String Theory

As a classical violinist I have learned, over many years, that great music performances are more than a matter of physics and technique.

Photography by Aorta

When I was sixteen, I had the honour of being invited to turn pages at a recital in Montreal for the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh, one of the last of a generation of Russian virtuosi that included Heifetz and Elman, and his musical partner, the formidable pianist Frida Bauer. Given the august occasion, it probably wasn’t the shrewdest decision to test out my father’s claim that after years of non-surgical experiments he had successfully corrected my “wandering eye syndrome” (the right eye cruised its socket like a lazy pinball), and I could now “see without glasses!” This despite the fact that since the age of four I had spent my life in a pair of bifocals framed like the fenders on a Mustang and as thick as a middle-aged waistline.

Nor was it my most incandescent moment to turn up for the concert at Place des Arts that evening dressed in the latest in seventies discount-mall fashion: a shiny black dress made from some of the first attempts with “unknown fibres” that draped from my waist, briefly, to reveal an entire set of teenage legs which were punctuated at my feet by a pair of really ugly black platform pumps. This outfit, a metaphor, apparently, for “Hey Mista, fifty rubles to heaven,” was entirely unsuitable, a message made clear by the now hysterical Russian impresario who threatened to dismiss me, Soviet style. I managed to keep my job largely through the efforts of Oistrakh himself, who probably welcomed the contrast I brought to the otherwise staid landscape on stage; next to the Russians, I looked like some kind of strange sapling loosely planted behind two sturdy boxwood hedges.

For a young violinist, the opportunity to get this close to one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, to witness first-hand his pre-concert warm-up (Oistrakh repeated the opening bars of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 in G major, op. 30, the first piece on the program, over and over and over again), to shake the hand that shook the hand of Prokofiev that shook the hand of Rimsky-Korsakov that shook the hand of Tchaikovsky that shook the hand of Liszt that shook the hand of Salieri who brushed the silver-sweet palms of Mozart was to touch the flesh of a world I had only imagined.

Oistrakh is five years old. It is 1913. Like Heifetz, Zimbalist, Elman, and Seidel, he was born among the colonies of poor in the dark, dank corridors of Tsarist Russia, an empire that would have swallowed him whole had it not been for the passport of his talent. He grabs his mother’s hand as they travel along the grim limestone arteries of Odessa, through alleys that spill onto expansive nineteenth-century boulevards, almost every corner of which houses a statue or cultural icon of historical significance. They file their way past anxious shopkeepers loitering in front of small, disappointed businesses. A mess of smells from coffee to tobacco mix with the acrid sea breeze and tails them like a spy. David and his mother are on their way to the Opera and Ballet House, a cathedral-like theatre at the intersection of Rishelevskaya and Lanzjeronovskaya, not far from the Stolyarsky School where Oistrakh will spend the next fifteen years unravelling his giant talent. But tonight, because his mother is a singer, the five-year-old gets to stand in the orchestra pit next to the conductor for a performance. It is a reward for being good, for practising every single day of the week and then not cutting the strings off his violin at the end of it. And it is his favourite thing too, in particular the thick chocolate comfort of the cello sound. When he closes his eyes, the walls echo legendary performances of Chaliapin, Tchaikovsky, of Wieniawski, the sounds and spirit of which will become the mortar of his playing.

Sitting beside Ms. Bauer in the dressing room before the concert, I was struck by the contained power in her small hands, cigar-thick fingers perched like the hammers inside a piano. They told the story of thousands of hours of dull drills, each muscle reluctantly trained into submission, carving out a memory for itself so that in the shotgun of performance they could fire like a string of perfectly calibrated bullets. These are the building blocks of the Russian school of playing, where the dreamy ad libitum of childhood is transfigured into the lexicon of a mature imagination.

