Monday, July 16, 2018

Entertaining the Post-WWII Power Brokers

The violinist and his audience, a composite photograph of violinist Stuart Canin and his “audience” of Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman, and Joseph Stalin (courtesy of Citizen Film)

Last Friday evening KQED aired “The Rifleman’s Violin,” a memoir, produced by Citizen Film, of an American soldier in Germany following the defeat of Germany in World War II. However, this was not just any soldier. The recollection came from Stuart Canin, long-time Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), initially appointed to the position by Seiji Ozawa and, after leaving SFS, founder of the New Century Chamber Orchestra.

Following the fall of the Nazis, most of the American fighting forces were shipped off to Asia. Canin, however, found himself in Germany along with another musician-soldier, Eugene List. In June of 1945 they were both ordered to Potsdam, where they quickly learned that they would be performing for the three world leaders that would be discussing the fate of conquered Germany: Harry S. Truman from the United States, Joseph Stalin from the Soviet Union, and Winston Churchill from Great Britain.

Canin’s account of this episode, which he narrates while the film shows historically-appropriate footage, is a bit like a shaggy dog story. It begins when he is first shipping out to Europe and is carrying his violin along with the rest of his gear. His sergeant stops him and asks, “What are you doing with that violin?,” to which Canin replied “You never know,” suggesting that an occasion would arise for his playing it. Subsequently, his violin skills helped him form his acquaintance with List.

Between Canin’s narration and the music selected for the soundtrack, one gets the impression that they entertained the Potsdam leaders with little more than encores. However, List won Stalin’s heart by playing the opening theme from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) piano concerto in B-flat minor. On the basis of this account, it would appear that this one recital was their only appearance at Potsdam; but List’s Wikipedia page notes that List was asked to play Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 42 waltz in A-flat major. When he confessed that he had not yet memorized the piece, Truman turned pages for him.

At the end of the film, Canin comments that, after that experience, he would never go anywhere without his violin, because “You never know.”

At a time when even the thinnest narrative can easily be subjected to epic treatment, the idea of a film that tells a single anecdote over the course of about twenty minutes is a bit of a novelty. Nevertheless, this brief encounter with a leading violinist could not have been better paced. As a result, we never hear about how Canin and List jointly created the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra; nor do we hear about how the Griller Quartet, a British ensemble, also played for Truman, Stalin, and Churchill (even though they subsequently became the subject of a play by Sidney Griller’s son-in-law, David Pinner). All we get is one story with one punch line; and that, in itself, emerges as a fascinating sidebar to the history of World War II.