the bar and drinking a beer. We had no choice but to go up to him, and that is just what we did. When Teodorito began with "Maestro Berenson, we . . . ," the maestro seemed quite taken aback and inspected us with clear and penetrating eyes. From close up we saw his smooth, rosy skin that made him look younger, but there was a certain weariness in his expression, something anxious and old. When Teodorito finished his halting speech, the maestro very courteously thanked him for his words of appreciation, then quickly finished off his beer and with a brusque "good night" got up and walked out, leaving us feeling frustrated.

In spite of this, Teodorito and I remained loyal to his concerts, and every week we climbed the five flights of stairs in the Teatro Municipal to fiercely applaud our Viennese idol. New and brilliant musicians brought by Berenson—in particular an oboist and a flautist—had joined the orchestra, and the group achieved a masterly sonority. The celebrated Hermann Scherchen, who came to Lima to conduct a few concerts, said in an interview that our symphony orchestra was the best in South America, due specifically to the excellence of its current musical director.

This praise filled us with renewed pride, and Teodorito and I again considered the possibility of approaching the maestro. This took place under quite unusual circumstances. It was October and in celebration of Lima's patron saint, El Señor de los Milagros, lively street fairs and bazaars were held in various neighborhoods. As a result, and because we felt like living it up, for the first time we forwent that night's concert in order to enjoy the fair on Avenida Tacna. We wandered through the kiosks, pitching pennies, participating in drawings, eating grilled chicken hearts, and drinking various fermented corn brews, including cachina and chicha de jora. A little before midnight we remembered that the orchestra was holding its weekly concert just a few steps away, and imbued with courage from the alcohol we made our way toward the Teatro Municipal to await the maestro. The doors were closed and the hall was in total darkness. The concert had ended half an hour before. Far from deflated, we made off toward the Jirón de la Unión, the Plaza San Martín, and the Romano Bar, entertaining the distant hope of finding him. At that late hour the bar, filled with euphoric denizens of the night, seemed to stagger and drift toward the irreparable. And we spotted him in the crowd. He was leaning on the bar, like the first time, but now he was accompanied by two of his musicians, the oboist and the violist, who had left their instrument cases leaning against the wall. From the doorway we watched him converse, laugh, and offer toasts. The presence of his colleagues had dampened our spirits. Luckily, they both soon offered him their hands, picked up their cases, and departed, leaving the maestro alone in the crowd in front of his glass of beer. That was the moment to approach him. He may have recognized us—though there was no way for us to know—but this time his small, keen, and shining eyes seemed friendlier as they looked us over. Teodorito took the opportunity to launch into his old routine about our passion for music and our admiration for him. The maestro received these declarations with modesty and offered to buy us a drink. We ordered pisco martinis and a short time thereafter we were engaged in an animated conversation. He asked us what we did, and when he found out we were not students at the National Conservatory of Music but rather anonymous habitués of his concerts his interest in us seemed to grow.

He invited us for another round, and he ordered another beer accompanied, I noticed, by a shot of pisco, which he drank, taking small sips of each in turn. He spoke for a long time about his musical training, his life in Vienna before the war, while I, as I was starting in on my third martini, began to sink into a dense fog—it required an enormous effort for me to understand what the maestro was saying and remain aware of where I was. At one particular moment the noise and lights of the bar were left behind, and we found ourselves on the street—the maestro, myself, and a Teodorito whom I barely perceived as a tiny scrap of ectoplasm. Berenson waved his arm, probably trying to hail a taxi. When one stopped, he shook our hands good-bye, then, when he found out we lived in Miraflores, offered to give us a ride. We sat down in the backseat, and just as the car took off I felt my head spin and a cold sweat spread over my forehead. The fact is, I was totally drunk. My situation got worse as we continued along Avenida Arequipa, passing the swiftly moving parade of cars and trees. When we were halfway there, I could no longer contain myself, and I began to vomit. What a fiasco! I thought, what a terrible impression I am making on Maestro Berenson! The driver blew up, shouting and insulting me, threatening to throw me out of the car, and just when I thought the maestro would come to my rescue and take a stand against that madman's suggestions, I heard him tell the driver to stop in the middle of the block, where he opened the door and practically threw me out of the taxi, saying things I couldn't make out but which seemed to be expressions of intense disgust. I ended up sprawled on the dark and lonely sidewalk, drowning in a sea of my own vomit, feeling as if I were dying of nausea, shame, and humiliation.

I woke up at noon in the house of an uncle who lived near where I had fallen, a place I reached thanks to some unknown instinct. I vowed never to repeat that mixture of cachina, chicha, and pisco (a vow I kept but mocked by indulging in other equally mortal mixtures). Only in the evening did I decide to go to Teodorito's house to discuss with him the not-so-glorious moments of the previous night. Teodorito was in his musical temple, listening to the overture to The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at full volume. When he saw me he turned off the music. He looked pale, agitated, on the verge of blowing a fuse. I thought he was going to scold me harshly for my behavior the night before, accuse me of grinding our eventual friendship with the maestro into the dust forever, but I was wrong, for he lit a cigarette and took a long pause, then began one of his long-winded and tedious stories, this one about the continuation of his ride with the maestro in the taxi along Avenida Arequipa. He told me about the driver who continued grumbling, about some birds chirping in the trees along the way (which evoked for me a trip I had taken as a child to an Andean village), about Maestro Berenson's silence punctuated by short sighs, about the sleepiness that was invading him, and finally about a strange sensation, something like a weight on his leg, something slithery and warm on his thigh, finally a hand, the maestro's hand caressing him, more and more deliberately, moving up toward his belly . . .