I can still remember Oistrakh’s performance those thirty-five years ago and how he was able to animate the gestures in the musical ideas and suspend you in their moody arms. I love his playing and grew up with the deep personal warmth of his sound and the integrity of the evocations in my ear, which of course I tried to imitate, as I tried to imitate the emotional fragility of Elman’s playing and the charisma of Heifetz’s. What is characteristic of that generation and school of musicians is the unique and recognizable sound of each player and a conviction of interpretation so powerful that it is difficult to imagine the music played otherwise. These artists, pushed to the limits of their talent, delivered us into the interior of our own experience.

From my position next to Ms. Bauer at the piano that night, I watched with envy Oistrakh’s left hand scale the fingerboard (I couldn’t see his bow arm, peripheral vision, it seems, not being on the list of benefits from my father’s claim), and for a while I wished that I too had been brought up in the trenches of the Russian school. I wish that I had been subjected to the punishing daily grind of the Flesch scale system and the monotonous routine of all the Sevçik opuses; had been forced to learn the viola (okay, I didn’t wish that); had been shamed into the corner to practise the cadenza I didn’t prepare and then made to play it an hour later, memorized, for the torturous weekly public class; had been outperformed by someone younger, playing Dont Études op.35; had dragged myself into Stolyarsky’s studio three times a week for lessons, elated if, for a moment, his eyebrows moved from north to south; had spent years analyzing the symphonic and chamber-music repertoire; had heard Kreisler play, who’d heard Joachim play, who’d heard Ysaÿe play, who’d heard Wieniawski play, who’d heard Vieuxtemps play, who’d wrapped his hands around the moonstruck hands of Paganini so that I too could find my voice.

Unfortunately, my remarkable talent for choosing the eyewear and wardrobe appropriate for a concert with Russian musicians also informed my presumption that my hands-on experience of the violin and a taste for borscht were all the tools I was going to need to be an effective addition to their ensemble. It turned out that a background in trills and boiled cabbage was hardly adequate.

Not only was I expected to turn pages for Ms. Bauer (this on its own is a very delicate business—a page-turner can seriously compromise the performer by turning the page at the wrong time, by moving too much, by eating anything my mother cooked), but I was also expected, at specifically indicated moments in the piano score, to leave my seat beside the piano, tiptoe to the front of the stage where Oistrakh stood, turn his page, tiptoe back to my position at the piano, determine where Ms. Bauer’s fingers had advanced to, and continue turning her pages. All this was to be accomplished with the breezy élan of a pro. To complicate matters, the procedure was explained to me by Ms. Bauer in Yiddish, a language I soon realized neither of us actually spoke. Luckily, there was only one piece on the program that demanded this and it was slotted right after the Beethoven Sonata, a good thirty minutes into the performance, which I hoped would be enough time to subdue the sudden bubbling enthusiasm of my lower digestive tract.

The school of violin playing from Russia was developed over centuries by the cross-fertilization of instruments and musicians from across Europe. The instrument, as we know it—four strings, tuned in fifths, bowed and held under the chin—has a sketchy history. Curiously, its three-stringed antecedent was first documented in a painting by the Italian artist Gaudenzio Ferrari in 1529 and then magically appeared in the arms of Monteverdi’s concert master Salomone Rossi, an Italian Jew so highly revered for his playing that he wasn’t forced to wear the Star of David in court. There is no record as to who made the first violin, but a three-string version dated 1542 was in existence in Italy, possibly crafted by Andrea Amati, a relative of Nicolò Amati, who taught Stradivari.

The four-stringed instrument was in circulation toward the late 1550s, and with the addition of the soprano E string, Biagio Marini, the “Adam” of virtuosi, extended the technical and tonal capabilities of the violin. By the second half of the seventeenth century, the four strings had been explored by many players, inviting the world into new territories of sound. As the instrument zigzagged across Europe, each culture slowly emerged with a method and sound of its own, incorporating elements from one another and expanding the arches of performance.

