A Life Worth Living

Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days

Early in med school, I put myself on a tight schedule so I wouldn’t have to give up playing the piano. I would attend my lectures on biochemistry and physiology until 5, eat a quick dinner with my roommates, run to a campus practice room, practice until 9, dash back to my apartment, and study until midnight. This might sound admirably self-disciplined, but I didn’t do it on my own. I had a mentor to guide me.

Her name was Tung Kwong-Kwong, and she taught piano at the Kent State University School of Music, along with her husband Ma Si-Hon, who was professor of violin. Even before I started studying with her, I knew — from the way she carried herself and from the brief compliment she gave me about one of my performances — there was nothing frivolous about Mrs. Ma. For teaching and performing, she always wore an elegant Westernized cheong-sam, a style one cannot pull off if one possesses an extra ounce of body fat. She always carried a Coach bag, because, she told me, one could send a Coach bag back to the store for refurbishing and repair.

She was exacting at lessons, and a little mysterious. Interspersed with exhortations on phrasing correctly, she told me about growing up in Shanghai, of bicycling through the streets with a gold bar in the basket to buy her first Steinway piano, of leaving China in 1947 before Mao’s takeover, of her father’s long imprisonment by the Communist party. Though she wasn’t a name-dropper, she knew a lot of fascinating people. She and Mr. Ma had been like godparents to Yo-Yo Ma (though no relation,) and they took me backstage to meet him when he performed with the nearby Canton (Ohio) Symphony.

“Debra’s in medical school,” Mrs. Ma said when she introduced me to him.

Yo-Yo told me that his own sister had finished med school and was rotating through Bellevue Hospital for her residency. Even though he was well on his way to world celebrity, I remember his respect toward the Mas; I got the feeling that with them, he felt he could be himself.

Mrs. Ma’s favorite topic ( besides Mr. Ma,) was her own teacher, the great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel. When she was in her twenties, Schnabel accepted her into his class. Summer sessions were held in Italy, at Lake Como. While other students were out boating, sight-seeing or eating out, she would chain herself to a practice room, determined not to play “woodenly,” determined to make sense of Schnabel’s principles of melodic articulation.

“You’ll get it,” she told me, when I expressed frustration at my inability to phrase something in a compelling way. “You see, if you want it badly enough, you’ll be able to. I had to struggle too.”

She and Mr. Ma divided their time between Ohio and Manhattan, where they had a large teaching studio near Chinatown and a concert series called the Si-Yo Society, on which they performed chamber music with well-known musicians in New York. When they asked me to take part in the young artist division of Si-Yo, I was thrilled to work with other serious young musicians. Their nephew Yong-Zi, a sensitive cellist, and another nephew, exuberant violinist Wing Ho, who’d both survived the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, were core members of the ensemble, as was the powerfully expressive violist Sarah Adams. Under the scrutiny of Mr. and Mrs. Ma’s exacting ears, we rehearsed the Brahms F-minor Piano Quintet, as well as the Dvorak, Mozart and Faure Piano Quartets, over and over again. It was not an experience for the faint-hearted, but the resulting performances remain some of the most satisfying of my life.

Eventually I graduated from med school and moved away. Eventually, Mr. Ma retired from his professorship, and the Mas moved back permanently to New York. We stayed in touch by phone and I sent them a yearly Christmas card. I was puzzled when at some point I stopped hearing back from them, but I assumed they were just busy with their lives.

It was only when Sarah Adams phoned to tell me that Mr. Ma had passed away did I learn that both Mr. and Mrs. Ma had been ill for quite some time. Living alone and childless, their health worsened without their extended family realizing the extent of their decline. They were moved to an upscale retirement community close to their niece Zhen-Mei, and coincidentally, only twenty minutes away from where I now live with my family in suburban Philadelphia.

I phoned Zhen-Mei, whom I remembered from long ago as warm and generous. “She doesn’t remember much,” said Zhen Mei, who oversees Mrs. Ma’s care. “Her Alzheimer’s is pretty bad.”

When I saw Mrs. Ma at the memorial service for her husband, I was astonished by her chic looks, her shorter hairstyle, her figure trim as a teenage girl’s. Whether she could remember me, I didn’t know, though she smiled and spoke to me as if she did. Now that I knew that she lives nearby, I drove over to visit her a few weeks later.

“What took you so long?” she asked, and hugged me.

A black-and-white photo of Artur Schnabel hangs in a prominent place in the small apartment she now occupies at the Hill at Whitemarsh, where a nurses’ aide watches her 24 hours a day. Her concert Steinway grand takes up most of the living room, the front part of the fallboard protected by a length of plastic to prevent scratches on the ebony finish, just as it was covered in Kent. On the lid sit handsome photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Ma in their concertizing days.

Although she can’t remember the past week’s or morning’s events, or my name, she listens attentively when I sit down to to play for her. She takes a seat close to the keyboard as if she is about to teach. And she does teach. She sings the phrases of these famous masterworks by Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, as she would play them.

“Not so short on the second beat,” she tells me, “but more like this —“
“Vary the phrasing, for instance, like this —“

When it comes to music, her mind still doesn’t miss a beat.

I e-mailed Zhen-Mei a few weeks ago to let her know that I wanted to schedule another visit to Mrs. Ma, and learned that she had to be hospitalized because of a bad fall, from which she’d sustained a broken ankle and what might have been a subdural bleed. Her pacemaker had to be re-inserted, and she doesn’t want to eat. I remember Mrs. Ma telling me that Schnabel, at the end, refused to eat. She’s since made a small recovery, and I hope that under the right care, she will continue to improve.

In September I had the honor of performing for Mr. Ma’s memorial concert at Merkin Hall in New York, along with Yong-Zi, Wing (now a full professor of viola at China’s prestigious Central Conservatory Beijing, and a highly influential teacher,) and Sarah (now a sought-after freelance violist in New York and member of the Cassatt Quartet.) Joining us was the marvelous young concert violinist Chen Xi, who was raised in China and educated later at Curtis and is studying now at Yale. Yong-Zi chose the demanding program. Performing the late Beethoven trio and the Brahms C minor Quartet under the Si-Yo banner was a wonderful re-union and brought me the same happiness I’d experienced playing for Si-Yo so many years ago.

After the concert, there was a boisterous party in the reception hall upstairs, where Mrs. Ma, with a pink lily pinned to her chic black suit, was the honored guest. Friends, former piano students, and many family members surrounded her. I’d had no idea, from the vantage point of her milieu in Ohio, what an impact she’d had on so may people, and what a large family cherished her.

To bring music to so many, through teaching and playing, and to have the love one’s family -– that is a life worth living. Bravo, Mrs. Ma.

Read the late Alan Rich’s wonderful commentary on the Si-Yo Society and Mr. and Mrs. Ma.

The Si-Yo Memorial Concert at Merkin Hall, with Chen Xi, violin, Yong-Zi Ma, cello, Sarah Adams, viola (and Isaac Harlan, turning pages)

There are 3 responses to “A Life Worth Living”

  1. What a beautiful tribute!

  2. This is a lovely story and one that brought back a lot of wonderful memories from Kent State. I worked with Mr. Ma a lot, only a little with Mrs. Ma, but still have treasured memories of them, as well as many of the folks you mention (were we these at the same time?).

  3. Thank you, Debra. My mother and I were neighbors and friends of the Mas in New York. She mentioned that a Christmas card had come back this year and I found the obituary for Si-Hon and then your lovely piece on Kwang Kwang. They were very special to us also.