interview with Aaron Rosand, Part 2

August 11, 2014, 3:45 PM · This is Part 2 in a two-part interview with Aaron Rosand. Click here to read Part 1.
Part 1 Aaron Rosand talks about his beginnings on the violin, his troubles with Isaac Stern, his mentors Leon Sametini and Efrem Zimbalist, his own teaching philosophies and yes, his opposition to shoulder rests!
Part 2 Aaron Rosand talks about playing by heart, about the great violinists of the mid-20th century, and about the extraordinary circumstances that allowed him to purchase the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" Guarneri del Gesù, which he played for most of his career.

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Bankers laughed at Aaron Rosand back in the 1950s when he wanted a loan to purchase the 1741 "ex-Kochanski" Guarneri del Gesù -- for about $50,000. A violin is just not the same kind of asset as a house or a car, they pointed out. Of course, who had the last laugh, when he sold it in 2009 for about $10 million?

Aaron Rosand
Photo courtesy the artist

Still, getting that first loan seemed insurmountable at the time. Aaron Rosand, now 87, told me earlier this summer about the extraordinary determination and circumstances that allowed him to buy that violin, about coming of age during an era of great violinists, and about the importance of memorizing many, many works.

Laurie: I was reading that at one point you had 70 concertos in your fingers. How did you accomplish that?

Aaron: Not 70 at one time. My repertoire list that I submitted for every concert year was between 70 and 80 concertos, and during a season I would perform 15 to 20 of these concertos. I went into the 19th century works that were being terribly neglected -- and in fact, they still are. The early recordings that made me quite well known, such as the (Joseph) Joachim Concerto, (Jenö) Hubay Concerto and Anton Arensky Concerto -- there are a lot of interesting works that have simply been forgotten. I remember a stretch of about six weeks in Europe where I performed 15 different major works. And yes, it's true, I played the concert, then after the concert I was there practicing for the next day. But I kept on top of that. I have my mother to thank for that. When I was a youngster and I learned something, a month or two after I learned it, while I was learning another concerto, I had to go back and play the concerto that I learned for the neighbors or the guests that she set up for me. So I always kept in my fingers that which I learned as well as that which I was learning.

Laurie: That seems like a very important thing, and it's easy to neglect to do it.

Aaron: It is. I can't understand it. I'm really puzzled when a person just finished a concerto a month ago, and I say, can you play this? "Oh, I haven't practiced that..." And it's kind of put on a shelf. You can't do that! You've got to keep everything in your brain.

I do a very intensive summer violin program, the Summit Music Festival at Manhattanville College, for about three weeks, with students coming from all parts of the world. They bring all kinds of repertoire to me -- 20 to 30 different concertos. And they always find it hard to believe, as soon as they start playing, I play all the difficult passages, I play right along with them, no matter what they're playing. How is it possible? If you learned something well, if you took a picture with your eyes and it's embedded in your brain, then you ought to be able to do it at any time. You just send a message to your fingers, that's it.

Laurie: Simple as that! (laughing!)

Aaron: Well, I guess it's not so simple, but I'm in the habit of doing that sort of thing.

I find it hard to believe, when young people say, "I can't memorize something." What do you mean, you can't memorize something? It really bothers me tremendously when I see people standing up, playing a recital program, and playing sonatas with music. This is nonsense.

Laurie: Sonatas?

Aaron: Does that surprise you, Laurie?

Laurie: I've actually heard master classes in which the teacher reprimanded the student for not using the music because, the teacher said, it was chamber music, and out of respect for the pianist, they should at least have the music on the stand.

Aaron: Well then don't put it on a recital program you're playing! Otherwise you have to put the pianist's name in the same-size letters. It doesn't make any sense. When a pianist plays a recital, do they put a Beethoven violin sonata on it?

Laurie: No. Although maybe they should.

Aaron: Well maybe they should, but they don't! And it's something that Milstein used to laugh at because it was Isaac Stern that started that little routine, because it was easier to put the music on the stand rather than learn it by memory.

I find it really awful, these days, when people are playing a recital program and they're playing three sonatas. And maybe one virtuoso piece, or not even one, and using music for the entire recital. That's not a recital.

Laurie: Tell me, then, what are the merits of memorizing something?

Aaron: I'll tell you in one word: Heart. It's in your brain, it's in your heart. You put your heart into every note of music you're playing, you're not a robot reading with your eyes, knowing what the next note is.

Laurie: I suppose there's a reason they call memorization learning something "by heart."

Aaron: Learning "by heart," I think you got something there. But if you don't know it by memory, you don't really know it. It has to become part of you. If you really are practicing, if you're an artist -- Heifetz, did you ever see Heifetz with a music stand on stage?

