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An Interview with Aaron Rosand

Acclaimed for his signature tone and impeccable musicianship, American violinist Aaron Rosand is one of the last standardbearers of the school of romantic virtuosity. Besides performing the traditional repertoire, he made the premier recordings of concertos by Joachim, Hubay, Ernst, Arensky, and Godard. He has recorded extensively for the Vox, Audiofon, Biddulph, and Harmonia Mundi record labels. Professor of Violin at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the peripatetic Rosand makes his home in London.

I spoke with Aaron Rosand on the eve of his performance of the Brahms Concerto with the San José Symphony, where he was replacing an indisposed Maxim Vengerov.

Sullivan: Tell me about Curtis Institute in the 1940's. Who were your classmates? What was the atmosphere?

Rosand: The names are names that I'm sure you know. Most of them are now filling the first chair positions of major orchestras in this country and the world. When I think of concertmasters, Norman Carroll of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was one. He's retiring this year. Joseph Silverstein, the Boston Symphony. Thirty years – a marvelous violinist. Daniel Majewski, died a year or two ago, very sad; he was concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. There was a fellow Whippler who was concertmaster of the Denver Symphony for many years. Amongst the pianists, there was Gary Graffman, Seymour Lipkin, Silvia Zaremba, my first wife Eileen Flissler, Jacob Lateiner….

Sullivan: I enjoyed his "Waldstein" sonata as a kid.

Rosand: In fact, he was chosen by Heifetz to make some recordings with him and in ensemble. We really had quite an outstanding class. The cellists, John Martin, first cellist for the Washington Symphony for many years. Loren Monroe, first cellist of the New York Philharmonic for many, many years. Paul Olefsky who was the first cellist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Detroit for many years, he decided to leave the orchestra scene; he teaches down in Texas. Shirley Trepel, the first cellist of the Houston Symphony. Bobby Sayers, who was the first cellist of the San Francisco Symphony. It's extraordinary. Every player, and I'm not even getting into the wind players: Elaine Schaefer, who died at a very young age, she was an outstanding solo flutist. And Marc Lifschey who was the first oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra for many, many years. Outstanding players. This is the sort of class that I remember that I was part of at the Curtis Institute where I studied with Efrem Zimbalist.

Sullivan: How was it studying with Zimbalist and Sametini?

Rosand: Sametini was a disciple of Ysaÿe, and he was a very great teacher. It was a tradition of teaching which didn't delve into what was right or what was proper, but was using your imagination and doing things with style and personality. Because Ysaÿe, great musician that he was, and outstanding violinist that he was, still everything was poetic and everything had a lot of style. It's an era that is just about forgotten; I certainly hope not, because this is what we are keeping alive and the tradition that I am passing on.

That was Sametini before I came to the Curtis Institute. Sametini died very suddenly. He was only in his fifties; I was sixteen at the time. He actually died of overeating, if you can imagine that.

Sullivan: Obese already?

Rosand: He was. And I learned that the day after he died I performed with the Chicago Symphony in the summer concert series in Chicago, Grand Park. Desiree Dafauw was the conductor of the Chicago Symphony at that time. And I was performing the Tchaikovsky concerto and Sametini had gone to a card party the night before after consuming a roast beef dinner and he was passionately fond of corned beef sandwiches and coca cola which he probably devoured during his card game. And then he came home at three o'clock in the morning and finished up the roast beef and they were too late with the stomach pumps. That's actually how he died. It was very sad. So he missed that concert; it was played in the evening. It was during that summer that my sponsor, the man who was looking after my career, (Max Adler, of the Adler Planeterium in Chicago), decided that he had better send me to play for Efrem Zimbalist and see if I couldn't be accepted at the Curtis Institute beginning that fall. I was only sixteen years old. I graduated from high school that spring and Zimbalist heard me. I went all the way out to Rockport, Maine to play this audition for him. And he said yes, by all means you can come to Curtis. That was rather unusual because at Curtis we have auditions that are held in the early Spring or March of each year, and these auditions are played before the string faculty and you are accepted or refused. So I skipped through some of the phases there and Zimbalist just brought me into the school. And that was the beginning of the Leopold Auer tradition for me.

