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Violinist Roman Totenberg at 95


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. In Boston tonight friends, fans and family were gathered to celebrate Roman Totenberg's 95th birthday. Yes, NPR's own Nina Totenberg will be there. After all she's his daughter. For more than 85 years Roman Totenberg has been a professional violinist and teacher. His career has taken him from Warsaw to Moscow to Berlin, to Paris and finally to Boston where he's been sharing his wisdom with aspiring students for more than 40 years. He still teaches at Boston University. Andrea Shea reports.

(soundbite of music)

ANDREA SHEA, reporting:

Roman Totenberg has been practicing the violin everyday since he was six.

ROMAN TOTENBERG (Violinist): Now I'm more than six years old.

SHEA: His instrument is a Guarneri, circa 1736.

Mr. TOTENBERG: So you see there are older things than I am.

SHEA: The 95-year-old violinist's sweet sense of humor has helped him get through some very tough times. Totenberg's life story is as compelling and complex as his music. On the eve of the First World War, his parents moved to an improvised Russia where he says he helped the family survive by performing around Moscow with an elderly teacher. Totenberg was only seven years old.

Mr. TOTENBERG: Invariably the people give us white bread and butter and other things to eat which we'd take home. And that was actually the first impression of the value of the heart, what can it bring to you to survive, so to say.

SHEA: Totenberg's playing eventually helped the child prodigy do much more than survive. He studied in Berlin with Carl Flesch who was known for shaping young gifted violinists. But at age 20 Totenberg fled to Paris as Hitler's shadow grew. There he mingled with a thriving intellectual community that included Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Composer Georges Enesco and pianist and composer Karol Szymanowski.

Mr. TOTENBERG: Practically everybody that was somebody was there. All the French artists but also the German artists who came to find refuge in France.

SHEA: In Paris, Totenberg made friends with Russian artists, too. Among them composer Igor Stravinsky and his son, pianist Soulima Stravinsky with whom Totenberg later recorded.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: As fascism continued to spread across Europe, Totenberg, like many of his contemporaries, fled to the United States. Again his music helped him survive and make new friends. At the age of 24 he played at the White House for President Roosevelt. As Totenberg describes the evening, he points to a photograph of Roosevelt hanging on the wall of his studio.

Mr. TOTENBERG: It was so charming that I was completely taken with a country that can have such wonderful president and such wonderful atmosphere. Totenberg is full of stories. Stories driven by world history, politics, art and war. And while he's called America home for over 70 years, he never forgets his European roots. He says his canary, Totenbird, is a throwback to the old country.

(Soundbite of canary)

Mr. TOTENBERG: That's better.

SHEA: Totenberg, it seems, can't help but teach. He started, he says, when he was 11.

(Soundbite of violins)

SHEA: Yesterday about 70 musicians, some of them former and current students, gathered in Boston University's Tsai Performance Center to rehearse for tonight's celebration.

(Soundbite of violin)

SHEA: BU junior, Yvgenni Cotec(ph) has been studying violin for 15 years. The last five of them with Roman Totenberg. He says his current teacher is different then any other he's had including his mother.

YVGENNI COTEC (Junior, Boston University): Many teachers like to put a kind of stamp on you sometimes, and he knows exactly how not to do that. And he knows how to let your individuality and your, like, special, unique talent shine through your playing. He knows how not to touch that so you don't come out like cookie cutters.

SHEA: Cotec was born in Russia but he's been here long enough to speak fluent English. Over the decades Roman Totenberg has taught students from across the globe, and he's done it well says Andre de Quadros, the director of Boston University School of Music.

ANDRE DE QUADROS (Director School of Music, Boston University): He's had students from so many different places and he has to, in a sense, be able to be adaptive and to modify his teaching styles, his personal message. And that's rather a difficult thing to do.

SHEA: The ability to adapt and maintain something of his own identity characterizes Roman Totenberg's playing says Richard Buell. Buell is a music critic for the Boston Globe and the Boston Phoenix and he says the violinist has gotten better with age.

RICHARD BUELL (Music Critic): Roman Totenberg doesn't waste any energy. He knows the direct route to what he wants. He's heard all the mistakes that can be made, even by himself, over all the years. So you hear all this stored up experience and wisdom.

(soundbite of music)

SHEA: For his part, Roman Totenberg seems too modest to claim he's a better performer now. He says matter-of-factly, you simply play differently at different times of your life.

Mr. TOTENBERG: As a very young person you play much more aggressively, probably. And then you come to a point where you are much more philosophy with, with music, and understand more the beauty of the composition and how it was constructed and how each great composer has some kind of special ability to shape a phase and do something very special with it.

(soundbite of music)

SHEA: Violinist Roman Totenberg has played with some of the world's great orchestras. He helped champion the music of Samuel Barber and commissioned a piece from Leonard Bernstein. But in the end he says music and life are intertwined. He adds it all comes down to connecting with people.

Mr. TOTENBERG: Going through life like I have done in many countries and civilizations, I think as a result you learn to live with people, understand how to get along with them or to find the best part of them and love that best part. That's why I think music is a personal relationship.

SHEA: And over the course of 95 years, Roman Totenberg has forged quite a few of them. For NPR News I'm Andrea Shea.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Shea