Thinking of my friend, Uncle Rudy

I was leaving for China last August (2006) when I received an e-mail from Isis that Uncle Rudy had passed away at his house in Sampaloc, Manila.

In my journey through Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Xian, the Three Gorges, I often found myself thinking about him.

His full name was Rodolfo C. Vidad.  It was sometime in 1968 that Isis introduced me to him. I was in my late 20s, a lawyer working in the Philippine Senate, a student of Shaolin Temple Boxing and Tai chi chuan, married with a child.

He occupied a room with shelves for records and tapes, a turntable, tape player, and two speakers. His bed sat in the center of it. There was clear glass window occupying one side facing outside. Another room held more of his records and tapes. It was the largest private collection that I had ever seen, comparable to the one at USIS Jefferson Reading room in the Escolta, where at 17 or 18, a student taking undergraduate studies, I first heard recordings of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Edith Sitwell’s The Canticle of the Rose.

At the time, I did not know much about his life, except that he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was an engineer. He smoked. I did not know if he was Protestant or Catholic. Religion wasn’t something we talked about.

I don’t have a picture of him now, but with my eyes closed, I can remember how he looked: his pompadour of a hairdo, a smile that was slightly askew, his bright, but sad eyes, the expressive hands. I remember his soft voice, his dry humor, his thoughtfulness. He was tall for a Filipino, slim, with a slight stoop and a gangly walk. He never did wear anything fancy, just a plain shirt and light colored pants.

I can’t exactly remember our first conversation. But I do remember that sometime during my visits I told him that as a child I studied the violin in our hometown, but the teacher stopped coming, and so that was the end of my music studies. I said much of the music I had heard was from the radio and what our church choir sang (Handel and Bach, among others). What I also listened to but was probably too embarrassed to admit, was what was called “light classical” – Song of India, Barcarolle, Mantovani, Ray Coniff – and a few themes from the popular repertoire.

In the next few times that I saw him at his house, Uncle played different types of music, classical and romantic, and sometimes recitations (one of them of Dylan in America by Sir Alec Guinness*). It was at his house that I first heard Britten’s Children’s Introduction to the Orchestra and Peter and the Wolf narrated by Sean Connery.

He introduced me to Haydn, Mozart and then to Beethoven. He made me listen to a commentary explaining the similarities and differences between Mozart and the early Beethoven. He gave me materials about the technique of transformation and variations in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the triad in the 3rd (dedicated to Napoleon). He played the Eroica and Wellington’s Victory, Beethoven’s apologia for Eroica. We listened to Brahms, Schumann (I loved his composition for the piano, Kinderszenen/Songs of Childhood) and Ravel and the French impressionists and many others.

He would play a piece of music, say, Rachmaninoff’s  Piano Concerto #2 performed by different pianists. Or Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto also by different performers. Often it was like that. We would also listen to operas and then arias sung by different singers: Callas, Scotto, Sills, among them.

It’s not just a matter of recognizing the music, he said, you should be able to recognize the performer. He also said, Why buy an expensive stereo equipment if all you are going to play is junk?

I would sometimes drop by his house on Remedios Street after my Yang Tai chi chuan or Shaolin lessons in Chinatown or when I was not busy at work.  At the time I had grown deeply interested in Chinese kung-fu and had the rare privilege of having two new masters in Chan Bun Te, who trained in Yang Tai chi chuan style with the Taiwanese Han Ching Tang, and Lao Kim, the patriarch of Shaolin (Buddhist) wu-shu in Ongpin.

In the course of time, I was able to listen to many compositions from the classical, romantic, baroque, modern eras. It was a great education. I also got acquainted with the Soviet Army Chorus and Missa Luba.

One time, he told me that he was going to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto # 3. It was a composition I had not heard before. It was played by Alexis Weissenberg, of whom I had known nothing before either. Weissenberg, if I remember from the liner notes, was about 8 or 9 years old when his teacher played a recording of the concerto for him. It was performed by no less than Rachmaninoff himself. The young boy was enchanted and at that early age, committed himself to learning to play it. Years later, when he was in his early 20s or late teens, he became co-winner with the violinist Itzak Perlmann of the Leventritt. Rach 3 was the piece he played at the competition.

