Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen’s profile of the violin virtuoso features Heifetz’ previously unseen home movies, Itzhak Perlman, Ivry Gitlis, Ida Haendel and Ayke Agus, April 16 and 17 on PBS (check local listings)
Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen (American Masters — Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge) uncovers the story of legendary musician Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), the first truly modern violin virtuoso, for THIRTEEN‘s American Masters series. The one-hour documentary American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler premieres nationwide Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). Major market premieres include Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. on WTTW11 in Chicago and WHYY-TV in Philadelphia and 10:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN in New York, and Friday, April 17 at 8 p.m. on KERA in Dallas, 8:30 p.m. on WETA TV 26 in Washington, D.C., and 9 p.m. on PBS SoCal in Los Angeles, on KQED in San Francisco, on WGBH 2 in Boston and on Houston Public Media.
The day after the 19-year-old Heifetz’s London debut, George Bernard Shaw wrote him a now legendary letter. “If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection,” Shaw warned, “you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly.”
Heifetz is widely considered to be one of the most profoundly influential performing artists of all time. Born in Vilnius, Lithuania — then occupied by Russia — on February 2, 1901, he became a U.S. citizen in 1925. Fiercely patriotic to his adopted country, he gave hundreds of concerts for Allied service men and women during World War II, including tours of Central and South America, North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany, often playing from the back of a flatbed truck in dangerous conditions.
In 1928, he published the first of dozens of acclaimed violin transcriptions. Many, including his arrangements of selections from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” are now part of the standard repertoire. Using the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, he even wrote a pop song that became a hit in 1946.
In his later years, Heifetz became a dedicated teacher and a champion of causes he believed in. He led efforts to establish “911” as an emergency phone number, and crusaded for clean air. He and his students at the University of Southern California protested smog by wearing gas masks, and in 1967 he converted his Renault passenger car into an electric vehicle. As a result of his vast recorded legacy, Heifetz’s violin playing is no less influential today than it was in his lifetime. To legions of violinists he remains, quite simply, “The King.”
Setting the standard in violin playing for nearly a century, Heifetz’ name became shorthand for excellence for everyone from Jack Benny to The Muppets to Woody Allen. Through vintage performances and master classes, God’s Fiddler portrays an artist for whom only perfection would do. New interviews include other great violinists influenced by Heifetz, including Itzhak Perlman, Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel, former student, accompanist and longtime companion Ayke Agus, former student and master assistant in charge of his world-renowned violin class at the University of Southern California Sherry Kloss, and biographers John Anthony Maltese and Arthur Vered. They reveal how Heifetz was a mysterious, idiosyncratic, solitary figure who embodied the paradox of artistic genius: a dedication to his craft at all costs, including two failed marriages, estrangement from his children and very few friends. Characterized as serious and intense while performing and teaching, his students describe him as generous and playful when socializing.
Filmed in Heifetz’ native Vilnius, Lithuania; Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he studied with the influential Leopold Auer; and in his rebuilt studio in Los Angeles, Calif., American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler also features Heifetz’ previously unseen 16mm footage from 1917-1985, which Rosen discovered at the Colburn Music School in Los Angeles. A self-professed “camera fiend,” Heifetz’ home movies show scenes from his apartment in Saint Petersburg just months before the Russian Revolution, his immigration to America, his early social life in New York City, his family life, his travels through Europe, the Middle East and Japan, and his later years in Los Angeles. Tony-nominated actor Danny Burstein (Boardwalk Empire, Cabaret, Follies) narrates, reading from Heifetz’ personal letters.
“I’ve made previous documentaries about great figures in the arts, and there’s always a debate on who was the greatest conductor, who was the greatest pianist, who was the greatest tenor or soprano. But in making this film, I found no debate in music circles on who was the greatest violinist: Jascha Heifetz,” says Rosen.
“Heifetz is thrilling to watch, even if you rarely listen to classical music,” says Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters. “His technique was just astounding and he was revered around the world. What makes Peter Rosen’s film so compelling is the way that it takes a deeply personal look at the struggle of an artist to realize greatness.”
American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler is a production of Peter Rosen Productions, Inc. Peter Rosen is producer and director. Sara Lukinson is co-producer. Josh Waletzky and Peter Rosen are editors. Peter Rosen is photographer. Barry Markowitz is photographer of The Heifetz Studio at The Colburn School. Michael Kantor is executive producer for American Masters.
Major funding for Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler is provided by the Colburn School. Additional funding for this program is provided by The National Endowment for the Arts, Judith and Burton Resnick, and Kitty Hawks and Larry Lederman. American Masters is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rhoda Herrick, Vital Projects Fund, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Jack Rudin, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation and public television viewers.
Launched in 1986 by series creator Susan Lacy, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series since 1999 and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. Now in its 29th season on PBS, the series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET.
To take American Masters beyond the television broadcast and further explore the themes, stories and personalities of masters past and present, the companion website (http://pbs.org/americanmasters) offers streaming video of select films, interviews, photos, outtakes, essays and other resources. American Masters is also seen on the WORLD channel.
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