April 2011

Music Makes the Day at the Royal Wedding

April 29, 2011 13:12

I don't know about you, but I was delighted to revel in the beautifully performed, LIVE music featured this morning for the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine, now-Duchess of Cambridge, which yes, I did watch live at 3 a.m. in California.

Here is a link to a list of the works performed, which included organ works, trumpet works, choral works and orchestral works, by mostly British composers, past and present. There were works commissioned especially for the wedding: "This is the day which the Lord hath made," by British composer John Rutter, and "Ubi caritas" by Paul Mealor of Anglesey.

It was so heartening to me, to see an event which so effectively recognized and celebrated a country's musical culture, not to mention the fact that it featured so many live musicians. It seems that William and Catherine know well the art music of their country and genuinely support it. I loved the color, the costume, the tradition and the pageantry, but I thought the music made the day.

What is the aural word for "spectacular"? This is it, "I Was Glad" by Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry: choir, orchestra, organ, trumpets. I'm pretty partial to boys' choirs these days, too. Here it is for anyone who missed it this morning: (Start at 1:27)

And here's another taste, "Jerusalem" also by Parry, words by William Blake:

11 replies

Violinist.com interview with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

April 28, 2011 12:10

After some three decades as a soloist, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is learning to "blend."

In 2008, Nadja started a new life as the director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, thrusting her into the role of concertmaster, conductor, music programmer, and more. Her presence has raised the profile of the group, which took a national tour in February and has recorded two albums since she started with them: Together (2009) and Live: Strauss, Barber and Mahler(2010).

But don't get the wrong idea, if Nadja's learning to blend, she's not going bland. When you add cayenne to the sauce, the flavor changes, not the pepper. Nadja's always been known for her edge-of-your-seat performances, brimming with passion and energy, and accounts of her performances with New Century attest to the fact that she has brought this ingredient to her new band.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Nadja captured the public spotlight in 1981, when she won the Walter W. Naumburg International Violin Competition, and she went on to perform with orchestras across the globe and make numerous recordings, including many traditional classical works as well as her popular collaborations with the Assad brother guitarists. In 1999, she was the subject of Speaking in Strings, a documentary by Paola Di Florio that won a 2000 Academy Award and told the story of Nadja's intense personality as well as her recovery from a career-threatening accident in 1994, in which she cut off the tip of her finger.

I spoke with Nadja over the phone in March, and we talked about her career path with the violin, her recovery from the accident, her long musical relationship with the Assad family, and what it's like to be music director of New Century, after so many years as a soloist.

Laurie: I've been following your career a long time...

Nadja: I've been around a long time!

Laurie: You were born in Rome, right?

Nadja: Yes.

Laurie: How old were you when you took up the violin, and what on Earth made you want to do that?

Nadja: Well, I didn't want to do it. It was my mom's decision; I was five years old. My mom played the piano, my older brother was playing all kinds of instruments, my grandfather played, everybody played! Typical Italian family: we'd have people over to eat, and then we would go in the other room, play music and talk. I think someone told my mom, 'You should give Nadja something to play, or she's going to get a complex.' So my mom bought this violin – very, very cheap, the whole package. At the time, in Rome, one of her friends was moonlighting as a beginning violin teacher, so it was really an excuse for them to see each other, that's how it started. I was five years old.

I improved as a kid that age would. There was not any kind of 'Oh my God, this is a prodigy' or anything like that. They saw good rhythm, very good intonation and a natural musicality – things that you can't really take credit for, it's just in your genes. So I think they saw a lot of potential. I think the teacher there did say to my mom, 'Look, she could be very good if that's what you want her to pursue. If you do, I would go to the United States.'

So the whole family moved here.

Laurie: And how old were you when that happened?

Nadja: I was eight.

My mom didn't know what to do with me or where to go, as far as violin teachers were concerned. She had an old friend who taught at Curtis (Institute), and she called him up for advice. He said, 'Bring her in to play for the jury here, and we'll give you good advice, we'll set you on the right path.' So that's what she did. She and I went into Curtis, and, I mean, I don't remember a thing. There were a lot of older people there, and she played piano for me. My mom and I played some little baby pieces, and I think they were impressed enough to accept me, I guess on potential alone. They started a preparatory division that year, with one student.

