Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2006. 255 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0618368921
Summary for the Busy Executive: Far above the usual.
I approached this book like an appointment with the dentist (where
I'm due tomorrow, damnit). The Guarnieri was never my favorite string
quartet, and I had seen a documentary on the group in which Steinhardt
(the first violinist) came across, to put it mildly, unsympathetically.
An assistant concertmaster under Szell of my beloved Cleveland Orchestra,
he reminded adolescent me of one of those tall, thin, suave vampires.
But what the hell else do I have to do with my life, so I took up my
book and read.
The book hooked me from the first. Steinhardt can, for one thing, write.
This isn't an as-told-to or as-transcribed-from-a-tape-recorder effort
so typical of entertainers' bios. There are real sentences and paragraphs
here, stuff many professional writers would envy. However, the structure
of the book impressed me most - not so much a bio or memoir, but a
meditation on what it means to be a professional violinist, a portrait
of the unformed person who imperceptibly becomes an artist. Yet nowhere
does Steinhardt ever state things so baldly. Indeed, the book remains
remarkably free of ego and blowhardry - all the more amazing when you
consider that he necessarily talks about himself.
The architecture is quite idiosyncratic. As in a lyric poem (but
without the drippy language most people associate with poetry), themes
and images bind Steinhardt's thoughts together, rather than chronology:
dreams, mountains, the sound of the violin, and, over all, the Bach
Chaconne. In some ways, you could read the book as a search for the
perfect player, instrument, and audience to realize that piece.
Significantly, Steinhardt admits he hasn't achieved perfection. Perfection
is always over the hill and around the corner. The problem is that
there's always another hill and another corner, no matter how good a
player you are.
Despite the serious matters, the book nevertheless has its share of humor
and good stories, just like other musicians' reminiscences. Steinhardt's
dreams are both poetic and hilarious. Here, however, the laughs have a
reason for being.
In addition, you get a bonus CD of Steinhardt playing the Bach d-minor
suite for solo violin (the Chaconne's the last movement of this) not
once, but twice: a performance from 1966 and one from 2006. The violins,
the venue, and the approach all differ. In 1966, Steinhardt seemed to
be overcome with the thought, "Oh my God, I'm playing the Mt. Rushmore
of violin pieces." Consequently, the playing sounds inhibited, stiff,
way too careful, the violin hard and brittle, like a woman heavily
made-up, permed, and coiffed in a Schiaparelli straightjacket, the
engineering boxy and flat. Furthermore, Steinhardt seems wound even
tighter in the Chaconne than in the earlier movements. The new recording
improves on this earlier effort in every way. The violin tone is rich
and warm (Steinhardt inherited Joseph Roisman's fiddle), and Steinhardt
plays more freely, with more of a sense of discovery. Apparently, you
can't play a monument as if it were a monument. Like a great oration,
the Chaconne talks of important things - maybe even, as Steinhardt
suggests, life and death, as well as the joy of thought. It's up to the
violinist to convey the sense of urgency and the fun, to shape the music
with the sum of his experience and to have the music in turn shape him.
If the first recording suggested a young man so insecure that he desperately
wanted to be taken seriously by not making any mistakes, the second shows
a mature artist - better, a fully-rounded human being - who has lived
with the music for decades and has loosened up enough to dance. Even
so, one notices links from the earlier reading to the later. First and
foremost, one hears a concern for inter-movement correspondences, most
clearly in the similarities between the Sarabande movement and the
Chaconne. Steinhardt doesn't want to treat the suite's capstone as an
encore piece, but as something Bach prepares us for in the earlier dances.
Second, Steinhardt wants to find the dramatic shape of each movement,
including the massive, 15-minute finale. The book recounts his struggles.
The CD tells you the struggles were worth it.
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