Alison Fujito: Stars and Heroes

I have something embarrassing to admit. I’m just a teeny bit star-struck.

The reason this is potentially embarrassing is because I’ve scolded students who show signs of star-struck-ness. “Now, look, ________ [insert name of star here] is not a hero, he puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like you do, so, snap out of it!” is my usual response when a student starts to gush. The fact that I had not one but two “violin heroes” when *I* was a teenage student kind of escaped me. But tonight, I got to share the stage with one of them, and then I actually got to talk with her at intermission! Come on, who wouldn’t be star-struck? As a Pittsburgh Symphony violinist, I’ve actually had several opportunities over the years to play with both of those heroes (Itzhak Perlman and Anne-Sophie Mutter), and I have to admit, every time, I think to myself, “wow, if someone had told me when I was a teenager that I’d actually have this opportunity, I’d never have believed it!!”

Alison Fujito meets one of her heroes.
Alison Fujito meets one of her heroes.

Tonight, Anne-Sophie Mutter performed Dvorak’s violin concerto with us; we’ll also play it with her in Frankfurt and Lucerne. And I should mention that the Dvorak is one of my favorite violin concerti; I’m quite sure I’d be in a different mood after performing a piece by, say, a more modern composer (who shall remain nameless, but my colleagues can feel free to guess which one). So–one of my favorite violinists playing one of my favorite violin concertos–definitely a nice evening! But the first time I heard a recording of Ms. Mutter, it was Mozart that she played, and it was a piece that I was learning.

Now, when I was in high school, the mantra of all violin teachers seemed to be, “Mature musical playing of Mozart concerti comes with age and experience.” (Make sure you read that with the proper pedantic and condescending tone.) I heard that a lot, and read it in reviews of various child prodigies, and I assumed it must be true. The reasoning behind it is, that Mozart’s music was so “pure,” devoid of showmanship, and cheap tricks, that it’s that much MORE difficult to play musically and beautifully, because there are no show-offy tricks to distract the listener from, say, an ungracefully played phrase or a lack of musical line.

But then, one day, my violin teacher said, “you MUST listen to this.”

“This” was a recording of Mozart’s Violin concerti #3 and #5, performed by 15-year-old Anne-Sophie Mutter, accompanied by Herbert Von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

So many things set her apart from other violinists of that era. She had an incredibly lush, warm sound, combined with a natural, unaffected musicality. There was an organic feeling about her phrasing that said, “yes, OF COURSE this is how the music goes!” I didn’t even THINK about technique when I listened to her–it was all about the music, but not in an affected, overly dramatic way. And yet, there was definitely passion there as well. Not only was it mature and musical playing, but it was absolutely riveting. Also, being a recording, one had no idea how old the performer was (unless one’s teacher announced it, which mine didn’t until the end of the lesson).

It was intoxicating. Maybe musical playing didn’t have to be rooted in lots of life experience; maybe it emanated from the soul.

The other violin students in my high school quickly caught on, either because their teachers also told them about Ms. Mutter, or because I did, or because they heard her recordings played on the classical radio station. But we discussed her recordings, played for each other, compared our performances with hers, compared hers with other recordings, and we pretty much all thought of her as a hero.

As teenagers ourselves, it didn’t escape our notice that she was clearly well-respected by an orchestra known for their failure to take women musicians seriously. I wasn’t quite sure if she broke through various glass ceilings, or if they simply didn’t exist for her, but either way, I was–we ALL were–inspired. I had her sound in mind when I practiced Mozart, and, for the first time, it occurred to me that people might actually LISTEN to me when I played my violin, taking the music seriously, rather than saying, “how nice,” and dismissing me because I was still a teenager.

But thinking back to the year when I first began to listen to her recordings prompted some questions of my own. I especially wondered, who were HER musical heroes?

So I asked her, at intermission after her performance. She immediately mentioned David Oistrakh, and his recording of Brahms’ sonatas that she first heard at age 6, and also talked about Nathan Milstein’s elegance, and Fritz Kreisler’s. She was quite humble in emphasizing that she feels that she is always striving to match the level that those famous violinists have set. I suppose that, in a way, she might have felt just the same about performing and chatting with them (if she had ever had the chance) as I did tonight. Even though they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

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