Wednesday, April 30, 2014

God's Fiddler: A Review of the Jascha Heifetz Documentary


God's Fiddler

As a classical musician, I love watching movies about famous virtuosos. These movies tell fascinating stories about their subject's lives, while showing videos of gorgeous performances. Watching how world-class violinists hold their bow or seeing them perform a concerto has often taught me more about music than I learned in my lessons. With this in mind, I was excited to see that there was a documentary on Jascha Heifetz called God's Fiddler (2011).
Heifetz is revered more than any other violinist of the twentieth century. Known for his impeccable technique, he was so admired that Itzak Perlman said meeting him was like talking to God. Yet Heifetz's enormous talent and dedication to his art also isolated him from other people, in the end leaving him lonely, if not unhappy.
God's Fiddler follows Heifetz's life, beginning with his childhood in Russian Lithuania. His father was a violinist who recognized Jascha's abilities, and began teaching him the violin at age three. At nine years old, the young virtuoso travelled with his father to St. Petersburg so he could study at the conservatory with the greatest violin teacher in Russia, Leopold Auer. There were significant difficulties; Heifetz was Jewish, and St. Petersburg strictly regulated the number of Jews allowed in the conservatory. Auer argued that an exception should be made for a musician as immensely talented as Heifetz, and so the authorities relented. For the rest of his life, Heifetz felted indebted to Auer for his teaching and support, and he described his years at the St. Petersburg conservatory as the happiest in his life.  
On the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Heifetz and his family left for a tour of America, and would never live in Russia again. Heifetz became an American citizen in 1925, and was so deeply devoted to America that he spent three years performing USO shows during WWII, and regularly flew an American flag in his yard. In an emotional section of the movie, colleagues describe Heifetz's experiences playing for the troops--he always played his best, no matter how small the audience, or what the conditions were. Once, he played a concert in pouring rain with only a single soldier in the audience, yet he described it as one of the best performances of his life. 
After his return from the USO tours, Heifetz decided it was time to pass on his musical legacy to the next generation, so he began teaching. Though he could come across as cold to his students, he was also warm and generous; for example, he secretly paid one student's medical bills. Though his students and fans worshiped him, he had very few true friends. One of these was Gregor Piatigorsky, a Russian-American cellist who taught with Heifetz at USC and frequently played chamber music with him. After Piatigorsky's death, Heifetz felt alone. His family life was difficult--he married twice, but divorced each time. After his divorces, he became alienated from his children. A brilliant but complicated and intensely private man, Heifetz seemed to communicate his emotions through music only.
God's Fiddler is a compelling portrait of an incredible musician, one of the first modern violin virtuosos. It depicts a complex man who sacrificed for his art to become one of the greatest violinists in the world. Heifetz's journey is a powerful story, and the documentary shows many of his great performances, giving the viewer a taste of his masterful technique and passionate musicality. As Ida Haendel puts it, his playing is "fire, pure passion." It's well worth watching for any musician, and a necessity for any violinist or classical musician.

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