Laurie: You!

Nadja: I was it. Then the next year they held auditions for (the preparatory division), and there were like 15 little kids running around, but I was ruler of the roost by then.

Laurie: I didn't know they'd started it for you. Wow!

Nadja: When I was about 14, I pushed over to, not only another teacher, but another method of teaching: I auditioned for Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard for the pre-college division. I was accepted into pre-college there, and I went every Saturday with everybody else and did the whole day there, and then of course I auditioned for the college and got in. Actually I never graduated from Juilliard. I won Naumberg in 1981 and I still had two years to complete. So I went back for a year as a regular student, but I didn't do very well so I just dropped out.

Laurie: Well if you're soloing and that kind of thing, I imagine it's hard to keep the studies up.

Nadja: I gotta be honest with you, I'm not a bookworm.

But it became a lot harder, yes, because I did have these concerts to play, and I did have to to prepare for them. It was all so, so new for me. I did not have an inkling of the time-management skills that I now have. So it was difficult for me, and I was falling behind in classes, so I dropped out.

But you know, every time I say that, people say, 'Oh, what did it matter? In your field you don't need a degree....' It's all very true; I went on to have a wonderful solo career. But I always felt like I missed out, and I always wished that I had the college degree. I was given an honorary masters, which is really the way to get a masters. (Both of us laugh.) Let me tell you, that is the way to do it! So I have something on my wall.

Laurie: Where's that master's from?

Nadja: New Mexico State University.

Laurie: For a long time I've had your recording of Ain't Necessarily So, and when I first heard it, I was really moved by the Leibesleid – 'Love's Sorrow.' I read the notes that you'd written, and you talked about your grandmother. I myself was extremely close to my own grandmother, she lived with us, and this was very near my own grandmother's death, when I read your notes, and that inspired me learn the piece. You hinted that your grandmother had a real impact on your character and personality, and I wanted to ask you what you meant by that, how she helped shape who you are.

Nadja: Well what I am as a person, I pretty much owe to my grandmother. My mother was always there, but when I was growing up, she was always a disciplinarian to me, which I'm very grateful for and she is now very grateful for, because I can take care of her! But she had to go to work, in her own defense, and earn a living. We all lived together, as is quite common with European families, so the grandparents lived with us. So when my mom went off to teach at the Philadelphia public school system, it was my grandmother who took care of me and raised me. She is the person I spent the most time with, so I learned what I know about life – and about living – from her. Everything which is personal about me, I learned from my grandmother. And it stayed with me -- it stays with me. Being in her presence, I watched how people reacted to my grandmother, how people loved her, why they loved her and how they always wanted to be around her, how she had this power. She was a completely uneducated immigrant. That was a huge influence on my character.

Laurie: There has been so much documented about your injury and how difficult it was and how it was a time of deep depression...

Nadja: That's good copy for a violinist, you know, when you chop off a finger.

Laurie: I imagine there's another side of it, because here you are. I wondered what kept you going during that difficult period of time and how you kept moving forward.

Nadja: When I look back on it, it happened in 1994. At that time in my career, I was completely overworked. It's funny, because I feel that way now, but now it's what I bring into my own life. Then... the management and the publicists do their thing, and you go for the ride, you go along with the tide of it. I was really starting to hit existential despair about playing, and it was becoming very clear to me, the sacrifices I had to make in order to keep this career on the level that it was. I was overworked and tired and questioning things -- and I had this horrible accident. At the time, I thought it was a sign, a really clear sign. Of course, the people who were closest to me were also supporting (that idea,) because what do you tell someone who is a solo violinist who lost a finger? You just want to try to re-frame it.

It was shocking. It was a shocking day, and everything that I knew of my life thus far was gone, in less than a second. When I came out of the shock, I realized that I would probably would never play again. What was I going to do? I started thinking in those terms. For a while, it was a little bit exciting. As I said, I was tired. I really knew that I could not continue at that pace.

