LIGHT in the SHADOWS of GREATNESS

A Tribute to Vitya Vronsky Babin

In attending Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) for one of my Master’s degrees (this one in Performing Arts), I was awakened to what all it takes to learn by leading: In this case, my learning experience was all about offering leadership: Cueing accompanists, arranging music scores, conducting instrumentalists, and stagecrafting whole productions. 

Awaiting a Performance… (Photo Cred: Rob Laughter, Unsplash)

In addition to my graduate work, I needed to suss out viable part-time jobs that would pay the mounting bills that came due, amidst a twin set of specialized, top-drawer masters degrees.

I vividly remember that there was a day that was notably nondescript — until I was called to the office of the Institute’s Director, Grant Johannesen. After inviting me to sit, he then stated, “Our meeting time now will be something of an interview with you. Do you agree to this?”

“Indubitably,” I replied, suddenly nervous and all ears. He then smiled warmly and observed, “Indubitably? Ah Yes, you have the makings of a Wordsmith! I have taken notice of a unique writing style in your correspondence, PenDell — one that was reviewed by the Institute’s Selection Committee prior to our admitting you to CIM.” (“Where is this going?,” thought I …) 

He continued, “Here, I have several specific questions to ask you: Do you have a safe driving record, and an insured car here locally, one that is in good condition?”

I attempted to sound nonchalant, “Yes, I do, Sir. Would you like me to drive somewhere soon?”

“Yes, probably many times. The point is, we have someone here who needs ongoing transportation to and from our campus here.”

When I disclosed that my license doesn’t allow minors to be chauffeured for hire, he chuckled, “No, this person is not a minor. She heads the piano department here at CIM.”

“Is that department head still Madame Vitya Vronsky Babin?” When he nodded Yes, I knew that I was captured by awe over the legendary fame of such an one!

“Do you know of her?” he asked, intrigued. In reply, I stated that I had done extensive research on the Institute’s faculty (including him, the Director) when I was first considering applying there.

Hence, from what I had learned about CIM faculty members, I had been utterly engaged and amazed by the phenomenal, worldwide success that Vronsky & Babin had achieved as a pair. Newsweek acknowledged them as “The most brilliant two-piano team of our generation.” Time magazine called them “One of the foremost duo pianists of the 20th Century.”

They were both interested in collecting fine art pieces, and were friends with others of similar interests, including great composers Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud.

All the while, strikingly evident to everyone was their deeply-felt love and adoration for each other, as well as their disciplined dedication to making sublime music together.

At the end of my “interview,” Dr. Johannesen affirmed that he perceived me as being quite well suited for work with Madame Vitya; that he would give to her an enthusiastic recommendation in my favor; and, when Madame Vitya agrees, he would inform me of when she wants to meet me. 

Long story shorter — The next step, my face-to-face meeting with my new boss,  unfolded very nicely. Two subtle but telling elements that made an impression on her are outlined, as follows:

  1. When I referred to Grant Johannesen as Dr. Johannesen, and she let me know that he was not a physician, I (A) reminded Madame Vitya that he had in fact been awarded an honorary PhD degree from Case Western Reserve University, nearby in Cleveland; And (B) I would always address or refer to Grant Johannesen as Dr. Johannesen, out of my great respect for him and for his mighty contribution to CIM and to the Arts in general.
  1. When Madame Vitya asked me if I knew how to do anything beyond my driving the auto — Among other things, I described teenage experiences of my father mentoring me in the Art of Concierge, as well as other various personal assistance and liaison functions for executives. (His own work included ongoing, in-person consultations with Dale Hewlett and Dave Packard, whenever one or both of them were present at the Hewlett-Packard facility in Loveland, Colorado.)

Thereafter, I drove Madame Vitya in her Lincoln Continental via a direct route between CIM’s campus in Cleveland and her elegant townhouse in upscale Shaker Heights. And sometimes on the way, she would readily wax wistful with recollections of precious times at home with her dearly-departed Victor.

