If you love the violin, you might consider coming to Indianapolis next month. Why? You will be able to watch dozens of the world's finest young violinists perform over two weeks, and you also can examine and even play instruments from hundreds of the world's finest modern makers.
This violin takeover of Indianapolis is called the "Festival of the Violin," and it's a confluence of two events: the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI) and the Violin Society of America's annual convention and biennial instrument competition. The IVCI begins Sept. 5, then the VSA convention starts Sept. 15; both end Sept. 21. It's the first time these two events have occurred simultaneously, and the result is a true celebration of the best in both violin playing and violin making.
We've put together a little preview, to give you an idea of what will be happening:
The Ninth Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis
Forty violinists ages 16-28, will compete in the IVCI for more than $250,000 in prizes, career management, international concert engagements, a Carnegie Hall recital debut and the use of the 1683 "ex-Gingold" Stradivarius. The violinists -- chosen from 179 violinists from 31 countries -- represent 12 countries, including Australia, Finland, France, China, Greece, Japan, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, and the United States. They will be judged by an international panel of nine jurists. Preliminary rounds begin Sept. 7, with the laureates announced Sept. 20.
2010 IVCI First-Place Laureate Clara-Jumi Kang performs in the Finals. Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.
COMPETITION ROUNDS: (click here for detailed repertoire requirements for each round):
Some of the other IVCI events of interest will include:
For 2014, the international jury includes Jaime Laredo (Jury President), Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Miriam Fried, Dong-Suk Kang, Boris Kuschnir, Cho-Liang Lin, Philip Setzer, Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Kyoko Takezawa.
About the IVCI: The IVCI was founded in 1982 under the artistic guidance of the late Indiana University professor of violin, Josef Gingold (1909-1995) and takes place every four years. You can find a complete list of past laureates here; some include Clara-Jumi Kang, Benjamin Beilman, Augustin Hadelich, Simone Lamsma, Yura Lee, Bella Hristova, Soovin Kim, Judith Ingolfsson, Stefan Milenkovich, David Kim, Leonidas Kavakos, Andrés Cárdenes, Ida Kavafian and Yuval Yaron. You can read our coverage of previous IVCI competitions at violinist.com/indianapolis.
The Violin Society of America's 42nd Annual Convention and 21st International Competition for Makers
Hundreds of violin, viola, cello, bass and bow makers will gather for the Violin Society of America's annual convention, which will include lectures and seminars on violin-making and related topics, as well as the biennial VSA Competition.
For musicians, this creates a unique opportunity to see a wide variety of modern instruments, all in one place. One important event that is free to the public is the New Instrument Exhibit, which will take place Sept. 17-20 at the Hyatt Regency. "Musicians can come in and try those instruments and bows any time during the day," said VSA President Chris Germain.
Another place to find fine modern instruments will be the Competition Instrument Exhibit on Sept. 19, when the winning instruments from the 2014 VSA Competition for Makers will be displayed and also played by the Tone Judges. This year, the competition has attracted entries from 312 separate makers, representing 26 countries. Countries most-represented are the U.S. with 150 competitors, and China with 69. There are 16 from France, 15 from Italy, 14 from Canada. At this point, the competition has a total of 542 entries, including 246 violins, 110 violas, 69 cellos, 9 basses, 80 bows, and 28 instrument quartets. Instruments will be judged over a three-day period for each category, with awards including a Certificate of Merit for Tone, Certificate of Merit for Workmanship, and for overall Gold and Silver medals, given prior to the exhibit, at a Sept. 18 banquet.
In addition, the VSA Convention will feature lectures, workshops, exhibits and concerts on a broad range of topics. Here are some highlights:
"There's going to be a lot going on, and it's going to be a very exciting event," Germain said. "We're really at a time when the art of violin- and bow-making is at a very high level, and that's reflected in the numbers of people who come to the conventions and competitions and the quality of the work that you see and hear there. It is a world-class event, and probably the largest instrument-making competition in the world."
About the VSA: The VSA was founded in 1973 to promote the art and science of making, repairing, preservation and restoration of stringed musical instruments and their bows. Membership in the VSA is open to all who share an interest in the violin, viola, cello, bass and their bows, and reflects a broad and diverse range of interests including craftsmanship, acoustics, innovation, the history of the instruments and performers, technique, performance practice and repertory. The VSA, jointly with Oberlin College, sponsors summer workshops in violin and bow making, restoration, and acoustics.Tweet
"The seventh wonder of the world -- that is your Strad," said violinist Oleh Krysa, nodding to Bill Sloan, who along with his wife, Judy, own the 1714 “Leonora Jackson” Stradivari. The occasion was the 300th birthday of "Leonora," for which about 30 people had gathered at the Sloan's Los Angeles home for a small recital by Oleh earlier this month.
Ukrainian-American violinist and Eastman School of Music Violin Professor Oleh Krysa is a longtime friend to the Sloans, and to "Leonora."
Judy Sloan, Oleh Krysa and Bill Sloan
The Sloans and "Leonora" met Oleh and his wife, Tatiana, one blizzard-y night in 1989, when Oleh was giving a concert in Detroit.
