Geneva Anderson digs into art

“God’s Fiddler”—a new film about the life of the great violin master, Jascha Heifetz, screens this Tuesday, October 30, at the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival

Mysterious at his core, contradictory, visionary, incredibly difficult—legendary violin master Jascha Heifetz wears the genius label well.  Heifetz’ life (1901-1987) spanned nearly the entire 20th century, starting at the very dawn of the age of recording technology—when most people still traveled by horse and buggy—and ending on the forefront of the digital age.  And for most of that long life, when it came to the violin, he ruled.  Born in Vilnius, Lithuania (then a part of Russia), the child prodigy, took up the violin at three at his father’s knee.  At seven, he studied in the fabled St. Petersburg Conservatory with Russian virtuoso Leopold Auer, acknowledged as the greatest teacher of his time.  At ten, he was mobbed at his famous public debut concert in St. Petersburg; at eleven, he made his European debut.  At sixteen, in 1917, he escaped revolutionary Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway for a new life in America.  That same year, he gave his first concert in America at Carnegie Hall and he became an immediate sensation.  Yitzhak Perlman, who has a presence throughout the film said, “When I spoke with him, I thought, ‘I can‘t believe it.  I’m talking with God.’”

Filmmaker Peter Rosen tackles Heifetz’ life and far-reaching influence in his 2011 feature length documentary Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler,” which screens this Tuesday, October 30, 2012, at the Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol as part of the 17th Annual Jewish Film Festival.   The program will include a special guest appearance by musician Ayke Agus, Heifetz’ student, accompanist, and companion, who appears in the film, and who will speak and play after the screening.  Angus first met Heifetz as a violin student in his master class at University of Southern California and had extensive involvement in life in his later years.  Many say she knew him better than anyone.  She is the author of Heifetz As I Knew Him (Amadeus Press, 2001).

Award-winning director, producer and editor Peter Rosen has made 49 films, many about musicians—from Leonard Bernstein: Reflections (1978) to Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood (1990) to Nobuyuki Tsujii Live at Carnegie Hall (2012).  Prior to watching Rosen’s latest, God’s Fiddler, I had little exposure to Heifetz and his legacy and, in that, I am not alone—there is a whole generation who are too young to have any personal experience with his playing.  The film itself does a great job of explaining the creative environment surrounding this great violinist whose music was unparalleled and whose spell was overpowering for those in close contact with him.  Thoroughly researched, it draws on 300 hours of film and 2,000 photos and fascinating personal and professional memorabilia taken from 1903-1987.  A recently discovered cache of Heifetz’ own home movies surface for the first time here too.  The photos are all the more special for their great historical significance.  We are privy to the family leaving St. Petersburg on the heels of the great Russian Revolution, to his early European tours, and to stirring shots of Heifetz interacting with the troops during his three year USO tour during WWII.  The film is also sprinkled richly with clips of Heifetz playing, though many of those are time-weathered and there is some distortion of the sound.

For anyone looking for an enthralling story, or to simply sort out fact from lore, the film delivers.  It includes musicians who knew him and heard him play live chiming in on what made his playing so special.  While it is well known that Heifetz’ expressive tone was coupled with technical perfection, beyond numerous accolades, there is not much discussion of his actual technique or the actual substance of his playing.  Heifetz is touted as the first modern violinist but there is no explanation of what modernity means in musical terms.

As for his personality, it is well-known that Heifetz was stoic, but professionals put the oft-repeated accusation that he was cold in context.  Violinist Ida Haendel says assuredly, “His playing was so passionate. I am astounded that people don’t realize it. They thought that he was cold— and it was fire, absolute fire!”

The film also devotes time to Heifetz’ stern teaching methods evidenced in several student anecdotes of his master classes.  Time flies and these students are now seniors.  Many pursued careers in music and have had years to reflect on their interaction with Heifetz and the importance of a mentoring relationship.  The word mentor, in fact, never comes up.  While there is no connection drawn between his perfectionistic and controlling father, the implication is obvious—it left scars on his son, who also was very controlling and, at times, despotic with his pupils.  This is all the more interesting in that the film delves into the exacting blow that a single negative review had on Heifetz when he was at his peak professionally.  He took the criticism to heart and it caused him to work all the harder and to rekindle his devotion to his artistry.  Heifetz was harsh but never demanded more from his students than he demanded of himself and those who stayed the course seem to have benefitted immensely as musicians.

Jascha Heifetz was ahead of his time with his understanding of the importance of protecting the environment. In the early 1960’s, he drove a custom-made electric car and spoke out against the Los Angeles smog. Image: Jascha

Particularly enjoyable segments of the film include his affluent lifestyle in Southern California, enabled by his high concert and teaching fees, income from recordings and shrewd money management.  His career lasted more than 60 years and for many of those years, following his arrival in the States, he was paid upwards of $100,000 per concert.  He was connected intimately with the history of recording, logging more studio time than any other violinist, committing to disc virtually the entire violin repertory, along with a substantial amount of chamber music.  He sold more records than any violinist in history, so many that, even after he stopped making records, he was on a $100,000 permanent annual retainer from RCA Victor, his lifelong record label.  This enabled him to live well and he maintained a beach house in Malibu.  He also lived thoughtfully.  He was so concerned about the environment and the unacceptable level of air pollution in Los Angeles that he bought a custom-built electric car in 1966, the first on West Coast.  The film shows footage of him tooling around in this little dream machine which reportedly could go 45 mph for 45 to 70 miles, depending on his driving efficiency.

The film leaves us hungering for more about Heifetz the man.  There is precious little, save at the end, about his family life which includes two ex-wives and several children.  Sadly, no one says he was a friend of Heifetz.   The natural question that emerges is what price did he pay for his genius?  The implication of the film is that there were sufferings and misunderstandings that he never worked through in his lifetime, though he was celebrated day in and day out.  And the larger looming question—what are the proper conventions for dealing with genius?  And the larger musical question—violin playing has evolved since Heifetz, what is his musical legacy and how does that impact how we define today’s virtuosos?

As it stands, the thoughtful film brings up many questions and is best seen in the company of a musician who can offer more substantial explanations of topics broached in the film.  The screening at the Sonoma County Jewish Film Festival with Ayke Agus will provide an excellent forum for discussion.  For purposes of this review, I asked Wayne Roden, a friend of mine and violist with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to watch this film.  Wayne’s enthusiasm for Heifetz is contagious and, not only did he find Rosen’s film engaging, on several occasions, he got up and actually demonstrated what was unique about Heifetz’s bow grip, speculating how he got that silken sound out of his violin.

Violist Wayne Roden, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, on Jascha Heifetz’ Bow Grip

Run time: 87 minutes. English with Russian dialogue. Director: Peter Rosen; Screenplay: Sara Lukinson; in collaboration with WDR, Arte, Euroarts Music International; Produced by Peter Rosen.

With: Jascha Heifetz, Itzhak Perlman, Ayke Agus, Seymour Lipkin, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel, John Maltese, Bill Van Horn.

Details: Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler screens Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 7:30 p.m. at the Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol as part of the 17th Annual Jewish Film Festival.  The festival presents six Thursday evening shows and runs through December 4, 2012.  Remaining screenings include:

Kaddish for a Friend Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Nicky’s Family, Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Reuniting the Rubens, Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

A.K.A. Doc Pomus, Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 1 and 7:30 p.m.

Hava Nagilia, Tuesday, December 4, 7:30 p.m. Special Program: Filmmaker Roberta Grossman (Blessed Is The Match, SCJFF 2009) will speak and answer questions after the screening.

October 29, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment