The world has lost one of its voices, a voice both beautiful and bold.
The great cellist and humanitarian, Mstislav Rostropovich, died today in Moscow at the age of 80.
"When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice - my voice," Rostropovich once told Strad magazine.
Rostropovich's voice was unmistakable.
In 2000 I had the incredible privilege of playing in the Pasadena Symphony as we accompanied Rostropovich. I knew a few of his recordings, namely the Brahms Double Concerto, with David Oistrakh, made some half a century before. I didn't realize how distinct his playing was until I heard it live: I recognized it in an instant.
I was stunned by the sound pouring from Rostropovich's cello. Whatever his age, wherever he was, it was absolutely his voice.
It was a clear, unmistakable voice, used without hesitation, on stage and out in the world.
He spent much of his life in the Soviet Union, a place not amenable to the voice of the individual, or to those who would make a statement and take a stand.
Yet he did: he sheltered author Alexander Solzhenitsyn during his bitter fight against Soviet authorities in the 1970s, and for doing so, was forced to leave his beloved Russia and stripped of his citizenship by Leonid Brezhnev in 1978. When the Berlin Wall came down, he placed himself in front of the rubble and played Bach.
Those walls do fall. And people like Rostropovich stand.
In order for my first-grade violin kids to play in the school's “Cinco de Mayo” celebration, I'm having them play some mariachi harmony to a song that everyone else will sing, “Cielito Lindo.”
So we sang the song, many times. Some of the kids know Spanish, many don't, but we all now know this song.
Then I played them their part, which I created to showcase two of the notes they are (becoming) capable of playing, an open A and a B.
“What is it called, when we play something different then the song, but it goes along with it really well?” I asked.
Blank looks. Tentative hands.
“Tune?” asked a little girl.
“Well, the tune is the song. Anyone?”
“Quartet?” asked a boy.
“A quartet does play different parts....”
This wasn't getting anywhere, but I decided to keep being Socratic.
“Does anyone know what the word 'harmony' means?”
A little girl's hand shot up in the back, “Oooo!” So I called on her.
“It means when people get along!” she said proudly.
I grinned. “It sure does!” I laughed. “And it's also when notes get along and sound good together. Let's just play!”
I'm going to lose snob points by making this confession, but... I really enjoy playing "Star Wars" music.
Then again, I don't play the violin for snob points; I just love music.
The chief complaint about Star Wars, particularly John Williams' original 1970s score, is that the music is derivative, not original.
And indeed it largely is: I had a friend in music school whose primary preoccupation in life seemed to be to mine the Star Wars score for references to classical music. He'd queue up "Rite of Spring" or "The Planets" to some nearly-identical passage in Star Wars, then excitedly call a group of people into his room, "See! See!," he'd say with outrage mixed with admiration, "Do you hear that?"
He was a composition major. His favorite movie? Star Wars.
I think that for this score, Williams was an absolute rip-off artist, and I say that with admiration and with the true meaning of "artist" in mind. The "Star Wars" score makes the movie, and it's because Williams knew good music and how to make it work in context. It's also well-crafted and fun to play.
My only disappointment is that this week we are playing only from the original trilogy; I think my favorite Star Wars composition now is Anakin's Theme, from Episode I. (Here's the soundtrack.) With its soaring and sentimental lines yet mournful forecast (the promising boy, destined for the Dark Side), it fits the character almost better than the actor did.
If you are in Southern California, I invite you to join us for the concert.
Brooklyn-based luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz is the subject of The Violin Maker, a book by John Marchese. The book, which came out earlier this month, follows Zygmuntowicz as he makes a violin for Emerson String Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker. It's an interesting read, between Marchese's trumpet-player perspective, Drucker's keen sense of what he wants in a fiddle and Zygmuntowicz's meticulous process. The author followed Zygmuntowicz for a year, and I was curious about how the violin maker felt about The Violin Maker. Here's what he said:
Q: Were you at all hesitant to have someone follow you, making a violin?
Zygmuntowicz: Yes, a bit. Of course, any project like this is time-consuming and distracting, and you become vulnerable when you open yourself to a journalist, who will reinterpret your ideas. One can only hope that a writer or journalist will "get" it, and look behind the romance and hype that is often common in the media.
Photo by Melissa Hamburg
Q: What made you agree to have John write this book?
Zygmuntowicz: Many people are casually intrigued by the world of the violin, but most don't really know what is challenging and compelling to those of us inside this world. Reflecting on the nature of the work and expressing that vision is another form of creative expression for me, and deepens my feeling for what I do. There is more to it than carving wood.
Q: What do you think of the book?
