A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back and forth. Grin and bear it, I said to myself. Everything will be all right once you start playing.

There was a knock on the door—undoubtedly the orchestra manager calling me on stage. I sighed with relief. At least the wait was over. I opened the door and stared in disbelief. Standing before me was perhaps the most famous comedian in all of America: Jack Benny. Benny, holding a violin case in his hand, wasted no time. “What’s this I hear about you making me look bad, kid?” I opened my mouth to say something but no sound came out. Benny continued unperturbed. “I was supposed to play the Mendelssohn. Now I hear you’re doing it. Never mind,” he said, brushing past me and placing his violin case next to mine in the dressing room. “I’ll do Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs instead.” My pre-concert nerves vanished, replaced by the sensation that I was in the midst of one of those improbable dreams of mine—in this case a private encounter with a man who reached millions of adoring fans on radio and television, a man who, without exaggeration, was an icon of American life and entertainment.

Then the situation took an even more surreal twist. Benny turned to me. “I’m working on a new routine,” he said. “This is Mischa Elman trying out a new chin rest. Tell me if you think it’s funny.” Right, I thought to myself. The great Jack Benny wants my opinion about what’s funny—me, a mere fiddle player who forgets a joke’s punch line five seconds after it’s been told. I shook my head in disbelief. Benny took out his violin and began playing Saint-Saëns’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Mischa Elman, one of the reigning violinists, would have been upset to be represented by what I heard. Elman’s opulent tone was legendary while Jack Benny’s was—how should I put this delicately—awful. Benny readjusted his chin with every little group of notes, never quite getting comfortable and appearing more and more irritated in the process. “Well, what do you think?” Benny asked, looking at me eagerly for approval. I burst out laughing. The skit was indeed very, very funny. Beaming, Benny put his violin back into its case. “Good,” he said. “Now let’s rehearse with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.” As it turned out, I was to rehearse the Mendelssohn first for a regular subscription concert that night with Benny following immediately afterwards for his slated performance at the orchestra’s pension fund concert.

My rehearsal with the orchestra and its conductor, Paul Paray, went reasonably well. Afterwards, both elated and relieved, I settled into an audience seat and prepared to enjoy an unexpected fringe benefit of my Detroit concert. Jack Benny soon emerged on stage, greeted the orchestra musicians, and began to explain the comedy routine he had in mind. He turned to Mischa Mischakoff, the orchestra’s concertmaster. “Here’s what’s going to happen, Mischa. I’ll begin this little cadenza in my usual lame fashion, but you’ll interrupt me immediately. You’ll play the cadenza as beautifully as you can. Then I’ll turn to the audience and look unhappy because you’ve just shown me up. Understand?” Mischa Mischakoff, a great violinist and renowned former concertmaster of the NBC Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, nodded. ‘Alright then. Let’s start Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs from the beginning.” Benny proceeded to play the virtuoso work as badly as possible, mugging shamelessly for the musician’s amusement at every misstep. They could hardly hold their instruments much less play them for all the laughing that went on. Soon Benny came to the cadenza and Mischakoff, as planned, cut him off and began its swirling notes in masterful fashion. Halfway through, however, Mischakoff had a change of mind, probably due to all the laughing around him. He, too, would be funny. Mischakoff began missing notes and playing with more scratch than tone. Benny immediately waved his bow signaling the orchestra to stop. “Mischa. This is important,” he said as gently as possible. “I have to sound very bad. You have to sound very good. Otherwise it’s not going to work. Understand?” Mischa, looking somewhat bewildered, nodded again. “From the beginning once more.” Benny mugged and then Mischakoff interrupted him according to script. This time, he got at least three quarters through the cadenza in beautiful fashion. What a violinist, I thought to myself—pristine intonation, a silvery sound, and all the prerequisite instincts of a great soloist. But just then, to my alarm, Mischakoff faltered and lapsed into his old mistaken idea of comedy. I imagine that the presence of the great Jack Benny standing next to him was simply too much. Out came the shaking bow, the scratchy sounds, and the wrong notes once again. This time Benny never had a chance to open his mouth. The entire orchestra erupted in chorus, “No, Mischa! No!” Mischakoff, clearly rattled and miserable, stopped playing and looked to Benny for guidance.

