Question: How many people does it take to play chamber music?
Answer: Only one, if the piece is one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo violin partitas.
Violinist Arnold Steinhardt performs Bach’s Partita in D Minor, with its monumental Chaconne, on Saturday, May 10, in Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury. The event is the second of four in the Raritan River Music Festival, now in its 19th season, whose May concerts take place at picturesque locations in western New Jersey.
Following the standard pattern of a baroque instrumental suite, the piece consists of dance movements. The first four, Allemande, Courante, Sarabanda, and Gigue, take less than 15 minutes. The concluding Chaconne, a musical form consisting of variations, takes more time than the first four movements together; it is often played as an independent solo piece. Steinhardt opens the program with a discussion of the D Minor Partita, which was written in 1720.
The Partita diverts violinists from the instrument’s usual role of singing out a single melodic line. Instead, performers are asked to deliver the aural effect of an ensemble. Sometimes the single player must float a melody above its accompaniment. Sometimes the instrumentalist must produce four robust sounds at the same time. Sometimes the musician must mimic dissimilar musical entities talking to one another.
For decades both chamber music and the Partita have been part of Steinhardt’s life. For more than 40 years he has been the first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet, which he co-founded in 1964. For 60 years he has known the Partita.
In a telephone interview from his retreat in upstate New York, Steinhardt says, “I first heard the Partita when I was a kid. My parents used to drag me to classical concerts. I was bored. The most boring of all was Bach. It was a huge exception when they took me to hear Mischa Elman play the Partita when I was 11. l never heard anything like it before. I didn’t know that a violin could do something like that.” Hearing the Elman concert made Steinhardt decide to become a concert violinist.
Steinhardt began studying the Partita when he was a senior in high school, and it has been a constant musical companion to him since. His adventures with the piece are one of the unifying threads in his 2006 autobiographical memoir, “Violin Dreams,” published by Houghton Mifflin.
In our conversation, he summarizes his quest to become comfortable with the Chaconne, from his first encounter with the piece as a high school student, through his establishing himself as a musician. “One day, my teacher, Toscha Seidel, unexpectedly assigned me the Chaconne,” Steinhardt says. “His basic principle was: Play from the heart. But ‘Play from the heart’ was not enough for this piece, and I walked away with an inferiority complex. My next teacher, Ivan Galamian, showed me how to play it. Then Casals told me that the best Bach he ever heard was played by a gypsy violinist in a Hungarian restaurant. Then Isaac Stern took the Chaconne apart, disassembling the piece as if it were a toaster. The most impressive analysis came from the pianist Arthur Loesser. He was an elderly man. He asked me if I knew how to dance it, and then he showed me how the dance went. It was a revelation.”
Loesser’s revelation extended beyond the Chaconne and beyond the Partita. “The Partita consists of dances,” Steinhardt says, “but all music has pulse, and I realized that you should invest all music with a sense of motion. It was a powerful concept, an eye opener and an ear opener.”
In addition, Steinhardt got a lesson on the Partita from J. S. Bach, himself. This, while he was sleeping. He dreamed that Bach came to him in an attic, where he was practicing, and that he deepened his understanding of the work as he and the composer danced along to the music. Steinhardt has an active dream life. He keeps a record of his dreams, and peppers his 2006 book with relevant ones. They tend to be vivid experiences where daily life is braided together with enlightening fantasies.
Steinhardt recorded the Partita in 1966. In 2006, while he was writing “Violin Dreams,” he decided that it was time to make another recording. A CD with both recordings is included with the book. Unfortunately, the chronology of the recordings was given incorrectly. “It was a sad mistake which I now laugh off,” Steinhardt says. “It’s been corrected on my website, but when people say ‘I love the first or the second recording better,’ I have no idea which one they’re talking about.”
The 1966 recording of the Chaconne takes slightly less than 15 minutes; and the 2006 version takes slightly more. The later recording sounds both more leisurely and more authoritative than the earlier one. “My brother Victor, a pianist and composer, told me that on the earlier one I sound like a virtuoso violinist,” Steinhardt says, “and on the later one, I sound like a thoughtful musician who is trying to create something that people can dance to.”
