They say you never forget your greatest teacher. Whether it’s in grade school or graduate school, you remember the person who captured your imagination, or made something ordinary appear in a guise you never thought possible. I was lucky to have met several such musicians and work with them. Few, however, are more memorable than the peerless violinist, Ida Haendel.
Ida, along with another legendary violinist Ivry Gitlis, is one of the last living examples of artists of the Golden Age. For whatever reason, the period from around the beginning of the 20th century to around the end of late 1980s spawned legendary instrumentalists, particularly in piano and strings. Violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, pianists Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz, cellists Gregor Piatigorski and Emanuel Fournier deservedly enjoyed rock star status. It was no coincidence that leaps in the quality of recordings (as well as radio broadcasts) gave birth to a music reproduction industry that has today changed the very format in which many audiences enjoy music. The top echelon musicians were engaged not just to fill concert halls but to sell recordings. And those recordings were dependent not only on the excellence of the playing, but on the personality of the player.
This is where we pick up the story of Ida Haendel. She had a storied childhood: born Dec. 15, 1923 in Poland, she started playing the violin at the age of three, mentored by her father. At age five, she won her first competition, the Huberman Prize, playing one of the jewels of the standard repertoire, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. At seven, she was a finalist at the Wieniawski International Violin Competition. It’s worth pointing out that while the Wieniawski Competition did award the gold medal in 1935 to Haendel’s fellow student in Carl Flesch’s class, Ginette Neveu, the path to solo careers for women were significantly more difficult for women than men. I had an opportunity to ask Ms. Haendel about that and she seemed surprised at the question. Her answer was “it’s all about the work”. If there playing was memorable, the artist had every opportunity.
At a time when new music was a tough sell with both audiences and the players, Haendel championed Luigi Dallapiccola’s Tartiniana seconda and Allan Peterson’s Second Violin Concerto. Of course, her standard repertoire was immensely rich. From the Sibelius Concerto acclaimed by the composer himself to Britten and Walton’s Violin concerti as a testament to her adopted country of England, Ida Haendel built a reputation of uniquely fiery interpretations of anything she played. A diminutive physical stature did not translate into a shy performance style. On the contrary, her extravagant gowns and wild hair styles reflected a “take no prisoners” technique, richly textured phrasing and focused, broad tone, emanating from her two musical partners: the “Sleeping Beauty” Strad of 1726 and later a long pattern Strad from 1696.
Today, Haendel resides in Miami. She sees people rarely and does not play in public. For those fond of transcriptions, one of my favorite renditions of Tchaikovsky’s Danse Russe, arranged by Haendel herself, is here.
I did hear her play about four years ago and there was the same fearless electricity in the playing that was present at the jaw-dropping Sibelius Concerto played in New York in the mid 1990s. At dinner afterwards, she held court, seemingly ageless, spinning one story after another about her teachers Carl Flesch and Georges Enescu, Nathan Milstein, the great conductor Sir Adrian Boult and topics as far away from music as hair products. As the evening progressed, her body language and demeanor constantly reminded all of us how unadulterated this lady is, how real her life is, now in her early 90s. She shared how much she loved going to concerts but it took forever to get ready. One had a sense of positive energy, a person who was neither displeased with the past nor looking too far into the future.
There is no question that without Ida Haendel’s artistic contribution, today’s star female soloists would have had a very different path. Haendel did it without social media, with management companies who were often openly hostile to a woman soloist and with many less than sympathetic reviewers. Despite all those obstacles, the art of Ida Haendel continues to inspire countless followers. She transcends violin playing and operates as an ambassador to all humanity. I highly recommend her autobiography, Woman with Violin (London, 1970). It reads like a novel, with great anecdotes liberally sprinkled in with watershed events.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from her illustrious career is that the artists who endure through the ages are those who are secure in what they have to say musically. The sum is always greater than the parts. For Ida Haendel it about the pure joy of playing her violin. Yes, you may watch, but she is really playing for her own enjoyment.
» Gary Levinson is the Senior Principal Associate Concertmaster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the artistic director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, and he helps program the salon concert series Blue Candlelight Music with his wife, pianist Baya Kakouberi, the artistic director.
» Guts & Rosin now runs on the third Tuesday of the month on TheaterJones
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