These schools of playing eventually established distinct tastes and styles. The Russians favoured passion (molto vibrato) over the pure reason of the Germans (they hated vibrato and hardly ever used it), above the porcelain fastidiousness of French playing (they used vibrato, but sparingly), and beyond the earnest stoicism of the British (they vibrated all the time, but no one could tell). So by the time the Hungarian-born violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer emigrated to the US in 1918 at the age of seventy-three, the Russian school, following the familiar historical pattern, had already migrated to America. But, as the teacher of the more recent émigrés—Heifetz, Elman, Milstein, Seidel, and Zimbalist, the most exceptional products of the Russian method—Auer was greeted in New York with the ceremony usually reserved for kings. Heifetz, then only seventeen, had already established his legendary status six months earlier in his first concert at Carnegie Hall, eclipsing every violinist before and after him; the urgency in his sound, the sheer scope of his musical phrasing and a ruthless attention to detail unleashed the spirit in the music and the breath of his audience. He made a performance read like a thriller. His playing—unmistakably Heifetz.

Talent is the ultimate coordination of the mind/body schism, a simultaneous relationship between thought and action that references the supernatural. It is a direct translation from the abstract to the concrete that when expressed has the quality of a phantom history relived. We look for talent because it forces us to expand our sense of reality—from believing we know what is possible to incorporating what we believe impossible. Think of Mozart. Think of the idea of Mozart. Both Stolyarsky (Oistrakh’s teacher and Milstein’s for a period) and Auer had a genius for spotting musical talent in the uncut bodies of Russia’s kindergarten population. What they looked for was a strong sense of rhythm, an unfailing ear, hands and fingers appropriate in size and strength for the violin, and the shiny curiosity that comes with raw intelligence. Like Michelangelo, they chiselled through the uncarved stone, the perfect David waiting to be released.

Though his classes were conducted with the predictability and style of a court proceeding, Auer had no particular “method” for teaching the violin. Unlike most pedagogical techniques, where exponents maintain a certain similarity in both posture and form (except for the position of the left hand, which Auer specifically detailed), Auer’s students all look different when they play. Some hold the instrument very high, some hold their right arm low, and some play with a high wrist. Auer was reminiscent of Bismarck in his meticulous grooming and calculated moustache, but this steely formality was armour for the translucent skin of his sensibility. Classes were public events, often attended by important visitors. Imagine this: the maestro enters his crowded studio in the St. Petersburg Conservatory at the precise time, bows curtly to the audience and sits down. The students, dressed for performance, line up in order of appearance. The first player is announced and, with an accompanist already seated at the piano, the lesson begins—Auer circling the young violinist, bow in hand, eyes as unforgiving as a spotlight. No transgression, either musical or technical, is tolerated and some students are kicked out of the classroom, their music thrown out after them. This is not for everyone. Only the most gifted can survive.

On this day, perhaps, in 1902, Mischa Elman, age eleven, is being tested on the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. He plays beautifully, but the octaves at the end of the introduction are out of tune and the passage is rushing. Auer pokes Elman in the ribs with his bow and demands that he repeat it. Also, there is not enough of the military in the second half of the opening statement, not enough contrast from the first phrase to the second, so Auer asks the pianist to play the reduced orchestral score alone and points to harmonic and rhythmic details. Look at the score, he thunders. Elman listens closely to the pianist and then plays the phrase again, this time injecting it with the character of a saluting sergeant. They go through the entire movement in this fashion, Auer interrupting with demands for “more fire” here, “sweeter” there, “this passage on the A string,” Elman producing on the spot. The transformations are obvious, and the audience responds. The music soars where it had languished, but Elman has no idea how he has accomplished this feat. What Auer does not tell him is how to achieve these nuances, how to translate these feelings into the subtle mechanics of the execution. That is left to Elman’s talent, as it is left to the talents of Heifetz and the others, each one distilling his own interpretation of the concerto. When Elman goes home to practice he will translate these images into the anatomy of his art.

One of the lessons I learned very quickly about the art of page-turning was that the slower the speed of the music, the better. So it was with a certain relief that I discovered the tricky second piece on the program, the North American premiere of Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata, a sixtieth-birthday present for Oistrakh, began with the instruction Andante. However, ever since the publication of The Rite of Spring in 1913, no twentieth-century composer worth his salt sticks to one tempo for longer than a few bars or stays in the same meter for too long. That means that, in a matter of seconds, the music can fluctuate from the relative safety of white notes written in 4/4 to a scream of black dots scored in alternating patterns of 3/8, 7/8, 5/4, and, my personal favourite, 11/16. Unfortunately for me, Shostakovich had perfected this technique, and his sonata is rife with these musical gymnastics. So not only did I have to read the music, I had to count as well.

