Search This Blog

Friday, September 14, 2012

Remembering Jascha Heifetz

Heifetz Week Dept.: He died on Dec. 10, 1987, after being hospitalized for a hip injury. He was 86 or 87, depending on the bio you consult. But even at the end he pursued his privacy, and registered at the hospital under the name Jim Hoyl, a moniker he used frequently, and which was attached to the middling hit song he wrote in the ’40s, “When You Make Love to Me, Don’t Make Believe.” If the piece below seems a bit on the fawning side, it’s not as bad as yesterday’s post. Besides, my musical hero now was gone for good.


Jascha Heifetz in 1980
AT THE END, Jascha Heifetz achieved what no other public figure in this over-communicative era can hope to obtain: a history so confusing and contradictory that the sum of his life will only be measurable by his music. That’s a tough stunt to pull off, and it must have pleased him greatly.

To piece together the many magazine articles written about him during his lifetime is to discover a patchwork of contradictory material and opinions. What does emerge, consistently, article after article, is a portrait of a man with unflagging dedication to his art, imbued with a self-discipline so strong that it hurts to contemplate it.

Preparing for a 1964 concert in California, he was discovered by an associate practicing the finale of the Beethoven Violin Concerto at a fraction of his usual tempo – and this after having played the work in public several hundred times. “Heifetz got the kind of training you just don’t get anymore,” said Erick Friedman, one of the violinist’s most distinguished students. “It was phenomenal.”

Along with that came a perfectionism that led Jack Pfeiffer, for many years his producer at RCA Records, to declare that Heifetz had the best ear in the business. “He would spend a whole recording session just working on the balance between instruments. And then when we recorded him, he insisted that the engineer make no change in dynamics. ‘Keep your cotton pickin’ hands off the dials!’ he’d say.” The legendary acerbity was one of the last of a series of public postures, and a strong argument can be made that he was driven to it by the sycophants who clog the music business. As press rep Constance Hope observed, “... the only time his famous poker face is in evidence off the stage is when Mother No. 4,978 begins that famous conversational faux pas: ‘Mr. Heifetz, if you could only listen to my Jerome for just one number ...’”

Heifetz came to this country at the age of 16 with an amazing reputation behind him; his 1917 Carnegie Hall debut confirmed the legend even as he and his family adopted a new country.

“Jascha himself moved through the uproar with the calm detachment of the moon,” reported a New Yorker magazine profile ten years later. “He was excited enough, though, when fame took concrete shape a few weeks later and the family bought an automobile. Also, playing at Smith College the same season, he was almost paralyzed with fright, but that was because the audience was composed almost entirely of girls.”

He fell in with Manhattan’s literary crowd of the 1920s, and was a guest at the legendary Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel. When that group produced a satire of Broadway in a Broadway theater one night, Heifetz provided off-stage musical continuity. He was himself a skilled writer, refusing to attach his name to anything but his own work. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s he published several magazine pieces on subjects as varied as radio broadcasting and music education for children.

He tried his hand at the movies, taking on a full-blown speaking role in Goldwyn’s “They Shall Have Music” (the obits were incorrect in reporting that he spoke only one line) and a series of shorter films, each of them giving a tantalizing look at the violinist at work.

The consistency that informed his music could be found in all aspects of his protean life, but the best posthumous remembrance remains in the recordings. Between 1917 and 1972 he committed most of his massive repertory to disc, and it will stand as testimony to a talent that had no equal.

Metroland Magazine, Dec. 17, 1987

No comments: