Diversity is no longer an enemy

Yehudi Menuhin
There was a time, not so many years ago, when stepping ‘outside the box’ could be detrimental to your career as a classical musician. This particularly applied to classical violinists.  To take part in a film score, or to perform or record music that was not considered a part of the established repertoire was considered taboo. 

Yehudi Menuhin, the child prodigy from the early part of the 20th century who managed to extend his career as a classical violinist long into his adult years, was one of the first classical stars of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s and beyond who broke down the barrier.  He was fascinated by jazz violinists and gypsy fiddlers that he ran into while touring through Eastern Europe in the middle of the century.  It blew his mind to have dinner in a restaurant in Romania and be serenaded by an outstanding violinist with impeccable technique who when questioned, shyly admitted to the maestro that he had never had a lesson and was not a practitioner of scales and arpeggios.

When Menuhin founded his violin school in England in the sixties, he insisted that improvisation be part of the program.  After all, where in the hell did cadenzas for the major concertos for violin come from?  The violinist performing these works made them up utilizing the themes and the modes of the composers’ piece.  Later on they were written down and then became an actual component to the concerto itself.
Stephane Grappelli
Menuhin invited Stephane Grappelli to his school to play for the students.  This launched atwo album project with several TV spots included as the two giants in their separate fields came together to play jazz:  unheard of prior to Menuhin’s bold step. Along the way one brilliant student of the school, Nigel Kennedy, or as he prefers to be called just Kennedy, went even further.  He studied with Stephane and while attending Juilliard, stayed out late at night hanging around in jazz clubs, sitting in.  He is now known as much for his jazz and pop albums as his exquisite renderings of that bundle known as the ‘established repertoire’.

Stuff Smith
Little known facts:  The great and legendary African-American jazz violinist “Stuff” Smith, while working in Harlem jazz clubs in the thirties and forties would often look out into the audience and see Fritz Kreisler or Heifetz standing in the shadows listening intently to the most swinging fiddler who ever lived.  It is also rumored that Heifetz sat in one night and played piano behind “Stuff”.  

Very few people know that Heifetz when he passed away, left behind a large folio of popular standards he had composed under another name; his versions of Gershwin and Cole Porter.

Today, thank God, because of artists like Menuhin, the floodgates have opened and violinists such as Josh Bell, the Ebon string quartet and nearly all classical fiddlers under the age of fifty are quite exceptional improvisers to one degree or another and have crossed-over the borders of classical, to jazz and folk music.

The reverse is also applicable.  My ex-boss and friend, Mark O’Conner, a monster bluegrass, Texas style and jazz violinist who is an incredible contemporary classical composer and performer has been receiving criticism for his new recording of a portion of the Bach Solo violin sonatas and partitas:  the Holy Grail of classical players. He has interpreted these works with a fresh view of what was actually folk music or dance music in Bach’s day.  Personally, I love it!  It is fiddlers like O’Connor that will keep dead composers alive in the hearts and minds of the young.  Until next time - Art

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