Reflections on Violinist Eugene Fodor

November 27, 2021, 1:18 AM · This a link to a video I found both moving and disturbing at the same time.

https://youtu.be/VIc0luMrIkc

On it, Eugene Fodor (1950-2011) (winner of the silver medal in the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition with the gold being cancelled so an American couldn’t receive it) not only demonstrates playing ability that has to be seen to be believed, but is also either sandbagged or voluntarily discusses his cocaine addiction and rehab at the kind of minimal depth that talk shows seem to excel in.

Eugene Fodor
Violinist Eugene Fodor.

I may be wrong, but I think Fodor may be largely unknown and unheard by the present generation of violinists. I wasn’t particularly aware of his existence or extraordinary abilities until I recently began collecting all his performances that are floating around on the Internet. He was the subject of an interview in one of the Way They Play Books. I usually remember the technical commentary of the great players in these books so he probably didn’t present anything that analytical.

I do recall that his flying staccato bowing was legendary, with Heifetz (his teacher) reputedly asking him to demonstrate it for 15 minutes when he first met Fodor. The recordings I have looked at bear out the claim he may have had the best staccato bowing of all time. Take a look and you will see what I mean. It is superior to Heifetz’. He even does down bow staccato with bow turned in the normal direction using almost the whole length of the bow in both directions.

Of course, flying staccato is such a minor part of playing in general some great players rarely bother to even use it. However, Fodor is also beyond belief in many areas of technique including, well, "intonation," velocity, left-hand pizzicato and double stopping to name a few. Much of the time he can, honestly speaking, do this stuff faster, cleaner and better than just about anyone, including the best modern violinists.

Having said that, I somehow can’t really relate to his playing except to express unlimited admiration for his innate wizardry. One element of his artistry that bothers me is the constant on/off vibrato. I cannot see to what extent it is deliberate or not, and when he does vibrate it is, I think, the somewhat typical -extremely- rapid and intense vibrato which tends to happen when a player is soooo gifted with fast twitch thingummies, or reflexes or whatever it is which facilitate there tremendous velocity.

However, aside from the vibrato issue I get a constant sense of a musician, or perhaps just human being, who lost has their way. His interpretations, be they of Kreisler works or the Tchaikovsky Concerto seem to me to contain many creative and interesting interpretive ideas that only half happen. I stress this point because it is not the case that he is "not musical." It is as though the truly great artist inside him somehow can’t break free to express itself. More often than not, to my ears, his interesting ideas die out before being fully explored or applied. In their place emerges a certain charm, and astounding technique used to simply play things faster than everyone else.

Perhaps the worst example of this is the Bach E major Preludio which he tosses off at a demonic tempo. Ironically, at the time I was studying this I also had on a version by Ricci (a great violinist who was often written off as a mere "Paganini Specialist" by a lot of critics.) Ricci actually chooses a rather slow tempo and gives a sincere and musically honest performance by any standards.

While it is often unhelpful to get into the realm of psychological speculation regarding artists and what makes them tick, I can’t help feeling a kind of connection between Fodor the frustrated genius and his horrific experiences with drug addiction. I wish he had been happier and, for want of a better phrase "been all that he could have been" because as far as sheer violin playing goes, he towered above even some of the greatest players in our funny little world’s history.

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Replies

November 27, 2021 at 08:50 PM · I have never really been able to connect with his kind of swashbuckling, but I find him interesting. I have always loved Kogan, though, who I would place in a similar style of thinking around violin and technique, but to me, it's more apparent how all the technique is integrated into a whole musical thought. (Confession - I absolutely can't listen to Ricci)

My father played a recital or two with Fodor before I could remember or before I was born, but alas, nothing much came of it - Perhaps my mom or older brother could remember his playing. It's kind of interesting when a shooting star originates from such a cultural backwater as Denver.

November 27, 2021 at 10:26 PM · Greetings,

Denver phobia! Hah! Did John Denver come from Denver??

Interesting you mention Kogan. As I was writing I was thinking he also had a Fodor level of mind boggling brilliance. I don’t see much correlation personality wise though. In the sense that Kogan was a fully developed and profound artist who just happened to be able to do anything on the violin :) Kogan I can listen to all day with n regrets!

Incidentally, I misremembered the way they play interview. Applabaum was actually talking about Heifetz and he said that the master ‘listening to Fodor’s staccato for 15 minutes demonstrated what a serious teacher Heifetz was.’ Or something like that…. I have always thought that wa son of the , cough, dumbest statements about Heifetz ever made!

Cheers,

Buri

November 27, 2021 at 10:48 PM · Actually I was hoping one of his students , like WW, could jump in and actually give some good info on this master player. I was just scratching at the topic to generate discussion:)

November 27, 2021 at 11:39 PM · He performed with my community orchestra a couple of times. He was a competent soloist, but not interpretively remarkable. His Paganini encores, on the other hand, were jawdropping.

