“Dr Camara died last week …”
I looked up from the jewelry I was packing away for the day. The name didn’t immediately register and I was innured to my co-worker’s references to the movers and shakers on the Honolulu social scene. It wasn’t my milieu. I must have looked puzzled.
“You remember … the guy who thought you played like Glenn Gould …”
I stopped folding the pearl necklaces into their storage wrappings. As I looked down at my hand resting on the felt roll, I felt a wrenching stab of pain and my eyes blurred.
I remembered. And that memory evoked a depth of feeling I was totally unprepared for. Jorge Camara. I had met him only once briefly in Saunder’s Piano Shop … one of the two larger music stores in Honolulu. We had hovered over the various pianos sharing fragments of music for a delightful half hour or so. It was the briefest interlude. But now I felt a loss so acute I wanted to lay my head down on the counter and wail with a grief which seemed strangely out of proportion to those few moments shared in that piano shop.
When I met Jorge Camara, I had been living Hawaii for over fifteen years. I had arrived with skills which did not translate well into a job in that tropical paradise. Canadian born, I spoke British English and Quebeçois French and my area of expertise was Baroque music. I had no familiarity with the ubiquitous island ukulele. While attending Juilliard in New York, I had met and married an Indian student studying business at Columbia University and had moved to Bombay where I had spent most of my adult life. Which endowed me with fluency in Hindi and various traditional skills involving rice paste and embroidering silk with gold wire threads. None of which was remotely relevant to Hawaii. A job counsellor ruefully suggested that if I had another degree in Quantum Physics, I would be a suitable candidate for food stamps.
In short, I was virtually unemployable. But over those first difficult years, I had cobbled together various part-time jobs, ranging from piano teaching in my home, to selling books at an occult bookstore and manning a craft table in several hotels, where I sold Hawaiian featherwork and gradually learned the language and culture of the original Hawaiians. My life was a patchwork of various mini jobs and I grew to enjoy it immensely.
But I had learned that in order to survive and move forward to actually thrive, one had to let memories go. Watch them fade and bid them farewell while one turned towards the present and the future.
No use to remember a life in India, where my own driver waited downstairs for me each morning. Nor the cook, nor the dobhi who washed the clothes, nor the sweeper or the mali who tended my garden. And above all, not to remember the life I had originally dreamed of. Before I went to India. The life of a brilliant concert pianist.
My idol had been the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. I spent the summer in Montreal before my first semester at Juilliard, practicing Bach’s Goldberg Variaritions, Gould’s signature piece. The one with which he first captured the attention of the music world and which propelled him onto the world stage. I played it over and over. I imitated Gould’s terrible posture and irritating humming. I waved my hands and gyrated and in those three summer months, reproduced a rather startling rendition of those variations.
In September, I left for New York and proudly sat down at my first lesson with the eminent professor Edward Steurmann. Lifting my hands with a flourish, I began the opening Aria. I stroked each key and hovered with my nose to the keys as I permitted myself the occasional Gouldian off-key murmuring. Oh I had it wired.
Suddenly there was a howl from the professor, who stormed over and grabbed my music.
” You are playing ziss like zat Glenn Gould … yust like Glenn Gould.. ” For a moment my heart skipped a beat joyfully. Then he added … ” Und you both play like schmucks …”
I was unfamiliar with that particular Yiddish word which I later learned refers to male genitalia and is NOT complimentary. But I was quite aware that Steurmann was terribly angry as he chased me out of the studio, hurling the music after me. Now years, later I find the incident funny but at the time, I resisted the impulse to head for the airport and retreat to Montreal.
When I met Jorge Camara, I hadn’t played that Aria for almost forty years. I rarely played anything for my students beyond the simple sonatinas and the Fur Elise. And occasionally I treated them to the first pages of the Pathètique to jolt them to attention. But I avoided the great classics I had once played so beautifully. My music was the past. The fact that I could no longer play with the skill and dexterity I had when practicing the obligatory eight hours a day simply made me unhappy. I didn’t want to listen to myself or watch my fingers move stiffly over the keys. My music was the past. It was over.
But that particular afternoon, I had headed to Saunder’s to pick up some music for my students. I had just come from the beach and was attired in my surf shorts and a ratty T shirt with my hair still wet and dripping down my back. I planned to grab the music quickly and get home. But there was a new piano in the showroom. A gorgeous black shiny Baldwin, my favorite. Ooh la la, how could I resist?
I sat down and tentatively stroked the keys. Oh so lovely. Just like the one I had practiced on at the Quebec Conservatory as a young student … the one in a special studio next to the Director’s office, which he let me use from time to time. I closed my eyes and the past sneaked in before I could censor it and rescue myself.