Sullivan: Was he a strong adherent to the tradition?

Rosand: Not really. I was so developed as a player even at the age of sixteen that Zimbalist didn't impose himself. Oh, there were some things that I learned from him that were invaluable. The long bow, the flat hair on the string. Don't play at this angle. If you see my position you see I'm really coming square to that bridge with no angles and the hair is usually flat. And that I owe to Zimbalist, who could draw a longer bow than any artist you could imagine. He could just stand there for half an hour and always a tone. In this way he really let me be my own thing, but at the same time he did teach some of the Auer principles. And Auer must really have been a masterly teacher because each of his students came out playing so marvelously and each one with his own personality. That's a special gift. You don't put students into a box you know and have them all do the same thing.

Sullivan: How do you carry on that pedagogy with your own students?

Rosand: I even go a step further because I do want them to do their own thing. Of course, it has to be with taste and adhering to what is written in the score. Because don't think of the romantic tradition as we do as doing your own thing. It's not that at all, in fact, it's very disciplined. Perhaps more disciplined than applying rules and regulations, e.g., beginning the trill from the upper note in Mozart and Bach or whatever – that to me is a lot of hogwash. Because you really have to use your own judgement in doing something like that. There are many examples, if you play Bach unaccompanied sonatas, and suddenly you are going in a descending passage and you start the trill on the upper note, you're really spoiling the melodic line. You don't do that. Milstein never did that. [Illustrates by humming a passage.] To me, it's kind of showing how smart you are but it really doesn't serve the music at all….

Sullivan: It's just choppy.

Rosand: Sure. It's showing that you are a good musician, but Milstein never did that and you surely can't fault his musicianship. But, carrying on, in teaching, the most important thing I have observed is good position. Good position and as I was telling you earlier, I abhor the shoulder rest. I think it has ruined more young violinists; they don't develop their own sound. The violin was never meant to sit on the shoulder. The violin sits on the collarbone. The violin has to be in front of your nose, not at an angle with you looking in the other direction. So I'm very strong about that and when position is attained, then it's developing a sound and beauty of tone. It is still the number one requisite of violin playing. You can have the best technique in the world and if you don't have a really good sound, or a personal sound, it is not going to get you anywhere.

Sullivan: I guess Jan Kubelík, the violin-playing machine, illustrates that point.

Rosand: That's why he was knocked out. Heifetz came around with a technique and a tone too. Look at Mischa Elman, there's a great example. Mischa Elman was a tremendous artist. He played with a sound that was so beautiful he could make you cry, it was like a voice. And yet his technique was not that strong. He never had a technique comparable to a Heifetz or Milstein, but that sound was everything, he could melt your heart and people came to hear that beautiful golden tone. The same was true Fritz Kreisler. Now there was a distinctive sound, a bell-like trill, a beautiful noble quality; he was elegant! Kreisler never had a technique like that, but the tone was everything. What Kreisler had was a style that was unique.

Sullivan: His counterpart on the piano may have been Paderewski and the way people came to see him play: to see the hair and the big tone!

Rosand: And the way he used to break his chords in the old style. But, again, when I teach, I try to make sure that I teach a person to develop his own sound and I try to guide them; if I see musically speaking that they do peculiar things, I put them on track. Because first and foremost it's serving the music, but you can't serve the music by simply playing the black and white. It's what you do to that. It's giving color to the score. And that's where personality is involved and imagination. There's a lot of fantasy involved. Not long ago, one of my young people was playing the Brahms concerto. I said, What do you know about Brahms? He gave me this dumb look. Have you read when he lived? He didn't have a clue. Now if you don't know anything about the man, what he looked like, the period, the culture, the country where the music was written, how can you simply just play notes? And that is really what is happening with most of the young people that you hear. They are playing the notes and following or copying what they heard in the last record, you know. And they think they are accomplishing something.

Sullivan: But they don't know about Brahms' longing for Clara Schumann, or how he struggled to find acceptance for his music.

