Josef Gingold knows more about the violin than any man alive. He's the one who introduced the 13-year-old Itzhak Perlman to chamber music, he's the teacher of Joshua Bell and he's the guy who suggested to a 14-year-old violin wunderkind, wise guy and would-be pool shark named Pinchas Zukerman that he might also look into the viola. To put it in a staccato stroke: Gingold's the maestro behind many bows -- he's the greatest violin teacher in the world.
"Look, my dear, my whole life is centered around that little cheese box of ours," Gingold says when he's asked why -- after two strokes and at the age of 82 -- he continues to teach more than 20 students each year at Indiana University. "I just adore the fiddle, its history and its future -- and that means I adore the kids who are studying. It's a joy to be able to teach -- it's a mitzvah, a blessing. God blessed me by making me a violinist and making me able to help others."
Gingold comes to town this week as the chairman of the jury of the Peabody Conservatory's Marbury Violin Competition. For several days Baltimore will be the center of the fiddle-playing world because Gingold will be joined on the jury by three celebrated former students -- Miriam Fried, Nai-Yuan Wu and Jaime Laredo, all of them former first-prize winners in the most prestigious of all violin contests, the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels. Gingold will also participate in a public symposium about competitions and -- in the gravelly, grandfatherly voice that has been imitated by generations of violinists -- dispense wisdom at public master lessons.
No one can help aspiring violinists more than Gingold. He's done it all: He's played in Broadway pit orchestras and in Arturo Toscanini's legendary NBC Symphony; he was a great quartet player; and he was the concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1947 to 1960, helping George Szell transform that provincial ensemble into one of the world's greatest symphonies. That would be career enough for any musician, but in the years since leaving Cleveland, he has produced an unending stream of concert soloists, orchestral players (nearly half the concertmaster chairs in major American orchestras are occupied by Gingold students) and chamber music players. What's more, Gingold is himself one of the century's greatest violin virtuosos.
"I just wanted our students to be exposed to him," says Herbert Greenberg, professor of violin at Peabody, concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and the organizer of this week's events surrounding his former mentor. "Everything I am as a violinist and a teacher I owe to him."
What makes Gingold such a great teacher, say his students, is that he is a great man with the ability to inspire others. When you talk to Gingold students, you come away with the feeling that their teacher (whom they all reverently refer to as "Mr. Gingold") is to the violin what Mother Teresa is to charitable works -- and, by most accounts, nearly as saintly.
"There's something about the violin that makes it a bit of a truth machine," says Oliver Steiner, a Gingold student who teaches at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. "You don't find someone who is brutal with people caressing the violin in a sensitive way." But for all Gingold's sweetness, Steiner is quick to add, he is a very demanding teacher.
"Demanding in the best way because he tells you what to do rather than what not to do," Steiner says. "A bad teacher -- and by that I mean most teachers -- will complain, for example, that you're producing an ugly sound because you're using too much bow pressure. For that you don't need a teacher -- you can pick someone off the street. But instead of giving you negative images that sabotage your playing, Mr. Gingold concentrates your imagination on what is beautiful."
When Steiner first began to work with Gingold, he was a rebellious teen-ager so in love with music's emotive power, he says, that he refused to use his intellect.
"I thought paying attention to markings in a score was nitpicking, and my other teachers reinforced my attitude because they made it seem like mindless rule following," he says. "I was playing the first violin part in Schubert's A Minor Quartet with all my heart and ignoring the articulation marks. Mr. Gingold stopped me and said, 'Ollie, I see what you're trying to do, but I like to articulate there.' He picked up his Strad and played the theme in this incredibly inspired way. My head was reeling from how beautiful it was. He showed me that following the composer's marks wasn't merely a matter of following rules, but of responding in an imaginative way that made music more full of feeling than I ever could have imagined."
Gingold has a vital connection to the glorious history of the violin -- he was the last student of the legendary Belgian violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye -- and he is himself perhaps the last living piece of that tradition.
"When I was just a kid he would tell me stories about Ysaye, Kreisler, Heifetz and Elman," Joshua Bell says. "They were just names to me, but he made them come alive and made me feel connected to the violin's past."
"In his sense of aesthetics, he makes you think of the violin as a medium that you sing through, not as an instrument that you only play," Miriam Fried says. "He really belongs much more to the glorious past of violin playing than he does to the 20th century of clean, efficient, analytical and -- all too often -- heartless playing. If not for him, I'm sure I would have joined those ranks."
