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A Violin Double Header

Raphael Klayman

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Published: October 23, 2014 at 7:32 PM [UTC]


On Sunday, October 19th 2014, I participated in two unrelated but stimulating violin events in New York City. The first was the Contemporary Violin Makers Exhibit. This was organized and hosted by the noted dealer, Julie Reed Yeboah. In the second floor main room of the Kosciuszko Foundation, on Manhattan's East 65th Street, violins, violas, cellos and bows were laid out on tables for talented and curious hands to try. While signing in on the ground floor, my ears were already accosted by the cattle call-like din of fiddlers furiously taking these new instruments through their paces. It only got worse when I got upstairs! With a lot of experience in trying out instruments at auction showings, I learned to tune a lot of this out, in order to focus on my own playing and pay attention to this or that particular violin or bow. This I did, as I soon got to work adding my voice to the general uproar. For a basis of comparison, I brought with me one of my very favorite violins – my del Gesu model Vittorio Villa of 2010 that I've named “Michelangelo”, along with my overall favorite bow, my EA Ouchard.

I started out with the bows. I liked a gold-mounted bow by Matt Wehling, though I think the already-sold gold-mounted bow that he showed me in the New York Mondo Musica exhibition this past spring suited me more. At any rate at this exhibition, my Ouchard was best – at least for my hand and my fiddle. I then made my way through most of the violins, and fairly quickly. I honestly felt that almost none of them offered serious competition to my Villa. Oh, this one had a fine G string, and that one was good in a certain register. But for overall quality, quantity and balance, most fell short. Most. When I tried Geoffrey Ovington's violin I was more impressed. And George Yu's violin impressed me the most. Indeed, it gave my Villa a run for its money, in an apples-and-oranges sort of way. Julie told me that it was already sold, and I congratulate both buyer and maker. I showed her my violin and bow and she said that both were beautiful.

I started getting ready to go. I was putting my violin and bow back in my case, and chatting a bit with Julie when I suddenly heard my name enthusiastically intoned with a Latin lilt: “Mr. Raphael Klayman!” I turned to see the friendly face of a gentleman that I quickly scrutinized for recognition, but could find none. “Forgive me,” he continued, “you don't know me, but we have a friend in common – Mr. Vittorio Villa!” He then explained that his name was Ricardo Morales, a clarinetist with the Philadelphia Orchestra! His wife is a violinist there as well. But it seems that Ricardo was quite a violin aficionado, himself. He told me that he had custom-ordered a new violin from Vittorio. “But how do you know me?” I asked. He told me that he saw my name and my Villa violins on Vittorio's website. “But how did you recognize my face?” I asked, still puzzled. He told me that he got curious about me and looked me up. Hmmm...violin aficionado, or violin FBI? In fact he seemed like a fine gentleman. I showed him my Villa violin. He not only recognized it, but remembered the name I had given it - “Michelangelo”! We exchanged cards and I hope to keep in touch with my new colleague. Our music world can be surprisingly small, and as it turned out, this would be but the first interesting meeting of this day.

I traveled to my second event on a crosstown bus to the west side of Manhattan and the iconic Lincoln Center complex. Its library houses a nice recital hall known as the Bruno Walter Auditorium, where I actually once gave a recital long ago and where a memorial for David Nadien would be held. To those who aren't very familiar with the name, a separate blog would really be necessary to do David Nadien justice. But a few words would be in order to give some idea of who he was and why I, who never studied with him nor worked with him as a colleague, was interested in attending this event. David Nadien, 1926-2014, was known as a violinist's violinist and greatly appreciated by knowledgeable connoisseurs. As a young man he won the prestigious Leventritt competition, when the president of the Jury at the time was none other than Arturo Toscanini! His playing was marked by a technique extremely close to Heifetz' level, a tone and phrasing that could be both brilliant and quite elegant, very expressive nuances, and and a most sophisticated understanding of the music he played. In addition, he was an unbelievable sight-reader. He served for four years as Concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, and had been heard on a number of occasions as a concerto soloist and as a recitalist. But actually most of his career was as a studio musician in New York, where his great skills, quick reactions and flexibility made him highly desirable in a milieu where time almost literally equaled money. I had heard him live a few times as well as most of his recordings. No, as a soloist, Nadien never had anywhere near the career of an Itzhak Perlman (and how many do?). But according to one of the speakers at the memorial, on at least one occasion, Perlman consulted him! This in a nutshell was a violin Goliath named David!