Rosand: They haven't a clue and nothing comes out in the music that they make. They'll make a sudden ritard and I'll say, Why do you do something like that? Well, I heard it on a record. I say, Right now you're going to play what's in the music. Someday, if you feel that you need to make a ritard, do it. But don't do it because you heard somebody else do it. That I don't tolerate. But there is a tradition; drawing the sound in the most important part of it. Now not that I don't ignore technique, I can assure you. I've got some very good young people and they're establishing themselves, making damn good careers. Elissa Kokkonen, for example, won the Henryk Szeryng award about two years. She's playing all over the place. She's a lovely young woman and a fine violinist. She was sixteen years old when she came in second to Vengerov in the Carl Flesch Competition.

Sullivan: That's pretty impressive.

Rosand: And then another young man, Benjamin Schmidt, who is doing very well throughout Europe; he's playing many concerts. He did win the last Carl Flesch Competition. One of my last pupils is in the finals of the Indianapolis, Steve Copes. A good player; he has good chance to make a career. I'm very proud of these youngsters. At present I'm working with a ten year old who's going to be something, a German girl, Linnebach from Canada. If she develops it will be interesting.

Sullivan: How do you handle doing this teaching while carrying on a concert career? It's not typical, certainly. We talked about how Oistrakh struggled with the demands of teaching in a conservatory.

Rosand: He did it. I think it is, in a sense, more important to pass on the traditions than to just simply show your thing out on stage. Heifetz did some teaching but he didn't impart very much of himself. Teaching is a devotion. Unless you are a dedicated to doing it, you shouldn't do it. I happen to like teaching and as I said, passing on this tradition is terribly important. I would hate to see this romantic tradition – this romantic virtuosity if we are going to call it that – I would hate to see this become something that is lost, because music is so boring when it is played without style or personality. It can be letter perfect, it can be literally accurate and it can be totally meaningless. And that's what we are hearing most of the time. I for one would like to see it come to an end; have the artist the personality come forth again with devotion to his music and full respect for the composer's intentions. The great artists, Rachmaninoff and all the rest, they certainly didn't ignore what the composer had written, but they gave their own personal touch which added so much to it. We certainly don't want to hear the same interpretation by five different people. We might just as well feed it to a computer and then we wouldn't have distinct personalities anymore.

Sullivan: It's kind of the way young artists are promoted these days, once they're are given that stamp of approval. They are handed a program: in the first year, you are going to record the Bruch and the Mendelssohn concertos. Then maybe you can choose a more "off-beat" one, maybe you'll do the Barber. But then it's back to, if you've got a good technique, the Wieniawski Second. Then there's the encore disc.

Rosand: That's the way things are now.

Sullivan: But you've recorded Nineteenth Century romantic rarities in the 1970's, the Joachim, the Hubay and resurrected those. And some of those are very good concertos. No one has picked those up. I've seen one recording of the Ernst Concerto in F-sharp by Vadim Brodsky?

Rosand: Really, so there is finally one more.

Sullivan: Then there's Elmar Oliveira's resurrection of the Joachim in a full edition of the score. Too long, I think.

Rosand: It's too repetitious. I think I made some judicious cuts in that thing. Because the whole thing doesn't hang together. It has wonderful thematic material but when you rehash it fifteen times in the same movement it just gets boring. You're quite right about it. I don't understand why young people are not more curious and go about in looking in the vast repertoire for violin. Part of the reason is that most of the conductors just don't want to become involved with something that they don't know. Most of the reason can be attributed to conductors who carefully pick their programs and really don't want to go too far off the beaten track, except where it comes to contemporary work.

Sullivan: And they have pressure from the record companies who have a contract with the orchestra; they want to play what sells.

