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Gift to USC continues a legacy of mentoring

Violinist Alice Schoenfeld's $10-million gift to the Thornton School of Music is in memory of her sister and fellow musician, the late Eleonore Schoenfeld, but also carries with it a classical music lineage that stretches back to Felix Mendelssohn.

February 28, 2013|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • Violinist Alice Schoenfeld, who has taught at USC for more than 50 years, sits near portraits of herself and her late sister, Eleonore Schoenfeld, at her La Canada Flintridge home.
Violinist Alice Schoenfeld, who has taught at USC for more than 50 years,… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

It's no surprise that a conversation with Alice Schoenfeld would go deep into the traditions and legacies of classical music. She has been teaching the violin at USC's Thornton School of Music since 1960, having played her first recital more than 30 years earlier, at age 5.

What's astonishing, as one sits in the large studio of her home in La Canada Flintridge, listening to her talk about her life in music in a clear, lilting, German-accented speaking soprano, is just how deep Schoenfeld's classical lineage goes. Because of who she is and where she's been, the $10 million she recently donated to the Thornton School is a legacy whose meaning goes far beyond what the sum may buy.

The first $3 million, given last fall, went toward renovating a former USC film school facility as a space for orchestral rehearsals — the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld Symphonic Hall, named for Schoenfeld and the cello-playing younger sister who, until her death five years ago, was her housemate, her partner for decades in the Schoenfeld Duo, and her fellow music professor at USC.

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An additional $7 million, announced Feb. 21 as the cornerstone gift of a $75-million fundraising campaign for the Thornton School, creates the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld Endowed Scholarship Fund, whose earnings will cover tuition and other costs for students studying string instruments.

"Everything I do is out of love for my sister," Schoenfeld said as she sat near a basket containing 92 roses, a gift from a student for her 92nd birthday a few days earlier. On the lid of a nearby piano were perched black and white photographs of Eleonore, a dark-haired beauty, and herself, a blond, as young women. "We were pretty cute at the time," Schoenfeld said with a laugh.

Suitors were out of luck, however. Schoenfeld said she decided early on that her musical commitments wouldn't mix with having a husband or children. Eleonore dipped a toe in those waters, then withdrew it. "My sister was engaged to a lovely gentleman, a professor at Stanford," Alice said, but she eventually called it off. "She never felt it would be fair to me or herself, or her husband."

The second musician Schoenfeld talks about, his photograph also perched on the piano next to her own, is Karl Klingler. As a violin teacher he was sufficiently renowned to prompt Schoenfeld's father, himself a violinist, to move the family from her native Yugoslavia to Berlin so she could study with him. Another of Klingler's pupils was Shinichi Suzuki, who went on to establish the influential Suzuki Method of musical instruction.

Klingler "taught me every detail and possibility," Schoenfeld says, "and freedom of imagination." Because of his influence, she says, "I don't want my students to copy me" but to find their own style and work toward their own goals, whether it be renown as a soloist, or holding a chair in an orchestra's violin section.

Klingler also instructed Eleonore Schoenfeld in chamber music techniques, after she had gotten over her first artistic love, dancing, and took up the cello at age 11. Until then, recalls Alice Schoenfeld, "I never saw my sister without bloody toes. She played violin very well also," but their parents — their mother was a fine amateur pianist — vetoed it as her main instrument because "she would have played second fiddle her life long." Alice, by then in her midteens, was already a darling of the European concert scene.

Klingler had married into wealth, and the Schoenfeld sisters would join his family at the castle that was his summer home. "It was a playground for my sister and me and their two daughters," Schoenfeld recalled. "We could make music from morning to night. I was part of the family. I was so spoiled, and had such good fortune." Because of that, "I feel so much I want to do something for my young people."

Hence the $10 million for USC, and an additional sum to establish the Alice and Eleonore Schoenfeld International String Competition for violin and cello, scheduled to debut in Hong Kong in August with more than $400,000 in prize money. The gifts, she said, are mainly the fruit of her and her sister's long performance careers, sound investments, good health and frugal living rather than their earnings as professors.

Going forward, when USC students step into the Schoenfeld rehearsal hall or accept a Schoenfeld string instrument scholarship, they'll be stepping into the heart of the classical tradition. Schoenfeld notes that, just as she was a dear pupil to Klingler, he was dear to his teacher, Joseph Joachim, one of the great violinists of the 19th century. Joachim was a friend and leading interpreter of composers Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and his own beloved teacher and mentor was Felix Mendelssohn.

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