I began the opening notes of the Aria. The notes were still there, pure and beautiful. It was still there in my fingers and in my heart. It was still there. With my eyes shut I was back in Montreal in that studio next to Clermont Pepin’s office. He would open the door in a moment and say softly in French … ” Ahhh, c’est magnifique …” before going back to his work. I was playing in another time and my fingers rememered what my conscious mind had long forgotten.
Suddenly I heard a someone say, ” Glenn Gould … yes yes … like Glenn Gould …”
I opened my eyes and a local man with a huge grin on his face was dancing around the piano. He was so excited he could barely keep still as he kept moving from side to side, examining my fingers and exclaiming with obvious relish, “Glenn Gould …. yes yes …”
For a moment I thought I was hallucinating. Not many ordinary people even know this great pianist’s name. Gould’s work is the province of connoiseurs rather than the vast majority of concert goers who prefer the more “popular” classical pianists. And I was indeed playing in that style. Most people would assume I was just a little eccentric as I bent with my nose practically touching my fingers. But this local Hawaiian man had recognized the music, the style and most of all … Gould.
I looked at him, totally confounded. He was a smallish man with sparkling eyes and the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas time. He had the lovely soft lilting voice of the island men and was attired in the shorts and T shirt which is practically an island uniform. His energy was contagious and in a few moments, we were both flitting from piano to piano as each in turn played a few fragments of the Goldbergs. As I watched him playing those familiar notes, I realized that we were both equally astonished.
I don’t remember too many details of that half hour … only that our delight in sharing our love for music and particularly Glenn Gould, was overwhelming. We parted with an exchange of names. “Jorge Camara” he said.
It was only a month or so later when I stopped at Saunders for more sheet music that I found out who this ardent admirer of Glenn Gould really was. I had assumed he was a local music teacher and asked the owner of the store, where he taught. A wry smile crossed his face. There was a moment’s pause before I was given the answer.
Jorge Camara was a very well-known ophthalmologist and eye-surgeon whose pioneering work had extended way beyond the shores of Hawaii. He had performed the world’s first orbital surgery via long-distance telemedicine, discovered a condition found in Asians called involutional lateral entropion and a surgical procedure to correct it. He had written numerous highly technical articles in various scientific publications including topics such as radiofrequency in pterygium surgery, a new test to diagnose blocked tear ducts and the use of an image guided system in orbital surgery.
All of this impressive enough. But two other things which somehow explained the almost palpable energy and enthusiasm which had radiated from this remarkable man.
Jorge Camara was a philanthropist whose acts of kindness went far beyond mere donations and fundraiser’s. He was a member of the Aloha Medical Mission and for many years traveled to Third World countries where he and other members of the team performed thousands of surgeries for poor and needy patients. And then carrying the mission even further he began bringing young ophthalmologists from the Philippines to Honolulu to personally train them. He later expanded this personal program to include ophthalmologists from across Southeast Asia.
But it was his experiments playing live piano in an operating room which caught my attention. He had never mentioned this in the short time we’d shared our skills as we’d sampled piano after piano in that showroom. Not a word of it. It had only been Gould and Bach and … the music.
Apparently Jorge Camara had studied the effects of music performed for patients immediately before surgery and found that blood pressure was reduced and heart and respiratory rates slowed enough to reduce the need for medications before and after surgery. To further illustrate this. he brought a piano into the operating theater and played classical music for his patients before their surgery. One of these events is recorded on YouTube. Camara attired in full scrub suit is treating his patient to some Debussy as the medical team stands by waiting the proper moment to begin the operation. There is an element of joyful whimsy in that video which perfectly conjures up my recollection of this remarkable man..
Now standing in the jewelry shop, with my eyes overflowing I gathered together all these fragmented memories. Dr. Camara had died. And the pain was terrible.
But there was one thing I was certain would ease my anguish. And would perhaps reach the spirit of Jorge Camara. When I got home, I searched for a piece of music I knew was somewhere in a pile of scores pushed to the back of my closet. After a time I found it. An old Peters Edition of the Goldberg Variations.
I sat down at my piano and closed my eyes as I played the opening notes. They were pure and clean. I glanced at the music from time to time to make sure the notes were correct. I relaxed into the sound until I could almost hear the Director of the Conservatory say “C’est magnifique” and after a few moments a softer voice whispering … ” Gould … yes yes …”
What can I give to you Jorge Camara? How can I thank you for a small moment which gave me back something I had lost for so many years. I think it can only be this … the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.
For you Dr. Jorge Camara, with aloha and gratitude.