What followed was a mini lecture on the nature of humor given by Jack Benny for the benefit of Mischa Mischakoff but taken in by all of us in the hall with rapt attention. For how often does one get to hear a master revealing his secrets? Benny spoke of the element of surprise, of the unexpected, of how comical it is to see someone with delusions of grandeur being exposed. “Don’t try to show me up, Mischa. Just do your job magnificently as if it’s no big deal. That makes it even funnier. Mischa, you see what I’m getting at, don’t you?” Mischa nodded his head vigorously. “Then once more from the top.”

Benny produced his train wreck of a performance once again and once again Mischakoff kidnapped the cadenza. This time he played soberly to the very end. The music rose ever higher, ever faster—effortlessly transported on the wings of Mischakoff’s fleet fingers. Then he hesitated artfully, fluttered bird-like for a moment on two alternating notes, and finally came to rest on a single high pitch that shimmered magically as though heaven bound. Jack Benny, the members of the orchestra, the conductor, and the small audience were mesmerized by the exquisite beauty of what we had just heard. No one moved, no one made a sound, and finally, Mischakoff, confronting a sea of silence around him, looked up unhappily and said, “I messed it up again, didn’t I?”

That night, tucked into my Detroit hotel bed, I reviewed the day’s events. Foremost on my mind was the Mendelssohn performance. I had played musically, but had there been enough magic? Felix Mendelssohn, the father of this exquisite concerto, would have been disappointed if I, a midwife of sorts, had not delivered his baby successfully. Then I thought of Jack Benny’s antics and chuckled in the dark. He had played the violin very badly and made us laugh—magic of another kind. And finally Mischa Mischakoff’s siren sound began playing in my head. Definitely magic.

The events of that day, a tale of three violinists, took place almost fifty years ago. To my surprise, a bit of it is still retrievable. Someone who collects performances off the air recently told me that he has my Detroit Mendelssohn Concerto on CD and asked whether I would like a copy. I am not so sure. Do I want to know whether a half-century-old performance of mine had enough magic to it? Jack Benny’s comic genius from that era, the 1950s and 1960s, is certainly available for us to enjoy on a wealth of recordings and film. What cannot be retrieved from that Detroit day is Mischa Mischakoff’s performance of a cadenza lasting less than ten seconds. But no matter. In my inner ear, I can still hear Mischakoff’s silvery sound and that last shimmering, transcendent note of his. Believe me, Mischa. You didn’t mess it up.

Watch Jack Benny and his magic violin.

A Tale of Three Violinists

Jack Benny on his Magic Violin

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Comments

  1. From susan heath on August 15, 2008

    Arnold, this lovely piece of writing gave me goosebumps and made me weep. See you on the hill next weekend we hope. Love from Susan and Hilary

  2. From Forrest B. Munger on August 18, 2008

    Dear Arnold,

    I am a friend of Betsy Parker Steinhardt from college days, and she was kind enough to alert me to your blog and wonderful writings. Your tale of Three Violinists and the unrecorded Mischahoff cadenza reminded me of two magical moments for me.

    1. I was in rehearsal at the Met as a chorus member for a production Boris in the middl e90’s, and happened to wander down to the main stage early and there in the middle of the stage was Luciano Pavarotti sitting on a sawhorse just about to rehearse “Di rigori”, the Italian Singer’s Song from Rosenkavalier. He was going to do a cameo appearance in an upcoming performance. Carlos Kleiber was in the pit. Standing next to me was the tenor Gary Lakes. The orchestra began playing and then Pavarotti, who was definitely on his last legs vocally, proceeded to sing perhaps one of the best performances of his life. He sang effortlessly spinning out Strauss’s impeccable and beguiling imitation of Italian melody. All eyes and ears were turned to center stage. It was one of those moments you do not want to end, but when it did, I turned to look at Gary who was standing there mouth agape, shaking his head in admiration. Spontaneous applause erupted. Luciano had his usual broad smile on his face. I did not attend the actual performance which was probably recorded, but I could not imagine a more magical moment being produced.

