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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Professor Heifetz

Heifetz Week Dept.: One of my few contributions to the short-lived, long-defunct “Classical” magazine, which went under before paying me for it. The videos in question are now available on a two-DVD set.


JASCHA HEIFETZ EMERGED from the amazingly fertile classes of Leopold Auer as the most outstanding of an extraordinarily talented group. It was only fitting that he should have devoted much of his own later life to teaching. Most of his classes were conducted through the University of Southern California, and producer Nathan Kroll was allowed to bring in his cameras in 1962.

A series of eight half-hour programs was released to educational television stations sometime later and the episodes appeared a few years ago in an expensive set of videotapes. Now they have been packaged in a more economical set of two VHS tapes, which are as entertaining as they are instructional.

Heifetz was not a man who dissembled, and this extended to the filmed portraits of his class. He enters, greets the half-dozen students with a cheery “good morning,” chooses a pupil and selects the piece to be played.

And listens, with that impassive face, while metronomically tapping a pencil. When he offers suggestions, both technical and interpretive, they're often couched in the dry wit he was known for. Occasionally he demonstrates a point on his own fiddle. But he doesn't hog the limelight, insisting that the student should be the center of interest.

Watch the sequence with Varoujon Kodjian, in which Heifetz picks apart the Bach Chaconne. It's a treasure for any violinist who has wrestled with it, and a great guide for listening to the piece.

Despite varying degrees of nervousness, the students are all very good – and that talent serves as the raw material Heifetz works with.

Claire Hodgkins begins the Chausson Poème with able fingers but a colorless interpretation. The technical pointers Heifetz provides seem almost abstract (especially to a non-violinist) until we hear them as part of his own demonstrated version. Conversely, when Robert Witte plays the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, he sounds like he could do it credibly on a concert stage, and the advice he's offered builds upon what he's already doing. Heifetz doesn't try to teach any of them to sound like little Heifetzes.

Heifetz finished the sessions with a performance of the first movement of Vieuxtemps’ Violin Concerto No. 4 – but he played it badly, as a hilarious parody of an audition. He asked that the footage remain unreleased until alter his death, and Kroll complied. As the viewer can see, Heifetz even applied his own high standards to playing poorly.

JASCHA HEIFETZ: Heifetz Master Classes
KULTUR 1550 (VHS and Beta, mono hi-fi, 240 mins)

Classical Magazine, Jan. 1991


--dash said...

I'm enjoying your revealing articles on Heifetz. Concerning these filmed masterclasses: I ran across one on YouTube awhile back and was fascinated by it. A commenter (who seemingly some background knowledge on the programs) stated that these videos were in fact staged—that Heifetz's unforgiving sternness toward the student was a put-on, a private joke of sorts between himself and the student. I found that a little odd, but then the giggles in the background from the other students...hmm. Any truth to this?

B. A. Nilsson said...

According to producer Kroll, Heifetz wanted the filmed classes to resemble the real-life ones as closely as possible, but it wouldn't surprise me if Heifetz was enjoying an inside joke. Erick Friedman assured me that Heifetz never compromised his standards, but he did have a devilish sense of humor.

Gerhard Santos said...

Thanks for this very interesting article!