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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 9

Remembering Heifetz

by Lucie Renaud / June 1, 2001

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The theme of this year's Montreal Chamber Music Festival, the virtuoso violin of Jasha Heifetz, was an obvious choice for director and cellist Denis Brott. He didn't have to look far for inspiration, having played and worked with Heifetz several times. Brott's teacher, Piatigorsky, was, after all, a third of the “Million Dollar Trio,” sharing the limelight with violinist Heifetz and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.


For Brott, who grew up listening to the violinist's records, “Heifetz represented the apogee of instrumental excellence. More than anybody, he influenced all the string players of the 20th century.” When Brott was studying in California, Piatigorsky was at that point teaching a dozen cellists just downstairs from Heifetz's studio. Every Friday, Heifetz would invite a cellist upstairs to become a member of an impromptu string quartet: Heifetz would play first violin, one of his students second violin, another student viola (all of Heifetz's students had to play the viola) and a cellist would be called upon to prepare a work for the upcoming class. Brott remembers vividly his first meeting with Heifetz. “I got a call on Monday from the assistant of the class to come prepared to play Dohnanyi's string quartet. I eagerly went to the library, got the score and the record, and worked hard to make sure I knew it really well. Friday morning arrives; I come in and sit down. There on the stand was the music. I opened it and I read Dohnanyi's String Quartet No 2. I didn't know that he had composed two string quartets. That was my first panic attack!” Brott had to sight-read through the whole thing, especially a nightmarish third movement, a very fast scherzo, which unsettled both the cellist and Heifetz, who said, “Clearly, Mr. Brott, your teacher has not taught you how to sight-read! Next movement, please!”


Even though his ego was badly crushed that first time, he still had numerous occasions to share music-making with Heifetz, for example the time he performed Villa-Lobos's Bachiana Brasileira. Singer Beverly Sills had to cancel. So Heifetz decided to step in, playing the part on his instrument. “The rehearsal was rather stormy,” Brott recalls. “After 25 bars, Piatigorsky paused and looked at Heifetz. ‘Chieffy (they called each other Chieffy and The Admiral), what are you doing? You keep playing on one string, why?' Heifetz bristled, ‘Well, it's one voice! One voice, one string!'”


Brott feels “very privileged” to have performed with the master. “The level of perfection, precision and purity-just to watch and hear that next to you was a humbling experience,” he states. “His economy of movement was amazing, the gestures so minimal. Raising an eyebrow was a lot! When you watch him playing at an eighth of the speed on videos, you see every gesture, preparatory motion, vibrato, glissando: it is perfection in motion.”


It is not a hidden fact that Heifetz was extremely demanding and as a teacher could bruise students rather easily. “The excellence he demanded from himself, he also demanded from everybody else,” explains Brott. “That made him difficult and intolerant, certainly of weakness and human frailty, in particular anything that was emotional or psychological.” Yet, despite, or maybe in spite of, all of this, Heifetz's legacy is enormous. Brott hopes that through this series of concerts a new generation will discover the true Heifetz and that the older generation will remember the idol of their youth. A rare privilege indeed.


Memorabilia of the great violinist, on loan from the Library of Congress in Washington, will be presented at Château Ramezay for the first time since Heifetz's death. See calendar for details. Info: (514) 489-7444

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