So I looked into this and looked into that, thinking about different possibilities for my future. Meanwhile, the weeks passed and the months passed. The income wasn't coming in because, of course, I had to cancel everything for quite a bit of time. I started to feel pressure to make money again, to be perfectly honest with you. So I was trying to heal the finger and force a quicker recovery than was happening.

I came up with a way of bandaging the finger, multiple times, with New-Skin, with padding, so that I could actually put it down on the fingerboard without feeling the pain or opening up the incision. I came back and played a number of recitals: I remember I played the Tchaikovsky Concerto on tour. I was able to sort of put the finger down, but certainly with no pressure. I used the finger, in a sense, for runs and fast passages, but to actually put the finger down and vibrato and hold the note? That was out of the question. So basically I had to re-finger all this repertoire for three fingers. I played about four months' worth of concerts doing that...

Laurie: Three-finger Tchaikovsky? That sounds pretty hard!

Nadja: I know, it's hard enough with four fingers!

Laurie: It would be hard with five!

Nadja: You know, things that you look back on, and just think, how did you do that? Why did you do that? Wow.

And it came to pass that I actually missed playing. So I think that the accident was meant to be, and it was a sign, and it was a Godsend, to actually kick me in the ass, to remind me why I play the violin anyhow. I missed it a lot, and when I started playing again, I felt whole again.

Everything's fine, 10 years later. I've healed. But I still try to remember how I missed it, and why I play. I had a 100-percent recovery. Later on, skin was grafted from my toe onto the finger so there wasn't any scar, so it's as if it never happened.

Laurie: That sounds like a really difficult lesson, a difficult way to learn something like that.

Nadja: You ought to learn from everything. It's just an attitude that I believe in. Even if it's just sitting in a pile of crap for a long time, you have to think to yourself, there's something here that I'm going to come away with that's going to be very valuable. I've had a few moments, a few real turning points in my life, and I'm very grateful for them.

Laurie: I have been listening to your CDs: Originis, Nadja and the Assads Live from Brasil (2004); Tchaikovsky and (Clarice) Assad Concertos (2004); the first album with the New Century Chamber Orchestra, Together (2009) and New Century's new release, Live: Strauss, Barber and Mahler.

Many of your albums over the last 10 years have involved collaborations with guitarists Sérgio and Odair Assad, as well as Sergio's older daughter, Clarice Assad, who is a composer. I wondered, how did that relationship come about?

Nadja: That came through Nonesuch records. I had signed a contract to start recording with them, and the Assads were already recording for them. At the time, they were very family-oriented and they wanted their artists to work with each other. So I was introduced to them, and I was blown away by what I was hearing. We came up with a project for the recording company, and that's how that started. The project was hugely successful, and we toured together for about 16 years.

Laurie: It seems like it's a really good combination, what do you think works for you with the Brazilian...

Nadja: It wasn't so much Brazilian, they just happened to be Brazilian. It was the combination of the two guitars and the violin, and Sérgio was a really fantastic arranger. If you have a great arranger, the sky's the limit. One of the first things I ever heard them play, before I knew who they were, was Rhapsody in Blue – for two guitars! I thought, wow, that guy can arrange.

For the first project that Nonesuch wanted, they basically gave the three of us carte blanche. My first instinct was to do something Baroque, but Sérgio had another idea in his head. He'd had Gypsy music in his head for a while. So he came up with these extraordinary arrangements of original folk tunes from where the Gypsies traveled, in Eastern Europe. Each one had a little folk tune, and he made these incredible arrangements. This turned out to be a hugely successful album, and then Nonesuch put us on tour with it and the trio became very popular. So at one point, we played two tours a year, just constantly playing together. That was a fantastic partnership.

Laurie: It sounds like a lot of fun, too, the music just sounds fun. I also saw that Clarice (Assad) wrote you a violin concerto, and I wondered if you worked together on that, or if she just did it and gave it to you...

Nadja: We didn't work on it at all together, she just wrote it and gave it to me. She wrote that violin concerto for her masters thesis at University of Michigan, and I said, I'll come out and play the concerto, if it helps you to pass, get an A, whatever it takes. So she gave the piece to me, and I liked it so much. I thought it was an amazing first effort -- she had not written for orchestra before. So I recorded it.

