The Violin Channel recently caught up with British playwright, James Inverne.
In a VC-exclusive blog, James discusses the inspiration for his new off-Broadway play, ‘A Walk With Mr. Heifetz’ – open now at New York City’s Cherry Lane Theatre.
“I always wanted to play the violin. True, when, as a musically-minded six-year-old my parents asked me what instrument I might learn, I opted for the piano (because, I was told, rather chasteningly in retrospect, piano “is the easiest to play and make sound good” – reading that loud and clear, thank you). But there was always something about the violin that sang to me. Something to do with the fact that whereas with piano, once you play a note or a chord it is, well, played – there’s a limited amount you can then do with it – the violin can stretch a note. It can make it swell or ebb, can blench it into astringency or make it weep with unbearably rich vibrato. So generous are its possibilities that a single note can range across many flavours, many feelings.
There’s something of that in Jewish culture. We Jews are raised on the concept of feeling lots of things at once. Just as our humour can be simultaneously morbid and uproarious, our festivals at once joyful and mourning, so our music aches even as it soars. If you’ve ever heard a Jewish cantor’s melismatic meditations in front of the Ark, you’ll understand how those notes quest, explore and what they fix on is different for everybody. It is no accident that there are so many accomplished Jewish violinists, nor that one of civilisation’s earliest citations of a musical instrument is in the Jewish bible – the “kinor” of King David. The Hebrew word “kinor” means an early kind of violin.
Well, I didn’t learn the violin – despite having listened to a great deal of violin music, not least as the Editor of Gramophone, and latterly with a music consultancy I run – but I have written a play. It features a violinist in its title and another in its cast. The play, called A Walk With Mr Heifetz, is about the resonances of Jascha Heifetz’s first visit to British Mandate Palestine/pre-Israel in 1926, when the superstar soloist played not in a concert hall (the country didn’t yet have one) but in a stone quarry, at a kibbutz in the north.
You will be relieved to hear that we do not try to recreate Heifetz’s actual concert. In any case, no musician could possibly try to imitate Heifetz’s uniquely individual brand of intensity. But our violinist, the wonderful Mariella Haubs, uses the instrument in ways that drive the drama forward and, in several moments, play an important part in unlocking the key to a major character’s cathartic breakthrough.
And in some senses this whole process has shown me that playwriting is a bit like playing the violin, at least for me. When I first sent the play to some well-placed friends in the theatre world, it was one thing. It was, if you like, the first moment that the bow hits the strings. Since then its definition has shifted, immensely and in fascinating ways. The three years of development, revision, workshops, and now previews prior to opening night – these have seen the play explore different aspects of its story, trying and testing different narrative routes, emotional weighting, the very role that music could have within all of that. Rhythm – the rhythms of scenes, the rhythms of speeches and even phrases – became an overriding concern for me, setting up the ‘time signature’ (so to speak) within which the work would remain itself, while having the freedom to seek its paths.
What we have ended up with is half as long and twice as powerful as what we started with. It has meant so many things to me, and now I feel all of those experience, those meanings, at once. Now, I feel all the oscillations of those three years in microcosm, every time the performance starts.
As Mariella’s violin soars in the Cherry Lane Theatre every night, the play presents itself to me as if it were a violin sonata, stretching, bending, shifting. So, no, I never did learn to play music on the violin. But I wrote a play that does something very, very similar; even if it only feels that way to me. As for everyone else, well, if they ‘only’ enjoy it I’ll still be happy.
James Inverne is an English writer, artist manager and cultural critic – specializing in theatre, opera, classical music and film | Presented by Primary Stages, ‘A Walk with Mr. Heifetz’ will run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City from the 31st of January through to the 4th of March