"He saw the violin, he played the violin, and we've been brothers ever since," Bill Sloan said. In fact, at the urging of his wife, Oleh played the violin in performance, the very night they showed it to him.
Leonora's birthday recital was a bittersweet occasion; Oleh's wife, pianist Tatiana Tchekina, died last December in a tragic accident, when the couple's car was hit head-on by a drunken driver going the wrong way on the highway. The couple had been playing together since 1967 and had made more than 20 albums together; in fact they had played annually at the Sloan's house.
On this night, Oleh played solo, with all unaccompanied works: the "Chaconne," from Bach's Partita in D Minor, and the "Partita" for solo violin by Vytautas Barkauskas.
Oleh Krysa with the 1714 “Leonora Jackson” Stradivarius
The "Chaconne" is an epic journey through dark and light and back; by many accounts, it was written by Bach after the death of his first wife. On this night, a cool breeze finally conquered the summer heat and began to filter through the open window as Oleh played. Through that window also came the sounds of LA: the cars, the neighborhood. The Sloans' tiny fluffy white dog ran about playfully. Friends old and young sat on assortment of couches and chairs, the grand piano silent in its corner.
The "Chaccone" is a piece that seems too harmonically involved, too emotionally complex, too big for one person's hands on a single violin. Yet here it was, living again through Oleh Krysa and through "Leonora," overpowering all distractions, a voice from the past right here in the present.
The "Partita" by Vytautas Barkauskas was a different kind of adventure, full of fits and starts, dissonance and special effects. It begins with a "Preludio" and ends with a "Postludio," and the dances in between are not gavottes and minuets, but rhumbas and foxtrots that poke through a largely clashy-clever musical tapestry. After hearing it I was curious about the score to this piece, written in 1967. It's not surprising that Oleh Krysa would come up with such an interesting piece; once a student of David Oistrakh, Oleh was friends with Alfred Schnittke and has championed and premiered many new works by modern composers.
What must "Leonora" think, with her 300-year perspective?
The 1714 "Leonora Jackson" Stradivari violin
Okay, maybe I'm going overboard here. "Leonora" is not a person; she's a violin. But look where "Leonora" has been, since her conversion in 1714 by Antonio Stradivari from the wood of several age-old trees that sang only when the wind blew through the forest, to a fiddle with a voice like a human:
"Leonora"'s first owners were various European aristocrats, but the violin's history gets quite interesting in 1880, when the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim acquired the violin. In 1904, the instrument came into the hands of the American violinist Leonora Jackson McKim, who had studied in Berlin with Joachim for four years and also made her professional debut in 1896 under his baton with the Berlin Philharmonic. She likely acquired the violin through her connection to Joachim, and the violin came to America with her and now bears her name.
Leonora Jackson, (1879-1969)
Leonora Jackson concertized with the violin until marriage ended her career in 1915, after which she sold the violin in 1919. The violin was held privately until Bill and Judy Sloan bought it in 1983. Since then, the violin has been played by many of the great violinists of our time, including Philip Setzer of the Emerson String Quartet (who recorded the Schubert String quintet, Prokofiev String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, Sonata for 2 violins and more with the violin); Jan Talich of the Talich String Quartet for a recording of Mendelssohn Op 44 string quartets; Oleh Krysa for for performances in Kennedy center and Alice Tully Hall; David Taylor for a performance of Haydn's Symphonie Concertante with the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall; and Eugene Fodor for a tour in which he played Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Just last spring, Chee Yun played the instrument in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Strad Fest (and the earth quaked as she played "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"!).
What do you call an object that has a history, a discography, and even its own exceptional voice that has been singing for 300 years -- a voice that can make people cry, make them laugh, that can give expression to their deepest emotions? "Leonora" may not be a person, but Oleh Krysa had it right: she is a wonder.Tweet
This is Part 1 in a two-part interview with violinist Aaron Rosand. Click here to read Part 2.
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To speak to violinist Aaron Rosand is to gain a sense of what it was like to come of age as a violinist in the mid 20th century; his stories bring alive the people who populated that world, how it worked and how intensely different it was, even just a half-century ago.
To hear him play -- well, that's timeless.
Photo courtesy the artist
Rosand, 87, recently made waves when he wrote a memoir for Norman Lebrecht's online column, Slipped Disc, in which he accused Isaac Stern of sabotaging his career, laying out some very detailed claims. The charges had been rumored for a long time and caused little surprise, though the details certainly made for interesting reading.
But what of the impressive career that Aaron Rosand did have?
The numbers say a lot: Aaron Rosand, born in Hammond, Indiana to a Russian mother and Polish father, began playing the violin at age three and performed with the Chicago Symphony when he was just 10 years old. At one point in his 77-year playing career, he had a repertoire of some 75 concertos at the ready. For 53 years he played on one of the world's finest instruments, the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" Guarneri del Gesù (which incidentally sold for about $10 million in 2009). He has served as Professor of Violin at the Curtis Institute for more than 30 years and at Mannes College for nearly as long.