Zygmuntowicz: Our field can seem impossibly arcane to someone who is not part of it. I think John began with that outsider's reaction, but he took the time to get an inside view. He is a very good guide, and captured much of the flavor without getting too technical. An insider might have written a more detailed but less enjoyable book.
Q: John Marchese told the that the violin he wrote about has changed hands. What instrument is Eugene Drucker playing now?
Zygmuntowicz: Eugene has performed and recorded several Emerson records with the new fiddle, and it sounds good in a hall, but it wasn't a natural fit. Recently a Strad copy of mine became came back to me, and it seems to suit him much better. The response is more similar to his Strad, and we both think that it worked better for him, it was a bit more velvety and malleable, but still with a lot of power.
Q: Who is currently playing the violin that you made for Gene Drucker?
Zygmuntowicz: Joshua Bell recently tried Gene's fiddle, and it seemed to really take to it. We just did a little play off in Carnegie, along with his current "Zyg", his Strad and a nice Guad. He is now comparing Gene's to the "Zyg" fiddle he already has. Stay tuned!
Q: How do you feel about it when a violin commissioned for one player ends up in the hands of another?
Zygmuntowicz: I prefer it when it's a love match, but I try not to get too attached to any one violin and not to take any feedback personally. It's not that I don't care, but it's important that the musician feels comfortable discussing any concerns. If one of my violins is not really working perfectly for its player, I'll adjust it, or fix it, or modify it. And if they still aren't happy I'll willingly take it back, and pass it on. That's very rare, but a violin's life is longer than ours, and you never know where things will wind up.
Q: Which, of the violins you've made, have you felt most attached to?
Zygmuntowicz: The two violins that I built for Isaac Stern will always be a high point for me. Stern was a cultural hero in my family from when I was a child, and it was an huge honor to work with him. I'll always be grateful for his support, and those fiddles later made a bit of their own history in the Tarisio auction of the Stern Estate.
Q: Where do you see the art of violinmaking going in the future?
Zygmuntowicz: We are in very interesting times for the violin. On one hand, the field is getting crowded with competent makers, including many in China. On the other side, the upper reaches of skill and knowledge are climbing, and new violins are being used by the some of the most prominent players. That is where the current challenge is for myself, and some of my colleagues.
One can't hope to compete with or even surpass the Strads just by trying to blindly copy them. There is a very active push to extract the knowledge and principals that are hidden in the old violins, and use that insight in a dynamic living way. It is a question as to what will be the next frontier. For some, it will lead to unexpected innovations; for others, to highly optimized making, but still in a traditional format. This is where my own efforts are going for now.
Q: How many violins have you made at this point?
Zygmuntowicz: About 170 instruments including violas and cello's.
Q: What are you working on now?
Zygmuntowicz: I am slowly but steadily working my way through my commission list, including a quartet of instruments for Yo-Yo Ma and members of his Silk Road Project, which I am in the process of designing.
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All Stradivari had to do was to make new fiddles.
Luthier Sam Zygmuntowicz, on the other hand, has to make a new fiddle that will look, feel, and sing like an old one, and not just any old one. His client is Emerson String Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker, a violinist whose very soul has been shaped by his relationship with his Stradivari violin.
Zygmuntowicz's job is considerable: to make a companion violin that will be interchangeable with Drucker's beloved 1686 Strad.
What a set up!
We get to go along for the ride, thanks to author John Marchese, whose book, "The Violin Maker" is out this month. It's one of those books that violinists will love, and also one that helps explain our little obsession to the rest of the world.
Marchese, left, and Zygmuntowicz. Photo courtesy John Marchese.
Marchese spent a year shadowing Zygmuntowicz as he turned one of his finest pieces of wood into the violin commissioned by Drucker. Marchese manages to both delve deep and to explain it with a simplicity that both violinists and non-violinists will appreciate.
Early on, Marchese discovers that the violin he's following has its roots not only in Zygmuntowicz's shop, but also in an entire world of lutherie and violin lore. His curiosity for these details leads him to Cremona, Italy, Stradivari's hometown, in search of the age-old secrets to violin-making. It leads him to Drucker, who explains what he hears when he plays his Strad. Drucker leads him to the Bach Chaconne, which he listens to until he hears in it "a monument to the human spirit."
Does he find the secret of Stradivari? Does Zygmuntowicz give him his favorite recipe for varnish? Does Drucker fall in love with his new violin and sell his Strad?
I don't think I'll be giving anything away if I tell you what happens:
Zygmuntowicz makes a beautiful, new violin. And we understand the incredible complexity and importance of this art form, and why we still, after 400 years, need the Violin Maker.
Note: Check back tomorrow for my interview with Sam Zygmuntowicz!
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