Violist Eric Sargon loves composer Berlioz best. But the 91-year-old has played just about everything, for and with just about everyone, from Eric Clapton and Tom Jones to Chaim Topol, the James Bond movie franchise and the BBC Orchestra. Oh, and The Beatles.
Now Sargon and his viola, the instrument he has played since the age of 18, have made aliyah, joining his two daughters and their extended families in Israel.
The sprightly nonagenarian is already playing with the Music Lovers Orchestra, a Jerusalem ensemble, as part of his absorption process.
“They’re very dedicated,” said Sargon, who began playing with the orchestra during previous trips, and added that having an orchestra in Jerusalem helped encourage him to make aliyah. (Israel marks its annual Yom Ha’Aliyah — immigration day — on Monday.)
For Sargon, an easygoing, friendly sort, any kind of music is worthwhile, as long as he gets to perform it. “I enjoy playing almost anything,” he said in a recent interview.
And that he does, from joining a visiting orchestra in the lobby at Mediterranean Towers, the swanky retirement home he moved to in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, to busking in downtown Jerusalem (okay, that was for a recent television news story), to playing a tune or two for this visitor.
Music, it’s clear, is still the center of his life, the core of his very being. Sargon can remember nearly anything that has to do with his musical career; he’s a little hazier on dates and details.
He has been playing stringed instruments since, at the age of 7, he spotted a violin in a shop window in Bombay, India, where he was born and raised.
Sargon’s father was from the Jewish community of Cochin and his mother was born in Bombay, but with family roots in Baghdad.
“I don’t know what made me say, ‘Dad, I would like to play.’ He didn’t think twice,” said Sargon. “Dad taught himself music, and he got me going. Somehow, I was very musical as a child. I would go to the bandstand, I would love the marches.”
Sargon was given private lessons for free until he was 18 years old. Then, in 1948, his teacher said Sargon needed to go to London to continue his music studies at the Royal College of Music. The college’s only stipulation for his acceptance was that he switch to viola; there was a shortage of good players.
It wasn’t much of a hardship. “A violin is brilliant and entertaining, gypsy-like,” said Sargon. “A viola is somber. It’s serious, heart-wrenching. It talks, it’s warm.”
Which is how, when The Beatles wanted the somber tones of the viola, Sargon, a member of the BBC Orchestra at the time, got the call to play for the band, although he had no idea which song he was accompanying.
It may have been for “Hey Jude,” the ballad that evolved from “Hey Jules,” a song Paul McCartney wrote to comfort Julian Lennon, after his father, John, left his mother for Yoko Ono.
Once The Beatles had recorded it, at London’s Trident Studios, they added a 36-piece orchestra, with the parts scored by producer George Martin. The song is one of Sargon’s favorite Beatles pieces.
“I love playing ‘Hey Jude’ because it has a deep tone to it,” said Sargon. “I can make it more sensuous, more warm.”
It wasn’t unusual for members of the BBC Orchestra to be called for private studio work, and the musicians accepted because the pay was generally stellar, said Sargon.
Sargon remembered being called one night at 8 p.m. to come to the studio four hours later to record his part for the song.
“You get out of your pajamas for The Beatles… and for the money,” he said.
Sargon’s granddaughter, Samantha Robinson, who has been acting as his press agent in recent weeks, said her grandfather was paid about £80 for each studio session. He still collects royalties for his work on some albums he played on; unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with The Beatles.
The way Sargon recalled it, there were two cellos and two violas among the musicians gathered in the studio, and while he enjoyed the arrangement, he didn’t know what song it was meant to accompany.
“I didn’t know what the hell music I was playing,” he said. “I turned to the other players and said, ‘Let’s put some expression into it,'” said Sargon.
“George Harrison called over the box, ‘No expression!'”
“I don’t think he said ‘Please’,” said Sargon.
“Then I began to lose interest,” he admitted. “I couldn’t enjoy the music; he wants just notes, so I’ll play notes. That’s what we were, background music boys.”
Sargon does not know which other Beatles songs he accompanied, because they only gave him sheet music without words, he said, and never informed the musicians which songs they were playing.
Released at the end of August 1968, “Hey Jude” was a No.1 hit worldwide, including nine weeks at the top of the US Billboard Top 100, and sold about eight million copies. Almost half a century later, in 2015, it was voted Britain’s favorites Beatles No.1; McCartney played it at the culmination of the four-hour opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where he famously missed his cue.
In the years after his work on “Hey Jude,” Sargon also played for McCartney the solo artist, as well as onstage with Clapton, whom he called “much more musically humane.”
He also played with Tom Jones, the Boomtown Rats, Lulu, Topol and Johnny Dankworth, said Robinson.
During our recent interview, Sargon quickly offered to play the opening chords of “Hey Jude” on the viola in his living room, before segueing into “Shalom Aleichem,” the song that opens the weekly Shabbat dinner, as he explained how the viola and violin differ in sound and tone.
“If you’re hungry, you’re going to play it like this,” said Sargon, offering a jaunty, quick version of the Sabbath tune. “But if you want to bring in the Shabbat properly, you play it like this.”
The slower, more drawn out version of the traditional song can only be sung when the kids aren’t clamoring for their chicken soup, we agreed, laughing.
Dominating his nearly 50-year career, Sargon spent 43 years playing for the BBC Orchestra, where “I learned my job,” traveled widely around Europe and played with many fellow Jews, and later, Israelis.
After he married his wife, Florence, in 1958, it was she who kept their family life in place while he traveled for three weeks at a time, “making kiddush on Friday night” and raising their two daughters.
Sargon’s two daughters moved to Israel as young adults, eventually marrying and raising their families, which brought Sargon and his wife for visits over the years.
Now, he said, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but here, where he can jam with several members of his own growing, extended family.
“There’s nothing I would do differently. I’ve been happy at all ages,” said Sargon. “I’ve kind of enjoyed it all. And I’m enjoying it now.”
With viola always at the ready, that is, and, as the song goes, just “waiting for someone to perform with.”