His playing says even more. Though he no longer performs, in his prime, Aaron Rosand was a player of astonishing technique and vibrant style. A recent four-DVD set called Aaron Rosand: A Musical Memoir in Live Performances contains some of his best performances from the 1960s in Paris. In these DVDs, Rosand also mentions the troubles with Stern, crystalizing it in a description of his own New York Philharmonic debut, when Rosand performed the Barber Concerto under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, with Samuel Barber also in the audience. Afterwards, Stern was waiting angrily in the wings, Rosand said, where he pulled Bernstein into a dressing room immediately after the Barber, even before the curtain calls were complete. Years later, Bernstein told Rosand that Stern had advised him to cancel plans to record the Barber with Rosand, threatening to cancel other recording projects unless the Barber Concerto was recorded with Stern. "So that was the end of the Barber Concerto for me," Rosand said in the DVD, "in fact, I've never played it since."
But Aaron Rosand did play plenty else in his wide-ranging career that put him as a soloist in front of orchestras all over the globe, in New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston, London, Paris, Munich Tokyo, Rome, Vienna and Brussels and more. Versed in both the Franco-Belgian and Russian traditions of violin playing (his primary teachers having been Leon Sametini and Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.), Rosand has been (and continues to be) teacher and mentor to many extraordinary violinists, including Ray Chen, Stephen Copes, David Coucheron, Stephanie Jeong, Alex Kerr, Elissa Koljonen, Richard Lin, Benjamin Schmidt and Stephen Waarts.
Earlier this summer, he spoke with me over the phone from his home in New Canaan, Conn. He told the story of how he began playing the violin, painted a colorful portrait of the people and places he encountered along his musical journey, described his teaching and playing philosophies, and also described the "miracle" of how he wound up buying one of the world's finest violins and playing it for a half-century.
Laurie: Tell me the story of how you got started on the violin at age three.
Aaron: It was really my father's passion. My father wanted to study the violin, and his father wouldn't permit that. My father was born in Poland, and his father had different ideas for him: he wanted him to become a rabbi. In his father's eyes, becoming a musician was nothing short of being a beggar -- those were the old views on the subject. Anyway, my father was studying the violin secretly. His father came home early one day, took the violin out of his hands and smashed it and burned it in the fireplace.
Laurie: That is really traumatic!
Aaron: It was traumatic. My father was the youngest in a large family, and as a result of that (incident), he left home. His mother gave him some money and sent him to Paris, where the family was rather well-off, running a flour mill. They gave him a position there so that he could continue to study his music. He also began to study voice; he had a very, very good voice. He was in Paris for a couple of years when he decided to visit the brother in Palestine, who had started the first bus company in Palestine. While he was down there visiting him, the World War broke out, and he couldn't get back to France. Both he and his brother were drafted and enlisted into the British Foreign Legion; they were fighting Turks and Arabs on camelback.
Somehow, after the war, he made his way to America, where he began to scratch out a living by singing in a cabaret in Calumet City, which is outside of Hammond, Indiana. He met my mother, who was a pianist for silent movie houses, and they married. They were entertaining together, singing Schubert lieder. He could play various instruments -- he could scratch a bit on a violin and he could play saxophone and mandolin. So he was a bit of an entertainer.
I was born, and when I was about three years old -- I guess the babysitters were at a premium in those days -- they took me to a performance where he was singing one of the Schubert lieder. I ran up to the stage and said, "I want to sing, too!" To their amazement, I sang it in German. I had heard them practicing all the time, and it just remained in my ears. That's when they realized that maybe they had a musical monster on their hands, and that's when life changed. I seemed to have one of these awful perfect pitches, where if the train whistle went off, I could tell you the notes; and if my mother played a whole cluster of notes on the piano, I could just rattle them off. So they realized I had this musical talent, and my father was delighted. When I was born, my first toy was listed as a toy violin (he laughs).
They left and moved to the city of Chicago, and then I began my violin studies. Of course it wasn't all that easy. I took to it like a fish to water, but it's thanks to my mother, who made me practice.
Laurie: I always think it's interesting, when people think it's all talent. There's a lot of work behind it.
Aaron: Laurie, it's the discipline behind all of this. My mother was always there, threatening me. Boy if I didn't practice, she had a big belt! She never hit me with that belt, but she threatened me. Of course I took to it immediately. I played my first performance when I was five years old, and I made my (recital) debut at nine years old, as assisting artist to Jan Peerce, who was making his debut in Chicago. At the time, I remember, I played a movement of the Bruch Concerto; I still have the poster of that particular event. I was just a child at the time, but I remained friends with Jan Peerce for the rest of his life, very close to him. He took an interest in my career.
When I was 10, I made my debut with the Chicago Symphony, playing the Mendelssohn Concerto. The conductor then was Frederick Stock who was very famous in those days. He said, "Ach, das ist ein wunderkind" -- a "wonder child." I was studying in Chicago at that time and came to the attention of a very wealthy man named Max Adler, who at the time was sponsoring Isaac Stern. If you ever go to Chicago, you'd know the Adler Planetarium; he's the one that contributed the money to build that. He was one of the six founders of Sears and Roebuck, which was a giant company in those days. He married Sophie Rosenwald.