Rosand: That's part of it. I recorded all of those things because at the time that I was given the opportunity, I was not given the opportunity to record the Beethoven and Brahms and so on. There was more of an interest in the unknown repertoire, so I just went at it tooth and nail and I loved it. Every year from 1968-78 we did the Romantic Festival in Indianapolis. It was held at the Butler University and was run by a very knowledgeable musician, Frank Cooper. We put on these interesting programs over a ten-day period; there were always visiting orchestras – St. Louis or Cincinnati, and then the Indianapolis Symphony took part and the student orchestra at Butler took part. And we put on programs of 19th Century music. Well, they were so successful and they attracted so much attention that we covered by critics from as far as San Francisco. Harold Schonberg was there every year. Paul Hume of the Washington Post. The St. Louis Dispatch. They came from Chicago; they came down there to hear the 19th Century music because no one was playing it anymore. It was simply ignored. It became so successful, it was just a pity it finally came to an end. Jorge Bolet, the fabulous pianist used to take part, and Ray Lewenthal and Jascha Silverstein, the cellist. We had so much fun putting together these programs. And every year I would come up with a couple concertos that were completely forgotten and eventually recorded these pieces. Like the Arensky violin concerto. Now that is a terrific piece. Russians don't even know about it. Everybody knows the Arensky trio, nobody thinks to play the violin concerto which is a lovely piece. So here we have a wealth of repertoire. Incidentally, there's another repertoire issue here. Today a lot of violinists are coming from Asia. They're very talented and they have the discipline. And the mothers are on top of them to practice, which is the most important part of all. The American doesn't seem to have that kind of patience anymore; they have too many distractions. No one would think of practicing five, six hours a day to become a good violinist. But the Asian has it. As a result, they are really taking over the business as you can see with all the great prodigies now. They don't think to teach the Joachim Concerto in Japan or Korea, because that's not part of standard repertoire….

Sullivan: The path to success is paved with war-horses?

Rosand: You're going to learn the Beethoven, you're going to learn the Brahms. Well, all right. People are very familiar with all that. When you say "Bruch Concerto" – there are three Bruch Concertos!

Sullivan: The Third is very good.

Rosand: The D-minor Second is terrific too. But if you ask any Korean student or Japanese student the Bruch Concerto – "There is more than one?" It is so interesting, even today. I'm not going to mention her name, but there was a violinist who is quite well known – to show you what the record industry is like – who was to record the Beethoven Violin Concerto. And this young violinist was looking for any opportunity to play it in concert before recording it, because she had never played it. And this person is going to record it with a major record company; a definitive performance I suppose. It's so weird. When I think back, you weren't allowed to the Beethoven concerto in concert until you were fifty years old. How could you understand Beethoven?

Sullivan: You've got to be Schneiderhan!

Rosand: Exactly. You have to be fifty years old before you can be a conductor or play the Beethoven. And now if kid stands up and plays it they think they're getting someplace.

Sullivan: Which of your recordings are you most proud of? Do you have any favorites?

Rosand: It's hard to answer that, but there are a couple when I hear them I say it's really good. There are many times where I am uncomfortable listening to work that I've done, because I am remembering – for example, the Mendelssohn concerto many years ago. I was so ill when I did it. It had to be done that day. I had a 103 temperature and I had to sit down. I was in another world. Even when I hear it today, I'm so uncomfortable because some of it is so very good and yet when I hear it, I hear the tempo that I would never have thought of playing; it so much faster.

Sullivan: You really rocket through the finale. It's excellent.

Rosand: But even listening to the first and second movements, I cannot believe that would have played it so fast.

Sullivan: The cadenza is also pretty good for someone with a fever.

Rosand: When I hear the Joachim – it's really a good recording. The Sarasate is I think very good.

Sullivan: The Jota Navarra, which is not heard that often, is just great, full of energy.

Rosand: I don't know if you've heard the Brahms Hungarian Dances; when I hear them now I realize they are really not bad at all. I'm proud of my unaccompanied work, the Bach and the Ysaÿe. I hope before the end of Spring '95 to record all six Bach sonatas – it's my personal desire to do that. But to do them in my way, a more human approach to playing it. Because Bach had twenty or twenty-two children? So, he was certainly very human, and I'd like to bring out that romantic side of him.

Sullivan: You've done that in the Handel. It's certainly not dry; there's vibrato, legato. But the singing quality is there in the music – I don't see how you can avoid it.

Rosand: I don't believe in trying to emulate what we think they might have done 200-300 years ago. It doesn't make any sense. All right, I admire when they play the ancient instruments without the vibrato. Still we have to do things in our time, and the way we would do it. You don't try to emulate what we think should be done. I just don't see it as others do. I don't mean to cheapen anything that is written, and at least try to maintain, stylistically, a period. But you don't do it without vibrato, without the slide.