Laurie: It does seem like the kind of thing that would be fun for violinists to play.

Nadja: It's a wonderful little piece, and everything about life is timing. At that time, when she presented the piece to me, I had agreed to record the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with my old colleague Marin Alsop and her orchestra at the time, the Colorado Symphony. We were debating about what the other piece would be, because you need more than just the Tchaikovsky, and we just couldn't agree on the other piece for that album. Then boom, I got the concerto from Clarice, and it was in the same key. I thought, I really like this piece, let's do it. And Marin agreed. So it's timing. It just happened that way, and it was a good break for Clarice as well.

Laurie: You have a whole new life now with the New Century Chamber Orchestra. I was going through the orchestra's blog, and you guys have entirely too much fun, or at least it looks like it!

Nadja: We do have a lot of fun when we're playing, and fun when we're rehearsing. Pretty much everything musically with us is so vibrant and wonderful. The other side of that coin, and it's not a bad side, it's just another side, is building an orchestra in a time when it's pretty much impossible to do that. The challenges that we face, financial and otherwise, are extraordinary right now. Yet, it's working. It's working phenomenally well. I think people are moved by inspiration, and people are moved by results, and if you have a combination of these two things, the loyalty and the momentum is always there. So when we're faced with another challenge, we find a way to meet it and conquer it.

I'm on my third season with the orchestra now, and so I'm lucky to have musicians that believe in me and trust in me. I'm lucky to have a staff that is willing to be molded and I'm lucky to have a board which supports me. It's all about inspiration, and it's result-driven. I just took them on tour, and we just released our second album. That's pretty fabulous, considering the times that we live in, and the structure of this organization. They're seeing results, and everyone is having a very good time, fighting the good fight.

Laurie: What is it like, after you've played as a soloist for so long, to be the director of an ensemble?

Nadja: It's something that I've only recently gotten pretty adjusted to, and I'm in my third season. For one thing, I had no idea what the 'music director' job description entailed. I thought that I would rehearse the orchestra, get them ready for concerts, lead them in the concerts and pick out the programs, come up with some recording ideas. I had no idea how much (administration) the job entailed. And then, of course, the job entails much more than any other music director because it's my responsibility to put them on the map. That's why they hired me, and that was what I decided I was going to do. So the job became so much more than I thought it would be: it became my life and my musical purpose. It's great, but it is extremely time-consuming.

Musically-speaking, the job was challenging because here I had to sit in a concertmaster chair, and that's not what I am used to, at all. I just didn't know anything about it! Anything! I would say the hardest thing for me in that position is to blend. Blend, and lead at the same time. It's a challenge because I'm sitting in the concertmaster's chair, therefore I'm a member of the first violin section. I have to play that part, but I have to lead the whole orchestra, there's no conductor. So for about a year and a half, possibly two seasons, when I listened to CDs of our performances, I could hear me, over the rest of the section. I know why: it's because I had more responsibility, I have to lead, and I have to be the strong player. But it's still not right; I have to blend with them.

Another huge challenge for me was respecting what is on the page. As a soloist, you respect it to the point where your ego comes in. That's actually what you should do, as a soloist. So for me, as a soloist, a dotted quarter is whatever I want it to be, but as an orchestra member, it is what it is. So it was hard for me to pull back and respect that.

But it's been an amazing adjustment. If I had to sum up what my life has become: I am a total and complete chameleon. I go from one persona to another, very quickly. Director, first violinist, soloist, label owner...whatever it takes, I become that instantly.

Laurie: What do you think they're learning from you?

Nadja: Good question. I think what I brought was a vibrancy, and certainly it's goal-oriented now.

Laurie: What do you mean by that?

Nadja: I mean, they see that they are becoming more and more known and respected. People are actually saying it's the best string orchestra in the United States, which it absolutely is, but people are saying it now! So I think everybody is seeing that, so that trust is there. But I think musically, what they possibly could be learning – I cannot speak for them – is that every note is important, no matter what that is. It could be accompaniment part, it could be a sustained note that you're holding for 16 measures – it still has vibrancy and importance – and a meaning, within the piece. I think that they maybe get that from me. And then there's a lot of energy. I bring a lot of energy to the group.

