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.