    2. As a boy soprano I had the honor of performing with Bernstein and the Philharmonic on several occasions at Carnegie Hall in the early 60’s. One of the productions was a very Romantic rendition of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. There were 8 of us boys singing treble (ripieno chorale) in various movements. We were situated smack dab in the middle of two orchestras and two choruses with only the maestro in front of us and soloists on either side of him. For four performances, rehearsals and recording sessions, I was not 10 feet from Leonard Bernstein conducting one of the two greatest choral works ever written. (Bach wrote the other as well – B minor Mass). How lucky could an 11 year old get. Well, I’ll tell you.

    Even though we sang in English and, by today’s convention of utilising period instruments and singers more attuned to Baroque vocal style, the performance seems overly lush and more in style with Mahler, when we got to the contralto solo “Erbarme Dich” sung beautifully and oh so poignantly by Betty Allen, it was the violin playing of the concertmaster, John Corigliano that grabbed my attention. It seared my heart forever. His playing combined with the intensity and dramatic movements of Bernstein’s body just captured me and made me a happy prisoner of music for life. I would ride the Broadway IRT home after every performance to 116th Street standing in the front car conducting and pretending to play Mr. Corigliano’s violin, that gorgeous melody just rolling over and over in my mind’e ear and filling my heart with pathos. That’s how lucky one can get!

    Please continue to pass along your pearls.

    Forrest Munger

  3. From Brian Hong on August 31, 2008

    Hello Mr. Steinhardt,

    I am a 14 year old violinist living in northern VA, and I am very serious in music.

    Reading your blogs has given me inspiration to practice and become a better person. You manage to tell us through your writing what we can expect and what experiences we can have when we work hard and succeed. I am very touched by your delicate vocabulary and wonderful writing.

    I managed to attend an open rehearsal and a concert at the University of Maryland from the Guarneri Quartet during the spring. I believe you did Beethoven’s Harp and his Op. 130, with the Grosse Fugue. I believe that it was the most touching and beautiful ensemble playing that I had ever heard in my life. Congratulations for your successes and friendships that you have gained throughout your wonderful life.

  4. From Reira Madurabi on December 10, 2008

    Hi there,

    Greetings from Coe College! I just saw you guys in action on Friday and have been on this website since for the music; it is getting me through finals (oh no!). This has nothing to do with The Swan, which was really nice to read anyway, just, THANKS for playing. I LOVE YOU!! (u probably don’t get that a lot, haha).

    Cheers, on a winter night and papers due,
    Reira

  5. From Arthur Lieb on February 6, 2017

    Thanks for this piece on Jack Benny. I was at his fund raiser as well as your appearance with the Detroit Symphony, hearing the Mendelssohn violin concerto two in one week by two great violinists.

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February 2, 2013

Fritz Kreisler

“Did you ever get to perform the Fritz Kreisler String Quartet?”  I’ve been asked this question again and again over the years, undoubtedly in response to a scene in “High Fidelity,” the 1987 documentary about our Guarneri String Quartet. In that scene, I bring the Kreisler String Quartet in A Minor, a work I dearly [...]

December 28, 2012

The Interview

Giving interviews is something musicians have to do surprisingly often—we usually do them to stir up a little interest and sell a few tickets to our concerts. On one occasion last summer my radio interviewer had done his homework well. He knew a great deal about me, and the music I was going to perform [...]