Trying to account for the varying readings of the Chaconne, I wonder whether the same instrument was used for both recordings. Steinhardt says that the instrument does not make a significant difference. “There are different violins in the two recordings, but it doesn’t matter. If you give 10 violinists the same violin and have them play a given piece, each performance would sound different. Each violinist has a different body, and a different musical sense.
“Also, you can’t stop change. If you don’t plan to change, you change anyhow; your handwriting changes with time. Just by replaying a piece over a period of years you see more. More details pop into your mind, and that makes a difference.”
Arnold Steinhardt was born in Los Angeles, California in 1937, the son of a diamond-cutter. His mother, ardently wishing that he become a musician, had him listen to music from the time he was in the womb. She must have been doubly pleased that both of her sons became musicians. Victor, Arnold’s younger sibling by six years, became a pianist and composer, and was on the faculty of the University of Oregon in Eugene for many years. “We’ve played together in public since he was 14 and I was 20,” says Arnold, who has taught at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, the University of Maryland, Bard College, and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.
Steinhardt made his solo debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at age 14. After completing high school, he interspersed studying violin, winning competitions, and performing for almost a decade. After high school he worked with Ivan Galamian at Curtis; won the Philadelphia Youth Competition (1957); served as assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell; studied with Joseph Szigeti in Switzerland (1962); placed in the Queen Elizabeth International Violin Competition (1963); and co-founded the Guarneri String Quartet (1964).
His son, Alexander, a website designer, was born in 1973. His daughter, Natasha, a soprano, was born in 1978. His wife, Dorothea, is a photographer. The couple lives on Manhattan’s upper Westside. “My wife’s German, and I’m American, but we both love Russian names,” Steinhardt says.
As a website designer Steinhardt’s son is known as Alexej. He has designed the trim yet bountiful website that his father uses, www.arnoldsteinhardt.com. In addition to its well-arranged standard features the site includes a choice of Steinhardt recordings and a monthly blog called Fiddler’s Beat, accessible by clicking on “more.” The blog, which Arnold writes himself, began in December, and includes personal anecdotes, reports on dreams, and musical insights.
Steinhardt has developed a taste for writing. In addition to “Violin Dreams” he is the author of “Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony” (1998), the story of the formation, nurturing, and maturing of the Guarneri String Quartet. “I just love writing,” he says. “It was a shock because I never wanted to be writer and my schoolboy writing was clumsy.
“Actually, I’ve often thought that writing is a little like practicing. You keep doing it over until you think it’s right. Finally, you get to the point where you say ‘Ahhhhh.’ Then you go back the next day and discover that you were wrong. And you have to practice all over again.”
Steinhardt faces a turning point as a performer. By unanimous decision the Guarneri Quartet dissolves at the end of the 2008-’09 season, though its individual members plan to continue concertizing. “We’ve had an incredible journey,” Steinhardt says. “It will be 45 years. We still sound pretty good. That’s the time to retire. We leave not with regrets, but with gratitude. Next year will be enormous. We’ll have more than the usual number of concerts. People want to hear us for the last time.
“Playing quartets is hard, and it doesn’t get any easier,” he says. “It’s like being a watchmaker. You have to be a virtuoso, but the finest ensemble work requires precision.”
And how about the difficulty of playing chamber music when you are the single soloist? Steinhardt will be able to make that comparison once again after his performance at the Raritan River Festival.
Arnold Steinhardt, Saturday, May 10, 7:30 p.m. Raritan River Music Festival, Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury. “Celebrating Bach’s Chaconne,” violin. $23. 908-213-1100.
Also, the Adaskin String Trio, Saturday, May 24, 7:30 p.m., Stanton Reformed Church, Stanton. The program will include Beethoven, Haydn, Roland-Manuel, and von Dohnanayi.
Also, Ana Cervantes, piano; the Newman and Oltman Guitar Duo; poets Lirio Garduno and David Herrstrom; and composer Paul Moravec, Saturday, May 31, 7:30 p.m., Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton. New compositions from Mexico and the USA. World premiere peformance of Moravec’s new guitar duet written for Newman & Oltman.