Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good-Cop and Bad-Cop Violinists

This week I finished reading My First 79 Years, Isaac Stern's memoir written with (by?) Chaim Potok. It is not a book that I would recommend, particularly for anyone interested in accurate details. In the matter of detail, there just is not very much of it; and what there is emerges from a highly selective memory that appears to be very effective at filtering out much (most?) of what is unpleasant. For example the darkest section of the book probably involves the bad reviews of his first recital in New York, while the deterioration of his second marriage only gets mentioned in passing to explain why he is now recalling his divorce. Where accuracy is concerned, much of the problem is that Potok probably does not know much about music (compared, for example, with what he knows about kids' baseball games) or San Francisco (which matters to those of us living there); and neither Stern nor Knopf (who could have taken editorial responsibility) seemed to care very much about any simple fact-checking. The reader thus constantly trips over muddles of names, dates, and geography.

Nevertheless, these matters are secondary in light of why I came to look at this book in the first place. In order to satisfy my own desire to become a better listener, I am always interested in what practicing musicians have to say about listening. This interest emerged after reading David Schneider's memoir of his life in the violin sections (both) of the San Francisco Symphony and his citation of a remark by Igor Stravinsky that has had a lasting effect on my own writing. Since then I have dipped into writings by and about practicing musicians in both the classical and jazz worlds, bearing in mind that there is far more of this literature about soloists and leaders than there is about "worker bees" like Schneider; and just about everything I read in this area leaves me with at least one seriously memorable item.

This was not the case with My First 79 Years, which, alas, comes off like a haphazard collection of memories. Those memories are laid out for enumeration by the reader with little opportunity for reflection. We are thus left with the impression of a busy man always rushing from one performance to the next with little reflective insight into the "work" that goes behind preparing for and delivering those performances. We are treated to a list of new works that were composed for Stern with little to say about what it took to move from initial conception to effective performance. The closest we get to that kind of insight is the "confession" that he was never able to play Arnold Schoenberg's violin concerto, even though Leonard Bernstein encouraged him to work on it. Stern's claim that Bernstein called the concerto "Schumann with wrong notes" ultimately tells us more about listening than the rest of the sentence in which that citation appears: "but there was something in it to which I could not bond."

The fact is that those who perform music often "say what they want to say" through their performances and prefer to avoid getting hung up on words that they cannot command particularly well. (There is a perfect, albeit corny, example of this in the final scene of The Benny Goodman Story.) In Stern's case that performance often involved more than just his communion with his violin. I saw him "live" only once, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia back when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. He was playing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the concert was scheduled on the night of a National Hockey League playoffs game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. The concerto was the second half of the program; and, before Ormandy raised his baton to begin, Stern stepped forward to address the audience just to let them know the score of that game. This brought down the house with approving applause.

This is a fair memory of Stern that is consistent with the text of his memoir. He is a man who wanted to be "well liked" (perhaps in the connotation that Arthur Miller intended for that phrase in Death of a Salesman). He always wanted the approval of those around him, whether it involved making music, saving Carnegie Hall, or giving time to work with Wes Craven on Music of the Heart, his film about Roberta Guaspari and her string orchestra of disadvantaged Harlem kids. He probably also wanted the approval of the ghosts of the composers whose music he played; but flesh-and-blood approval was always more reliable and therefore more satisfying. There is thus a way in which the music itself is not necessarily the highest priority in his work, and this may explain why Stern's presence in my own CD collection of the violin repertoire is as sparse as it is.

By way of disclaimer, I should state that I really came to understand and love the violin repertoire when the RCA Heifetz Collection was released on CD. In terms of general relationships in the social world, one could almost view Jascha Heifetz as the "bad cop" beside Stern's "good cop." Where Stern always seemed to be generous and open, particularly with both potential students and general music lovers, Heifetz was austere, if not withdrawn. I never had a chance to seem him "live;" and my first exposure to him came from a joke about his life in Southern California:

A wealthy Beverly Hills matron approached Heifetz to play for an hour at a garden party she was holding. Heifetz quoted her a fee of $50,000. She replied, "Well that is far more money than I had planned on spending, but I hear that you are the best. I shall pay your fee but only on one condition: You are not to mingle with the guests." Heifetz replied, "In that case madam, my fee will be $25,000."

Looking through all the photographs that are included in The Heifetz Collection, it is hard to find one that captures the man smiling. The only one I can immediately recall is one taken with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and this may be an important clue about the Heifetz who "plays well with others." Stern was very much a soloist, a center of attention even when others were performing. I was first really aware of this when I saw the telecast of the "Fiddlers Three" benefit concert by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, when Zubin Mehta conducted Stern along with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman. Zuckerman played viola to complement Stern's violin in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 364 sinfonia concertante, and to this day I can still stay that it is the most unbalanced performance of the work I have ever heard. It was as if Stern was determined to one-up every "statement" that Zuckerman made; and the result reflected terribly on both soloists.

There is no doubt that Heifetz was also a commanding soloist; but I shall take the extreme position that every recorded performance of chamber music in The Heifetz Collection can be viewed, within the limitations of recording technology, as an example of what chamber music ought to be. For example, while the C Major string quintet of Franz Schubert (D. 956) can only achieve its true impact in the immediacy of performance, I can think of no better way for a novice listener to prepare for such a performance than by listening to the 1961 recording that Heifetz made with Israel Baker (second violin), William Primrose (viola), and cellists Piatigorsky and Gabor Rejto. Furthermore, those performances had an impact that extended beyond the recording studio: When I moved to Los Angeles in 1985, I discovered (to my surprise, I must admit) that the city had an abundance of opportunities to hear chamber music, supported by a dedicated and enthusiastic audience, which had probably emerged from the concerts that Heifetz and Piatigorsky used to arrange (long before Lincoln Center had formed its own Chamber Music Society, I might add). Heifetz may not have been one for mingling with the guests; but, in the performance of chamber music, he was always "one among equals." As a result, he succeeded in infecting the Los Angeles arts community with a sincere love for the opportunities to experience such "intimate conversations."

Therein may lie the real difference. Amiable and social Stern has almost flooded the concert scene with a new generation of "star power" soloists, many (most?, all?) of whom inevitably make for "good box office" wherever they appear. However, if Stern's legacy has been those new soloists, the legacy of Heifetz could be felt in a city whose audience was as receptive to chamber music as it was to symphony orchestras (if not more so). For all of the stories about his anti-social nature, Heifetz invited all who would listen to share in the intimacy of a chamber music performance; and I expect that this particular legacy has now propagated well beyond the Los Angeles city limits.


Anonymous said...

I remember when Stern played in San Jose with an orchestra (now defunct) I used to play in. I can't remember his playing though, to be honest. I only remember he refused to come down to the reception because management had hired a group of musicians to play -- it was either jazz or rock, my memory is horrible! -- and he was furious that they did that (not approving of the music being played) so he wouldn't come to the bash they had set up and advertised so that the wealthy supporters could meet the man.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Yes, there is a decided undercurrent in Stern's memoir that, when he does not like something (including a particular approach to music), his dislike is a strong one! Heifetz died in Los Angeles in 1987. I have no idea if he ever voiced an opinion about rock or any of the phases that jazz went through during his lifetime, nor do I know if he made his recordings with Bing Crosby under duress. (My guess is that, if he disliked Crosby, he would have managed to get out of those sessions.) Given the attention he showed to George Gershwin (arrangements of selections from Porgy and Bess and the three piano preludes, recorded once in 1945 and again in 1965), I suspect he found the guy's work as interesting as (say) Miles Davis did!