Another time Uncle played recordings of Mahler: Symphony # 1, the “Titan,” and then Symphony # 2, “the Resurrection”. I can’t remember who conducted the orchestras, but I do remember that they were “Mahlerians,” i.e., the conductors were famous for their work on Mahler’s compositions. It was later that I learned – probably from the album cover notes, possibly from one of the books in Uncle Rudy’s library – about Mahler’s struggle with the superstition about and the “curse” of the 9th symphony and death. It was then that Uncle played Gustav Mahler’s Songs of the Earth, a set of lieders based on the poems of Du-Fu, Li-Po and others. I had read these two Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty but did not really appreciate them until I heard their words being sung in Mahler. (Perhaps, it had something to do with “colonial mentality,” the tendency to dismiss or ignore something from Asia until somebody famous in the west recognized or praised it.)

Uncle talked about the 3 B’s in music. I learned about Hector Berlioz and was awed by his Requiem.

Later on, Uncle introduced me to Shostakovich, Takemitsu and Schoenberg. I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence.

I learned bits and pieces of the lives of the composers, conductors and performers. I learned the vocabulary of music. I read Leonard Bernstein explain Beethoven and the concepts of harmony and melody.

Inclined to privacy, Uncle did not say much about himself. He did not really talk a lot. He put on a recording and listened all the while. We would have snatches of conversation here and there. But I learned how he got immersed in this life of music. He was a young postgraduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he began attending concerts. When he got to know the doormen and guards at the symphony hall, he was allowed to get in free. If the house was full, he would sit on the stairs in the balcony. It was at this time that he started his giant record collection.

I never heard him sing. He told me that if there was a song he wanted to sing, it was “None but the lonely heart.” I did not ask why. He did not explain.

Sometimes, Uncle would tape a recording for me to take home. I had acquired a small second-hand tape recorder at the time and all of a sudden our small neighborhood apartments in Kamuning were echoing with Tchaikovsky’s Violin in D and Dylan Thomas’ poetry.

In 1969, Uncle picked up photography probably influenced by his nephew Melvin. He and I started to talk about photography. He opened a dark room. My brother Flor gave  me an Asahi Pentax professional camera and I began to take photos, too.

In 1970, Uncle Rudy gave up smoking. He explained to me that he would put a pack of Marlboro infront of him, struggled with his addiction, until he succeeded in overcoming it. To me, that was quite a heroic feat.

I gave him my used recording of Shakespeare plays by the Marlowe Reading Society that I got from the Solidaridad Bookstore on Padre Faura.

When I left for the US late in 1970, Uncle gifted me with three tapes. “Rots of Rock,” he wrote on the wrapper. One had Wagner, the second stories for children (“Babar, the Elephant” and others) and the third was Jerry Dadap’s music from his first concert at PhilamLife Auditorium (including his first symphony and his obra maestra “Alay sa Inang Bayang,” a composition for orchestra, chorus and rondalla) and Philippine songs. (I actually gave Uncle the recording of Dadap’s first concert which I got from a DJ at a radio station in Caloocan City somewhere. I was listening to the radio one morning when I heard the music and decided right then to call the DJ to make an appointment to see him.)

In New Jersey, I started my own modest collection of recordings, which included some of what I heard at Uncle’s, and readings. I frequented Sam Goody’s, Harmony House and a few other record stores when we lived near Asbury Park. I bought a cheap stereo set.

In Brooklyn, New York City in 1972, I got a Benjamin Miracord II turntable, large Bose speakers, a Japanese tape recorder. Often, the children Norman and Albert, then 6 and 3, and I would sit and listen to Peter and the Wolf, Children’s Introduction to the Orchestra (narrated by Sean Connery),  Peter Ustinov reading Exupery’s The Little Prince, and others. Albert at 3 had memorized many passages from Exupery, including the famous “mushroom” paragraph that began with, “I know a red faced gentlemen. He has never smelled the flowers, he has never looked at the stars, he has never loved anyone.”

Later, I was also able to acquire bargain recordings of Shakespeare, Greek plays, Dylan Thomas, among them, from closing sales.

Intermittently, I sent Uncle vinyl and CD recordings. A couple of solos by Cleo Laine, a Messiaen, Chinese pipa music, Weissenberg playing Chopin, Maria Farantouri singing Theodorakis, Cleo Laine at Carnegie Hall, Cleo Laine and Ray Charles singing Porgy and Bess, among others. One time, concerned about a photography book a friend borrowed from him and never returned, I looked around, found a copy and sent it to Uncle as a replacement.

