Violinist.com interview with Aaron Rosand, Part 1

August 11, 2014, 3:46 PM · This is Part 1 in a two-part interview with violinist Aaron Rosand. Click here to read Part 2.
Part 1 Aaron Rosand talks about his beginnings on the violin, his troubles with Isaac Stern, his mentors Leon Sametini and Efrem Zimbalist, his own teaching philosophies and yes, his opposition to shoulder rests!
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.

* * *

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.

Aaron Rosand
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.

* * *

Live performance of Aaron Rosand playing Wieniawski's "Souvenir de Moscow" (John Covelli, piano):

Replies

August 12, 2014 at 03:32 AM · I loved these interviews of Rosand. I guess the principle secret of a great interview is to interview a great person.

The second "part" ended rather abruptly, will there be more?

August 12, 2014 at 06:07 AM · I love Mr. Rosand's violin playing! He was one of the first violinists I've ever heard, and I was in complete awe of his technique.

August 14, 2014 at 06:52 AM · Perhaps they wanted Stern to record the Barber as they may have thought of him as a much better player? He was very well known as a soloist, after all.

Just a thought.

August 15, 2014 at 05:46 PM · I was introduced to Aaron Rosand after a concert in South Carolina in the early eighties by my violin instructor, a personal friend of Mr. Rosand's. I was flabbergasted that a violinist with such fabulous sound, artistry, and accomplishment would actually perform in the small community of South Carolina (This is before the great influx of impressive concert halls!). Thank you Mr. Rosand for sharing your talent and accomplishment with the world! Congratulations!!

August 15, 2014 at 10:50 PM · Interesting interview, but I don't understand where he gets off saying this:

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.

I can go on and on listing violinists who use shoulder rests. Bell, Hahn, Ehnes, Kavakos, Zimmerman, etc etc. Even one of his heros, Menuhin used a shoulder rest. I guess none of these artists have good technique and a personal sound. Perhaps they all have inordinately long necks. Astonishing!

August 16, 2014 at 07:13 AM · I must say I did not understand that statement either and I think his ideas about shoulder rests were rather flawed. There was a bit of ambiguity also about bowing.

I listened to his audio examples and thought he was an accomplished player. (I also found the Pag Caprice No 24 a bit of a surprise as well).

An interesting interview.

August 18, 2014 at 06:41 PM · From ages 9-13 I was a student of a teacher who insisted that all his students use the Kolitsch shoulder rest, which at that time (1940's) was one-size-fits-all. I was small, with a short neck. The minute I left him I threw it away. After a little while, I started using a small Koehler pad, which I still use to this day. I have had many students, all different sizes and shapes. Some want no pad, others use a variety of adjustable pads, firm or flexible. Remember, Aaron Rosand is wearing a suit over a shirt (maybe a vest) over an undershirt. Quite heavily padded, I would say. The average woman wears 1 thin layer of a silk blouse, with maybe a light jacket. Also, may have a shorter neck than many men. So what works for one, will not work for another.

August 18, 2014 at 06:45 PM · Just posted comment before logging in...sorry! Hope it got through.

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