Laurie: What do you have on the plate for the future, here?

Nadja: Just to sustain this enormous growth we're going through right now, trying to expand our season to include more sets in one season. There's another tour, an east-coast tour that's being planned for November. Of course, recordings will not stop. Just this growth of this orchestra that nobody really heard of except in the Bay area now has a wide and wonderful national radio presence and we're playing live all over the country. This makes you, it's funny, you have to go somewhere else to be appreciated at home. So it's a strange rule of the world of entertainment, but it's true. So now this is all coming together beautifully, in a very difficult time.

Laurie: And you live in New York, right? So what's it like, to sort of be 'bi-coastal'?

Nadja: What you think it is, you get on a plane.

Laurie: I'd think it might be kind of a pain.

Nadja: It is a pain. For someone who's as busy as I am, not because I loved the show so much and it became such a part of my life, but I very much wish we lived in a Star Trek world, where you could just literally just energize to somewhere else and not have to lose an entire day, flying from the West coast to the East coast.

Laurie: Or even a Harry Potter world; we could "apparate."

Nadja: Yes, Harry Potter, too, you are absolutely right.

Laurie: One last question for my violin geek folks. What kind of violin do you play?

Nadja: I like to joke about it and say: I play a used one. It's Peter Guarnerius, Venice, made in 1721.

Laurie: Nice. Still in love?

Nadja: Yeah, I love the instrument. We had an instant chemistry when I first played it, and as far as the size is concerned, it fits my hand perfectly and it's been a very good instrument for me. I have to say, as a violinist, I think I am the most not-interested-in-instruments soloist of any soloist I've ever met or encountered or talked to or read about. It's always, 'Gotta get the next best violin, I bought this one, I've sort of half-paid it off, I'm going to sell it, I'm moving up, I'm going to get this, I used to like Strads, now I like del Gesus...' For some people, it becomes their life. I can certainly see that, but I found a good instrument, I just stuck with it. There are better instruments out there, there are certainly worse instruments, but I feel fine. It's like a really good marriage, I don't have to look any further.

4 replies

Premiere of the Documentary, Jascha Heifetz, God's Fiddler

April 19, 2011 21:45

When filmmaker Peter Rosen was approached to make a documentary on Jascha Heifetz several years ago, he met the project with some reservations.

"I was amazed that there was no other documentary in the world about Heifetz," Rosen said, "but I still didn't think there was a story with Heifetz."

No story?! Yet, in the case of Heifetz, who died 25 years ago, the artist overshadowed the man. The imperious Heifetz saw to it that very few people got to know him personally; leaving most to contemplate only the artist. Fortunately, Rosen kept digging until a narrative emerged about this complicated and enigmatic man, a consummate violinist as well as a world celebrity who re-shaped the art of violin playing in the 20th century.

Rosen's documentary, Jascha Heifetz, God's Fiddler, premiered Saturday at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, to a sold-out crowd of family, friends, former students and Heifetz admirers. I had to push through a stand-by crowd on the way in, and on the way out I found a another crowd waiting for the second showing, which was scheduled late in the week to accommodate the great interest in this film. A panel discussion followed the screening, with Rosen; Heifetz biographer Artur Weschler-Vared; British musicologist Dario Sarlo; Colburn faculty Robert Lipsett (who teaches in Heifetz studio, which was moved piece-by-piece and rebuilt at the Colburn School); and violinist Ayke Agus

Photo from premiere

Heifetz was born in Vilna, Russia (*now Vilnius, Lithuania), in 1901 (*some claim 1899). He started playing the violin at age three and gave his public debut at age 7 -- playing the Mendelssohn concerto on a 3/4-size violin. He came to America and took Carnegie Hall by storm at age 16. When you think about it, once he became "Heifetz," that was it, Rosen said.

But there is much more to the story. How did a violinist become a household name, the world over? Why do people revere his playing in an almost religious way? How did Heifetz's distance and insistent perfectionism shape the public's perception of what a violinist should be?