Honestly, the guy would have been better off in the modern day, doing Roman Kim-like tricks on YouTube.

November 28, 2021 at 01:11 AM · Cultural backwater, excuuuuuuse me? ;) So yes I grew up in Denver and greatly admired Eugene Fodor's playing, and part of that was probably hometown pride and timing! But I also saw him play live, several years before he died (at the rather young age of 60). He was a thoughtful musician and he absolutely had that kind of stage presence that draws everyone in. And the technique - wow!

November 28, 2021 at 01:16 AM · Fodor gets the all-star treatment in the Samuel Applebaum interview book series "The Way They Play." Lovely interview with the artist in his prime.

November 28, 2021 at 02:06 AM · oh good. i didn’t misremember. The comment about Heifetz was still dumb though…

November 28, 2021 at 06:56 AM · I remember playing in an orchestra—probably the Colorado Music Festival, a summer orchestra—with Eugene Fodor as soloist, sometime in the late 80s or early to mid 90s, though it might have been the Colorado Philharmonic (now the NRO, a summer student orchestra) in the early 80s. If I recall correctly, we all knew about his addiction issues, and I think he was trying to make a sort of professional comeback at the time. I remember very little about that actual performance, just that he didn’t come across as likable in any way, and I don’t remember enjoying his playing much, either.

I’m sure he had struggles I could not have begun to understand at the time. My opinion now is that he was a great talent trapped in a tragic life.

November 28, 2021 at 09:47 AM · I met Eugene in 2008, and was immediately taken by his talent and personality. His Bach Chaconne was sublime. We became friends and I tried to set up a project for him to perform on the rare violins of the Cremona Civic collection and perhaps make a CD with it.

Little did I know that the difficulties I encountered creating the project (which never came to fruition) were due to the fact that some people knew things about him that at the time I didn't.

The last memory I have of Eugene is a time in Cremona. The night before we had stayed out until 3:00 AM and he had a flight out of Milan that same morning. I honestly wondered how he could make it. In fact he didn't. I got a phonecall from the hotel manager in the early afternoon asking if I could take Eugene to the airport, and pronto, as his re-scheduled flight was leaving in just a few hours.

Hurriedly I got into the car, picked him up, and then took all the shortcuts I knew to get to the autostrada. Milano Malpensa was 152 kms away (almost 100 miles) and the clock was ticking. I made sure he got there in time, but I never saw him again. RIP Eugene.

November 28, 2021 at 11:57 PM · I followed Eugene for years and always enjoyed his playing immensely. Aside from the Bach Chaconne I highly recommend his recording of the Vitali Chaconne accompanied by Organ. My favorite memory of him was a rushed conversation after a concert he played in Caldwell Idaho - he was craving apple pie and wanted a recommendation. Years later I reminded him and he actually remembered.

November 29, 2021 at 04:18 AM · I enjoy reading Mr. Brivati’s writings (thank you, Mr. Brivati!), but I suggest that rather than rely solely on one’s memory of the chapter about Eugene Fodor in The Way They Play (Book 3), it is useful to go to the source and re-read the chapter to remind oneself of what it actually says.

First, keep in mind that Book 3 was published in 1975, so it was just after Fodor had competed and won joint second prize at the 1974 Tchaikovsky competition with 2 Russian violinists (students of Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh), with no first prize being awarded. Fodor was 24 at the time of the Tchaikovsky competition and thus was either 24 or 25 at the time of publication of Book 3. In the book there are several statements about Fodor’s staccato and vibrato, which I will quote so we all can read what they actually say.

The book states that when Oistrakh, who was the Tchaikovsky jury chairman, congratulated Fodor immediately after announcing the winners, Oistrakh’s exact words were “Congratulations! Your control of the down-bow staccato is enviable.” Thus, even the great David Oistrakh admired Fodor’s down-bow staccato.

The reference to Jascha Heifetz and staccato in the chapter in Book 3 about Fodor is the following: “During lessons with Heifetz, Fodor was required to begin with three-octave scales in up-bow and down-bow staccato.” The reference to playing staccato for 15 minutes during lessons with Heifetz does not seem to appear in Book 3, but does appear in other publications such as Heifetz by Herbert Alexrod (published in 1976), The Great Violinists by Margaret Campbell (published in 1980) and Great Masters of the Violin by Boris Schwartz (published in 1983). The Axelrod book, for example, states that during Fodor’s lessons Heifetz “would always make him play staccatos for fifteen minutes, while the Maestro slowly circled him, studying his technic for down-bow staccato carefully, so he could teach it to other students. Heifetz insisted that [Fodor] play the very same cadenza in the Wieniawski Concerto from which he himself learned staccato.”

As for vibrato, Fodor’s own words in Book 3 are as follows: “[Mr. Wippler, my first teacher] demonstrated the wrist vibrato, but after vibrating with the hand for a length of time I felt the urge to develop an arm vibrato, and actually it came quite naturally to me. Now I use a combination.” The authors of Book 3 also comment on Fodor’s vibrato, stating: “His arm vibrato is brilliant, with the ability to increase and decrease its intensity. All add up to a dazzling technique. His hand and finger vibrato are controlled.”

