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The Buffalo News

November 5, 2006
Love of violin arrives with no strings attached
By Mary Kunz Goldman

A book by Arnold Steinhardt is something to celebrate. Indivisible by Four, his account of life in the legendary Guarneri Quartet, was illuminating, introspective and at times hysterically funny. (Quartet, the book written about the Guarneri by a New Yorker writer, was pale in comparison.)

Violin Dreams is about Steinhardt's lifelong fixation on the violin. Unlike the quartet's adventures in Indivisible by Four, this is a solo odyssey, the account of a life lived in service to the violin and one piece in particular—the Chaconne from Bach's Partita for Solo Violin in D Minor, a masterpiece of the violin repertoire for which Steinhardt has deep awe.

Just as not everyone can make a violin sing, not everyone could make this subject matter sing. But Steinhardt's humor and humanity draw the reader in.

Steinhardt taps into those odd offbeat thoughts that hit us so briefly we neglect to make note of them. Looking back on a mountain climbing trip, he catches himself daydreaming about magically being able to be Johann Sebastian Bach's climbing partner. Climbing a mountain and mastering a piece aren't spiritually that far apart.

The book comes with a CD of two recordings Steinhardt made of Bach's D Minor Partita —one recently, and one from 40 years ago. Both disc and book tell of a journey, simultaneously funny and tremendously affecting. Steinhardt's deep feelings for music surface again and again. He has a tender heart. On a hunch that Bach wrote the Chaconne in anguished response to the tragic death of his first wife, Maria Barbara, he decides to play the Chaconne at her grave. Only five people were there with him.

"As the Chaconne progressed, I felt the tragedy of Maria Barbara's death and the aching in Bach's heart as no music history book could ever convey," he reflects. "I imagined Bach, his grief-stricken and bewildered children, and their friends listening to the Chaconne at Maria Barbara's funeral service—quite possibly played by Bach himself."

He also explores his Jewish identity, revisiting the shtetl in Poland where his family's roots were. It's no accident, Steinhardt suggests, that most of history's greatest violinists were Jewish. There's a cultural connection between the mournful sound of a violin and the mournful chanting of a cantor.

As if to offset such emotion, the book offers frequent humor, some of it outrageous enough to border on slapstick. The quest for a worthy violin sets the stage for sitcom humor, much of it concerning experts' differing opinions.

As a student, Steinhardt visited the shop of Parisian dealer Emile Francais and was asked to hand his violin and bows over for inspection. Francais pronounced them all fakes.

Francais carefully examined the first bow and then looked up darkly. "This is not a Vuillaume."

He examined the second bow, shaking his head. "And this is not a Sartori."

With each pronouncement, he glared as if I were some kind of con man trying to fence stolen goods. I put the bows away and Francais spoke yet again.

"What did you say your name was?"

"Arnold Steinhardt."

Francais held me suspiciously in his gaze. My heart sank. Was he going to tell me that I was not Arnold Steinhardt but merely a poor copy? ... I fled from the shop.

Noteworthy violinists appear in startling new lights. When Steinhardt was a student, he found Zino Francescatti overly polite at a master class. Afterward, he cornered Francescatti and asked for a candid opinion of his playing. "Francescatti looked furtively right and left like a trapped animal, smiled synthetically, and uttered something preposterous. 'No, no, young man. I loved your playing. I only wish I could play as well as you.' "

Isaac Stern proved a better teacher. "Stern looked at the Chaconne the way I imagined an architect would analyze the structure and details of a building. When the lecture came to an end, Stern performed the Chaconne for us—feet planted resolutely, chin jutting forward, eyes focused inward, his stocky, bull-like frame set as if for battle. His performance electrified us."

One violinist mentioned in the book will be known to many Buffalonians. Steinhardt has performed here many times, and met his wife at a party in Buffalo. Yet another connection appears when he recalls playing in the Bancroft Junior High School orchestra in Los Angeles, where he grew up.

Maurice Ives, its conductor, judged me proficient enough to sit next to the concertmaster, Clementina Hewitt—unquestionably the school's best violinist. Any change in the seating order was decided at regular intervals by so-called challenges. A player could bid for another's seat at challenge time. From day one I coveted Clementina's seat ... Foolishly, I challenged Clementina at first opportunity. She accepted, we both played, and the orchestra voted overwhelmingly for her to keep her seat. Clem was simply a better violinist.

Steinhardt practiced, obsessively, and it showed. Finally, the orchestra voted in his favor by a narrow margin. But Clem fought back, and recaptured the chair. Steinhardt had to practice five hours a day all summer before he could unseat her again. "Not that there was any question of Clementina's ability," he writes. "She became an outstanding violinist and now plays in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra."

Clementina Fleshler! How wonderful that, years ago, she put Steinhardt through his paces.

And how lucky we are that he has the talent to tell his story so well.

Violin Dreams
By Arnold Steinhardt
Houghton Mifflin, 255 pages
Mary Kunz Goldman is the News' classical music critic.