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The master's class

Former students and admirers of Jascha Heifetz seek to preserve his musical lineage by presenting artists worthy of his imprimatur.

February 12, 2006|Adam Baer | Special to The Times

ON a brisk morning a few weeks ago inside downtown L.A.'s Colburn School of Performing Arts, Claire Hodgkins, 76, an Oregon-born violinist, teacher and former assistant to the late violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz (1901-87), entered the free-standing Lloyd Wright studio that once sat on her mentor's Beverly Hills property and before long made a confession.

"I'm shaking," she said as she identified the Heifetz memorabilia in the room, including an aluminum violin for playing music at the beach, and free-associated about arguably the most storied violinist of the 20th century -- one of the great Russian artists who eventually settled and taught in Southern California, an iconoclast beloved for his impeccable style, knightly posture, dramatic high bow arm, rapid-fire pyrotechnics and scorching emotional intensity.

"It's like I never left," Hodgkins said. "You can feel his spirit in the room."

Hodgkins, who wears Heifetz's favorite cuff links as a brooch, was waiting for the arrival of other Heifetz students for a photo shoot and casual reunion. But these were more than former colleagues. They were active local members of the Jascha Heifetz Society, a nonprofit educational organization devoted to sustaining Heifetz's legacy. Hodgkins runs the group from her Palm Desert home with the help of another former Heifetz student, Sherry Kloss, 59, who is based in Indiana, and a bevy of close-knit board members throughout the world.

The society, launched in 1999 with help from Pacific Palisades attorney and Heifetz friend Jerry Brody, 76, boasts an honorary board peppered with such violin celebrities as Ruggiero Ricci, Igor Oistrakh and Ivry Gitlis -- to say nothing of the Heifetz acolytes, friends, admirers and students of students who continue to live musical lives in service to this strong-minded luminary.

To be sure, larger groups -- including Israel's Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society and Texas' Van Cliburn Foundation -- celebrate renowned musicians from the past with considerable effort every year. But the Heifetz Society stands out because it's more a group of friends and colleagues who feel bonded to one another because of the man who connected them and because of the values, musical and otherwise, he held dear.

Yet what makes the Heifetz Society perhaps the most personal institution of its type is that it honors the daily practices that Heifetz valued and preserves the importance of a particular musical lineage. It puts on master classes -- the public form of teaching that Heifetz preferred after a student had finished basic technical training. It offers study scholarships. And it seeks to preserve Heifetz's influence by searching for young artists worthy of his name's imprimatur and then presenting them onstage.

Tuesday night at Glendale's Alex Theatre, it will sponsor its first Heifetz Prize concert, featuring London-based Min Jin Kym, 26, in a recital of Heifetz favorites, including Beethoven's C-minor Sonata No. 7 and Ravel's gypsy showpiece "Tzigane."

In keeping with Heifetz's high-standards approach, however -- the violinist, who recorded more than 80 albums and received numerous Grammys, rarely offered his stamp of approval to anyone -- prizes from the Heifetz Society aren't handed out to just any fiddler with a clean technique and strong musical sense. Kym received her honor, which isn't a cash award but a lifetime's worth of career promotion, only after Hodgkins and her board members had spent six years searching for a worthy recipient.

Kym is a student of Ricci, 87 -- a Heifetz friend and celebrated virtuoso now based near Palm Springs -- and Hodgkins says the younger violinist's singular Golden Age flair meant that she simply couldn't be ignored. Kym has yet to make her name in America, Hodgkins maintains, only because of a lack of opportunities for individual-sounding violin soloists.

A graduate of Britain's famed Purcell School, Kym, like Heifetz, was something of a prodigy: She debuted with the Berlin Radio Symphony at just 13. But since then, she has deepened her commitment to her instrument, playing under renowned conductors such as Giuseppe Sinopoli and Georg Solti, recording Lalo's "Symphonie Espagnole" with the London Symphony and currently recording all 10 of Beethoven's sonatas with Ian Brown, the pianist who will accompany her Tuesday.

"She has amazing spirit, just doesn't sound like anyone else but herself, and people deserve to know who she is," says Hodgkins. "She's an absolute individual like a young [Nathan] Milstein, Ricci or, yes, Heifetz. That's the kind of musician we encourage."

And though some young violinists may not know the difference between Heifetz and other historic virtuosos, Kym, who listened to Heifetz records as a child and whose prize will net her a Carnegie Hall debut as well as concerts throughout Europe and the Far East, agrees on the importance of lineage in her discipline.

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