(Adler) happened to be a violinist of sorts, and he never forgot his violinist days. He bought a couple of violins and tried to help some talented young people. He sponsored a scholarship for me to study at the Chicago Musical College with a great man, to whom I owe a great deal, his name is Leon Sametini. Sametini, some suspect, was one of the illegitimate sons of (Eugène) Ysaÿe. In fact, I have a picture, I'm looking as I speak to you, on my desk of Ysaÿe and Sametini standing together, they were very, very close. And when Ysaÿe was the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony for 10 years in the 1930s, Sametini appeared with them as a soloist three times. But Sametini was a remarkable teacher, teaching in the Ysaÿe tradition.
Laurie: What does that mean, in the Ysaÿe tradition? What kinds of things were you getting from that?
Aaron: Now we're getting into a subject that I could go on about for hours...
Laurie: Go on about for five minutes..(laughs)
Aaron: I'll try, Laurie! I'll try to give you a pocket form. There are two predominant schools of violin-playing today, and it has basically to do with the grip on the bow, and the way you handle the bow. There's the Franco-Belge school, represented by Ysaÿe, and Ysaÿe was a disciple of Vieuxtemps. It's holding the bow just a little bit differently than the Russian school, represented by Auer. In the Russian School, they put most of the pressure on the index finger, the hand is turned more and the little finger is somehow flying. In the Franco-Belge school, it's three fingers, index, second and third finger, that work together; the little finger is light on the bow, the bow moves much faster and doesn't apply as much pressure. It has more to do with the what they call the "son file.' Not "filet steak" but "son file," or "fine line." It's a school of violin playing that unfortunately is being forgotten or neglected; people aren't even aware of it today.
Laurie: I thought everybody had kind of a Franco-Belgian bow hold...
Aaron: Well, they do or they don't, it's the principle, how you're bowing. In fact, I've written an an article about this in the Strad, that has to do with the art of bowing. The Russian school is applying more bow pressure, and supposedly getting thicker sound. But you can't use that all the time because it doesn't allow enough flexibility at the frog.
Laurie: Heifetz seemed to be flexible enough, though....
Aaron: Heifetz, he had a very high wrist, he's the only one of the Auer (Russian-school) students that did that, and in fact, here the greatest player of all time, he ran into trouble with his upper arm; he had an operation when he was about 72 years old. I think he exerted so much pressure in the upper part of his arm that he ran into a snag. Now, if you watch the playing of Zimbalist, who was very close to Auer, or Mischa Elman, or Nathan Milstein, they bowed entirely differently from each other. Each employed some of the Russian school in drawing the long (-lasting) bow. From Zimbalist, I learned how to hold the bow for a half an hour! I'm exaggerating, but he could play the beginning of the Chausson Poeme in two bows, the whole opening, with good sound! (He laughs)
The Franco-Belge school of bowing allows a lot more freedom and flexibility, of the wrist especially. I'm a disciple of both because I studied with Zimbalist, who was a Leopold Auer student, and he was the specialist of the long bow. Sametini, student of Ysaÿe, taught me what nuance and color you can produce in one bow stroke. That is something being neglected today because the young people are tightening their bows so terribly, you can shoot arrows out of them. They're pressing so hard, thinking that you're getting a bigger tone. But this really isn't the case. It's not a trumpet, you can't blow harder, you understand. The violin has a limited dynamic range, and if you don't learn how to play a beautiful piano, it's never going to sound loud. Most young players I hear today are playing with one kind of a forte all the time. It's loud and it's louder, but it's not that loud any more, if you don't know how to play a soft note. So the nuance and the tone color and textures are unfortunately being neglected.
The last time I played for Efram Zimbalist, he was about 92 years old. I did a program in his honor at the Piper's Opera House in Nevada, one of the oldest opera houses in this country -- he used to live in Reno. He came after the concert, I have photographs here, and he said, "Aaron, you've changed something in your bow arm, it's the greatest bow arm I've ever seen -- you must teach that!" What I actually teach is a combination of the two schools. It's getting the thickness of sound and playing on the flatter surface of the hair, and not turning the wrist over and pronating it in that sense but actually applying the pressure evenly with three fingers of the hand and drawing the bow more rapidly, which is from the Franco-Belge system. It's using a full bow. If you see all of my students, whatever they're doing these days, they seem to be winning the competitions, because they sound so different. It's my mission now, as a teacher my age, to carry on the grand tradition of violin-playing.
Laurie: You mentioned that you've been teaching since 1986. What is the biggest thing that has changed in the way you teach over the years, or is there one?
Aaron: Laurie, I actually started teaching when I was around 19 or 20 years old. In fact, a couple of my students that I taught when I was about 20 years old and living in Forest Hills, New York, have very successful careers. So the teaching goes way, way back. What I have learned is that you can't teach any two people exactly the same way. That every young person has a different temperament, a different personality, and you have to approach it slightly differently. Yes, I do have certain principles that I want to adhere to, but it's interesting. You can say the same thing to three different students, all talented people, and they'll all receive it in a different way and as a result, play differently. I don't try to clone my students, they all play differently. I try to develop their own personality in their playing. I let them more or less do their own thing and guide them when I think they're going off track.