Sullivan: Your Beethoven. I heard that you recorded all the Beethoven sonatas, but I've only seen the Spring and the Kreutzer (on Vox).

Rosand: I was the first artist to record every piece of music that he ever wrote for violin and piano, including the Variations on "Se vuol ballare" a very early opus. The German Dances and a Rondo which he had written. They were all done for two Vox Boxes. I'm hoping that they are going to reissue those things. I was quite young (early thirties) when I did it with my first wife, Eileen Flissler who died many years ago. We did it so honestly, with such complete reverence for Beethoven and the score, after having read his two volumes of letters. And feeling as if we knew him intimately.

Sullivan: The "Spring" is a beautiful recording.

Rosand: I'm really proud of the Kreutzer. It is a beautiful recording. Young as we were, it was done, as I said, with great respect and great virtuosity. In my opinion, the Spring sonata is played much too slowly nowadays. One doesn't even appreciate the metronome markings that Beethoven put into his scores. Don't forget that Maelzel, who invented the metronome, gave Beethoven the finest and one of the first of his inventions. Beethoven put metronome markings into many scores that we ignore, because it is claimed that the metronome was broken and one couldn't possibly play it that fast. It's not true!

Sullivan: Heifetz's tempo is very rapid for the Spring as well.

Rosand: He may be the closest to what was intended. Beethoven wrote "allegro moderato". But the way the Beethoven Concerto is sometimes performed it takes one hour! I've heard performances I just can't believe. The first movement is thirty, thirty five minutes. You just can't do that. It doesn't hang together. Beethoven, after the failure of the first performance of it – actually Beethoven's fault because the ink wasn't dry when the third movement was delivered. What was it, Bridgetower, who played the première? Poor guy, he was trying to amuse the audience playing upside down fiddle between the movements. So the performance was poorly received. Beethoven, he wasn't going to waste any paper, he then rewrote the thing for piano. Can you imagine? [Hums opening bars of solo violin part, slowly.] Can you do that on the piano? One doesn't dare take tempos like that. I saw a very interesting program, it was Sir Georg Solti; I think it was the Eighth Symphony, but the whole program was devoted to playing Beethoven's work at his own metronome markings. It's amazing, it is a different piece. The whole program went like that. So it took Solti fifty years to find out that you really ought to pay attention to what the man thought.

Sullivan: There's another recording of yours called "The Violinist," likely done about the same time.

Rosand: There are two or three more recordings in that vein that are coming out. One for Biddulph which will be called "Romantic Baroque." It is comprised of great repertoire that used to begin recital programs. The old Italian composers: "La Folia" of Corelli. A Pergolesi sonata. Two Vivaldi sonatas, each one is a transcription. One is Vivaldi-Respighi, one is Vivaldi-David. The Vitali Chaconne which is Auer's. And then Tartini's "Devil's Trill" with Kreisler's cadenza and revisions. The great concert openers that are ignored by the current crop of violinists. You begin a program with a Bartók sonata or Beethoven Kreutzer – it is inconceivable to me. The audience isn't warmed up, the player isn't warmed up. Audiofon is coming out with two records: one is the Chausson Concerto for violin, piano and string quartet, which I did with Seymour Lipkin. Then the Franck sonata which I did with Lipkin. The other record will be the Mendelssohn sonata which is actually a reissue; the Bach partita E-major with Robert Schumann's pianos accompaniment. And then five original Liszt pieces, including the Duo Brilliante. Vox is putting out two; they'll be out in January. The Brahms sonatas and one CD of forgotten romances for violin and piano. Some beautiful works: Bruch, Janáček, Kreisler, Clara Schumann. There are going to be some very interesting things on there; it's a lovely album.

Sullivan: The Novácek "Perpetuum mobile" and the Kreisler "Schön Rosmarin" are favorites of mine from "The Violinist."

