Why is the “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in D minor of J. S. Bach “the masterpiece that every aspiring violinist must study and eventually perform?” First violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet and author of two books, Violin Dreams and Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, Arnold Steinhardt, came to the Gardner Museum, Sunday, October 4, to answer his own question before a dedicated and expectant collection of listeners.
Billed as an afternoon of conversation and performance, this singular encounter promised to be as inviting as it would be illuminating. Who would not want to get the inside scoop from one in possession of rich firsthand and hands-on knowledge?
“I have good news and bad news,” Steinhardt began. Jennifer Koh would be performing the Partita—the good news. With a “minor inflammation of elbow,” Steinhardt did not want to pick up his violin and not play his best, the bad.
Conversation it was not, storytelling it was, and at its best — totally engaging, entirely enjoyable and fabulously informative. As a child, Steinhardt “didn’t really like Bach, or more accurately, he thought, “didn’t understand Bach.” He understood the American folk melodies found in the popular beginner’s book for violin, A Tune A Day. His parents believed that Bach was good for him and so took him to concerts.
And like his parents, one of Steinhardt’s “giants of the Pantheon,” Jascha Heifetz, once said that “Bach was like spinach; you’re not meant to like it, but it’s good for you.” But it was when Steinhardt heard another giant, violinist Mischa Elman, play the Chaconne from the D minor Partita that the young boy’s life changed. It was Elman’s “gorgeous sound,” his way of bringing out “patterns” in the piece, and his extraordinary way of making the instrument sound like the human voice in expressing “all kinds of feelings and emotions.”
“Later that night in bed,” Steinhardt “thought of not becoming fireman or policeman but a concert violinist playing the Chaconne before an audience.”
We were also introduced to the Chaconne, which for Steinhardt means two things: “a basso ostinato or security blanket, a comfort zone” with “variations always different, always changing.” It was one of his first teachers, Toscha Seidel, who assigned Steinhardt the Chaconne. Another teacher, who he remembered as being known as one who “could teach a table to play the violin,” said, “if you wanted to call yourself a violinist, you had to play Bach.”
After playing Bach for Pablo Casals, Steinhardt and his friends had dinner at a restaurant recommended not only for its food but for its gypsy violinist extraordinaire. Recognizing Steinhardt, he quieted his band down and went on to play Bach with startling abandon and in the most moving of ways. The idea was, not everything has to be played perfectly to pull off Bach.
And it was the brother of Broadway’s Frank Loesser, Arthur Loesser, who asked Steinhardt “Do you know how to dance?” Loesser then danced the five dances of the Partita: Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, Gigue, and Chaconne. Ralph Berkowitz introduced analysis exposing the “blueprints” of Bach’s masterpiece. And from the writings of Lao Tzu came the idea of a building not being an entity of roof and walls, but a space that is lived-in
Arnold Steinhardt presented Jennifer Koh “as a builder” playing the blueprint of Bach at a certain time and place in her life — that “even with the same blueprint the outcome will always be different in some way or another.”
Jennifer Koh’s performance of the Partita was a total disappointment. No human voice, no “gypsy-like” freedom, no dancing, no blueprint: none were evident in this 30-minute-plus work. Rather than drawing this listener in, her abstract, grating sounds pushed me away. During the performance, Bach’s manuscript was projected on a screen for all to follow.
A brief question and answer session followed. Someone asked how long does it take before you feel comfortable enough to play a piece like the Chaconne in public? “Comfortable?” replied Steinhardt, “That’s a new concept to me. These are scary pieces!”
Go to his website if only to give a listen to Bluefields, A West Hollywood Rumba for Arnold, a most wonderfully suave duet that will bring a smile while lightly lifting the spirit — much the same way Steinhardt did for us this afternoon.