Violinist Eugene Fodor died Saturday in Fairfax, Va., at the age of 60, after an illness (liver disease) that had started in June, said his sister, Deborah Fodor-Bode.
It is impossible for me to write about the death of Eugene Fodor without personal attachment.
In my very early violin days, a family friend gave me a gift: a cassette recording of Eugene Fodor playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I was nine, and it was the first recording I owned. It was the only classical music recording in the house, and I loved it with abandon.
Fodor grew up in Colorado, as did I. He won the 1972 Paganini Competition and received the top prize in the the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974, just a few years before that recording was made. It was a source of national and local pride that an American – a Coloradan – had won a major Soviet honor, in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. In fact it was a source of controversy that he was given only the “top prize” and not declared the “winner,” sharing the honor with a Russian. A chorus of those present testified that he had indisputably played the best.
Fodor, in San Diego in 2008
Though Fodor was universally admired for his awe-inspiring violin technique, even his closest friends described him as difficult and irascible, his problems with substance abuse never completely at bay. In 1989 the New York Times wrote a scathing headline that read like a career epitaph, just a week after an arrest for drug possession, From Tchaikovsky to Heroin, a Brilliant Violinist's Decline.
But Fodor also went through periods of time in which he took up yoga, meditated, trained horses. His discography grew in recent years, with recordings made within the last decade of Nielsen, Lalo and Sibelius concertos.
Denver violin maker Rick Molzer was a teen-age apprentice at his grandfather August Molzer's basement violin shop when he first met Fodor, who was then 15.
“My grandfather said, 'Ricky, you might want to be upstairs, so you can hear him play,'” Molzer recalled. “I still remember the first note I heard Eugene play.” It was a low A, the beginning of the Glazunov Violin Concerto. “Of course, we were all blown away by his playing.” Years later, Molzer became caretaker for Fodor's instruments, which over the years have included Stradivaris, Guarneris and many fine bows.
“His playing had a brilliance to it,” Molzer said. “It was more than great facility, he had an electrifying stage presence.”
Fodor's teachers included Harold Wippler, Jascha Heifetz and Josef Gingold. Fodor had few students, but one of them was violinist William Wolcott of Omaha, Neb., who studied with Fodor in the mid-90s.
“I learned to surround myself with things that are uplifting, inspiring and beautiful,” Wolcott said of his studies with Fodor. “He taught me to raise my standard, not so much by his words, but by his playing. To be around that playing, so close and so often, gave me the mindset that the impossible is possible.”
Paganini – who wrote music that many violinists would classify as 'near-impossible' – was always one of Fodor's specialties, and he vigorously challenged those who would dismiss the music of Paganini as lacking substance. His reverence for this composer and violinist was evident both in his approach to the works and in an excellent essay he wrote for the 1999 occasion on which he actually played Paganini's own 1742 Guarneri del Gesu (il Cannone), a rare concert of this nature that took place in San Francisco. In a nutshell: Paganini is so hard to play, that many performers bend the music in order to meet its technical demands. That distortion is what keeps listeners from getting to the core of Paganini's music and appreciating its depth.
Fodor didn't distort rhythm to accommodate technique; he didn't have to.
He was still in full possession of his musical powers as recently as 2008, when I saw what must have been one of Fodor's final recitals, a benefit for the San Diego Youth Symphony at Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego. He performed Paganini's “La Campanella” with a buoyancy both in his being and in his playing. Fodor grinned mischievously as he easily tossed off the lefthand pizzicato, fingered harmonics, perfectly in-tune octaves, ricochet and then a descending trill at the end, which left his audience gasping.
His natural ease and technique seemed to defy physics. His technique did not appear to be honed from the brow-beating of any teacher; it was self-possessed, pure joy.
That same kind of joy was evident when we spoke, the day after the performance. Among other things, we talked about one of the most revered works in the violin repertoire, the Chaconne from Bach's D minor partita, which he had played the night before.
“After living with this piece for nearly a lifetime, I'm still amazed at the hidden gems in every phrase,” Fodor said. “The end of the Chaconne is so powerful. It’s not flashy, yet it’s got energy and muscle to it. It’s the end of the 15-minute piece, and it’s not all over the fingerboard, it’s just arpeggios. How does it get so powerful? It’s the genius behind it. And did you know, they discovered the title page to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, and it said, 'Volume I.' Doesn’t that drive you mad, to know that there’s at least one more volume of Sonatas and Partitas that are lost?”
“There’s nothing I do not love about the art of violin playing and music,” Fodor told me. “I think it’s humanity’s greatest gift. I think music is the greatest means of expression we have in life. There’s something utterly transportive, spiritually, about music. If you want to take it a step further, even the ancient scriptures of the Far East talk about how song and music is a way to discover the Divine within us.”
Besides his sister, Deborah, Fodor is survived by his brother, John Fodor; children, Dylan, Daniella and Lindsay Davis; and grandchildren, Dylan and Christopher.
Eugene Fodor plays Capriccio-Valse, Op. 7, by Henri Wieniawski on a Perry Como "Early American Christmas" special back in the 1970s:Tweet
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