by Tom Heimberg

"Felix said...."

This book is about Felix Khuner, and what Felix said. Gathered and selected from interviews with him, it contains many of his words, much of his wisdom and his wit. It gives a glimpse of him the way a printed score gives a glimpse of the music. Those of us who worked with him, who took coachings from him, who respected, liked, enjoyed and loved him, have memories that surround his words. We remember the vividness of his presence, the music of who he was.

But words definitely went along with that music. Felix is often quoted in the musical world he inhabited. Downstairs near the orchestra pit in the War Memorial Opera House, backstage at Davies Symphony Hall, in carpools of musicians on their way to work, all around the Bay Area in string teaching studios or in living rooms set up for playing chamber music, whenever a story begins with "Felix said..." musicians know who is meant.

And if someone present doesn't know, we tell him. Felix Khuner is too important to us to be forgotten. We welcome the chance to share memories of this unique and distinctive man who influenced us so much--as performer, teacher, colleague, colorful character, and good friend.

During more than fifty years in the Bay Area, "Felix said"... a lot! His active, powerful mind was filled with memories, thoughts, and opinions which he expressed generously and energetically (sometimes, indeed, aggressively). His evaluations of music were based on deep knowledge. His appraisals of the musical world came out of long experience. His reminiscences of Europe, and of Viennese music and musicians from the period between the two World Wars--a period which seemed to some of us like legends from a distant Golden time--were for him a part of living personal memory.

We listened to those memories with interest and gratitude. And his personal memories took on an extra aura for us, because of what we knew about his amazing musical memory.

It was famous. Fabulous! Even people who didn't know him had heard of it. His years with the Kolisch String Quartet, playing the canon of Western quartet music by memory, gave his reputation an authority that pushed our respect toward awe.

Or toward incredulity. Musicians new to the Bay Area found his reputation hard to believe. They looked for evidence. Felix had retired from the San Francisco Symphony by 1972, but he was still being engaged as an extra player and substitute. At the start of the year, young Barbara Riccardi, a new member of the orchestra, found herself sitting at the back of the second violin section next to an elderly man who clearly knew what he was doing.

The program that week was especially challenging, and at one rehearsal some of the other young musicians who had recently joined the orchestra gathered around Barbara during an intermission: "O.K., you can settle this once and for all. Does he really know the second violin part of Verkl„rte Nacht by heart?"

"Yes, he really does," Barbara answered, "And what's more, he expects me to know it, too. He never turns pages!"

Later that same week, as the Schoenberg was being rehearsed, some questions about individual notes and the accuracy of the printed music began to come up. Then the depth of Felix's knowledge was made even clearer. When Maestro Ozawa himself wasn't sure how to answer some of the inquiries, voices from the orchestra started saying, "Ask Felix, Felix knows." And Felix answered the questions from his substitute seat at the back of the second violin section, commenting on how the harmonies were different in similar passages, correcting notes when necessary, playing violin lines, woodwind lines, bass lines on his violin. Felix knew, with a depth and passion that is more than memory. He knew the music by heart--the hold of a lifelong love.

(By the end of that rehearsal, the conductor seemed afraid to do anything interpretative without asking Felix's permission.)

Felix was often questioned about his memory. I once heard a colleague ask, "Felix, how on earth is it possible to memorize the second violin part of a Haydn Quartet?"

"It's not possible. Absolutely not. I memorized the whole quartet and played what was missing."

"Wait a minute! '...Played what was missing'?! If you did that everyone else would have played already. You'd be late!"

"Ah no," Felix said, raising an eyebrow, "Quick reflexes!"

A joke, but not far from the truth. How quick his reflexes could be is shown in this quotation from a 1991 interview with Eugene Lehner, the violist of the Kolisch Quartet, published in Strings magazine. When asked if the quartet ever suffered memory slips, Lehner said, "There was hardly a performance without one; the question was only how serious. The only one to whom nothing ever happened was Khuner. Once in Paris--we had traveled all night and were rather sleepy--we played the Beethoven Op. 95. You know, the second theme of the second movement, the viola begins, and suddenly I realized, "For God's sake, I have to start this and I don't know how it goes, and if I don't play, there is nobody. And then I hear Khuner playing my part. Afterwards, I said to him, "How on earth did you know I wasn't going to play?" He said, "You idiot, you were in fourth position on the D string." I used to play it on the open A. With half an eye, he saw that I was somewhere else on the fingerboard. That quick reaction, it's just incredible. And you know, the other two were sitting right opposite and didn't notice anything. If anyone told me such a story, I would say, "Well...."

If Felix's abilities sound like those of a musical Superhero, his daily self-presentation was more like a musical Clark Kent. He was five feet, five inches tall, with a halo of white hair--thick on the sides, thin on top--and glasses. His clothing was a statement of very personal tastes in style...and economics. The yellow windbreaker he liked so much lasted for close to twenty years. His highwater pant cuffs often showed an expanse of white socks above scuffed brown shoes. (He sometimes wore those shoes into the Opera House pit for performances, a comfortable adjunct to his white-tie-and-tails formal wear--tails that he often carried rolled up in a brown paper shopping bag.) His silver-colored metal lunch box seemed to have an unlimited supply of cold dry toast--his most frequent snack. And his violin case, of the classic "Are-you-carrying-a-machine-gun- in-there?" shape, had been repaired so often with black flextape, that there were many who questioned whether any of the original material remained.

