HERBERT Greenberg played Bach on his 1685 Stradivarius the other day and marveled at incongruous things, beautiful and awful -- that the violin was made the year Bach was born and that he could be playing it while a war was on.
The violin is particularly special for Greenberg, concertmaster for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for he first played it when he climbed the concert violinist's Mt. Everest, Beethoven's Violin Concerto, in 1985 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
"I had just seen it. A Washington dealer I know said, 'Try it.' I said 'I can't buy it.' He said, 'Try to . . . take it.' So I took it. Itzak Perlman and I played it here alone in the Meyerhoff. He said 'Buy it. You've got to.' The amazing thing was it took about 75 percent less pressure to make that beautiful rich, creamy sound and be heard in the whole hall. I played it and I bought it."
Strads, made by the Italian Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and helpers, retain the name of former owners. Greenberg's is called the Jean Becker violin for a famous 19th century German violinist who founded a well-known group, the Florentine Quartet, in Florence.
It's the one Meyerhoff patrons will again hear and see Feb. 1, 2 and 3 when Greenberg, the highly regarded solo, chamber and orchestra violinist, solos in the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Karol Szymanowski (1883-1937). He was a Polish impressionist composer, considered by some the most creative Polish composer since Chopin, though perhaps not as easy to absorb.
The other day, while playing the Bach and some Beethoven, Greenberg also wondered out loud "Why am I playing . . . what's happening to the war . . . why am I playing?"
It was a mixture of the same wide-eyed exuberance (he calls himself a "space cadet" sometimes) and serious artistry that have come to be expected by some BSO regulars. They enjoy Greenberg's warming up the 96-member orchestra before conductor David Zinman arrives and his elaborate bow tap applauses for visiting soloists.
In the pre-concert ceremony as integral as the rituals of baseball (and which a few may call showy), Greenberg checks out the evening's crowd, takes a little bow, hears the oboist play the A note, tunes his instrument along with others, flips his tails off the seat (they got stuck in the seat once earlier this year), sits down and waits for pitcher Zinman to get on the mound and start throwing the fastball.
The baseball analogy is not totally inappropriate since Greenberg, 41, figures himself to be something of a Cal Ripken on the BSO team, in his 10th year as the BSO concertmaster after coming over from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra team. A concertmaster is always an orchestra's principal violinist, an important person whose movements can be as subtle as hand signals from the shortstop and deserving of perks like a private dressing room.
"I'm not an outgoing leader," Greenberg said, "When I come out it's most symbolic, letting people know the concert's going to begin. When the music starts, in an artistic sense, the job begins. It's two things. First, I have to know the music, and then it's a psychological game, knowing and translating what the conductor wants, even knowing ahead of him. It's a feeling.
"If the conductor has to tell me, I'm not there. I may not agree with it, but I have to do exactly that person's interpretation of the music. It becomes a fast trigger mechanism. All the principal players watch the concertmaster. Months before, my job started when I made the bowings for the string section -- marked the score so the bows are in unison. I coordinate this with the other principal players." The triggers are pulled and the music begins.
Greenberg enjoys his musical life "because I can branch off . . . I couldn't play just in the symphony. I love teaching -- at the Peabody, the Kent-Blossom Festival in Cleveland, the Sarasota Music Festival, classes soon in Vancouver and Seattle." He plays in the Baltimore String Quartet. Its next concert is 3 p.m., Feb. 10, at Westminster Hall. Included is Beethoven's C-Sharp Minor Quartet, which Greenberg said Beethoven called his best work.
The Philadelphia native relieves tension by running -- he once ran 10 miles near his Columbia home just before playing the Strauss solo "Ein Heldenleben" and he once ran 100 kilometers (62 miles) in 11 hours in a race from Philadelphia to Atlantic City.
"But it's less running since they took my L5 [lumbar disc]. My L4's still a problem. Before they took the disc, I went to sleep hearing the Beethoven Quartet. The nurse had to take the earphones away. The doctors said they turned it on when they operated. I've learned how to swim and will try triathalons. It's easier."
The violinist met his wife, Mary, when he played in the Minnesota Orchestra where her father, Rhadames Angelucci, was principal oboist. The couple has three children, Aaron, who is at Indiana, his dad's alma mater; 11th-grader Michael and fifth-grader Ian.