November 22, 2012

An Open Letter to Sammy Rhodes

You think quitting smoking is hard? Try quitting a string quartet. My four-step program might help violist Samuel Rhodes, who just announced his retirement from the Juilliard String Quartet at the end of the season. The following is my letter to him. Dear Sammy, I read the news of your retirement from the Juilliard String [...]
cJQuZXoyc5U

September 7, 2012

A Night to Remember

Have you ever heard a performance that you will never forget no matter how long you live? I have. And have you ever gone out on a blind date with someone who is known to thousands, perhaps even millions of people—just about everyone except you? I have. Not only that, but both events happened on [...]
Arnold Giving Colbourn Commencement Speech

May 7, 2012

Colburn School Commencement Address

By Arnold Steinhardt Good morning. I’m honored to be speaking to you at this 2012 Colburn School commencement and equally honored to teach at the school. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and it pleases me immensely to know that Colburn, with its faculty of distinguished musicians, is now the pride of the [...]
The Steinhardt String Quartet, Press Poster

April 1, 2012

The Steinhardt String Quartet

Hartz-4-Artz your internet culture source April 1, 2012 From the Music Desk: Arnold Steinhardt To Form New String Quartet Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet that retired in 2009, has announced plans to form a new string quartet. Mr. Steinhardt recently told Hartz-4-Artz reporter N. Nam Trebor that he deeply misses the [...]
Arnold Steinhardt Sixth Grade Class Photo

March 1, 2012

Teach Me!

What makes a good teacher? For that matter, what makes a bad one? Some teachers merely pass on information. Others excite a student’s interest through their own love for the subject. Some teachers employ fear and intimidation. A very few manage to teach you how to become your own teacher. The craft (or is it [...]
Jascha Heifetz

February 2, 2012

Jascha

Mr. Jascha Heifetz (born 1901, died 1987) Violin Virtuoso Section Heaven February 2, 2012 Dear Mr. Heifetz, Today, February 2nd, is your birthday. Happy birthday, sir, and my deepest thanks for the miracle of your artistry. I have listened to you play the violin throughout my entire life—actually my entire life plus nine months to [...]
The Arnold Steinhardt Metronome

January 5, 2012

You’re On Your Own

My daughter, Natasha, once came home from her weekly piano lesson and asked to use my metronome—a request from her teacher. I told Natasha that I didn’t own a metronome. At the next lesson, her teacher insisted I go out and buy one. The clerk at my local music store looked at me oddly as [...]
Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari

December 4, 2011

Uh-Oh

I began to study the violin with a series of teachers who taught music and the instrument, but who as time went by also saw fit to teach me the elusive craft of performance. Toscha Seidel, an early teacher, challenged me to break out of my shell and show the music’s emotional character. My next [...]
Rock Concert T-shirt

November 1, 2011

Listen

I had just settled down with my ice cream cone in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Café when a garbage truck rumbled to a stop directly in front of me. To my consternation, the driver got out with the motor still running and noisily began to empty garbage cans into the truck. No, I said [...]
Manuscript of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge

October 3, 2011

Opus 130

Not long before I graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1959, John Dalley, a fellow violin student, asked me whether I’d like to work on Beethoven’s late String Quartet in B Flat, Opus 130. The Paganini String Quartet had recently performed at the school, ending their program with another late Beethoven Quartet, Opus [...]
Arnold Steinhardt's Violin Case

September 9, 2011

My Violin Case

What’s a violin case for? Well, a violin for one. And bows to go along with it, of course. What else? Extra strings, rosin, and a mute. Also, a tuning fork and chin rest fastener. Oh, I almost forgot—music stored in the case cover pouch. That’s about it, right? Wrong. At least, forgive the pun, [...]
Rudolf Serkin, pianist, and Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, 1980

August 2, 2011

Marlboro at Sixty

The following article appeared in a booklet, “60th Anniversary Reflections on Marlboro Music”, that celebrated the event with a weekend gathering at Marlboro on July 9 and 10 of hundreds of participants past and present from all corners of the globe. In August, 1957, Jaime Laredo and I, two young violinists hoping for a career [...]
Stage F-F-Fright

July 1, 2011

Stage F-F-Fright

I must have been only seven or eight years old when I first performed in public. My teacher, Mr. Moldrem, had me play two melodies, one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the other from Brahms First Symphony. Moldrem, well known for his ability to teach youngsters, presented his students regularly in concerts. Before the [...]
Del Gesu Beare, Scrolls