Laurie: I never got to see him at all, because I was not the right age. I wish I could have.

Aaron: You missed something Laurie, because when he played, it was hypnotic. That was true of all the artists. I even saw (Bronislaw) Huberman when I was a young lad, and (Nathan) Milstein, many times, we became good friends. And (Efrem) Zimbalist and (Mischa) Elman. And Yehudi Menuhin, my goodness he was really something. He was so charismatic on the stage, it seemed like lights were coming out of his head when he walked out on stage.

But it's not just that, each played with enormous personality, and complete control and knowledge of music. I don't remember anyone, except maybe in the case of two artists like Szigeti and Arrau, playing a sonata recital. Then (Szigeti) put a music stand on the stage. Although I can assure you that Szigeti knew every note by memory. It was a metal music stand and it was funny, in the performance, in turning a page he knocked over the music stand. I never forgot it -- Szigeti always had accidents when he played.

Laurie: I have a feeling that it just isn't quite the same, to see these guys on Youtube, as it was to them live.

Aaron: No. Not at all. Watching Menuhin was a special experience. Watching Heifetz, it was electricity from the minute he touched bow to string. You sat on the edge of your chair, wondering how it was possible to play that fast, and so beautifully. A Bach Sonata seemed to take just two minutes.

Laurie: A while back, you said that Europe was a better place for a musician than the U.S. Do you feel that's still the case, and was it the case for you?

Aaron: It's an interesting point. When I began my career, all of these great artists that I'm talking about were in their prime. In fact, Fritz Kreisler was playing, I heard him several times. And here I am, a young American upstart, trying to make a career being in the same league. Americans, after the second World War, especially the artists, were not looked upon very kindly. I ran into a situation, I even mentioned it in my memoir, on the first disc. I made my debut in the Kleine Zaal, one of the Concertgebouw's two halls. It was the the first time I'd gone to Europe, and I was quite young at the time. It was after the war, 1950s. I remember playing the Beethoven C minor Sonata, No. 7, and that was the end of the first half. There weren't very many people in the hall, but a man with a beard came backstage and he said, "You know, you played Beethoven second movement too fast." I said, it may be too fast, I took out the score, I said, "It's marked in cut time." Which is rather interesting. It's Adagio con moto, and it's written in four, but it's marked to be played in cut time. It's a beautiful melody. So I showed it to him, it's marked in cut time. He said, "I don't care, Adagio is Adagio. You Americans, you make good cars and good air conditioners. You should leave the art to the Europeans."

Now there was a remark that has remained with me over all the years, because there was great resentment for the American artist coming to Europe at that particular time. We won the war, we were so successful, and we had gold in the streets.

At that time there was a whole colony in Paris of American painters. Paul Jenkins was part of it, and Don Fink, Beauford Delaney -- these fine American artists had to go to Europe to try to achieve some reputation and some appreciation.

Early in my career, Nathan Milstein heard me play and said, "You're too good violinist, but you are American. You should go to Europe, go to Vienna, live there 10 years, you'll be king." At that time I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I said, "Mr. Milstein, I don't even have a violin, how am I going to get--" He said, "You find a way, you find a way."

Well. Eventually I did find a way, but it was the hard way. And it's true, I was actually playing more concerts in Europe than I played in America.

Laurie: So was it Americans who didn't appreciate American artists, or was it Europeans who didn't like American artists? Or did just nobody like American artists?

Aaron: You just said it.

Americans couldn't wait for the next Russian artist to come to New York, so that they could stand around and block, waiting for a ticket. Sol Hurok was the king at that time. And look, the Russian artists were great, to be sure. It was 1955 when David Oistrakh came to this country, and Leonid Kogan, who later on became a good friend. It was Kogan who admired my playing so much, he couldn't believe I was born and learned to play the violin in America. He was the one who arranged the one and only tour I made of Russia in 1980. That was before the Cold War really broke out in earnest, when America bowed out of the Olympic Games. And then things were really bad, and I was playing concerts for Leonid Kogan; he couldn't get out of the (U.S.S.R.) to play in this country.

But it was not an easy battle, because all the orchestras in (America) were conducted by Europeans. It was only in 1960 that Leonard Bernstein somehow broke through and conducted the (New York) Philharmonic. There were very few American conductors around because the Americans didn't appreciate having an American conduct an American orchestra; they wanted to have a foreign accent at the party after the concert.

Laurie: But then in Europe, did you still get people coming back stage and telling you you're not doing Beethoven right?