I actually had a lot of time between the two events. I made pleasant use of the interval by first rummaging in the Julliard bookstore, and I then grabbed a tasty sandwich from a nice deli just across the street. I took my lunch to the spacious stairs just outside Alice Tully Hall, where many people like to sit, enjoying both the food and the mild weather. At last I made my way to the Lincoln Center Library and was one of the first to arrive. Gradually some people trickled in and then as well as later, I struck up some interesting conversations with various people. More people arrived and we all milled around outside the doors of the Bruno Walter Auditorium. A couple, I had previously been in touch with by phone or by email but had never met in person till now. Some looked familiar to me but I couldn't put a name with a face. But at one point a very tall and distinguished looking gentleman entered the lobby sporting a full head of gray hair, finely chiseled features and an erect bearing. I had never personally met him before, but I instantly recognized him as Arnold Steinhardt, long time first violinist of the famous Guarneri String Quartet. This obviously wasn't your every day crowd. Most were former colleagues or students of Nadien. Others, like me, had been knowledgeable admirers. When the doors finally opened and we entered the hall, I chose a seat at random near the back. As it turned out I was part of a most distinguished cross section: next to me one one side were two former Nadien students; on the other side of me was the President of the New York Philharmonic; and in back of him, the parents of the Philharmonic's Music Director, Alan Gilbert. They had both been violinists in the orchestra, and one still is. Speaking of Maestros, at a distance I spotted and later greeted the noted Anton Coppola, with whom I had worked on numerous occasions, and now well into his 90's.

The master of ceremonies was a long time colleague of Nadien, Richard Sortomme. Other speakers included family members, colleagues and admirers, including Arnold Steinhardt who has taken over teaching a top Nadien student, Shannon Lee, who treated us to a beautiful performance of the Chopin-Milstein Nocturne in C# minor. We also enjoyed the very sensitive playing of the noted pianist, Jerome Lowenthal in the Andante Sostenuto from the Schubert Sonata in Bb.

From the many remembrances and anecdotes shared by the various speakers, a collective picture began to coalesce - a coherent mosaic emerged from disparate tiles. Here was a virtuoso who inspired listeners and sometimes intimidated students and colleagues with his fearsome skills and high expectations. Yet here was also a man who was cherished by those close to him for his wit and humor. The memorial ended with the house lights lowered and one of Nadien's many recordings was played: his exquisite rendition of Edward Elgar's Salut d'amour. And the 'amour' was palpable in that auditorium.

After the service there was a nice reception, where many swapped stories over tasty snacks. Having always admired him, his famous quartet and his books, I briefly introduced myself to Arnold Steinhardt and left soon after that to catch a subway back to my home in Brooklyn. While waiting on the platform for my train, who did I spot walking in my direction – but again Arnold Steinhardt! I briefly hesitated to greet him again not wishing to intrude on his privacy. New York has a fine tradition that's generally well adhered to of not bothering celebrities. But we were after all, both more or less in the same biz and I said hello to him again. He immediately revealed himself to be a very nice, open gentleman – and very down-to-earth (not an easy posture when you're well over six feet tall!). We quickly got into a very friendly and lively conversation about music, violins and even compared notes about some of our respective teachers. At one point I mentioned that Nadien's recording of the Elgar was an inspiration for my own recording of it – not equaling him, of course. I had a copy of my 2nd CD with me that includes it and gladly offered it to my distinguished new acquaintance. He demurred but I said that I really wanted him to have it and he thanked me. At one point I asked if I could ask him a question regarding the Guarneri Quartet: I always wondered what a quartet does with its music when it disbands. Does each player keep his own part? Do they put all the parts back and maybe donate them to some institution? He said that it was a very good question and that nobody had ever asked him that before! He said that so far each of them was keeping his parts and in the future they might think about what to do with them. He also told me that he still gets together with his Guarneri colleagues sometimes to play chamber music – but anything BUT quartets! Quintets, sextets etc. were now the order of the day. His stop came before mine and as we shook hands goodbye, he was kind enough to actually thank me again for my CD! I continued on my journey home, aglow with impressions of this most interesting and stimulating day!

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