Oliver Steiner upholds violin's golden age

November 05, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Chances are that you've never heard of violinist Oliver Steiner. A glance at what he's playing at his recital tomorrow at Temple Har Sinai might help explain why.

While the first half of the program looks ordinary by late 20th-century standards (sonatas by Beethoven, Debussy and Vivaldi), the second half seems positively antediluvian: short works and transcriptions by Fritz Kreisler, Henryk Wieniawski, Camille Saint-Saens and even Steiner's own transcription of a Hasidic dance. It's the kind of program that was old-fashioned even before the 53-year-old was born.

"One of the advantages of not having a big career is that I can do exactly what I want," Steiner says. "I don't have to please a manager. And I have discovered that, as far as audiences are concerned, there are a lot of people whose musical inclinations are similar to mine. If this sort of program is old-fashioned well, it's the sort of programming practiced by the violinists I always admired most."

Those violinists invariably turn out to be long dead -- musicians with old-fashioned names like Jascha (Heifetz), Mischa (Elman) and Toscha (Seidel). But Steiner's never been a slave to fashion. Even when he was a student at the Juilliard School in New York, his antiquarian interests made him stand out among his peers.

"Ollie always had the guts to be different," says one of his old friends, violinist-violist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman. "But let me tell you this. When Ollie plays that stuff -- the shtikeleh [Yiddish for "little pieces"] and the transcriptions the old-timers used to play -- he can really make the past come alive."

This is not to say that Steiner is a purely intuitive musician. BSO violinist Gregory Mulligan, who was Steiner's student at the Eastman School, remembers Steiner (who now teaches at Georgia State University in Atlanta) as having one of the most analytic minds he has ever encountered.

"But I also remember him comparing playing the violin to observing Jewish traditions," Mulligan says. "He said: 'Sometimes you do things, not because you know why, but because it's a tradition. You only know the reason after you've done it.' "

But Steiner believes that the violin's golden age ended long ago and was replaced by an emphasis on standards that have nothing to do with great art.

"The violinists today who tend to fare best are those who play with the least number of mistakes and with the most aggressive style," Steiner says.

"For me, the zenith of violin playing is represented by the Russian violinists who were trained in Czarist times. Heifetz, Elman, Nathan Milstein and Toscha Seidel -- they all had a special ability to touch the heart deeply. And because they were playing the violin to communicate emotions, they strove to modulate the violin's voice like the human voice and to develop a variety of articulations like the human voice. Today I hear violin playing that is modeled after a percussive approach rather than a vocal one. I hear the violin played like a xylophone."

Oliver Steiner

What: Oliver Steiner, violinist, with pianist Cary Lewis

Where: Temple Har Sinai, 6300 Park Heights Ave.

When: 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: Free

Call: 410-764-2882

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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