"They were great, those violinists of the past -- but they played in a style that was appropriate for when they lived," Gingold says. "We're living in another time -- the computer age -- and we have to play another way. The general level of violin playing is now the highest it's ever been. I know violinists in every orchestra who could get up -- on four seconds notice -- and play the Brahms concerto. But I think the level of top artists was higher years ago. I remember once hearing Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, Huberman and Thibaud in a period of 12 days -- and each one had his own individuality. Maybe I'm getting older -- older, I certainly am getting -- but I hear less elegance and beauty today. It was a different age. My teacher Ysaye looked the part of the great master he was. He would greet guests in a Prince Albert coat and striped trousers -- he was so beautiful! Can you imagine someone wearing that today?"
"He loves sitting back and reminiscing," Greenberg says. " 'Stop living in the past, Joe,' his [late] wife Gladys used to say. But in a way his present is his past -- or, at least, it involves keeping his past alive."
Gingold was born in the Polish-Russian border town of Brest-Litovsk in 1909. He and his family became refugees in World War I, barely surviving it. After watching a gang of Polish soldiers torment an elderly Orthodox Jew by plucking out his beard, they decided to emigrate to the United States, eventually settling in New York in 1920.
"We lived in a tenement with no hot water and only one toilet to every four or five families," Gingold says. "The first thing you heard in the morning was pounding on the doors and shouts of 'Give someone else a chance.' But I loved this country -- being a Jew didn't mean you had to be afraid -- and my favorite subject in school was American history."
Gingold had been playing the violin since the age of 3 -- he had learned to play from an older brother -- and began taking lessons at a settlement house for poor children. In 1927, his family raised enough money to send the talented boy to Brussels to study with Ysaye. But when young Joseph returned in 1930 after a successful European tour, he was not able to make a career as a soloist.
"How could he?" Miriam Fried asks. "It was the Depression. If you look at American violinists, Menuhin made a great career as a child prodigy in the '20s and Isaac Stern made one as a young adult in the '40s. If Mr. Gingold had been 10 years younger or older, he might have become a world-famous soloist. But destiny had something better in store for him -- and he ended up influencing several generations of young people."
The only work Gingold could find was as a pit musician in a Jerome Kern musical, "The Cat and the Fiddle." That job led to several years of playing Broadway shows.
"It was great," Gingold says. "The music was wonderful, I was making $80 a week -- that's like $800 today -- and I learned two valuable lessons. One is that no two performances are alike, which means that you never take your eye off the baton. The other was that what may be your 75th performance is the first performance to your audience -- and that it deserves to hear it fresh."
In 1937, the young violinist became a charter member of Toscanini's NBC Symphony, and 10 years later he was persuaded by George Szell to join the Cleveland Orchestra as its concertmaster.
"Szell was the greatest orchestra builder -- I learned a lot about teaching from him -- and what he did in Cleveland was just amazing," Gingold says. "When we used to play Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, it was like a great string quartet. But Toscanini was the greater musical genius -- the greatest recreative musician of the 20th century. What integrity he had! To this day, whenever I do something stupid, I still see those big, coal-black ,, eyes looking daggers at me and saying, 'Vergogna!' -- 'Shame on you!' "
In the late 1950s, when Indiana University set about developing an outstanding school of music, it decided to lure Gingold away from Cleveland. Although Bloomington is now home to one of the most distinguished musical faculties in the world, Gingold enjoys a special place in it. He is to the music school what the blue-dyed oxford-cloth shirt is to Brooks Brothers and what Tom Seaver was to the 1970s' Mets -- he's "the Franchise."
"One person cannot make a music school, but a person of Joe's ability, insight, talent and devotion can create a fantastic environment in which many other people thrive," says Charles Webb, the dean of the music school. "It's no exaggeration to say that he revolutionized violin teaching here."
As for Gingold, he has no complaints.
"I still adore my fiddle and adore teaching," he says. "What more can I want?"
The following events involving Josef Gingold take place in the Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall and are free to the public:
January 29, 9 a.m.: first round of the Marbury Competition.
January 30, 8:30 a.m.: final round of the Marbury Competition.
January 30, 12:30 p.m.: panel discussion on violin competitions.
For more information, call (410)659-8140.