Tuesday 12 July 2011

Remarkable violinist Joseph Greenstone "retires" to Toronto at 92

For many years superb violinist Joseph Greenstone (left) was a regular pen pal of mine. He’d send me handwritten notes to remind me that he would be leading the orchestra at the annual Austrian ball a nd I would make sure to mention this in my column. When I found out that he attended Bancroft Elementary School in the Plateau as a kid, I picked up the phone and asked him to make a return visit and perform for the kids.

It was a cold February morning more than a year ago and I offered to pick Joseph and his wife Sylvia up. This was an extraordinary occurrence of a man returning to his former elementary school for the first time in more than 80 years. I arranged for CTV News and local city councillor Alex Norris to join us. When Joseph walked into one of his old classrooms, he broke down in tears. It was a heartwarming moment. We did get to see the kids. He played the violin for them and they loved it.

Joseph and I kept in closer touch after this memorable experience. He just turned 92 and recently led the dinner and dance music for the 28th consecutive year at the prestigious Austrian Ball. Just a few months ago the German Ball came calling for his services. And Joseph and I now communicate by email. Yes, he decided to take a course and has become quite good on the computer.

Having lived here their entire lives, Joseph and Sylvia have made the difficult decision of moving to Toronto. They depart next Tuesday. We are moving to Toronto to be near our children, and what a major move that is at age 92,” Joseph confided in me. “ Sylvia is approaching 84. Basically, we have no close family members in Montreal, other than nieces and nephews. Our children convinced us that they want to be there for us, and to be able to spend time with us which is very logical. I suppose this spells the end of my career. But I guess that at my age I have to expect it, though it's a strange feeling. It has to happen to all of us eventually.”

Greenstone was a 10-year-old pupil at Bancroft when he spotted a notice on the bulletin board advertising music instruction. His parents’ positive response, his teacher’s support and his talent ultimately paved the way for his successful career as a professional violinist. The Greenstones were people of modest means and had five children to support. Nevertheless, they consented to the 50-cent fee and purchased a violin for $5 at a pawn shop on Craig Street (now St. Antoine). It didn’t take long for teacher Harry Norris, a former British opera conductor, to recognize Greenstone’s inherent talent. “The teacher informed my father, who also loved violin and always accompanied me to class, that he would give me private lessons at no extra cost,” Greenstone says, “but eventually we couldn’t afford to pay anything, so Mr. Norris taught me without pay.”

After returning from service in World War II, MGreenstone performed for a limited time in what he considers a precursor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. “In those days, they didn’t pay musicians enough to make it a full-time job, so during the day I worked for my brother (William) in the textile business.”

Although the violin is his favourite instrument, Greenstone also enjoys playing the viola. As for relaxation, he adores listening to Mozart and Chopin on the piano. A versatile musician, Greenstone excels in every genre outside of the very latest hard rock, heavy metal and hip-hop. Moreover, he plays hundreds of classical, popular, operatic, ethnic, folk, show tunes and other pieces by heart. He has performed with the most renowned opera and ballet companies, symphonies, ice shows, stage productions, bands and accompanied world-famous stars at major events in posh hotels, dinner clubs, the United Nations, National Arts Centre, Museum of Fine Arts, celebrity weddings and city halls. During his career, Mr. Greenstone served as concertmaster for four Gilbert and Sullivan Operatic Societies and after 45 consecutive years, he was inaugurated as a life Member of the Montreal West Operatic Society.

I wish Joseph the best of luck!

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