I saw him when I visited Manila after the fall of Marcos in 1986. By that time, he had become immersed in photography. When I called, he was often out taking pictures. He gave me a copy of his book of photographs which featured many of the visiting ballet dancers at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Years had passed since I last saw him in the mid-90s. I had trained in Chinese and Japanese acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbology, left lawyering, became a healer and teacher (of martial arts, massage, meditation, qigong, internal alchemy) wrote poetry and essays (and got published), studied more Taoist arts and Tai chi chuan, traveled much, saw my 2 boys grow up, marry and gift me with 5 grandchildren, met new teachers who broadened my life and knowledge.

In the middle of it all, music has been very much a part of my life. Over the years I acquired a good collection of vinyl recordings: Tibetan and Buddhist chants, symphonies, Japanese shakuhachi, folk songs from different countries, concertos, solos, new interpretations of the traditional repertoire. Ten years ago, my son Albert asked me if he could have them. I retained a few which are sitting in my library. I have stereo equipment all over the house. Last year, Albert installed a sophisticated stereo set at my house to replace the old one I bought in the early 70s.

Last year, I took a course in Music Theory at a local community college. I have consistently had a stereo – an audio before, now a CD – player in my car and a bunch of recordings.

The grandchildren – Emily, Madalyn, Ava and Isabel — have just had their first recital. They perform for me when I visit. I’ve given them CDs of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Peter and the Wolf and Introduction to the Orchestra, along with Pete Seeger’s Concert at Town Hall.

I’ve played Peter and the Wolf and Introduction to the Orchestra for Ava and Isabel  when they are with me. A few times, we sat in my library and listened to the old vinyl of Peter Ustinov reading The Little Prince. Both Ava and Isabel have memorized the “mushroom paragraph” and sometimes, moved by the spirit, we three would recite it from memory.  They are studying the piano now. Isabel studies the recorder and the trumpet.

Often when I attend a concert –  Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony (“Babi Yar” with Yevtushenko reading his own poem) at the Met in New York or Yoyo Ma playing Bach’s complete Suite for the cello at Carnegie Hall – I think about Uncle Rudy and wish he was there with me. When I saw Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique at Royal Albert Hall in London, I sent Uncle a postcard about it.

When I was in China after Uncle’s death, I wondered if I had done justice to our friendship. I thought about what he did for me, how he opened experiences I had not imagined, how he enriched my life, how his legacy of music has been passed down to my children and grandchildren. I regretted not seeing Uncle more often when I visited Manila. But I could not do anything about that. Instead I wrote and mailed a postcard addressed to him saying “Thank you for everything. I miss you. Love, Rene”

3 thoughts on “Thinking of my friend, Uncle Rudy

  1. Hey Rene–I know just how you feel. Even with some teachers who are still alive–I feel so indebted to them that I feel I’d never be able to fully pay them back for the positive effect they’ve had on my life. Lovely story. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I have read “The Little Prince” many time a year and each time a new meaning/lesson learned. That book and many copies therafter, have been shared with my children and to grown ups whom I have met along the way in life. I do not believe the receipients of my gift of this precious little book have been affected as I have been. I am so very fortunate to have been given this book when I was in my early 20’s by a person who cared enough to share. To love, to care, to share. A beautiful memory. Often we don’t have time to visit those who mean the world to us because life presents itself with so many other distractons. Your friend, Uncle Rudy’s gifts to you of literature and music was far more endearing that any spoken words could convey. Thank you for sharing, Rene.


    renejnavarro Reply:

    Uncle Rudy left an indelible and profound mark in my mind and life. It is indeed astonishing that, though simple sharing and generosity, a human being could influence another human being for the best. It is also true that just by taking the time to listen or to talk or to be aware, we can connect to each other and show concern and caring. For me, “The Little Prince” contains in its pages, the wisdom of the world. My favorite is that passage about the “man who had never seen the stars, never smelled the flowers, who had never loved anyone, who spent all day counting figures … he is not a man, he is a mushroom.” It is an indictment of our obsession with wealth, fame and success while we forget what is truly beautiful. Blessings! Rene


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