Rosen's documentary draws on 300 hours of film and 2,000 photos, all distilled into an 87-minute documentary. The DVD is scheduled for release in July, and Rosen may add a half-hour from Heifetz' home movies as a bonus.

Perhaps one of the more important things the documentary does is to explore what made Heifetz' playing so compelling -- an important piece of the puzzle, for an entire generation who never saw Heifetz play live. Of course, Heifetz' music lives on in videos and recordings, but we see him through the distance of time, the fuzz of old film, in a black-and-white picture with a soundtrack sometimes distorted and miked too close. Even with these limitations, the brilliance shines through. But the musicians who speak in the documentary of Heifetz' playing add a new dimension of color to the conversation.

To the common criticism that Heifetz' playing was "cold," violinist Ida Haendel says emphatically, "His playing was so passionate; I'm just astounded that people don't realize it. They thought that he was cold -- and it was fire! Absolute fire!"

In fact, the "cold" criticism dogged Heifetz for some time. The documentary shows a caricature drawn of Heifetz, playing on an iceberg, a couple of cartoon polar bears in the background.

Pianist Seymour Lipkin says that Heifetz played with both fire and discipline, and "neither the fire nor the discipline cancelled each other out."

Violinist Ivry Gitlis also dismissed the charge that Heifetz was cold. Sure, his face was stoic, but if that bothers you, "close your eyes, for God's sake!"

The documentary illustrates a turning point for Heifetz: his first bad review, written by New York Sun critic W.J. Handerson in 1921, who blasted the young Heifetz for failing to move forward in his musical development. Having never received negative press, Heifetz was more than despondent over the criticism; he was suicidal. He resolved to do better, and one of the documentary's finest moments is the way it shows the change in Heifetz' face before and after this incident: from the impish expression of a fun-loving youth to the serious poker face he showed the world for the rest of his life. "I owe it to music, and myself, never to be content," Heifetz said.

The documentary draws on home movies made by Heifetz, only recently discovered and organized by British violinist musicologist Dario Sarlo, who spent a year at the Library of Congress studying Heifetz' personal archive for his doctoral research. The pictures and films of Heifetz' travels are amazing and at times historic; one shows the view from his St. Petersburg window right before the Heifetz family left for America. In the street are people gathering -- a gathering soon swept up into Russian Revolution, an incident the family narrowly escaped witnessing at close range.

The documentary also depicts Heifetz, the patriotic American, who toured for three years with the USO, playing for soldiers during World War II.

Heifetz the teacher was exacting and brutal, to the point of driving a good many students straight out of the studio. At master classes, "I almost passed out when I heard those two words, 'Who's ready?'" said former student Sherry Kloss in the documentary. Who could be ready for that kind of unforgiving scrutiny?

Itzhak Perlman describes being a young student of Galamian, and playing for Heifetz, who was much more impressed with Perlman's ability to play any scale asked than he was with his 'Symphonie Espagnole' by Lalo.

In some ways, this is all you need to know about Heifetz:

Or this, which is featured in the documentary and drew both tears and applause from audience members:

After the documentary, Ayke Agus, author of Heifetz As I Knew Him and personal friend to Heifetz, read aloud the following, which was written by Heifetz: 

"Words to Live By," by Jascha Heifetz

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same......"

It's not the thing to quote Kipling's "If" anymore, I am told. But the poem was popular when I made my debut in this country. I learned it by heart then, took it to heart then, and have carried it about with me since.

Perhaps the words mean something special to me - because an artist, whose life is in the public eye, must steer a mean course between triumph and disaster and learn to live with both. In many ways triumph is the greater test. Many a man who emerges a hero under suffering, succumbs to success.

I met triumph early-- at seven years--and never had to face disaster until quite grown up. My first severe criticism was a terrible shock to me and a hard lesson. But even harder for one's artistic balance is the heady wine of continuous praise.

Yes, triumph and disaster go hand-in-hand with a career. They are the two faces of the coin which is the currency of the world of art.

O.K. - J.H.

