The master's class

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.

"One of my biggest regrets is that I never got to see Heifetz live," she said from London. "This is the most genuine award a violinist could hope for. It will ensure that a new generation will continue Claire's work."

It's inevitable: As years pass, finding students, much less organized groups of students, with connections to great soloists from the past becomes more and more difficult. But despite the Heifetz Society's small group of dedicated members, no living violinist is likely to disagree that the group's idol was perhaps the most memorable of his lot: an unusually idiosyncratic and regal man, known for his strong opinions, reserved demeanor, penchant for strict social formalities and smart, often darkly humorous, tongue.

Heifetz enjoyed direct ties to the monumental Hungarian-born pedagogue Leopold Auer, teacher of such other early 20th century virtuosos as Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist (Auer himself was a student of Joseph Joachim, the 19th century virtuoso to whom Brahms dedicated his Violin Concerto). As a child in Lithuania, Heifetz had to support his family with his concertizing. And even though he moved to Beverly Hills in the 1940s and began to enjoy the so-called good life -- tinkering with gadgets, buying a house in Malibu -- he remained an emblem of an important chapter in performance history. Chronologically speaking, Heifetz was a bridge from the old world to the new, but musically, pedagogically, socially, he was adamant about tradition, and through becoming a household name on RCA Victor records that spun through wars and the rise of rock, he became the kind of man whom people from all walks of life were drawn to, a revered leader with a quasi-religious following.

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A caring for his students

PERHAPS not surprisingly, some unflattering Heifetz anecdotes have circulated for decades, painting pictures of an unfeeling taskmaster who beat at his desk with an old car antenna and didn't accept anything less than perfection. According to Hodgkins and Kloss, however, few people, except for his close friends and master class students from the 1960s on, knew the real Heifetz. The only people who attempted to tarnish his reputation, they say, didn't understand his intentions and weren't accepted into the inner circle -- mostly because they weren't "refined," or perhaps because they acted too fan-like or pompous, played like copycats or arrived as demanding wannabes. Or they were musicians who "played to impress."

When Heifetz inaugurated his famous master class series at USC in 1962 -- Hodgkins performed in the first series, which is available on video and has become something of a cult possession for violin aficionados -- the violinist was in his early 60s and about to separate from his second wife.

"He always loved teaching and his students," Hodgkins says. "But at this point, he was more alone than ever, and he took many of us on as his family and adopted himself into our families, often coming over to our homes for dinner or having us to his Malibu beach house on holidays for chamber music parties."

Heifetz devoted himself to teaching two full days a week, offered financial support to those who came from all over the world to study with him and frequently got involved in every aspect of students' lives, all to help them develop their musical personalities.

"I was not the type of person who knew all his recordings," Kloss says on the phone from Indiana. "I didn't come attempting to copy his personal style. He was a tough taskmaster, sure. If you were his student, he dealt with everything from appearance to musicianship and personal habits. But he didn't tell you how to play the violin -- he pushed you to find your own voice. And he would never demonstrate unless it was absolutely necessary, and then only for the amount of measures that was necessary.

"The tragedy is that once these artists are gone, they're forgotten," Kloss says. "Who's talking about David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein anymore? I would teach in universities in the 1970s and students didn't even know Heifetz's name then. That's why our mission is so crucial. If we don't do it, Heifetz is just a figment in people's minds."

Robert Lipsett, who is one of America's best-known violin pedagogues and holds the Heifetz Chair at the Colburn School, has the honor of teaching in Heifetz's restored studio, where he recently showed his own students films of the violinist teaching.

"It is rare that someone is so clearly preeminent in his field," he said as the society members reunited. "His impact on the world, and on this town, was tremendous, and simply teaching in this room makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up."

The society has plans to put on more concerts and master classes throughout the spring and summer, featuring such performer-teachers as Ricci and Gitlis. Its less immediate goals include supporting a young string quartet, sponsoring in-school programs and releasing CDs and DVDs. In addition, it awards occasional small cash prizes: A recent scholarship winner, Will Haapeniemi, 20, of Van Nuys is studying at the Manhattan School of Music, where he sits as concertmaster in two of the school's orchestras.

"We just can't let his legacy remain on the CD shelf," Hodgkins said of Heifetz after the photo shoot. "Being in his class was like being in a family, and he made us all better humans. That's why I say this society isn't about us, it's about Heifetz. And now with members -- young members -- in Tokyo, Switzerland, Paris and elsewhere, I just hope it will go on forever."

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Min Jin Kym

Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $20

Contact: (818) 243-2539 or www.alextheatre.org

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