Ms. Bauer pointed to the three separate moments in the score where Oistrakh was going to need my services. A red “x” was marked above the designated bars. In those instances, I would have to make my way over to the front of the stage, where Oistrakh stood. There was no sign in the music for my return to the piano because I could arrive back at any time, sort of like a via Rail schedule. I remember negotiating the first episode pretty easily, slipping discreetly beside Oistrakh, turning his page, and getting back to my seat next to Ms. Bauer with plenty of time before I had to turn her page. But this first stroke came about in the Andante section of the piece where the counting was easy. It was my second turn at it, in the rhythmically inventive second movement, Allegro Furioso, when things proved more difficult.

This is what I remember: I got up on cue, walked around the piano to my destination beside Oistrakh, calmly looked at the music to see when to turn, couldn’t quite figure it out, looked at the audience of 3,000 look at me, took a deep breath, knew that panic was not a good idea, toyed with the idea of a career as a migrant farm worker, decided not to jump to drastic conclusions—this was a visual problem not an intellectual one—moved in a little closer to focus (my eyes were slipping into their old pinball routine), still couldn’t figure out where Oistrakh was, noticed with some apprehension that the audience was now debating the issue of the visual versus the intellectual, the visual scoring heavily only with the first seven rows, noted how unfair it was that a visual problem can look like an intellectual one, began to reflect on existential religious matters and considered the merits of panic when, suddenly, in a moment of divine-issued clarity, I realized that Oistrakh probably knew the piece from memory and that it wouldn’t matter when I turned the page. Which I did. Right away. And, I managed to make it back to home plate without disturbing either Oistrakh’s or Bauer’s performance but not, however, without skidding into the side of the piano, ripping my nylons and puncturing my skin. I was mentioned in all three papers.

Some of the visas stamped on Ellis Island during the waves of immigration from Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century were granted to artists, from all disciplines, whose communities were dissolving at home. They crossed the threshold into America carrying their luggage of skills and traditions and the secret ambitions of hope. Weaving through the loose fabric of a new culture, many of them rose to prominence combining the old-world ways with the new. Ivan Galamian, though born in Persia of Armenian parents, spent his early life in Moscow, where he studied the violin at the School of the Philharmonic Society in Moscow with a pupil of Auer’s and then continued his education in Paris before coming to America in 1937. By then he had committed himself to a life of teaching and quickly established his reputation. Within ten years, he had positions at both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, where he taught the giant talents of Rabin, Zukerman, Perlman, and legions of less-known but extremely fine players. Unlike Auer, whose “method” of teaching relied on the superior gifts of a student, Galamian’s approach was much more democratic. He believed that almost anyone with serious intentions could learn to play and learn to play well.

“Democratic,” except for his theory of pedagogy, was not a term closely linked with Galamian. If Auer had the aristocratic hubris of Bismarck, then there was a touch of the stubborn autocracy of General Franco in Galamian. I did not study with him (I could have; he died in 1981, just a few years after I stopped rewriting the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and got contact lenses), so I cannot give direct testimony, but his former students display a surprising empathy for civil war victims when it comes to describing their education. Aside from the rank-and-file curriculum of the Juilliard School—theory, literature and materials, orchestra, bulimia—Galamian expected his students to prepare massive amounts of music in very short periods of time, for some a complete concerto every few weeks. To make this more possible, he ran a summer “camp,” Meadowmount, where the enlisted could practice their instruments without the distraction of academic requirements. The regimen at Meadowmount was five to six hours a day of intense practice, followed by time out for ping-pong, hush puppies and cornbread drenched in gravy, and unscheduled visits of panic. Galamian’s lessons were a precise fifty-five-minute event, not unlike psychiatric appointments, except that on his couch, you kept a lid on that id.