June 6, 2011

An Old Friend

Sam, a widower in the autumn of his life, lost thirty pounds, had a face lift, dyed his hair, took elocution lessons, bought a smart new wardrobe, withdrew all the money from his bank, and flew to Miami for a brand new life. Soon after, Sam met a lovely woman at his hotel’s casino and [...]
Practice, Practice

May 3, 2011

Practice, Practice

After the Second World War, my parents were able to rent out a room attached to the back of our garage due to a severe housing shortage. The rumpus room, as they called it, was sparsely furnished, but that was enough for a succession of people to perch there for the time they needed to [...]
The Duo

April 1, 2011

The Duo

After forty-five years making music together, the Guarneri String Quartet played its very last concert on October 27, 2009. People often ask me whether I miss playing quartets. Of course I do. I miss not only the concerts, but also the camaraderie, the rehearsals, the traveling, the exotic food, and the interesting people along the [...]

March 1, 2011

A Meditation on the Meditation

In the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, the courtesan, Thaïs, reflects on her past life of worldly pleasure. Looking into the mirror, she worries that her beauty will soon fade. The monk, Athanaël, arrives at her palace, admonishing Thaïs that there is one kind of love she does not yet know. He exhorts her to [...]
Forty Year Story

February 3, 2011

Forty Year Story

In the spring of 1970, Judith Serkin, a cello student at the Curtis Institute of Music, told me that she and four other students at school, cellist Peter Wiley, violist Geraldine Lamboley, and violinists Lucy Chapman and Jill Levy, hoped to study Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet during the next semester. Judith asked whether I would [...]
Perfect Pitch Tablets from Tone Deaf Comics

January 3, 2011

Perfect What?

My daughter, Natasha, told me recently about a gifted young boy she knows who has learned to read at an early age and already plays the piano with astonishing originality. As if to offer a final and irrefutable proof of the boy’s extraordinary musical talent, Natasha added one more thing. “You know, he’s got perfect [...]
David Soyer

December 6, 2010

Dave

David Soyer, cellist and founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet, passed away on February 24, 2010—one day after his 86th birthday. Michael Tree, violist, and John Dalley and I, violinists, the other founding members, played in the quartet with Dave for almost forty years and we knew him for close to fifty. Peter Wiley, [...]
Paganini's Birthday

October 27, 2010

Paganini’s Birthday

Today, October 27th, is Niccolo Paganini’s birthday. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote on this occasion which appeared in the October issue of The Strad magazine. Next, as an attachment, is Caprice #24.25, my arrangement of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Finally, I include a letter that to my great astonishment Paganini just wrote [...]
Photo from Opus

October 4, 2010

Opus

I saw Opus a while ago, a play by Michael Hollinger that deals with the inner workings of a string quartet. Since I have been a violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet for many decades, you can imagine that I awaited the opening curtain with some anticipation. The subject of my profession is not exactly [...]
Hermes/Mercury, God of Travel

September 6, 2010

Psssst

I hear a lot of griping from my friends these days about travel. Trains are much more luxurious and dependable in Europe. Japanese taxi drivers wear white gloves and decorate their cars with curtains while in New York City, taxis are, well, let’s not even talk about it. And the deluxe plane travel of years [...]

August 2, 2010

In a Sentimental Mood

I recently heard an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A few days later, a review of the evening by Anthony Tommasini appeared in the April 23, 2010 edition of the New York Times. A comment he made about the orchestra’s rendition of The Firebird Suite caught my eye: “The Firebird’s Lullaby, [...]
Dinner Music

July 1, 2010

Dinner Music

Uncharacteristically early for an appointment, I slowed my pace up Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Better early than late, I thought, but what on earth was I to do with myself for the next 30 minutes. As I approached 86th St., the answer appeared almost by magic in the form of Papaya King, a hot dog stand [...]
Disney Hall

June 2, 2010

Something New, Something Old

I happened to be performing in Los Angeles just as the city’s new and glittering Disney Hall opened several years ago. A week earlier, I called my mother who was living in Southern California to tell her of my arrival. “Oh, wonderful,” she said. “You can take me to Disney Hall.” That was fine with [...]
Joe Vita

May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009

Really

A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]