Remembering Jerry Jelinek

[This remembrance was written in 2016, when I learned that Jerome Jelinek had passed away the previous year.  I publish it now, in case any may find it of interest.  ~ Bill Krebaum]
Jerome Jelinek, Professor of Music, University of Michigan (1960s photo).

I was saddened to learn, at this late date (some eight months after the fact), of the passing of Jerry Jelinek.  My first contact with him (but only from a distance) was when I attended a faculty recital at Rackham Auditorium, I believe in the early 1970s.  A friend and I were big fans of Rachmaninov’s music, and we had learned that his cello sonata was going to be played at the recital.

It was a magical musical experience for me.  I don’t remember any other details of that occasion, but I’ve never forgotten the image of Jerome Jelinek playing that wonderful music so beautifully.  I had no knowledge of Jerry before attending that recital and had no other occasion to see or hear of him afterward.

Nearly four decades later, after various twists and turns, I found myself as the new proprietor of a long-established barber shop in southeast Ann Arbor.  One of the customers was a somewhat reserved, good-natured older gentleman, who’d been having his hair cut by Joe (a previous owner of the shop, who still worked part-time) for many years.  We’d briefly exchange pleasantries when he came to the shop.

After a while, I noticed that he started coming to the shop later in the day, after Joe’s early afternoon departure time, and I began cutting his hair.  Although we both seemed content to share a comment or two on the weather, or some other inconsequential matter, and pass the bulk of our time together in silence, on the second or third such occasion, I felt an impulse to draw him out a bit.

Was he affiliated with the University? (A safe conversational gambit in Ann Arbor.)  Yes, he was, a retired professor, in fact.  What was his field?  Music, he taught the cello.  A light flashed in my head and I blurted out, “Are you Jerome Jelinek?!”  “Yes, I am,” he said, seemingly surprised, and I thought, a bit pleased, as I, somewhat star-struck, enthusiastically informed him of my delight in the memory of his performance at Rackham all those years earlier.  “Do you play an instrument?” he inquired, at which point I acknowledged that “I play the phonograph.”

From then on, we had the most interesting conversations.  He impressed me as a modest man, but in response to my interest, he generously shared reminiscences of his life in music.

As a very young man, he played in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, under the great French conductor, Paul Paray, in the early 1950s.  I mentioned how I had recently gained an appreciation for just how amazingly good the DSO was in those days, through the recorded medium.  (The Mercury label released numerous recordings of the DSO during Paray’s tenure in Detroit, in the 1950s and early 1960s, which have been reissued as CDs.)  I mentioned how one reviewer wrote that during that era, “the world’s finest French orchestra was located in Detroit.”

Jerry remembered Paray as a likable but demanding taskmaster,  “He certainly knew how to get the best out of the players.”  Paray, he said, knew almost no English, but through gestures and translation by a few of the players who knew French, communication was effected.

Jerry gave a lot of credit to Mischa Mischakoff, the DSO’s concertmaster (principal violinist).  “Paray was able to hire him to come from New York, where he was concertmaster of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini.  Mischakoff had such a great ear— he would walk around the string section during rehearsal and could pick out the playing of each individual, giving advice and correction when needed.”

I mentioned to Jerry how much I liked Paray’s tempos.  For instance, how in the touchingly beautiful slow section of Saint-Saens’ Marche Heroique, he kept the music moving along, not slowing it down too much— which strikes me as wallowing in sentimentality— as some other conductors are wont to do.  “Yes, that’s the traditional French style— don’t bog down, keep moving ahead!”

It seems that Paray had a high opinion of Jerry, too, despite the language barrier and their difference in age.  It got back to Jerry that, after he had left the orchestra, Paray would sometimes inquire of the players “How is that young cellist doing?” gesturing toward the place where Jerry used to sit.

In the mid-1950s, Jerry served in the U.S. Navy for a few years as a musician.  He said it was very good experience in his musical development, “since we were busy playing string quartets at lots of embassy parties and events around Washington, D.C.”

On one occasion, I mentioned how much I loved the Elgar cello concerto.  “Ah, the Elgar concerto…,” he replied somewhat wistfully, recalling a happy chapter of his life from long ago.  He then related that, after leaving the Navy, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  He spent a year studying under a very distinguished professor who insisted that he master the Elgar concerto.  I don’t doubt that Jerry played it beautifully.  How nice it would have been to hear him play it!

I wish I might have made video recordings of our conversations, for he was a fascinating conversationalist with a fund of delightful anecdotes.  How wonderful it would be to play the video every few years.  I miss him very much.

Manchester Symphony Orchestra program from 1966, featuring Jerome Jelinek, soloist.

University of Michigan bio of Jerome Jelinek