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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Musical Tributes Capture Mood of Holiday Season

One of my favorite ways of getting into the holiday mood is to listen to Christmas music. Music has the power to inspire the feelings of awe, peace and goodwill that come with the season. My heart lifts when I hear a good choir sing the old-time carols.

You have a chance to listen to such a choir perform in the lobby of the Central Library on Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. And in keeping with the spirit of music, here are a few recent titles on the subject.

Violin Dreams by Arnold Steinhardt (Houghlin Mifflin, 2006).

This was a wonderful memoir of Steinhardt's musical life, his search for the perfect violin and his quest to perfect the playing of Bach's Chaconne (the last movement of the D Minor Partita).

Steinhardt's parents were music loving Polish immigrants. His mother had played Beethoven's Violin Concerto over and over to him during her pregnancy. When he was 6 years old, this same piece moved him to tears and prompted the start of violin lessons.

The violin teacher in vogue during this era was the Russian Leopold Auer. He had taught Jascha Heifetz, perhaps the most famous violinist of the 20th century. Two of Steinhardt's first teachers were pupils of Auer.

Steinhardt went on to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and became assistant concertmaster with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell and then first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet. The perfect violin came to him from a member of the Budapest Quartet, and he ended up dancing and playing the Chaconne on an open-air stage at the base of the Rocky Mountains. It is an exhilarating book.

Efrem Zimbalist: A Life by Roy Malan (Amadeus Press, 2004).

Efrem Zimbalist was one of the great violinists of the first half of the 20th century, but you may know him better through his son, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who was the star of the television show 77 Sunset Strip and the father of Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele fame.

Zimbalist was born in a small town in Russia and left his family at the age of 11 to study with our old friend Leopold Auer in St. Petersburg. A voracious reader from boyhood, the violinist projected a deeply cultured aura that was at once humble and self-assured and that endeared him to all who knew him or heard him play.

After a successful debut in Berlin at the age of 19, Zimbalist settled in America and married the famous opera singer, Alma Gluck. Later he headed Steinhardt's Curtis Institute of Music, composed music, and lived to the ripe age of 95. Unfortunately, he lost his hearing during the latter part of his career and was unable to make any modern recordings.

Joseph Gingold, the teacher of Indiana's own Joshua Bell, writes that this is one of the best musical biographies he ever read. I consider it to be required reading for violinists and lovers of the violin.

The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte by Rodney Bolt (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Da Ponte wrote the librettos of three of Mozart's greatest operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti. In addition, he was ordained to the priesthood, banished from Venice for revolutionary sympathies and appointed the first professor of Italian at Columbia University.

Da Ponte can best be characterized as a phoenix. Countless times he set fire to his nest, only to be reborn. He must have gone broke a dozen times, but, an incurable optimist, he rebounded successfully just as many. One of his reasons for repeated failures was his arrogance and vanity. He was the kind of man one liked to kick when he was down.

Wild Harmonies: A Life of Music and Wolves by Helene Grimaud (Riverhead, 2006).

And finally, there is Helene Grimaud, one of the most exciting and accomplished of the younger generation of concert pianists.

Grimaud herself might best be described as a lone wolf. Not only is she obsessed with wolves -- she follows each chapter of this memoir with information about this wild animal -- but also she has always been pretty much alone.

She even dropped out of the Paris Conservatory to finish preparing for her career without teachers. On her own she recorded Rachmaninov's second piano concerto at the age of 16. And by herself she settled in America and established the Wolf Conservation Center north of New York City.

Grimaud is one of the best musician-writers I have come across. In all she does, she is a sensitive artist to the fingertips.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.