Now, I delighted in regularly escorting Madame Vitya to her favorite local restaurants, where I nurtured a first-name rapport with the chef and head waiter, complete with subtle two-way, head nodding, eye-winking sign language.

Sometimes, I might “make the rounds” momentarily visiting staff members — especially at times when Dr. Johannesen was available to dine with us. Then, after most every course, I had a reason to leave the table, so that those two had some time and space to themselves.   

When not mobile, I accompanied Madame Vitya to many of her meetings where my detailed note-taking was a necessity. And then, there were the inevitable errands and grocery runs, though Madame Vitya was always prepared, highly organized, remarkably adroit with a grocery basket, and in silent, yet clear command of me handling the big grocery cart.

Amidst it all, I was fortunate to be a happy, young workaholic in good physical, vocal, and scholastic health, while earning a generous salary. 

In my last month there, with encouraging support from both Dr. Johannesen and me, Madame Vitya was preparing to revive her first concertizing without Victor — albeit with three specified conditions:

Any profits from concerts would go to the Institute’s Student Aid Fund; compositions by Victor would be well represented, and Grant Jonannasen (Victor’s original protege and then his successor at CIM) would be Vitya’s sole partner for any two-piano repertoire.

Along the way, Grant Johannesen talked with Vitya about me, after I graduated, being their tour manager for events in distant locations. Days afterward, he mentioned their short but sweet conversation. Evidently, her prompt reply was this:

“Oh No, Grant — While at work with you and me, Dear PenDell illuminated the shadows inherent in Our so-called Greatness. Now it is High Time that He Brings to Light Greatness of his Own.”

Madame Vitya passed away at home 20 years after Victor did. And she was subsequently interred in the same place as was Victor — at their other home near Santa Fe, New Mexico — Rancho Piano.

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So, here and now, 45 years later, I still often sense the majestic essences of Madame Vitya’s Greatness celestially illuminated and shining on us here on Earth. I can still contact her now: 

Madame Vitya — Your ineffable, lovingly-remembered Spirit “visits” me at times when you know that I am filled with thankfulness for the Love I am blessed to receive and offer up in return. 

Thank You and Bless You, Magnificent “Madame Vitya” …

And Now, I Release You, as You, Victor and Grant Have Released Me.

For Indeed, WE Are ONE …      

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5 thoughts on “LIGHT in the SHADOWS of GREATNESS”

  1. You describe so well, through your writing, the privilege of being close with and assisting those who had spent their lives parting the veil through music, teaching and inspiring others in their life’s work. Seek the teacher while He / She may be found. Call upon Him /Her while they are near. Easier said than done. Few could take what was required, never mind work with them on a daily basis. We have rejoiced in the richness of their personal character and suffered the inadequacies in ourselves just being near their velocity of focus. It is our responsibility now to let this fire fall from heaven, to be the example of leadership in the outer world that they set in motion. They speak to us now, as you said, Well done thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things now I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of thy Lord. The work set before us now to remain steadfast in the current of greatness, though seemingly quiet, simple and obscure from outer world appearance is of cosmic magnitude. I am happy to continue this eternal work with you and others. The yoke is easy and the burden light and I am also aware through every breath that it is work. As brother Robert says, It’s not retirement it’s refirement. Amen to that. CJ

  2. I love this delightful story of your soul journey with your wonderful mentors. Their personalities jump off the page in your eloquent descriptions and storytelling. Here is soul at work in meaningful expansive relationship that is centered in joyful spiritual work. I feel I know Madame Vitya and Dr. Johannesen through their connection with you. I can also visualize you prancing about with grace and beaming warmth as you escort Madame Vitya through her daily rounds. This is soul work at its most sublime.

    1. Kinga, Your literary presence on this journey is as marvelous to me in this moment as if it were literal — if only the physical dimensions of time and space allowed it.

      AND yet, who can actually verify that they do not? We have at hand our unfettered imaginations … So “Here” We Are!
      With You, Dear Friend & Kindred Interdimensional Traveler …

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