The news out of North Carolina is so awful that I have taken to retreating to the cultural superstructure as a way of maintaining my sanity. Herewith some idle reflections that came to me as I was taking my morning four mile walk.
When I was a boy, there were two violinists whose technical virtuosity set them head and shoulders above all the rest: Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. If I heard a violinist on the radio, I could tell that it was Heifetz or Milstein simply from the brilliance of the playing. Heifetz had a more Romantic style, Milstein was more classically pure, but both were non pareil. I once actually heard Milstein in person, at a recital in the old Town Hall in New York City. I was at the time in high school, playing violin in the school orchestra. [I was the concertmaster, which tells you how bad we were! I never learned the words to the National Anthem because instead of singing it at assemblies, I had to play it.] Milstein gave a brilliant concert, and was called back again and again by the audience for encores. After seven or so, when he was returned to the stage by an audience that would not let him go, he started to play a technically very difficult but musically uninteresting piece that I did not recognize. He got himself way up on the E-string, and then rather abruptly jumped down to the D-string. Suddenly, I realized what was going on. He had run out of prepared encores, and was just playing exercises. In effect, he was doing tomorrow's practicing today.
A bit later on, a third transcendently great violinist came on the scene -- David Oistrakh, whose recording of the Beethoven violin concerto is to die for. [Oistrakh and Milstein had the same teacher, in Odessa. Heifetz was from Vilna, my grandmother's home town. All three were Jews, needless to say.]
Today, there are so many violinists as good as that immortal trio that I simply cannot tell, from sound alone, who is playing. Everyone knows Itzhak Perlman, but Pinchas Zuckerman, Joshua Bell, Hillary Hahn, and many others play at the same exalted level. Perlman, in particular, has always been a total mystery to me. Thanks to the miracle of television, I have on occasion been able to see an extreme close-up of Perlman's hands playing the violin. Now, the thing is, he has stubby fingers. I simply cannot figure out how he manages to play perfectly in tune with fingers that stubby! Judging from the photos I have seen, Heifetz had long, slender fingers, which is what one would expect.
I often reflect on how difficult it must be to work these days as a professional music reviewer for a paper like The TIMES. In the old days, you could rave about Heifetz or Milstein, and then offer guarded encouragement, hedged round with judicious critiques, to the other violinists. These days, it seems every review ought to be a rave. But newspaper readers do not want unrelenting praise. They want the occasional rave coupled with criticism of the rest. I think I would just throw up my hands and quit if I had to crank out a series of reviews of such phenomenal instrumentalists.
Here, by the way, is a true story about Zuckerman, who is not only a great violinist but also one of the very greatest violists in the world. [He was also married for a while to Tuesday Weld, if you can believe Wikipedia.] Zuckerman came to the United States from Israel as a teenager, and enrolled in Juilliard, the world-class music school in Manhattan.
Now a lengthy digression to explain how I know this story. [But I warned you these would be idle thoughts.] For six or seven years during the end of the 90's and the start of the new millennium, I played in an amateur string quartet in Amherst. The quartet was organized by Barbara Greenstein, a wonderful woman and very close friend, now sadly departed, who played second violin. [It was Barbara's death that led me to stop playing. My heart simply went out of it. I have not taken my viola out of its case since moving to Chapel Hill.] The cellist was Barbara Davis, who has a lovely tone and was a pleasure to sit next to in a quartet. I played viola. Like all true amateur quartet experiences, we were friends as well as fellow musicians. Indeed, the two Barbaras, with exquisite tact and patience, put up with my inferior play during the time when I was taking weekly lessons and practicing daily, until I finally brought myself up to their level of performance.
Our quartet had a number of first violinists. The problem, you see, is this: in the classical quartet literature -- Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert -- the first violin part is a great deal more difficult than the other three. Indeed, some quartets, such as the Haydn Opus 20 quartets, come closer to being little violin concertos with accompaniment. Now, in the great professional quartets -- the Juilliard, the Emerson, the Boromeo -- everyone is a virtuoso quite capable of playing solo if they want to. But that is hardly the case in an amateur quartet like ours. So we were always looking for someone who, despite being a good deal better than we, was willing to play with us. Why would any really good amateur violinist be willing to play with three inferior musicians? Well, the alternative is to get hooked up with some really good players, in which case you might run the risk of ending up playing second fiddle. So, happily, the world of amateur string quartet players contains a number of good violinists willing to put up with inferior cellists and violists in order to get to play those tasty first violin parts. One of these generous souls was an Amherst College professor who had actually gone to Juilliard with Pinchas Zuckerman. One day, as we were warming up, he told us this story.
Zukerman was a phenomenally gifted violinist, even as a boy, but he was a terrible cut-up, an unruly type who was forever making trouble. All of the students were required to play in a chamber orchestra as part of their studies, and Zuckerman was a constant problem for the teacher who served as the conductor of the group. Now, these were all serious music students and Zuckerman was clearly a standout, so he could not simply be kicked out of the group. But one day, the conductor had had enough, and was unwilling to put up with Zukerman's shenanigans any longer. In a desperate attempt to force the rambunctious teenager to concentrate on the music, he said, abruptly: "Zuckerman! You play viola." So it was that a brilliant violin student became also one of the world's great violists.