Laurie: Tell me your thoughts on shoulder rests.
Aaron: Let me preface whatever I say by saying, the greatest violinists, past and present, do not use shoulder rests. Those that have a beautiful sound, or particularly a personal sound, do not use the shoulder rest. There's a good reason for it: It's the position of the left arm. Because first of all, the violin doesn't sit on the shoulder, I don't know if that surprises you or not.
Laurie: It doesn't really surprise me, it's more the collarbone, isn't it?
Aaron: It's the collarbone. One of the great violinists, Yehudi Menuhin, explains it very thoroughly in his books. There was a "Yehudi Menuhin Shoulder Rest," but Yehudi Menuhin never used the shoulder rest in his life. He endorsed the thing I guess to make some royalties for his school, but he never used shoulder rests. The violin sits on the collarbone, it doesn't sit on the shoulder. The left arm should hang loosely; it's a fallacy to think that the violin is supposed to sit up in the air, without you holding it. Heifetz put it very simply: when a young person came to him and said, I can't play without a shoulder rest: "Take up the cello!"
The reason is very simple: You can't develop a sound because the elbow is flying in the wrong direction. If you look at pictures of all the great players, the elbow is well under the instrument and the left hand, as a result, is rounded and sitting high, so that the fingertip has more space to roll on the string. It's a different angle of the left hand. That's why those who don't use a shoulder rest have a warmer and individual sound.
Laurie: They can get more on the fingertip?
Aaron: Yes, in fact, Elman used to get on almost the fingernail sometimes, to achieve certain effects that he wanted. Nathan Milstein, who was a very dear friend for many, many years, you see the elbow is well under the instrument. You look at all the pictures of Heifetz and Zimbalist and all the great players, and even the current crop, Pinchas Zukerman doesn't use a shoulder rest, Perlman doesn't use a shoulder rest and Anne Sophie Mutter's playing bareback. I think they've had good careers, and they have good tones!
That's my argument. (Shoulder rest proponents) say the hand is freer, the tone is bigger -- that's nonsense. Because the violin becomes part of your body.
Laurie: If you have a student who comes to you with a shoulder rest and wants to keep it, do you let them?
Aaron: Yes. Because in some cases, when they have an extremely long neck, they seem to be in trouble. Although I always cite the example of Joseph Szigeti, who was long and lanky, with a long neck, and he held the violin down and his bow in a peculiar fashion, and he was a great player. And he didn't use a shoulder rest to accommodate that. You have to hold up your violin. Sometimes you hold it in the crook of your hand, sometimes it rests on your thumb, sometimes the chin is down -- it's a continuous interplay of parts, Laurie.
Laurie: It's not a grip so much as it is a balance, isn't it?
Aaron: Precisely. With a shoulder rest, you've got one grip, and you're sitting like that, and I noticed also that most people play side-saddle, they're never looking at the violin, they're looking down. The violin should be sitting right in front of you, with your eyes and nose going right down the fingerboard. Then you're going to develop a beautiful sound and know what you're doing.
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Click here to read Part 2: Aaron Rosand talks about playing by heart, about the great violinists of the mid-20th century, and about the extraordinary circumstances that allowed him to purchase the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" Guarneri del Gesù, which he played for most of his career.
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Live performance of Aaron Rosand playing Wieniawski's "Souvenir de Moscow" (John Covelli, piano):Tweet
This is Part 2 in a two-part interview with Aaron Rosand. Click here to read Part 1.
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Bankers laughed at Aaron Rosand back in the 1950s when he wanted a loan to purchase the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" Guarneri del Gesù -- for about $50,000. A violin is just not the same kind of asset as a house or a car, they pointed out. Of course, who had the last laugh, when he sold it in 2009 for about $10 million?
Photo courtesy the artist
Still, getting that first loan seemed insurmountable at the time. Aaron Rosand, now 87, told me earlier this summer about the extraordinary determination and circumstances that allowed him to buy that violin, about coming of age during an era of great violinists, and about the importance of memorizing many, many works.
Laurie: I was reading that at one point you had 70 concertos in your fingers. How did you accomplish that?
Aaron: Not 70 at one time. My repertoire list that I submitted for every concert year was between 70 and 80 concertos, and during a season I would perform 15 to 20 of these concertos. I went into the 19th century works that were being terribly neglected -- and in fact, they still are. The early recordings that made me quite well known, such as the (Joseph) Joachim Concerto, (Jenö) Hubay Concerto and Anton Arensky Concerto -- there are a lot of interesting works that have simply been forgotten. I remember a stretch of about six weeks in Europe where I performed 15 different major works. And yes, it's true, I played the concert, then after the concert I was there practicing for the next day. But I kept on top of that. I have my mother to thank for that. When I was a youngster and I learned something, a month or two after I learned it, while I was learning another concerto, I had to go back and play the concerto that I learned for the neighbors or the guests that she set up for me. So I always kept in my fingers that which I learned as well as that which I was learning.
