Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 18, 2011

Memoirs of a violist

Musician took his humble instrument to the heights of a string-quartet career

by Rebecca Wallace

Many an autobiography writer begins with the day he was born. Stanford musician Bernard Zaslav picked the day in 1946 that he switched from violin to viola.

It wasn't his plan. He'd just graduated from Juilliard (then called the Institute of Musical Art) with a violin degree. His parents had bought him a sleek, sweet and very expensive 1748 Italian violin.

Plus, let's face it: Violas don't get no respect. Kids think they're just big violins. Dvorak was a violist, and even he didn't write any viola concertos. Zaslav himself said, when he got the offer to be in the backup band for crooner Andy Russell at the New York Paramount Theater, "Why would I have to be the palooka playing viola?"

Turned out he was one fortunate palooka. Zaslav fell hard for the viola, with its rich sound and a longer fingerboard that matched easily with his left hand.

"The viola's bottom C string, just five notes lower than the violin's G string, provided a dimension of dark sonic beauty that was simply too tempting to pass up," he wrote in his new book, "The Viola in My Life: An Alto Rhapsody."

Viola in hand, Zaslav went on to play in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, and in the orchestra pits of Broadway shows including "Fiddler on the Roof." He is best known for being a member of many quartets: the Vermeer String Quartet, the Fine Arts String Quartet and the Stanford String Quartet, to name a few. And he and his wife, the pianist Naomi Zaslav, debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1962 as the Zaslav Duo. Over the decades, he recorded 134 works of chamber music.

Sitting in his Stanford home, next to a refrigerator liberally covered with photos of his wife of 64 years, children and grandchildren, Zaslav beams as he reflects on his love for the humble viola. Part of the reason he wrote his book was to draw attention to the instrument.

In a long, amicable conversation with a Weekly reporter, Zaslav also looks back on the successful career that allowed him to support his family with music, travel widely, premiere exciting new works and surround himself with creative people.

"I was amazed that it went where it did, and gratified and happy," Zaslav, 85, says.

Pictures and paintings of musicians proliferate in the neat home, along with concert posters and Naomi's grand piano, which she still plays. Longtime New Yorkers (though Naomi originally hails from Winnipeg), the Zaslavs came west so that Bernard could join the Stanford String Quartet in 1985. He also taught at Stanford University.

Zaslav gave his last performance at Stanford in 2004. Then he retired from performing due to eye problems.

"Instead of going into a depression," he says, "I went back to my datebooks." These meticulous calendars had once kept track of a dizzying progression of performing gigs, recording dates and touring plans. Now they became the backbone of his book. Zaslav finished it in five years, also aided by his wife's memories and by editor Elaine Fine.

Friends Robert and Becky Spitzer, who own the Palo Alto-based Science and Behavior Books, published the 400-plus-page volume, which comes with two CDs of chamber music recorded by the Zaslav Duo and Bernard Zaslav with various string quartets.

The book is written in a conversational style, filled with anecdotes and big names as Zaslav goes from orchestra player to freelance musician to string-quartet denizen. Readers are brought into the hectic schedules, financial struggles, artistic challenges and just plain gossip of a string player's world in the mid- to late 20th century.

Freelancing in orchestra pits wasn't Zaslav's main career goal (he called it "bowing for dollars"). But it did allow him to be part of some memorable shows. He was playing "Once Upon A Mattress" Off-Off-Broadway when a young Carol Burnett made a comedic splash in 1959.

Later, he was in the pit for "Take Me Along," a Jackie Gleason hit based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!"

"Jackie was simply dazzling on stage," Zaslav wrote. "He was incredibly light on his feet, but being 'on the sauce' took its toll ... occasionally he fell asleep while mumbling his lines. I saw Walter Pidgeon try to save the situation by improvising, while Jackie's head sank ever lower onto the table."

Broadway had its appeals, but classical music was where it was at for Zaslav. When he joined the Kohon Quartet, he started becoming known as a quartet player, and that was the path he followed.

Reminiscing in his home, Zaslav clearly feels a particular nostalgia for playing in string quartets: their intimacy and rapport. "You learn how to give and take. You are so fortunate to be there hearing the thoughts of the greatest composers," he says.

Zaslav also played during a fortunate time. Throug the book, as he tells his own story, he also depicts the lost years when there was a broader audience for a string quartet in residence or an avant-garde piece of new music.

In New York at mid-century, fresh sounds were emerging all over the place. Zaslav and violinist Matthew Raimondi got inspired to form the Composers Quartet to showcase new American voices. The foursome performed works by Milton Babbitt, Henry Weinberg, Billy Jim Layton and others.

"Those were great times," Zaslav says. "Music was moving in new directions."

Minimalism in music has had its times of being all the rage, but Zaslav also remembers the "maximalism" of Babbitt, who painstakingly notated every pitch, rhythm and other facet of his work.

"All this attention to detail gives a special clarity and beauty to Milton's music. Describing the amount of rehearsal time required to learn Milton's music could sound like boasting (or it could be perceived as a kind of sadistic addiction)," Zaslav wrote.

Babbitt's Second Quartet (1959) was on the program when the Composers Quartet debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1965, receiving a favorable review from the New York Times, Zaslav recalled.

Another highlight of Zaslav's string-quartet career was joining the Chicago-based Vermeer String Quartet — though it meant living in a lakeside apartment where the wind was so strong that Zaslav once returned home from tour to find a bedroom window blown out.

Of playing with the quartet, Zaslav wrote: "This was serious stuff, and our goal was nothing less than perfection. ... We scrupulously analyzed and assessed everything we did, and it paid off."

Many critics agreed. In a 1982 review of a Beethoven recording made by the Vermeer Quartet when Zaslav was a member, a critic from Gramophone magazine wrote: "In terms of refinement of tonal blend and unanimity of approach, they can be numbered among the very finest ensembles currently before the public. Not only are they technically in the first flight but musically they are artists of keen sensitivity and awareness."

Technical skill sometimes took other forms. Zaslav recalls many times when violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi's music fell off the stand, and he kept playing without missing a measure.

Musicians may move from quartet to quartet, but one thing has remained constant for Zaslav: his belief that playing the "Grosse Fuga" Op. 133, Beethoven's original final movement of his Op. 130 String Quartet, is the "peak viola experience."

Stravinsky once described the work as "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever." Zaslav says it's one that will forever challenge and exhilarate its players.

He writes: "Beethoven reveals his audacity, and we navigate his diabolic twists and turns of thematic counterpoint. He has created a work of infernal complexity and musical logic, something undreamed of by either his predecessors or his contemporaries."

Nowadays, Zaslav occasionally coaches music students, but at most concerts he's simply an audience member. In this area, that's a treat, he says. He's a fan of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and he and Naomi often attend string-quartet performances presented by Stanford Lively Arts.

When Zaslav retired from performing, he gave his treasured 1781 Guadagnini viola to Dextra Musica in Norway, which buys instruments and loans them to performing Norwegian musicians.

And he continues to figuratively pass the bow. Earlier this month, when the Pacifica Quartet performed at Stanford, violist Masumi Per Rostad visited Zaslav at his home. He tried out one of his bows, and then Zaslav showed him the recordings he had been on over the years.

The younger violist was particularly taken with a record of Dvorak's string quartets. "He said, 'I grew up on those recordings!'" Zaslav says.

Zaslav also spends a lot of time on the website viola.com, learning about new compositions for his beloved instrument, and connecting with both peers and up-and-coming violists. He smiles thinking about it. "We're a special community."

Info: Bernard Zaslav's book "The Viola in My Life" can be found at amazon.com. For more about the musician, go to http://viola.com/zaslav .

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