Though his appearance was unprepossessing, only a few minutes with him revealed the scope and energy of his intellectual interests: He was rereading Schiller, he was studying Japanese, he was (again) climbing Koltanowski's problem-solving ladder in the Chronicle chess column, he was listening to the Giants' game on a small transistor radio held next to his ear, he had just written an angry letter to a local newspaper, expressing his views and feelings on a matter of politics.

He expressed his views and feelings on all matters that were important to him. Whether talking about musical values or political opinions (or a recent trade by the Giants), Felix said what he had to say with a vigor that could approach aggressiveness. (Or he might just as vigorously take a position opposed to yours--to test the firmness of your conviction.) Those of us who remember his voice and movements know how animated he could become. As his gestures became larger and more intense, his gentle Viennese accent moved from calm to excited, from musical to shrill.

What Felix said was important--and how he said it was a vital part of the meaning. It would be unfair to his complexity not to mention that some people found his range of intensities abrasive; some students found him hard to take.

Felix was much more than an abstract intellect. He was a rich and complex human being--wise, contentious, musical, thoughtful, impetuous, annoying, kindly. Even those who were not completely comfortable with him acknowledged that Felix was colorful.

And for those of us who were comfortable with him, Felix was fun!

He knew it, too. He could joke about himself: On a Saturday midnight in 1970--when Felix was still a member of the San Francisco Symphony--the orchestra's charter bus returned a group of tired musicians to the Opera House after a runout concert to Cupertino. Felix was the first out of his seat near the back of the bus. Hugging his violin case, his metal lunch box, and the brown paper shopping bag with his rolled-up tailcoat, pressing purposefully down the aisle, Felix said, "Excuse me, excuse me, please. I have to get off first. I have students waiting for lessons at my home, and afterwards we are playing chamber music."

We laughed, because we knew it wasn't true; and we laughed because we knew it could have been. Some major themes of his life--chamber music, teaching, home, and a sense of restless hurry--were all present in his joke. (It's surprising that he didn't mention gardening.) He had a tremendous capacity for work, and a way of filling the niches of his busy schedule with students.

Which leads to other stories: Felix said that he had planned to sleep late one Sunday morning, but was awakened by the doorbell at 9:00 A.M. He went to answer, and there was one of his adult students, quite surprised to find his tousle-haired teacher in pajamas and bathrobe, "Did I get the schedule wrong? I thought we had an appointment for a violin lesson this morning."

"We do," Felix said. "If you brought money, I am prepared to teach."

Felix said: "I told one of my students that she had made a mistake and that I would play the passage the way she had played it: she should listen for the mistake and tell me what it was. When I played it she said, 'You were out of tune.'"

"Yes, that's right, but that's not what I meant. Here, I'll play it again."

"Your bow bounced on the string crossing."

"Yes, yes, okay! But that's not it! Here, I'll do it once more."

"You scratched."


"What mistake in rhythm?"

With colleagues, as well as with students, associating with Felix had a learning component. Playing chamber music with him was a great experience. He saw past printed notes to the meaning of the music, the individuality of each piece, and he lead with a freedom and breadth of phrasing that was enlightening.

Those sessions could also have surprising moments. His sense of impatience really showed when he said: "This is the Twentieth Century! We have all heard these motifs before. We will play the Minuet without repeats."

Each memory of what Felix said, and of who he was, leads to other memories. The things that Felix said keep their freshness. They stay in memory, verbal talismans and teaching stories that keep on doing their work.

Like what Felix said about teaching: "The teacher's work is to watch the student, and listen to the student, and then use what he has seen and heard to sense in his own body how it must feel to play and sound like the student. And then to compare that feeling with how he normally feels when he himself plays. And then to use every means in his power to convey that difference to the student."

Like what Felix said when a colleague once asked: "What is this 'musical value' that you keep talking about? We need to play the notes. We need to put on a good show. What else are you talking about?"

And Felix said: "Don't worry about it. If you aren't driven to find it, just let it go. You can live a perfectly decent life without concerning yourself about it--millions do.

"But if you really want to know what it is, if you really must find it and experience it, then you will seek it everywhere you can. You will not be able to stop. You will look for it and listen for it, and think about it. You will make up your mind about it, and then change your mind--and then change it again! But you will always seek it."

A musician's credo.

The last time I saw Felix, at the corner of University and Shattuck in Berkeley, he expressed himself with all the verve and acerbity that he ever had. Our encounter was accidental, and I was glad to see him: "Hi Felix!"

"Ah, Heimberg. Have you heard the condition of my health?"

"Why no, I...."

"Lung cancer." He nodded.
"Possible metastasis to the brain." He wrinkled his nose and tapped his temple with his index finger. "I am angry with my HMO. If they had not stopped the multiphasic examination a few years ago we might have caught it earlier...but then again, maybe not." He shrugged. "Eighty-four isn't bad, huh?"

I couldn't answer. My voice was choked, my eyes were misted with tears. "Felix, I..."

"Listen, I have to go. I have some things to do. Good seeing you." And he left.

Two weeks later he left us all with our cherished memories of who he was: the man, his music, and--of course--what he said.

Tom Heimberg, Violist San Francisco Symphony

August 10, 1996 Berkeley, California
[Interview History: Caroline Crawford] [Part One of Felix Khuner Interview] [Donors]

Write To The Khuner Family:
Eliot Khuner
1052 Monterey Avenue
Berkeley CA 94707
Toll Free: (888) 933-3456

For Printed Copies, Write to:
Regional Oral History Office
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University of California
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