Laurie: That seems like a very important thing, and it's easy to neglect to do it.
Aaron: It is. I can't understand it. I'm really puzzled when a person just finished a concerto a month ago, and I say, can you play this? "Oh, I haven't practiced that..." And it's kind of put on a shelf. You can't do that! You've got to keep everything in your brain.
I do a very intensive summer violin program, the Summit Music Festival at Manhattanville College, for about three weeks, with students coming from all parts of the world. They bring all kinds of repertoire to me -- 20 to 30 different concertos. And they always find it hard to believe, as soon as they start playing, I play all the difficult passages, I play right along with them, no matter what they're playing. How is it possible? If you learned something well, if you took a picture with your eyes and it's embedded in your brain, then you ought to be able to do it at any time. You just send a message to your fingers, that's it.
Laurie: Simple as that! (laughing!)
Aaron: Well, I guess it's not so simple, but I'm in the habit of doing that sort of thing.
I find it hard to believe, when young people say, "I can't memorize something." What do you mean, you can't memorize something? It really bothers me tremendously when I see people standing up, playing a recital program, and playing sonatas with music. This is nonsense.
Aaron: Does that surprise you, Laurie?
Laurie: I've actually heard master classes in which the teacher reprimanded the student for not using the music because, the teacher said, it was chamber music, and out of respect for the pianist, they should at least have the music on the stand.
Aaron: Well then don't put it on a recital program you're playing! Otherwise you have to put the pianist's name in the same-size letters. It doesn't make any sense. When a pianist plays a recital, do they put a Beethoven violin sonata on it?
Laurie: No. Although maybe they should.
Aaron: Well maybe they should, but they don't! And it's something that Milstein used to laugh at because it was Isaac Stern that started that little routine, because it was easier to put the music on the stand rather than learn it by memory.
I find it really awful, these days, when people are playing a recital program and they're playing three sonatas. And maybe one virtuoso piece, or not even one, and using music for the entire recital. That's not a recital.
Laurie: Tell me, then, what are the merits of memorizing something?
Aaron: I'll tell you in one word: Heart. It's in your brain, it's in your heart. You put your heart into every note of music you're playing, you're not a robot reading with your eyes, knowing what the next note is.
Laurie: I suppose there's a reason they call memorization learning something "by heart."
Aaron: Learning "by heart," I think you got something there. But if you don't know it by memory, you don't really know it. It has to become part of you. If you really are practicing, if you're an artist -- Heifetz, did you ever see Heifetz with a music stand on stage?
Laurie: I never got to see him at all, because I was not the right age. I wish I could have.
Aaron: You missed something Laurie, because when he played, it was hypnotic. That was true of all the artists. I even saw (Bronislaw) Huberman when I was a young lad, and (Nathan) Milstein, many times, we became good friends. And (Efrem) Zimbalist and (Mischa) Elman. And Yehudi Menuhin, my goodness he was really something. He was so charismatic on the stage, it seemed like lights were coming out of his head when he walked out on stage.
But it's not just that, each played with enormous personality, and complete control and knowledge of music. I don't remember anyone, except maybe in the case of two artists like Szigeti and Arrau, playing a sonata recital. Then (Szigeti) put a music stand on the stage. Although I can assure you that Szigeti knew every note by memory. It was a metal music stand and it was funny, in the performance, in turning a page he knocked over the music stand. I never forgot it -- Szigeti always had accidents when he played.
Laurie: I have a feeling that it just isn't quite the same, to see these guys on Youtube, as it was to them live.
Aaron: No. Not at all. Watching Menuhin was a special experience. Watching Heifetz, it was electricity from the minute he touched bow to string. You sat on the edge of your chair, wondering how it was possible to play that fast, and so beautifully. A Bach Sonata seemed to take just two minutes.
Laurie: A while back, you said that Europe was a better place for a musician than the U.S. Do you feel that's still the case, and was it the case for you?
Aaron: It's an interesting point. When I began my career, all of these great artists that I'm talking about were in their prime. In fact, Fritz Kreisler was playing, I heard him several times. And here I am, a young American upstart, trying to make a career being in the same league. Americans, after the second World War, especially the artists, were not looked upon very kindly. I ran into a situation, I even mentioned it in my memoir, on the first disc. I made my debut in the Kleine Zaal, one of the Concertgebouw's two halls. It was the the first time I'd gone to Europe, and I was quite young at the time. It was after the war, 1950s. I remember playing the Beethoven C minor Sonata, No. 7, and that was the end of the first half. There weren't very many people in the hall, but a man with a beard came backstage and he said, "You know, you played Beethoven second movement too fast." I said, it may be too fast, I took out the score, I said, "It's marked in cut time." Which is rather interesting. It's Adagio con moto, and it's written in four, but it's marked to be played in cut time. It's a beautiful melody. So I showed it to him, it's marked in cut time. He said, "I don't care, Adagio is Adagio. You Americans, you make good cars and good air conditioners. You should leave the art to the Europeans."