The Schwartz publication provides that author’s view as to why Fodor’s career did not take off and reach the heights of some of the other great violinists. Schwartz states as follows: “But it was [Fodor’s] New York debut recital (in November 1974) that damaged his career. He chose a program consisting almost entirely of showy virtuoso pieces. Taken aback by such poor judgment, Schonberg of the Times wrote, ‘His program was not only curious, it was actually stunning in a reverse kind of way. ... He plays like the extremely talented student he is. ...’ There was ‘lack of real character to Mr. Fodor’s playing.’ Everything was done skilfully enough but the interpretation was that of a ‘still unformed musician.’ Such a review was devastating: Fodor had failed, not as a violinist but as a thinking musician.”

I have enjoyed listening to Fodor’s recordings of Paganini and Tchaikovsky for many years. I believe that Fodor was a great violinist and that serious students of the violin will remember him as such by virtue of his recordings.

November 30, 2021 at 03:55 AM · Gene was a good friend for a number of years. In fact he was staying in my New York apartment when he was mugged. He was always frustrated that the "serious" musicians did not take him more seriously. He told me that once he played for Issac Stern in the hope that it could allow him to be accepted. I felt very sorry for him and in spite of his great technique and style, he was a bit like a little boy. I am sorry that he is gone.

November 30, 2021 at 06:50 PM · Thank you for this post Buri. Fodor was magnificently gifted and I remember he was extremely kind to me the one time I chatted with him. I agree with you about his vibrato. I might prefer some other violinists, such as Mischa Elman, who did not have Fodor’s chops, for the slower works because of this. He could play the faster works demanding greater facility like the Wieniawski Scherzo Tarantella and Paganini Caprices better than almost anyone. He had amazing articulation, one of the best staccatos, beautiful intonation, and a golden tone.

November 30, 2021 at 07:09 PM · It's really sad that people still talk of musicians coming out of Denver as less-than, "cultural backwater", and a quote from Aspen School of Music one summer where Gene's talent was mentioned as "Not bad for a local boy."

Growing up in Colorado, this was a stigma. But for many of us, Fodor was a hero. If he could rise to the level of competitive on an international stage, than surely any Colorado kid could.

In this day and age, it's time to stop the stigmatizing of location equaling quality! Stop being shocked if someone is a successful musician who comes from a place other than NYC. It's too late for Fodor at this point, sadly....it impacted his life in such a negative way, but let's normalize the concept that if someone makes a career for themselves as a successful artist, it's because they worked their butts off and sought out the right teachers and mentors. You do what you have to do to rise.

November 30, 2021 at 09:51 PM · I don’t think his origins affected him or anyone else’s career. Look at Joshua Bell. He grew up next to a corn field and that hasn’t negatively impacted his career. Isaac Stern and the drugs were what got in Fodor’s way.

December 1, 2021 at 04:05 AM · Thank you, Holly, says one Colorado girl to another. And having the great Harold Wippler as a teacher (as Fodor did early on) is a gift anyone, anywhere, would be fortunate to receive.

December 1, 2021 at 08:30 PM · It's unfortunate that we have such a narrow view of what a great violinist should be. Liking showy pieces or struggling with addictions shouldn't have afforded such easy blanket condemnations, in my opinion. Fodor came to Edmonton (Canada) a number of times in the 70s and was unreservedly appreciated. I think a photo of him on a motorcycle only added to the appreciation, Edmonton being the sort of place that it was at that time. He really played beautifully. I think he came to play with the Montreal Symphony while I was there in the late 80s too, although that orchestra's schedule was so heavy my recollections are a bit blurred! Still, I often wondered what had become of him, and was sorry to hear of his passing.

December 1, 2021 at 10:03 PM · Respectfully, Fodor DID absolutely have issues with his career because of his Colorado origin. It's apples and oranges, and decades different than Josh Bell!! Growing up with IU as a homebase is completely a good thing with the legacy and faculty at hand, corn field or not.

I did speak to Gene about the Colorado issue a number of years ago. And guess what, that pressure to please, that feeling of not belonging or being welcomed....well, that helped invite the drugs in. And nobody kid yourself, it's not just Gene who took them, so blaming drugs is a poor excuse. Thankfully times are changing, but one comment earlier about Denver being a cultural backwater....well that is archaic thinking and needs to cease.

December 2, 2021 at 12:01 AM · Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Denver is lovely and I am not someone who holds this attitude. My family has a place there. The air quality, scenic beauty, cost of living, and lower crime rates make it in some ways more attractive than NYC now. I just have never heard of this bias towards him based on where he came from. So I’m a little shocked. All of the top violinists I know in the NYC area respected Fodor’s abilities and talent. I don’t think it’s conjecture to mention his drug problem which inevitably lead to his physical demise.

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