Aaron: Well no. Gradually, I learned the languages. When I went to France, at first I couldn't speak a word of French. They appreciated my talent as a violinist, but they didn't really completely appreciate me until I could speak some of the language. It was then that I played with all five orchestras in Paris in the same season -- that had never happened before with any other artist. They pinned the medal on me, threw a dinner in my honor and so on. But it took quite a number of years, that was in the 1960s.

And in America, I was one of the first people to play with Leonard Bernstein in Philharmonic Hall -- it's called Avery Fischer Hall now. I was one of the first artists that Bernstein had engaged, I premiered the Barber Concerto (for the NY Phil).

Laurie: Has it changed, do you think?

Aaron: It has changed, yes, tremendously. The chances for a young player were very limited in those days. For one thing, orchestras only had 30-, 32-week seasons. Even the New York Philharmonic, if I recall. And the great players, the great names, were booked two or three years in advance. During the course of a concert season, there may have been three or four violinists, and they booked Heifetz and they booked Menuhin. The young players didn't have much of a chance, in those days.

Now, there are so many more orchestras and yes, there are American conductors today. The only conductor at the time -- and he engaged me immediately -- was Thor Johnson. Because all the rest, whether it was Pierre Monteux, or (William) Steinberg or some of the others -- they engaged their German artists, they engaged their French artists, they wouldn't think of engaging a young American.

Laurie: I wanted to ask you about your Guarneri; tell me a little bit about how it came into your hands and the decision to sell it.

Aaron: How it came into my hands is a long story, kind of a love story. When I didn't have a violin, I was loaned instruments all the time by Rembert Wurlitzer. Wurlitzer was the principal violin dealer in New York at that time, and he kept me going, loaning me instruments. I didn't have enough money to buy an instrument. But I'd been playing on Stradivari and Guarneri violins -- the finest that Wurlitzer had to offer. He allowed me to play them because I took care of them and then helped him to sell them, by playing them for prospective buyers. That was my way of repaying him for his kindness in keeping me with the best of instruments. I must have played 30, 40 Stradivariuses at that time! And I was able to pick up a violin in the afternoon and play the concert in the evening, without even knowing the instrument. It gave me a sort of enormous skill to be able to pick up any violin and play it immediately.

But there was one violin that he could never allow me to take out of the shop, and that was the "Kochanski" Guarnerius. It belonged to a man who was suffering from Parkinson's disease and who came in every week -- he never announced when he would arrive -- to see his violin. I played on that violin in the shop, and I realized, that this is my voice. Every time I was in New York, I used to go into the shop and I'd spend two hours in a back room, playing on my precious violin that I fell in love with. Even though I didn't have any money, I asked a member of Wurlitzer, if this violin should ever come up for sale one day, please let me be the first one to try to buy it. Well, he had a smile on his face, and then we forgot about it.

Then in about 1956, I did my first Carnegie Hall recital. I asked him, "Rembert, you know, I'm going to play this concert next week at Carnegie Hall, is there any chance that I could just take this violin, to play the concert? You'll be there, and you can take it back and put it back in the safe..." Well, what he told me brought tears to my eyes; he said the violin is going to be sold tomorrow. I was heartbroken. I ran out of the shop, and I ran smack into a friend who saw me with tears in my eyes. He asked me, "Aaron, what happened?" And I told him, my violin, the one that I love so much, is going to be sold. He said, "Oh my God, that's terrible, I have to tell my landlady about this." Kind of funny remark. I ran to the subway and made my way back home, I lived in Forest Hills, New York at that time.

A couple hours later, phone rang, and he says, "I talked to my landlady, and she was so moved by the story, she talked to her best friend who lives on Park Avenue, blah blah, and she was so moved by the story that the woman wants to meet you, because she helped Yehudi Menuhin with his first violin." All these peculiarities and all these things that happened. I called the woman and she said, "I'd like see you next week." Well, I thought, no harm in meeting another patron of the arts, but of course it's too late for the violin because that was going to be sold on the Friday.

The next Tuesday I was there in her Park Avenue apartment, having tea, with her and an old Russian woman. We took to one another, she liked me personally, she said, "I'm giving a violin to the Henry Street Settlement, would you take a look at it, and see if it's in decent shape?" Fine, so she goes over to her silver closet, opens the closet door, takes out an old case, takes out the violin, and there is the Guarnerius! There's the violin, I recognized immediately. I said, "Oh my God," and I started playing on it. She had tears in her eyes. I said, "How is it possible?" So she told me this very interesting story: she was there when the violin sale was supposed to be consummated, and the people didn't show up! She had the right to be able to take charge of the instrument, because the man who was selling it was in the final stages of the Parkinson's disease, and she was related to him. It's quite an extraordinary story.