In one lesson a student could play through two studies, an entire concerto, and a movement of a sonata, only to receive a few choice syllables from the seated maestro, delivered through clouds of Marlboro smoke in the measured monotone of someone who is tired of always being right. “Legato playing. Even bow and vibrato speed. Watch distance from bridge. Right arm higher. Release pressure. Practise.” He was a remarkable analyst and a great diagnostician and these terse instructions are an example of his perfectly articulated solutions to specific problems. Students were introduced to the violin repertoire through a strictly enforced, developmentally organized sequence—always studying Bruch before studying Lalo, Lalo before Vieuxtemps, etc. The teaching of the bow grip and of bow technique was Galamian’s most significant contribution and his students are recognizable by the similarity of their bow arm—hand suspended from the wrist with the palm shaped as if containing an apple; fingers separated, index finger visibly forward; arm drawn to a ninety-degree angle at upper third of bow—and as a result they play with a richly textured sound and crackerjack technique. Whereas Auer taught the semantics, the structure and meaning of the music, and expected his students to translate it into the syntax, or the grammar, of playing, that tradition was gradually inverted by Galamian (and others), who taught the syntax of violin playing and relied on the musical instincts of the student to reveal the semantic. What Elman worked out in the privacy of his talent, Galamian articulated for the benefit of all. So, in fact, you didn’t have to be as talented as Heifetz to play the violin well, and Galamian’s democratic ideal has had a real impact on the level and quality of string playing in America.

The art of performance is the ability to give meaning to the original aesthetic by illustrating the nuances and details that express that aesthetic. It’s a complex integration of the formal structure of the piece, the cultural and historical tradition from which the music was written, the influences that inspired the composer, the particular temper or spirit by which that composer was informed, and the performer’s personal response to those elements. For a serious musician, the dialogue with the music is a lifelong conversation. Interpretations of the same piece will be rethought and change over time. Like an archaeologist in constant search of another fossil, the artist scours the manuscript again and again, the notes just thin clues to the once grand civilization of thought.

In 1970, Oistrakh, who was Jewish, and others were still prisoners of oppressive Soviet policies, and it was during that era the world witnessed the dramatic defections of several major Soviet artists—Rostropovich, Makarova, Baryshnikov, Vishnevskaya, to name a few. (The old joke: What do you call the Leningrad Symphony after a tour? The Leningrad quartet.) To stem the tide of this exodus, performers were not allowed to tour with their families outside Russia, a restriction Oistrakh found extremely painful. His presence in Montreal, then, attracted not just the culturally informed, but the politically conscious as well, and when activists, planted in the Chanel-soaked audience at Place des Arts, used the intermission as an opportunity to protest the conditions of the Jews in Russia by distributing leaflets and generally causing the kind of disturbance better suited to the sloppy rallies of the sixties, Oistrakh’s heart nearly failed. I witnessed his reaction from the corner of the dressing room where I sat, quietly, dabbing at the bloodstains on my ankle, trying to figure out how to disguise the runs that were now eating their way up my nylons, and I felt the weight of his burden and the depth of his pain. It was another measure of his greatness that the second half of the concert did not reflect any of this suffering, and when he died, rather suddenly, four years later at sixty-six of a heart attack, I felt a personal loss. I mourned not just the loss of Oistrakh, but also the slow decline of the influence of his generation of musicians.

The Auer tradition, though limited to the gifted, produced artists whose performances sizzled like sparklers, their interpretations expressions of the dynamic relationship between themselves and the music. In the semantic translation from the musical idea to the instrument, these players created their own inimitable sound, the repertoire of their technique formed around the context and demands of the music. This is very different from the “new school” approach, where the emphasis is on how to produce a sound, not on what sound to produce. Each domain requires accessing a distinct cognitive faculty. I know that when I am faced with a particularly difficult passage and focus my attention entirely on the mechanics of it, I can accomplish it, but the continuity of the music suffers. What I lose in my playing, and what the listener loses, is the musical logic of that phrase, and the large sweeps of the formal outline of the piece are lost in a web of notes. So I force myself to hear something different, to think about the sound I need to produce, and to forget about the many details, the subtle shifts in pressure of my right and left hand that I have spent hours practicing. I force myself to turn my language into the ether of an image and to transform my thinking from the linear to the non-linear so I can take the risk, like Oistrakh and his contemporaries, of navigating the geography of beauty.

