Last night, as I was making my way north for the beginning of another action packed “Freeway Philharmonic” season, I could see the Rim Fire in Yosemite glowing the distance. It was as if the sun was setting far off to the east. For a quick second, I turned the A/C off but as soon as I smelled the fire, I quickly switched it back on. I must have been a good 100 miles west and could see and smell this enormous wildfire as if it was next to me. Pretty eerie.

With the A/C still blasting and the wild fire behind me, I began heading west on 580 and could now see the tail end of a pretty spectacular sunset in the Bay Area. Suddenly, I felt really really small. Major wildfire, the size of Rhode Island to the east and an awesome sunset that filled the night sky right in front of me – all to a soundtrack of Bach’s unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas for Violin. Not a bad commute to work, I’d say.

Szeryng’s Bach is what’s on my iPod. I also have spent a fair amount of time listening to renditions by Heifetz, Grumieaux, Menuhin, Milstein … the old guard, pretty much. They’re all incredible. Masters. And as different as they all are, there is a similar thread that seems to run through many of their playing styles. That said, after all these years, I still find myself hearing my Dad’s version. It’s as if it was etched in my ears so that I could always hear his sound, his inflections, his interpretation. It’s all still there, which makes me smile because I feel so very lucky to have that. I love that I can listen to all of these masters play Bach and still know that for me, Santo’s Bach is still my favorite. My Dad was a child prodigy, he left Detroit to go study with Louis Persinger at Julliard when he was 14! After only a years time, he had to return home to Detroit because my grandparents could not afford for him to remain in NYC – and it was 1929.

Persinger, who was a student of Ysaye and Thibaud, taught many of the greats, among them Menuhin and Ricci. Szeryng also studied with Thibaud, and Heifetz and Milstein with Auer. Here is where it gets interesting, although I remember Dad saying he studied with Persinger, I can’t help but wonder if he also had the opportunity to study with Auer during his time in NY, since Auer left Julliard right around the time my Dad was there.

In the American school of flute playing, all roads (or at least most) lead to William Kincaid, former Professor of Flute at Curtis and Principal Flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. My teachers and teacher’s teacher’s studied with Kincaid. There is a common thread of pedagogy many of us subscribe to as a result of this lineage. Not being a violinist, I can’t say for sure, but I do have to wonder why it is that there is such a similarity in playing style, bow grip, concept of sound, use of self, interpretive ideas, etc, between Heifetz, Szeryng, Menuhin, Milstein, and my Dad. I can only guess it is this Ysaye/Auer/Persinger connection. Just a thought, really, but what I can say with certainty is this: although there are tons of new Bach recordings out there by young super star violinists, I’ll pass those up for the masters any day. Sure there are some truly remarkable players, but there are also some remarkable recording technicians. What blows me away about the older recordings is that they didn’t have the technology to punch in and fix a note here or there. That 13 minute Chaconne was likely done in one take. One of my very favorite You Tube videos is of Heifetz recording the Bach Chaconne from the d minor Partita – IN ONE TAKE. You even hear the recording technician say “Bach Chaconne, take one.” It’s remarkable, he just stands there and lays it down. So economical in his use of self, impeccable intonation, big fat, singing, gorgeous sound, and when I hear it I think, yep, that’s how that goes.
Check it out:

It reminds me of my Dad when he’d stand in the middle of the living room, or pace around the living room, or sit on the couch, playing this same Chaconne. Of course, he’d stop and tune a double stop every 3 seconds or fix something else that only he heard to be out. But it was with that same economical use of self, and his big mitts holding the bow and navigating the finger board with amazing fluidity, and a sound as big as a house and more beautiful than anything I will ever hear again. I miss that.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is, thanks Dad, for helping me to understand and hear the difference. Thank you for practicing these pieces day in and day out, playing me to sleep at night, slowing working cadenzas from various concerti, slowly tearing apart Paganini Caprices, tirelessly tuning double stops in your practice room while “little Rena” danced around in the living room, doing my best to imitate my older sister Gina, the real dancer in the family. (Good thing I discovered the flute at age 11, my dance skills were less than stellar!) Thank you for giving that amazing gift to me because all these years later, I can still hear YOUR Bach in my head whenever I want and it will always be my favorite.