12 replies

Ayke Agus on Documenting the Life of Jascha Heifetz

April 14, 2011 15:30

While an awe-struck public believed that the 19th-century violinist Nicolo Paganini was in league with the devil, the prevailing sentiment about the phenomenal violinist Jascha Heifetz seemed to be that he was appointed by God.


Heifetz' life (1901-1987) spanned nearly the entire 20th century, starting at the dawn of the age of recording technology -- when most people still traveled by horse and buggy -- and ending as the world was accelerating into the digital age. Heifetz started playing at the age of 3, gave his public debut at age 7, and devoted his entire life to the violin. He studied with Leopold Auer, recorded for RCA Victor and Decca, traveled the world (by boat), played for troops during World War II, played numerous benefits, championed new works and raised the bar very high, for the art of violin-playing.

How does one document such a person's life?

Filmmaker Peter Rosen has endeavored to do so, with a feature-length documentary called Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler, which premiers at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Colburn School's Zipper Hall in Los Angeles. The film includes interviews with former students, Heifetz biographers, and musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and Ivry Gitlis. A panel discussion afterwards will include Ayke Agus; scholars Dario Sarlo and Arthur Vered and Colburn faculty member Robert Lipsett.

I'll be there as well, to let you know how it goes. (The event has sold out, but if you'd like to see the film, there will be a second screening at 8 p.m. the same night. Call 213-621-1050 or go to www.colburnschool.edu for tickets.)

As with all celebrities (and Heifetz was certainly a celebrity), Heifetz had a public life and a private one. Violinist Ayke Agus spoke with me over the phone last week in Los Angeles about the new documentary, which makes use of Ayke's many contacts, including former students and colleagues of Heifetz.

In her 2001 book Heifetz As I Knew Him, Ayke Agus writes, "Jascha Heifetz didn't seem to be as proud of his artistic achievements as of the fact that he was a difficult person. The ultimate paradox was that this person who could not live without company eventually did everything in his power to get rid of people."

He never did get rid of Ayke, his student, then piano accompanist, and then creative collaborator, who was closest to him during the last 15 years of his life. She certainly witnessed the full range of his complicated, unpredictable nature; in fact, the more salient question might be, why she didn't get rid of him?

"Probably because of the music," Ayke said. "Every time, when things would get very difficult and challenging, and when I was just about to quit, I would always look at him and say to myself, 'Who am I? He has sacrificed so much to make millions and millions of people happy.' This was a very small price to pay, compared to the happiness, the joy, the incredible artistry, the music…The contribution he made to this world is humongous compared to whatever little horrible thing that he was telling me. As I said to Mr. Heifetz, quitting was not one of my options."

Ayke Agus

"We played through the whole violin literature, composers from A to Z," Ayke at the piano, she said. "We would go through sonatas, then through concertos, and then through small pieces. Then we'd go through his transcriptions. That's the routine that we went through every day…Practicing on a daily basis for all those years, it stays with you. What I'm so happy about is I am able to pass it down."

Though people still compare violinists to Heifetz, "I feel sad that the world of violin has sort of stopped being interested in listening a little more closely and more seriously to what it is about this music that made it so extraordinary, so exceptional and so …ultimate," Ayke said. Heifetz took violin music to a level that people never thought was possible to achieve -- that is, before Heifetz came along and did it. "As teachers and violinists, we should study the music, look at the score a little bit more."

For example, "appreciating what it is that made his little showpieces," Ayke said. "None of us really does that any more; we don't play the small, short pieces. It would be really great -- and less boring for the audience -- if we would keep to the tradition where the second half of a recital program would include these little short pieces – kind of dessert."

Heifetz arranged everything from Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

"Basically I think people sort of stay away from (these pieces) because they know that they cannot make them speak and they cannot make sense out of them because they don't know how to do it," Ayke said. "That's probably where I learned the most, about how to make things work in small pieces, short little encore pieces."

Starting while he was living and then continuing after Heifetz died, Ayke worked to finish and assemble his many transcriptions, which were published recently by Carl Fischer as The Heifetz Collection, in three volumes. The collection includes Arrangements & Transcriptions, Transcriptions and Cadenzas, and Heifetz plays Gershwin.