To do justice to great music, a player must have a solid technical foundation, and both schools insist on a daily diet of scales and exercises. Once the mechanics of playing the instrument are solidified, the music can be tackled. In the new school, music is decoded directly into the language of the instrument. Every nuance is analyzed and translated into the grammar of the execution. More often than not, fingerings and bowings, details that play a significant role in the interpretation of a piece, are pre-established. Students learn a catalogue of skills (for example, how to play different dynamics, loud or soft, or how to play dolce) through a careful study of the physical motions. This refined equipment is then pulled off the shelf and applied where instructed in the music. While this method is more universally accessible and gives the performer a greater degree of control and comfort, it tends to standardize interpretations because nuances, like vibrato or an sf marking, are prescribed. Most significantly, it interferes with the personal and organic relationship between the performer and the composer.

When I think of Heifetz’s performance of Sarasate’s fantasy on Carmen, and the goosebump surges of colour and temper underscored by a technical acumen that defies duplication—people have tried; I know violinists who slowed down the speed on their recordings of Heifetz to analyze the number of pulses in his vibrato—I realize that he never thought of the mechanics of playing when he performed. He didn’t reduce the music to the physical motions necessary to produce the sound, but was consumed by its momentum. He was not distracted by the sheer complexity of the execution; his thoughts channelled to the maverick improvisations of creativity. In the vocabulary of the syntax, we can expect to hear what is possible. When the semantics of the music is directly transposed onto the instrument, we can witness the impossible. Because the way we think, what is in our mind, is communicated. As performers, we also and unwittingly narrate our own story.

Today there is less of a personal signature in performances and it is harder to distinguish one great player from another or one orchestra from another. Aside from the difference in training practices, there are, of course, other reasons: the technological advances of the recording industry and the anonymity of perfection that it produces; the volume of concerts and repertoire in the schedule of a performer; the behind-the-screen auditions for orchestra positions. There has also been a shift in values that has taken over the general culture. In an age that campaigns for individual rights and freedoms, there is an ironic contempt for personal expression. We are so inundated with “virtual reality” that many of us have no experience of the authentic. We don’t even know we are missing something. Of course there are exceptions. Glenn Gould stands out as a prime example of semantic-type thinking and artists such as Jacqueline du Pré, Maxim Vengerov, Itzhak Perlman, Richard Goode, and others carry on the legacy of that tradition from the background of their hybrid training and from the natural authority of their great talent. But, in general, music-making today is more perfect and accurate than it used to be, but less able to uncork the inspiration of its original source.

Many years after the concert in Montreal that night, I was in Paris and went to hear the Polish-French pianist Vlado Perlemuter, a celebrated interpreter of French music who was on the faculty at a Mount Orford summer session I attended when I was a very young student. The program was devoted to the works of Ravel and Debussy. He was by now a very old man, almost unrecognizable, but seeing him again reminded me of his eccentric habit of loosening one of the strings at the top of the piano before a concert so that he could worry about that one note instead of a difficult passage: the slippery charms of self-deception. I wondered if he still engaged in this after a lifetime of performance and acclaim, but when he appeared on the stage of La Salle Pleyel, I remember thinking that he was nervous. Like all performing artists, he felt the weight of his responsibility, the huge task of surrendering himself to the maieutics of performance, to act as mediator between the voices from above and the voice of the instrument. That concert still sits with me, not as a memory but as part of the ongoing and inscrutable alchemy of my own identity.

On an ordinary evening, somewhere in the middle of my life, I sat in a theatre in France and Perlemuter walked on a stage, sat down at a piano, and brushed the canvas of the keyboard that brushed the canvas of Ravel who brushed the canvas of my soul.

Photography by Aorta
Deborah Kirshner