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.
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 HeifetzTweet
"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.
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