Monday, April 18, 2005

A tale of two bows

It was a cold February in Paris in 1967. My tiny hotel room on the 5th floor (no elevator!) wouldn’t stay warm but practicing the violin hard produced enough extra heat to make it tolerable. I was studying with Gabriel Bouillon, who at one time had been one of the great French violinists. I had heard a recording of him playing the Bach Double with Kreisler and thought it was simply splendid. Unfortunately, the Nazi occupiers had melted all the copper masters and no re-issues would ever be possible. Bouillon had been active in the French Resistance. At some point a bomb had exploded close to him, causing neurological damage. He could no longer play in public, had a very short temper and had to wear dark glasses even indoors. I don’t think many youngsters of today would put up with such verbal abuse, but I consider him one of the greatest teachers I ever had, as I did manage to learn a lot.

So, off to my lesson I went, a long ride on the metro. This day my teacher had decided to show me how important it was to be able to press the bow in the upper half, in order to produce the maximum sound with a “bite”. While I was trying my hardest, he kept on yelling “press, press!” and then physically grabbed the tip of my old French bow and forced it against the strings with all his strength. All of a sudden there was an audible explosion and my beloved bow had turned into what seemed like hundreds of strands of wood fibers. It looked like a tree that had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Being Mr. Bouillon, he couldn’t apologize, but “oops” was visible all over his face. Quickly he wrote a name and an address on a piece of paper, advising me to tell the dealer he had sent me there, and said they had good bows at cheap prices. Since I didn’t have a spare bow with me, I visited the place immediately and ended up with a nice stick by Vigneron, for what would be peanuts today.

Later when I returned to Finland, a dear friend and violin maker spent over a couple weeks gluing everything back, and my father’s old bow was again like its old self, minus the value, of course. I still use it often, thinking of my dad, my early years and Mr. Bouillon.

Later that year I was in the Heifetz Master Class. A new Japanese girl had just joined the small class. She could hardly speak any English and as customary to her people, she was very shy and reserved. Her tools of trade were far from satisfactory. As there was a generous violin collector in town, borrowing a good instrument was not a problem. Mr. Heifetz rightfully decided that this young lady needed a better bow as well. Hill of London kept on sending the bows to the old master, as gifts on a regular basis, so one of these should have gone to the student in need.

Mr. Heifetz was somewhat of an odd character and just giving a gift was against his nature. It was this student’s turn to play and Mr. Heifetz asked to see her bow. All of a sudden he broke the stick in half and again in quarters. We were all horrified and the young lady had tears rolling down her face, but she kept quiet as a mouse. Mr. Heifetz looked at her for a while, then grabbed a bow case and handed her a new nice Hill bow and told her she could keep it.

Strange man that Mr. Heifetz, with a strong streak of sadism with his students. But he was well educated, and not only in music, and later in life I had some interesting conversations with him. He hated conductors above all. One of them must have greatly upset him at some point, trying to tell him how to phrase something. Since he stopped touring in the ‘50s, he still performed in Los Angeles regularly with his friends. The orchestra would always accompany him without a person on the podium, although supposedly there was a rehearsal conductor who had prepared the orchestra before the first get-together. Israel Baker, a splendid violinist in the studios and a chamber music partner for Mr. Heifetz, was usually his concertmaster, and the responsibility of keeping the ensemble together fell on his shoulders. The results were surprisingly wonderful.