It is hard to imagine the musical tyrant known as Mr K lasting long as a teacher today. Any 21st-century Mr K, with stomping foot and furiously flailing baton, would surely be disciplined for reducing his first violins to tears and forcibly paring their fingernails with his pocket clippers. He’d be drummed out for bawling, in his thick Ukrainian accent, that his young cellos sounded “like hippopotamus rising from mud at bottom of reever!”
And yet, from the deeply touching memoir, Strings Attached, Jerry Kupchynsky emerges as an inspiration to the 1960s students of East Brunswick, New Jersey. This tells how, for half-a-century, Mr K nurtured talent and despatched protégés, in impressive number, to the great classical orchestras of America. More than that, this orchestral autocrat imbued kids in his care with a tireless work ethic, supreme strength of character and the desire to become more than they ever dreamed possible.
Part nostalgia, part stark narrative, the story unfolds as a duet, alternating the voices of Joanne Lipman, former viola player turned New York Times writer, and her childhood friend Melanie Kupchynsky, Mr K’s elder daughter. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, both were members of his showcase quartet.
Outside music, their lives were poles apart; Joanne was the third daughter of clever, aspirant Jewish parents who pretty much embraced the all-American dream. Their attitude to upbringing sounds so ethnically familiar — timeless in its contradictory message of indulgence and high expectations of success. The worst thing that happened to Joanne’s dad, when small, was being mistaken by police for the missing Lindbergh baby.
If Mr K’s sufferings had been as slight, he might have been less tough, though ultimately perhaps, less triumphant. Mr K’s wife had MS and was permanently hospitalised when their two daughters were still tiny.
This was just one more heartbreak for Kupchynsky, a born romantic whose childhood was stolen first by Stalin and then by Hitler — until he finally fetched up, louse-ridden, in an American refugee camp.
Melanie developed night terrors and (lacking a mother’s touch) wore a fringe cut shamingly short. For young Melanie, and her sunshine little sister Stephanie, there are no trips to the bowling alley, no lakeside swims. Still, music will give Melanie her moments — dancing with Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood festival and playing for Georg Solti in his famed Chicago Symphony orchestra.
We know from the outset that all will not end well for the Kupchynskys. America, so proudly embraced by Mr K for all its freedoms, deprives him of his daughter Stephanie. Missing for seven years, she is finally found murdered. In the long search, Melanie and Joanne are reunited and, on Mr K’s death at 81, they play, along with 100 of his former students and colleagues, one final concert in his honour — a fine-tuned tribute to “the meanest man” they had ever met.