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When a certain Danish-Israeli conductor-violinist last appeared at Symphony Center, he was known as Nikolaj Znaider. In December, he announced that he would revert to the use of his full name, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. In an open letter, the conductor (who will lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts April 25-27), explained his rationale:
Perhaps naïvely I thought I could quietly add Szeps to my name and people wouldn’t really notice. After all, I said to myself, Nikolaj Znaider and Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider will surely be perceived as the same person when the name appears in a season brochure or in a musical context. It turned out I was half-right.
While it is true that no one as yet has come up to me and said, “I thought Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider was a completely different person!,” I did greatly underestimate the human need to search for meaning. Indeed, most have had the same question: “Why have you changed your name?” And it is true … in this case, the logic certainly isn’t on the surface.
When people change their name, it is usually to something simpler. So why have I changed my name to what in most parts of the world would amount to a tongue-twister?
Well, the fact is that I was born Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, and my name has always been Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. In the late ’90s, some well-meaning folks, whose opinion I valued, advised me I would be better off with a simpler name when presenting myself on stage. I took that advice, and this is perhaps where the story could have ended.
Life went on, but a pang of guilt persisted. You see, it isn’t that both my parents are called Szeps-Znaider, rather each have preserved their name, choosing to pass on the headache of a double-barreled name to the next generation.
To them, having been born just post-World War ll, the responsibility of carrying on an extremely rare name (or in the case of Znaider, variant of a name) was felt very keenly, especially in the light of numerous family members lost in the Holocaust. Indeed it was after watching a documentary about the Second World War that I had the impulse to research some databases of both survivors and victims of the Holocaust. After having come across more than a dozen Szepses who had lost their lives, I was overcome by a strong sense that I simply couldn’t bear to be responsible for another Szeps disappearing from the world. So I made the decision to carry both names on as well as off the stage.
In other words, I wish to honor my father and my father’s side of the family wherever I appear, privately as well as publicly.
Now, some may ask, “But haven’t you merely passed on a difficult dilemma to the next generation? After all, if everybody were to keep their names, within very few generations, chaos would reign and everybody would have an intolerable amount of surnames.”
To which, I say, “Absolutely!”
This is, to be sure, [a decision] my children will one day have to sort out, but since they also stand to inherit my soon to be obsolete CD collection, I thought one more headache wouldn’t be too bad. I hope they will forgive me the inconvenience and I hope you will, too.