"Before I was asked to complete the transcriptions...he never said, 'Oh yeah, since you can play the piano, you can play the violin, sure you can help me with the transcriptions,' it wasn't that easy. He had to double-check, triple-check, be sure I could write music," Ayke said. After having her make her own transcription, to prove that she could do so, Heifetz discovered that her musical manuscript handwriting matched his own "to the point that he thought I was from another planet."

"I made a four-hand transcription from a Rachmaninov Suite for Two Pianos, so that my daughter and I could play together. When he saw the finished product, he said, 'Okay, play it.' We played it, and he was impressed, he said, 'Very nice, very nice.' But then he looked at the music -- he was looking at it and looking at it. He said, 'Did you write this?' It was all by hand, not computer. And so I said, 'Yes, I did it, by hand.' He said, 'Are you sure, nobody helped you?' I said, 'No, nobody helped.' To be sure, he turned the same page around and made me write something, so he could witness it himself."

"When I was a little child, I had no access to any music, so my mother used to borrow music from people, from Germany, from Holland, when they came over. My job was to copy them all by hand. It was horrible! It was how I spent my leisurely time when I had nothing to do. So I was very good at it. I did not need the ruler, I did not need anything, my stems were all straight up, and all the flags, all 16th notes all 8th notes," Ayke said. "I was fast, so when I did that in front of Heifetz, he could not believe his eyes. Then, when he showed me his own handwriting, I realized, it does look the same. Funny, isn't it?"

3 replies

The Goal of All That Practicing

April 8, 2011 21:36

The fastest way to make progress playing the violin is to stop looking for shortcuts. That said, there is a difference between looking for shortcuts and looking toward a goal.

I've noticed that this topic has come up in several ways over the last few weeks on Violinist.com. Some are puzzled by Ryan Vaughn's ambition to learn Paganini 24 in one year. Is this possible? Is it healthy? Is it okay to encourage this?

Another V.com member wonders how fast one can rip through the violin repertoire? This seems to pose the question, if you are going to rip through, what is your motivation? Are you in it for the music?

And speaking of motivation, another member related that his teacher suggested jumping straight in and learning pieces instead of spending so much time on foundation-building. But what about that foundation-building?

There is nothing wrong with any of these impulses: having a big goal, finding the most efficient way to learn, making sure your focus is on the music and not just on scales.

Sometimes having a big goal -- a special piece to work toward -- is the very thing that illuminates the path towards achieving it. For example, if you want to play a certain piece, you'll need to figure out where to put your fingers on the violin. If you want to move those fingers quickly, you'll have to find the hand and arm position that allows you to do so. If you want to play with vibrato, you may need to stop clenching that left thumb. If you want to play martele in that passage, you'll have to learn to draw a straight bow, frog to tip. The list goes on and on.

But if you wish to achieve your goal, you will need to tackle each step with focus and patience. You'll need to seek good guidance along the way and trust your teacher. If your teacher tells you that this week, you need to focus on a special exercise to build flexibility in your bow fingers, you'd best do that all week, not spend all your practice time learning the next un-assigned 10 measures of the piece you want to play. Why? Because you will continue to slam into the brick wall of your technical problems, until you address them. Sure, you can try to solve them by playing the 8-measure passage in your goal-piece that requires that technique. But there is a reason why brilliant pedagogues composed hundreds of studies, methods, scalebooks and exercises that take the violinist through a progression of technique-building. The reason: it works.

Ryan is fortunate enough to have a brilliant teacher as his wife; his progress will be fun to watch, as she can guide him very efficiently to the right technical exercise to accomplish his goals. I think our friend who was wondering about "ripping through the rep" really just needed some encouragement. And when it comes to jumping in and learning a piece, if you have a good teacher to guide you, you can learn something.

But the best-of-the-best violinists all sing the same chorus, if you ask them the secret to their amazing playing: it's the fact that they built a solid technical foundation and they work every day to maintain it. They play their scales and arpeggios and exercises religiously, and that is what enables them to play everything else with ease and spontaneity. What better goal could there be, than that?

7 replies

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