This was Tuesday, my concert in Carnegie was going to be that Friday night, and I said, "Could I use it for the concert?" And she said, "Of course, but now look, here's the thing. You have six months to raise the money to try to buy it." She was so moved by my story of falling in love with the violin, she wanted to give me the time to see if I could do anything about raising the money to buy it. At that time, it was a fortune. It was one of the most expensive violins that you could possibly imagine, the price was around $50,000. That's in 1957. That was an enormous amount of money.

When I tried to borrow money from banks to buy a violin, they laughed at me. They said, we can sell a house, we can sell a car, but what are we going to do with a violin? They had no respect for it at all. I can tell some very funny stories about trying to borrow the money for the thing. I went to several of these multi-millionaires, playing quartets with them, scratching on their fiddles. One of them said, 'I'll give you a signature if you give me 4.5 percent interest on the side and sign a collateral mortgage in case you wrap yourself around a lamppost....' I said, using very bad language, what he could do with his money. So I set about making it myself, and I'm proud to say I did, but with the help of a few miracles.

The biggest miracle was Chock full o’Nuts. I used to go in for a nutted cheese sandwich or a hot dog and a cup of coffee at Chock full o’Nuts. Those stores were like mushrooms, they were all around New York, and then they came out with a stock, at $16. Whatever work I did, whatever money I had, I bought stock. Don't ask me why, I didn't know anything about stocks at that time, but I thought, every time you turn the corner, there's a new Chock full o’Nuts, so I kept buying stock. I was saving money to try to buy a violin for myself, and within that six-month period, whatever stock I had put together during that time, well the stock went from $16 to $135. So the miracle that happened was that the Chock full o’Nuts went to to the moon, and then split four-and-a-half for one, and that was collateral for my loan to a bank.

It took 7-8 years of working hard to pay for it; if something had happened to me, I wouldn't have that violin.

So now you know how I obtained it. It was my voice for 53 years, and what a voice it is. You hear it in all my recordings. It was one of the most magnificent of violins.

But about six years ago, I had a very serious back operation, and I can't stand and play for any length of time any more. I'm happy I can still get around, but my back is bad. Then I decided, there's no point any more, I can't travel, I can't play concerts, what's the point of holding the violin? And that's why I sold it. And at the time it was the record price.

Laurie: $10 million. I was going to say, it appreciated at least as much as that Chock full o’Nuts stock!

What do you play on now?

Aaron: I have a beautiful Vuillaume violin that I'm very fond of. And I have two other violins that I use extensively, made by one of the finest violin makers in the world today, Kurt Widenhouse. For my 80th birthday, he surprised me by making an exact copy of my great Guarnerius. It sounds wonderful and it looks exactly like the great violin that I sold. I have two of his violins, and I have this very fine Vuillaume that serves me well for all the teaching that I do and whatever playing I have to do, because I'm not concertizing any more.

Laurie: Who bought your violin?

Aaron: The violin was bought by one of the Russian billionaires (Nikolay Shoutov). They're buying up all the really fine art objects now, because they have a lot of money and I think they realize that it's a good investment.

Laurie: Is it being played?

Aaron: When I sold it to this man, the best of the Russian artists were going to play on it, but I have yet to see that taking place, because it was on exhibit in Norway -- I don't know where it is at present. I've lost track. I wanted it to be played, but it's his money and he can do what he wants with it at this point.

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Click here to read Part 1: Aaron Rosand talks about his beginnings on the violin, his troubles with Isaac Stern, his mentors Leon Sametini and Efrem Zimbalist, his own teaching philosophies and yes, his opposition to shoulder rests!

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Aaron Rosand Plays Paganini Caprice No. 24 (Live: Chicago 1970) (This had a few surprises for me!):


August 12, 2014 at 12:44 PM · Nice link to the Paganini caprice from Rosand's 1970 Chicago recital album. The whole of that album is absolutely wonderful, not only the violin (and piano!) playing but also the selections themselves -- Enesco, Bloch, Mendelssohn, etc. And the liner notes for that album, they're interesting to read too! Nobody (Stern included) plays the romantic violin literature the way Rosand does.

I read an interview of Rosand in the NY Times (1982) in which he said he was going to record the Spohr concertos, but I can't find those. Did he record them? I am working on the No. 2 concerto and I would dearly love to her Rosand play it. I wonder if there is an unpublished tape of it somewhere ...

August 12, 2014 at 08:55 PM · Thanks for the interview.

My favorite brand of coffee is Chock full o'Nuts!

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