Mintz: violinist and more

September 27, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Mintz with BSO

When: Thursday and Friday at 8:15 p.m.

Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Tickets: $15-$30.

Call: (410) 783-8000. With his blond good looks, his scintillating virtuosity and his creamy tone, it's all too easy to think of Shlomo Mintz as the picture-book image of a popular violinist -- the kind of fiddler who perpetually trots out the masterpieces of Brahms, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to adoring audiences.

Mintz, who performs Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week, is indeed immensely popular. He is the third and youngest of the triumvirate of great Israeli-American violinists -- Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman are the others -- who first achieved world fame under the tutelage of violinist Isaac Stern, the godfather of what is sometimes called the "Kosher Nostra."

But looks can be deceiving. When Mintz talks about the career of someone like Nathan Milstein -- who did nothing but play the violin magnificently until he was 85 -- it is with a tone of regret that indicates his belief that merely playing the violin well is no longer enough to sustain a musician as the 20th century comes to a close.

"I think the needs of people -- both of musicians and of audiences -- have changed," says the 35-year-old Mintz. "We have more components in our lives that are less crafted by hand and spirit and more by machine and schedule. I often think that we musicians are engaged in something like trying to win a grand slam in tennis. If we are to keep our audiences, we have to keep our ranking and play tournaments. The burnout rate is terrible."

Musical diversity

Mintz is a good bet to avoid such burnout. In the past few years, he's begun to diversify. While he plays the violin better than ever, he's also been giving distinguished performances on the viola, developed a career as a conductor (he's the music adviser of the Israel Chamber Orchestra) and become an advocate of contemporary pieces, such as Marc Neikrug's Violin Concerto, which he commissioned a few years back. And he's also -- while politely observing decorum -- been willing to do a good deal of plain speaking.

Why, for example, did Mintz recently abandon a lucrative contract with Deutsche Grammophon that produced a great set of the Bach solo works for violin, several distinguished readings of standard repertory concertos and magnificent recordings (with the pianist Yefim Bronfman) of sonatas by Prokofiev, Franck, Faure and Ravel?

"Good conditions make a difference," Mintz says, indicating dissatisfaction with his recent recording of the Brahms Concerto (with conductor Claudio Abbado) and even more unhappiness with his recording of the Beethoven Concerto with Giuseppe Sinopoli.

"Great works demand a lot of time and care when you record them. If you're not willing to invest that effort, why do it? There are too many recordings, and too many of them aren't good enough. Just to listen to all of the available recordings of either the Brahms or the Beethoven would take you at least two weeks -- time better spent doing other things. I'll be happy to return to things like that, but I won't do it for just anybody. Eventually, one finds the right situation."

Instead, Mintz is now making records with the Israel Chamber Orchestra for MusicMasters, a small New Jersey firm.

"We produce our own records," Mintz says. "We decide what we record, where we record and when we record."

Mintz doesn't say so, but one suspects that he was miffed because Deutsche Grammophon did not want to record the Neikrug concerto, a work that the violinist believes is a great one.

"As the music of today is illumined by its past, so the listeners of the music of the past are enlightened by the new," he says. "The commitment to keeping our performing lives vital and current, and the ears of our audience prepared to hear the old with freshness and the new with open minds, is terribly important now. We are only a few years away from the beginning of a new century, and developing fresh repertoire is every performer's obligation."

But Mintz's commitment also extends to underplayed older works. Most violinists of his reputation never look beyond Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." But he and the ICO have begun to record 42 Vivaldi concertos.

"He's so underrated," the violinist says of Vivaldi. "People tell me that they [the Vivaldi concertos] all sound the same. I can tell them, no. Not all of them are of the greatest importance, but some of them come close in quality to Bach. There's a whole world out there that's bigger and better than the 'Four Seasons.' "

Beyond the violin

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