Thursday, October 6, 2011

Jascha Heifetz, God's Fiddler

For those Jascha Heifetz aficionados eager to try to crack the code between Heifetz the violin god and Heifetz the man, there's a recent documentary Jascha Heifetz, God's Fiddler, based on Ayke Agus' personal account Heifetz as I Knew Him, produced by Peter Rosen, currently available on DVD. This film cannot claim to present an unbiased comprehensive examination of the artist, for many of Heifetz's peers and colleagues are long dead, and a number of former students were traumatized by their experiences with Heifetz as teacher, as to withhold comments. Furthermore, it would have been intriguing to have heard from one of the Heifetz children. But "God's Fiddler" is certainly an engaging dramatization of Agus' book.  For the last fifteen years of Jascha Heifetz's life (he died in 1987), Ayke Agus was his closest companion. She came to him as a student of the master class at the University of Southern California, and ultimately became his private accompanist and confidante.

"God's Fiddler" displays several scenes on location at the Vilna Conservatory, Imperial Concert Hall,  and the old Jewish ghetto, which help to recreate young Heifetz's steps, right down to the spot where he played soccer moments before an important debut. Jascha's father, Ruven, was employed as lead violinist for the Vilnius Theater Orchestra, and  had Jascha enrolled at the Vilna Conservatory under the tutelage of Ilya Malkin, a former Leopold Auer student. By age seven, it became apparent that Jascha had outgrown Professor Malkin. He was granted an opportunity to play for Auer, the greatest violin pedagogue in all of Russia. Auer, though reluctant at first to hear another "child prodigy" was astonished by the boy. He invited Jascha Heifetz to study with him in St. Petersburg.

But these were troubled times for the Jewish population. City authorities created strict quotas for Jews in St. Petersburg. Composer Alexander Glazunov, head of the conservatory, allowed young Heifetz into the school at the behest of Professor Auer, but whenever Jascha's father left St. Petersburg to return to Vilna to visit his wife and two daughters, Jascha, was warned to remain silent in their one-room flat. If discovered without a proper permit, the consequences might have proved terrifying.

But later, Professor Auer, devised a plan to have Ruven Heifetz, then forty, also admitted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory as a student alongside his son. There are numerous shots of the interior of St. Petersburg Conservatory, up the grand marble staircase, and right into the Auer classroom itself. During one episode at the conservatory, we hear Heifetz's rendition of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. This work would obviously not have been played in Russia at that time, as Sibelius' concerto represented the Finnish nationalistic spirit. But it was indeed Jascha Heifetz who transformed the under-appreciated work into a prized piece of repertoire; Heifetz's performance of the final movement is demonically fast paced, contrary to the composers' wishes, but electrifying to listeners.

"God's Fiddler" treats the viewer to never-before-seen footage of Heifetz as a teenager. By this time, with high fees for concerts, the Heifetz family enjoys a luxurious dwelling in the city. As the political agitation grew to fevered pitch in St. Petersburg, and demands for Heifetz to perform in America increased, Heifetz bought a camera prior to leaving St. Petersburg. He took a photo of the turmoil right outside their St. Petersburg apartment from his window. In the supplemented archival footage, people are seen desperately scurrying on the streets; they resemble ants moving in every different direction; this is the oncoming of the Russian Revolution. Heifetz departs with his family for America. After a much anticipated and hugely successful Carnegie Hall debut, Jascha Heifetz becomes an overnight celebrity; a household name. History would make America my new home, he writes in one of his diaries.

While concertizing in exotic places, he brings his camera. Shown on "God's Fiddler" are captivating shots of Heifetz acting and directing in his home movies. There is also a poignant scene of Heifetz poring over a score with Professor Auer, and my personal favorite: a rare clip of Heifetz performing in front of Helen Keller; her hands every bit as expressive as his while holding Heifetz's violin scroll; Keller's face is radiant while sensing the vibrations.

Heifetz with his electric Renault, not a Volvo as the DVD claims
The film brings to light Heifetz's personal crusade against air pollution (he owned the first modern electric car, a modified Renault) and his relief work during World War II. Forever intrigued by innovation and gadgets, it is documented, but not shown on this film, that Heifetz had a violin crafted out of aluminum to withstand the corrosive, salty air of tropical climates. While performing for troops ready to land in Africa during the Second World War, Heifetz offered unaccompanied Bach to his audience. Bach, Heifetz explained to the troops, might not be to their taste but could be thought of as musical salt. After his performance, a silence ensued, followed by a yell from the back: More salt!

Less understood, and perhaps mystifying, was the deterioration of the Heifetz master class during his late years. One would imagine that students from all over the world would have sought after Heifetz as a teacher. But Heifetz's reputation for being intimidating, and at times downright abusive, caught up with him. A reader of my blog, who was a student of Heifetz in the 80s, shares a frighteningly dysfunctional scene. A talented student performed in class during that year and was made to sit down. Heifetz said: Look at everybody watching you. They are all smiling, but inside they think you are the worst player; they are laughing inside at you. Perhaps, by this time, the great violinist was losing it.

"Jascha Heifetz, God's Fiddler" is a captivating film. It may serve to illustrate the high cost of perfectionism.