Now there was a remark that has remained with me over all the years, because there was great resentment for the American artist coming to Europe at that particular time. We won the war, we were so successful, and we had gold in the streets.
At that time there was a whole colony in Paris of American painters. Paul Jenkins was part of it, and Don Fink, Beauford Delaney -- these fine American artists had to go to Europe to try to achieve some reputation and some appreciation.
Early in my career, Nathan Milstein heard me play and said, "You're too good violinist, but you are American. You should go to Europe, go to Vienna, live there 10 years, you'll be king." At that time I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I said, "Mr. Milstein, I don't even have a violin, how am I going to get--" He said, "You find a way, you find a way."
Well. Eventually I did find a way, but it was the hard way. And it's true, I was actually playing more concerts in Europe than I played in America.
Laurie: So was it Americans who didn't appreciate American artists, or was it Europeans who didn't like American artists? Or did just nobody like American artists?
Aaron: You just said it.
Americans couldn't wait for the next Russian artist to come to New York, so that they could stand around and block, waiting for a ticket. Sol Hurok was the king at that time. And look, the Russian artists were great, to be sure. It was 1955 when David Oistrakh came to this country, and Leonid Kogan, who later on became a good friend. It was Kogan who admired my playing so much, he couldn't believe I was born and learned to play the violin in America. He was the one who arranged the one and only tour I made of Russia in 1980. That was before the Cold War really broke out in earnest, when America bowed out of the Olympic Games. And then things were really bad, and I was playing concerts for Leonid Kogan; he couldn't get out of the (U.S.S.R.) to play in this country.
But it was not an easy battle, because all the orchestras in (America) were conducted by Europeans. It was only in 1960 that Leonard Bernstein somehow broke through and conducted the (New York) Philharmonic. There were very few American conductors around because the Americans didn't appreciate having an American conduct an American orchestra; they wanted to have a foreign accent at the party after the concert.
Laurie: But then in Europe, did you still get people coming back stage and telling you you're not doing Beethoven right?
Aaron: Well no. Gradually, I learned the languages. When I went to France, at first I couldn't speak a word of French. They appreciated my talent as a violinist, but they didn't really completely appreciate me until I could speak some of the language. It was then that I played with all five orchestras in Paris in the same season -- that had never happened before with any other artist. They pinned the medal on me, threw a dinner in my honor and so on. But it took quite a number of years, that was in the 1960s.
And in America, I was one of the first people to play with Leonard Bernstein in Philharmonic Hall -- it's called Avery Fischer Hall now. I was one of the first artists that Bernstein had engaged, I premiered the Barber Concerto (for the NY Phil).
Laurie: Has it changed, do you think?
Aaron: It has changed, yes, tremendously. The chances for a young player were very limited in those days. For one thing, orchestras only had 30-, 32-week seasons. Even the New York Philharmonic, if I recall. And the great players, the great names, were booked two or three years in advance. During the course of a concert season, there may have been three or four violinists, and they booked Heifetz and they booked Menuhin. The young players didn't have much of a chance, in those days.
Now, there are so many more orchestras and yes, there are American conductors today. The only conductor at the time -- and he engaged me immediately -- was Thor Johnson. Because all the rest, whether it was Pierre Monteux, or (William) Steinberg or some of the others -- they engaged their German artists, they engaged their French artists, they wouldn't think of engaging a young American.
Laurie: I wanted to ask you about your Guarneri; tell me a little bit about how it came into your hands and the decision to sell it.
Aaron: How it came into my hands is a long story, kind of a love story. When I didn't have a violin, I was loaned instruments all the time by Rembert Wurlitzer. Wurlitzer was the principal violin dealer in New York at that time, and he kept me going, loaning me instruments. I didn't have enough money to buy an instrument. But I'd been playing on Stradivari and Guarneri violins -- the finest that Wurlitzer had to offer. He allowed me to play them because I took care of them and then helped him to sell them, by playing them for prospective buyers. That was my way of repaying him for his kindness in keeping me with the best of instruments. I must have played 30, 40 Stradivariuses at that time! And I was able to pick up a violin in the afternoon and play the concert in the evening, without even knowing the instrument. It gave me a sort of enormous skill to be able to pick up any violin and play it immediately.
But there was one violin that he could never allow me to take out of the shop, and that was the "Kochanski" Guarnerius. It belonged to a man who was suffering from Parkinson's disease and who came in every week -- he never announced when he would arrive -- to see his violin. I played on that violin in the shop, and I realized, that this is my voice. Every time I was in New York, I used to go into the shop and I'd spend two hours in a back room, playing on my precious violin that I fell in love with. Even though I didn't have any money, I asked a member of Wurlitzer, if this violin should ever come up for sale one day, please let me be the first one to try to buy it. Well, he had a smile on his face, and then we forgot about it.