"I had to get out!" he shouted with fury. "I told the driver to stop before he got to the park in Miraflores. The old man got out too, I don't know what he was saying, but I took off running along Alameda Pardo to my house."

He said "the old man," not the maestro. That in itself was sufficient.

Our disappointment was deep, but did not prevent us from continuing to attend the concerts at the Teatro Municipal. But we listened to them now without the same fervor, perhaps with greater demands, believing at moments we had discovered some minor error in his performance. Once in a while we'd walk by the Romano Bar after a concert and occasionally we spotted the maestro at the end of the bar, with a glass of beer and a shot of pisco, alone or conversing with some occasional and young drinker. Rumors then began to circulate that Berenson had been implicated in a nocturnal scandal, the details of which never became clear, and that some members of the orchestra were questioning the maestro's competence. This last item was doubtful, for toward the end of the year he conducted some memorable concerts when Claudio Arrau and Yehudi Menuhin passed through Lima, and both musicians lavished high praise on the orchestra and its musical director.

Some time later Teodorito got married and I, in conjunction with my studies, took a job with a law firm. This not only created distance between us but also diminished our dedication to the concerts. We went rarely, until we didn't go at all. I then began to get ready for my trip to Paris, and Teodorito was awaiting his first child. Shortly before I left Peru I heard that the maestro had triumphed with a moving performance of Tchaikovsky's Symophony Pathétique just days before his wife left him to return to Vienna.

I spent many years in Europe, where my passion for music grew, diversified, became more refined, until finally, though it didn't die altogether, it achieved a moderate serenity, roughly halfway between obligation and boredom. Such is probably the fate of all passions. After hearing the grand philharmonic orchestras of Paris, Vienna, London, and Berlin, I stopped attending concerts altogether and returned to my youthful preference for recordings, which I listened to calmly and distractedly at home. I managed to acquire a valuable record collection—my brother-in-law Genaro would have paled with envy—that accompanied me like a sonorous decoration during my exercise of other passions, such as love and writing. Once in a while as I listened there passed through my mind the memory of the maestro, with his strengths and his defects, memories I welcomed with gratitude and indulgence.

At the beginning of the seventies I returned to Lima after ten or more years of absence. The city, the country, had been transformed, whether for good or ill is another question. For a few weeks I revisited my youthful haunts, looking for indications, traces of happy or unhappy eras, and found only the ashes of some or the flickering flame of others. A few months later I decided to take in the air of the provinces. My brother-in-law Genaro, who was by then a military commander, was stationed in Cuzco. He lived in a large villa on the outskirts of the city, where he loved to host family and friends. One day out of the blue I decided to pay him a visit and boarded an airplane. I arrived in the imperial city at noon, but as soon as the bus from the airport dropped me in the Plaza de Armas I felt so sick from the high elevation that rather than go straight to my brother-in-law's house, I took a room in the first hotel I came across and fell asleep as if I had been blessed.

I woke up in the evening and immediately called Genaro to let him know I had arrived.

"Come right away," he insisted. "There's a concert tonight at our house. Berenson will conduct Beethoven."


"Didn't you know? He's been living and working here for a long time. He's the centerpiece of the musical Tuesdays I organize."

I didn't know, nor that there was a philharmonic orchestra in Cuzco. Without hesitating I got dressed, ordered a taxi, and left for Genaro's house. It was a colonial residence, a bit run down but stately nonetheless, right on the border between the city and the countryside. Several automobiles were parked out in front. Genaro led me into the salon, where he introduced me to about thirty guests—the music-lovers of Cuzco—an eclectic crowd, which included the sub-prefect, two military officers, a priest, and some society ladies. Everybody was very excited, holding glasses and cigarettes and being served by my sister, Mercedes.

"And the maestro?" I asked.

"He's coming now. He's getting ready."

A few seconds later he appeared through a side door, baton in hand, wearing the striped pants and black jacket I remember seeing him in when he conducted those unforgettable concerts in Lima. But his garments were shiny and worn, as worn as his own figure, which looked discolored, bowed, and abbreviated. Genaro handed him a glass of beer, introduced me to him—he had no idea I knew him—and the gathering continued apace while I, looking from side to side, tried to figure out where the orchestra was and where the concert would be held. In these villas there was always a chapel or a patio reserved for such events. A moment later Genaro asked for silence, the guests took their seats, and the maestro took his place in the front of the room, under an archway leading into an enclosed courtyard behind which one could see an empty cloister. In the meantime Genaro walked to a corner where—only then did I notice—there was a modern stereo set. He inserted a cassette and turned on the player. In a second there burst forth the powerful opening of Beethoven's Fifth, at the same time as Berenson's baton swept through the air to accompany the fourfold groan of chords with energetic and inspired movements.

During the entire first movement I stood dumbfounded, not moving my eyes from the maestro, who from time to time stopped to pick up his glass of beer that was standing on a table within reach. His eyes avoided the audience and wandered over the night sky, God knows contemplating what celestial visions, and on his thin lips between his sparse beard and moustache there floated a foolish grin. As the spectacle continued, it became more and more intolerable to me. Even so, during certain passages the maestro's movements were convincing, and for moments I had the illusion of being in the presence of the great Hans Marius Berenson of my youth, the first time I saw him conducting that same symphony in the Campo de Marte in front of a perfectly tuned orchestra. But it was only an illusion. I was in the presence of a rag doll defiling his ancient glories in order to earn a few drinks, a little human warmth, and a bit of affability in a city where there was surely no orchestra at all, only one or another chamber ensemble with whom he might play the violin at weddings and funerals to make ends meet.

"The blows of fate," I said to myself as the horns picked up the initial motif. "Poor Maestro Berenson!" But I found comfort in the thought that only those who have known splendor have a right to decadence.

Read more from the November 2008 issue
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