Rosand: Did you know that when I did those Kreisler pieces, no one was playing Kreisler anymore. After he died you couldn't even buy the music; they hadn't reprinted it. I was the first one to put down those Fritz Kreisler pieces. Now everybody is recording him, just like the Sarasate! I'm doing two concerts in Spain for the 150th anniversary of Sarasate's birth, half it devoted to Sarasate's music. I'm doing it without my Guarnerius which is on loan to the Met's Guarnerius show this November.

Sullivan: I'm concerned that you are one of the last of your breed. Who will carry on the Romantic tradition among today's violinists?

Rosand: That is exactly why I am spending a lot of time teaching and handing down this tradition of playing. You can't come to end. I think it's the most important thing I can do now, keeping this thing alive. You might say that Leopold Auer started that at the turn of the century, introducing those marvelous violinists, Milstein, Heifetz, Zimbalist, Elman, Toscha Seidel, and others. I feel it's a mission; I really have to continue to do that now. And Curtis Institute, in my opinion, is the greatest music school in the world today. You can't buy your way into Curtis; there's no tuition. It's the only school like that. You really have to be good to get in there. The best of the crop in the world. The education you receive – you asked me when I studied at Curtis, for example – teachers, the influence they exert and how they love the young people. We had Piatigorsky there, who would take us out on Sundays for lox and bagels, or whatever; he just reveled in the young people and telling them funny stories. What an artist he was! What a gentleman he was. I studied chamber music with him. I would play in his home many times privately and he was a great influence on my playing and my early career. We had Carlos Salzedo, the great harpist, who was quite a character. Once again, we were surrounded with Efrem Zimbalist, Lea Luboschutz, Marcel Tabuteau, who was the greatest influence on all wind players, not just oboe. He was an outstanding musician. And he taught string classes and he taught us how to breathe with our bows. One doesn't think about that. How to phrase. He had everything down to a science of numbers. Because the piece never began on "one." "One" was "tonalité" he used to say. The first beat was tonality, establishing the key. The piece began on the second note. It's easy when you think about it. He said, "When you play a group of four, it's not 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 – we are not marching band!" The man is right! It's 1, 1 2 3, 1, 1 2 3, etc. It's a concept in seeing in the music and then beginning to understand where the phrase ends; that the first note is the end of the last phrase. What an influence this man was! Kincaid, the fabulous flute player was there at that time. Sal Schonbach, the incredible bassoonist. Torello, the great bass player. It was the Philadelphia Orchestra in its heydey. These men were marvelous, and this was the influence we had. How could you help not to come out a better musician? It's the same today. We have a great faculty. The piano faculty alone, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Seymour Lipkin, Claude Frank. The great Jorge Bolet died a couple of years ago. He was a dear man. I knew him so well. Szymon Goldberg died recently, a marvelous teacher of violin. We have the Guarneri Quartet around all the time – those boys are good.

Sullivan: That's super. I hear more about Juilliard though, usually who the latest person is to leave with a record contract.

Rosand: I'm not knocking Juilliard, but Juilliard is a school that has more than 2,000 people in it. It's like a college campus. You can buy your way in there. If you wanted to start studying at Juilliard you can pay your tuition and start taking lessons. You're in. But at Curtis, we only have 156 people. There might be 60-70 teachers; most of these youngsters are getting private teaching in all subjects. It's a great school.

Sullivan: I used to wish that I had a transcendental talent for an instrument. I suppose that's why when I hear about great artists dying young – Joseph Hassid, William Kapell, Michael Rabin – it seems desperately unfair.

Rosand: Rabin. That was a tragedy. I couldn't believe it when I heard it.

Sullivan: He's featured in the same volume of The Way They Play as you are. Pictured in his bathrobe, a cup of coffee in one hand and his Guarnerius (the ex-Kubelík) in the other. What a character he was.

Rosand: He developed a phobia: he couldn't stand near the edge of the stage. He was afraid he was going to fall, so he started playing sitting down.

Sullivan: His Wieniawski First is a favorite of mine. By th way, did Zimbalist make you play that trill study, Engel's "Sea Shell"?

Rosand: I love that piece. I used to play that all the time as a tribute to Zimbalist because he used that as an encore on most of his programs.

Copyright © 1997, Robert J. Sullivan.