Then in about 1956, I did my first Carnegie Hall recital. I asked him, "Rembert, you know, I'm going to play this concert next week at Carnegie Hall, is there any chance that I could just take this violin, to play the concert? You'll be there, and you can take it back and put it back in the safe..." Well, what he told me brought tears to my eyes; he said the violin is going to be sold tomorrow. I was heartbroken. I ran out of the shop, and I ran smack into a friend who saw me with tears in my eyes. He asked me, "Aaron, what happened?" And I told him, my violin, the one that I love so much, is going to be sold. He said, "Oh my God, that's terrible, I have to tell my landlady about this." Kind of funny remark. I ran to the subway and made my way back home, I lived in Forest Hills, New York at that time.
A couple hours later, phone rang, and he says, "I talked to my landlady, and she was so moved by the story, she talked to her best friend who lives on Park Avenue, blah blah, and she was so moved by the story that the woman wants to meet you, because she helped Yehudi Menuhin with his first violin." All these peculiarities and all these things that happened. I called the woman and she said, "I'd like see you next week." Well, I thought, no harm in meeting another patron of the arts, but of course it's too late for the violin because that was going to be sold on the Friday.
The next Tuesday I was there in her Park Avenue apartment, having tea, with her and an old Russian woman. We took to one another, she liked me personally, she said, "I'm giving a violin to the Henry Street Settlement, would you take a look at it, and see if it's in decent shape?" Fine, so she goes over to her silver closet, opens the closet door, takes out an old case, takes out the violin, and there is the Guarnerius! There's the violin, I recognized immediately. I said, "Oh my God," and I started playing on it. She had tears in her eyes. I said, "How is it possible?" So she told me this very interesting story: she was there when the violin sale was supposed to be consummated, and the people didn't show up! She had the right to be able to take charge of the instrument, because the man who was selling it was in the final stages of the Parkinson's disease, and she was related to him. It's quite an extraordinary story.
This was Tuesday, my concert in Carnegie was going to be that Friday night, and I said, "Could I use it for the concert?" And she said, "Of course, but now look, here's the thing. You have six months to raise the money to try to buy it." She was so moved by my story of falling in love with the violin, she wanted to give me the time to see if I could do anything about raising the money to buy it. At that time, it was a fortune. It was one of the most expensive violins that you could possibly imagine, the price was around $50,000. That's in 1957. That was an enormous amount of money.
When I tried to borrow money from banks to buy a violin, they laughed at me. They said, we can sell a house, we can sell a car, but what are we going to do with a violin? They had no respect for it at all. I can tell some very funny stories about trying to borrow the money for the thing. I went to several of these multi-millionaires, playing quartets with them, scratching on their fiddles. One of them said, 'I'll give you a signature if you give me 4.5 percent interest on the side and sign a collateral mortgage in case you wrap yourself around a lamppost....' I said, using very bad language, what he could do with his money. So I set about making it myself, and I'm proud to say I did, but with the help of a few miracles.
The biggest miracle was Chock full o’Nuts. I used to go in for a nutted cheese sandwich or a hot dog and a cup of coffee at Chock full o’Nuts. Those stores were like mushrooms, they were all around New York, and then they came out with a stock, at $16. Whatever work I did, whatever money I had, I bought stock. Don't ask me why, I didn't know anything about stocks at that time, but I thought, every time you turn the corner, there's a new Chock full o’Nuts, so I kept buying stock. I was saving money to try to buy a violin for myself, and within that six-month period, whatever stock I had put together during that time, well the stock went from $16 to $135. So the miracle that happened was that the Chock full o’Nuts went to to the moon, and then split four-and-a-half for one, and that was collateral for my loan to a bank.
It took 7-8 years of working hard to pay for it; if something had happened to me, I wouldn't have that violin.
So now you know how I obtained it. It was my voice for 53 years, and what a voice it is. You hear it in all my recordings. It was one of the most magnificent of violins.
But about six years ago, I had a very serious back operation, and I can't stand and play for any length of time any more. I'm happy I can still get around, but my back is bad. Then I decided, there's no point any more, I can't travel, I can't play concerts, what's the point of holding the violin? And that's why I sold it. And at the time it was the record price.
Laurie: $10 million. I was going to say, it appreciated at least as much as that Chock full o’Nuts stock!
What do you play on now?
Aaron: I have a beautiful Vuillaume violin that I'm very fond of. And I have two other violins that I use extensively, made by one of the finest violin makers in the world today, Kurt Widenhouse. For my 80th birthday, he surprised me by making an exact copy of my great Guarnerius. It sounds wonderful and it looks exactly like the great violin that I sold. I have two of his violins, and I have this very fine Vuillaume that serves me well for all the teaching that I do and whatever playing I have to do, because I'm not concertizing any more.
Laurie: Who bought your violin?
Aaron: The violin was bought by one of the Russian billionaires (Nikolay Shoutov). They're buying up all the really fine art objects now, because they have a lot of money and I think they realize that it's a good investment.
Laurie: Is it being played?
Aaron: When I sold it to this man, the best of the Russian artists were going to play on it, but I have yet to see that taking place, because it was on exhibit in Norway -- I don't know where it is at present. I've lost track. I wanted it to be played, but it's his money and he can do what he wants with it at this point.
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Aaron Rosand Plays Paganini Caprice No. 24 (Live: Chicago 1970) (This had a few surprises for me!):Tweet
Previous entries: July 2014
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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