Wednesday 23 January 2013

Vivian King (1944-96)

A tribute to the passionate cellist Vivian King (1944-96).

Seventeen years ago yesterday, Vivian C. King (Vicki), the vivacious American cellist, loving partner and mother who lived life to the full, died of leukemia, at 51.

Born in Ohio, Vivian was something of a vagabond. She studied with the charismatic cellist Gábor Rejto in Los Angeles and left a good teaching position in Tacoma WN for a sabbatical, to study with the great master Pierre Fournier in Geneva in 1972. Things clicked and she settled in Europe, playing occasionally in the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and for Radio Suisse. Then she met me and we eventually moved to Holland. Until her death, she played in the Netherlands Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra. Musicians still come up to me and tell me what a wonderful woman she was and how she left her mark.

The seventies. Ah! long hair, turtle-necks, flared jeans!

Vivian had played a lot of experimental and contemporary music on the West Coast, so in Geneva we began to organize performances of kinetic painting, music and dance. Together with Emile Ellberger (Moog synthesizer) and Jane Cottingham (dance) we founded the Groupe MIM (Musique, Images, Mouvements). This group played a role in the film Esquisses, made by Télévision Suisse Romande in 1976, about my work with kinetic painting. We also tried visualizing George Crumb's Sonata for Solo Cello. Later, in the Amsterdam Melkweg, I remember someone wrapping Vivian in toilet paper and carrying her off-stage as she played. She was up for anything and those were the seventies!

Vivian was an ardent feminist and some of the original plans for ISIS, the women’s rights organisation, were discussed with Jane and friends around their kitchen table. I was pretty ignorant about the women’s liberation movement at the time, but my visits to her apartment brought about a swift re-education. Looking for a way to demonstrate my enlightened status as a “liberated man”, I would quietly start to wash the dishes after dinner, only to hear from one of the women: “I suppose you’re trying to get approval”.

Like many of us in the seventies, Vivian too was searching for an alternative life-style, alternative music, art and a new self. At first, to this restrained, serious Englishman, her emotions seemed often to be in turmoil, or “over the top”. But I soon learned a great deal from Vivian’s joie de vivre, her passion for life and warm relationships with her many friends, her professional discipline, her high ideals and especially her love of adventure. Her sense of humour (sorry, humor in American) was infectious, so our family life was full of fun.

Sharing colour, passion, movement in 1975. Just what I needed.

A stuffy cello teacher once tried to put Vivian down with the comment: “You play like a gypsy!” Yeah! She might have replied, I studied with the great Hungarian cellist Gábor Rejto. And I’m proud of it! (…and you can’t play like that).

Then came the 1976 USA Bicentennial year - you could tour any six U.S. cities for something like $300! We seized the opportunity and my eyes were opened to the multi-coloured cultural riches of Vivian’s mother country. Instead of the European greys, I discovered new perspectives with shocking contrasts of light and shadow, colour, climate and temperament. I loved it, I needed it and it helped me to understand the woman who became my partner for twenty-one years. We began to spend our summers at Crooked Lake in northern Michigan - Vivian’s paradise ever since childhood. It was a toss-up whether to settle in San Francisco or Amsterdam. I still have one foot in the States, for performances and portrait commissions. Many of those early contacts in the arts/music world have become dear friends and colleagues.

Chris at four: not surprising that music is in their blood.

In 1995 I was commissioned by Birmingham Symphony Hall to paint the tenor José Carreras in action, for a concert in aid of his International Leukemia Foundation. He is one of the “lucky few”, as he described it, who survived leukemia and returned to the stage. Uncanny timing. In 1992, when our boys were 6 and 13, Vivian was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She managed to stretch out the prospects for four years, taking her cello to hospital to play the Bach Suites or to run through the Dvorák cello concerto. She fought bravely through one complication after another, an inspiration to me and to anyone faced with this awful challenge. But eventually her body just wore out. On the eve of 1996, there was no way we could even whisper “Happy New Year”. We strewed her ashes in that little Michigan lake, her Paradise, but her music will always fill our lives.

One last happy Christmas together, with Alex and Chris, 1994.