The Grande Dame of the Violin
Ida Haendel may be a septuagenarian, but she's also a woman who defies age. Today, she says, she has more to offer as an artist than ever before.
"Flamboyant" is the word that first comes to mind when you meet the legendary violinist, Ida Haendel. In her turquoise pantaloons, rose-patterned high heels, white knit sweater and extravagant jewellery, she conducts one of her rare master classes.
"I don't want to teach, I don't want to tell anybody else how they should play," she says when asked about the lessons. Yet for the duration of the class, Haendel manages to inspire, impress and encourage a group of some of the world’s most talented young violinists.
She uses Greta Garbo to make a point about how a crucial passage in César Franck's violin sonata should sound: "Greta Garbo would only give a sigh, and everyone around her would collapse from the power of its hushed meaning," she says. Then she takes a student's violin and plays the passage, proving her argument in sound, adding: "You give everything too soon, but less is more. It's about control and what comes next. Everything is a strategy, like a general preparing for war."
A violin-toting toddler
Ida Haendel’s career has followed anything but a strategic plan. Born on Dec. 15, 1924, in Poland, she first started playing the violin at just three and a half years of age. She simply picked up a violin that belonged to her father and played, note-perfect, a song her mother had been singing in another room. Impressed by his daughter's talent, Ida's father, a portrait painter, moved the family from Chelm in Eastern Poland to a one-room flat in Warsaw to allow Ida to study at the city’s conservatory with the country’s most famous violin teacher, Michalowicz.
At seven she was a finalist in the prestigious Wieniawski Competition and, in 1933, after a performance of the Beethoven Violin concerto, young Ida won the conservatory gold medal as well as the first Huberman Prize. The prize money allowed her to study abroad, and shortly afterwards her family moved to Britain. There, she studied with one of the violin world’s most celebrated violinists and teachers, Carl Flesh. But the lessons came to an abrupt end after Flesh, fearing a Nazi invasion, fled Britain to live in Switzerland
In 1937, Ida Haendel had her London debut at Queen's Hall with Sir Henry Wood conducting. She also gave numerous concerts during this time for the British troops. After the war, she continued her studies with the composer, violinist and pianist Georges Enescu. "I was spellbound by Enescu, because I think he was one of the world's great geniuses," she says. "I admired him for his divine violin playing, his brilliant piano playing and as a great composer."
She says Enescu’s playing was some of the most inspired she had ever heard. On her latest recording, Haendel performs the Enescu sonata with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenasy -- an homage to her great teacher.
After the war Ida Haendel’s career blossomed and her trademark pieces became the Britten, Walton, Elgar and Sibelius concertos. Composer Jean Sibelius once heard her perform his "Violin Concerto" on the radio and sent her a note of congratulations, praising her work. The piece became her signature work. In 1982, the Sibelius Society awarded Haendel the Sibelius Medal in recognition of her distinguished performances of his Violin Concerto -- just one of many awards and honors the violinist has received in her lifetime.