By Sasha Margolis
Few music-lovers today have heard of violinist Israel Baker. But nearly everyone has heard Baker’s glorious playing—whether they know it or not. Born a hundred years ago this year, Baker was one of Jascha Heifetz’s most trusted chamber-music partners, a favorite violinist of Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski, and Bruno Walter, and a top Hollywood concertmaster whose bewitching solos adorned some of Hollywood’s most famous films. He was also, incidentally, a remarkably affable man who formed friendships with a virtual Who’s Who of musical and motion-picture personalities.
Born in Chicago, the son of immigrants from Russia, Baker started early on the violin: He made his national-radio debut at age six. His beloved first teacher was Adolf Pick, a Prague native who in his youth worked extensively with Dvořák. Further studies with Bronislaw Huberman, Louis Persinger, and Jacques Gordon took Baker to New York, where he attracted Stokowski’s notice. In 1941, the legendary conductor made him concertmaster for his All-American Youth Orchestra. A South American tour followed, featuring Baker as soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto. When the US entered WWII, the young violinist joined the Army Air Forces, fulfilling his service by playing for wounded veterans. At war’s end, opportunities for film recording took him to Los Angeles.
In Hollywood, Baker was a busy man. Appointed concertmaster at Paramount Pictures, he worked closely with composers including Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, Elmer Bernstein—and after the demise of the studio system, John Barry and Maurice Jarre. In 1960, he recorded violin solos for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. (He is also rumored to have personally come up with the iconic violin shrieks in Bernard Herrmann’s celebrated score.) More Baker solos can be heard in the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
But the Los Angeles where young Baker arrived wasn’t just home to the movies. A host of classical-music giants lived there: Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky. As a deep-thinking musician and flawless technician who happened to be a phenomenal sight reader, Baker easily stood astride both worlds. Early in his L.A. days, he formed a duo with pianist Yaltah Menuhin; together, they made a 1951 New York debut. Hired as concertmaster for the Columbia Symphony, he made recordings with Bruno Walter, who fell in love with his playing just as Stokowski had. In 1961, he recorded Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat, Stravinsky conducting. (The recording was reissued in 2007 with narration by Jeremy Irons.) Stravinsky wanted Baker to record his Violin Concerto, but Columbia overruled in favor of the more marketable Isaac Stern. Baker did record the thorny Schoenberg Concerto (which in Heifetz’s estimation required a violinist with a six-fingered hand) and Schoenberg’s Phantasy, with Glenn Gould at the piano.
He had a beautiful, intense, very clear sound with that kind of intonation that is just right on the note. He played things that no one else could touch. —Zina Schiff
Also in 1961, Baker (following an audition for Heifetz during which he flawlessly sight-read two difficult pages of music) was invited to perform as second violinist in the Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts. Thanks to subsequent recordings, the two violinists’ perfect blend can still be heard in a wealth of glorious repertoire: octets by Mendelssohn and Spohr, and quintets and sextets by Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, and Tchaikovsky.
If Israel Baker was esteemed by the greatest of musicians, the question arises: Why didn’t he enjoy a major solo career? One answer, according to his daughter Hilary, is that “he was terrified of flying . . . I think he realized that impacted his professional career.” Nonetheless, says violinist Endre Granat (like Baker, a major Hollywood concertmaster and Heifetz intimate), “Izzy was a phenomenal violinist. Not a good one. Phenomenal.”
What was his playing like? For Granat, “He had a purity of sound that was very rare.” Another top Hollywood concertmaster, Bruce Dukov, recalls that Baker “didn’t do a lot of those slides that Heifetz did, but he had that intensity. The vibrato had that oscillation that was similar.” And Boston-based soloist Zina Schiff, who as a young girl studied simultaneously with Heifetz and Baker, asks: “If you listen to the chamber-music recordings, can you tell who’s playing first and second?”
“He had a beautiful, intense, very clear sound,” says Schiff, “with that kind of intonation that is just right on the note. He played things that no one else could touch. He had a bigger hand than Mr. Heifetz, and I think could do things that a lot of violinists with smaller hands couldn’t do.”
It was Heifetz who sent Schiff to Baker, specifically for scale work. (He paid for the lessons himself.) “When Israel Baker walked in the door,” Schiff remembers, “I had just lost my Daddy a couple of years before, and he was the most fatherly, loving, gentle, sweet, funny, adorable, compassionate man—he knew that I was studying dancing, so he said my fingers have to be like ballerinas.”
Schiff remembers that Baker “was the most incredible sight reader. He had to be. And that was the whole idea. When you did the scales, what were you learning? Patterns.” His emphasis, “which was so counterintuitive,” says Schiff, “was just to practice them slowly and easily. We used the Hrimaly book—two pages. That was it—the whole cycle of scales, three octaves. You did it once, and the whole idea was concentration. You did it slowly, you saw what happened, which shift didn’t work, which note was out of tune. You remembered that, and then you played it again and corrected it. The whole cycle of scales, and then you picked one, and did it in double-stops and arpeggios. And that was it.”
Baker did record the thorny Schoenberg Concerto (which in Heifetz’s estimation required a violinist with a six-fingered hand).
“With shifting,” says Schiff, Baker “wanted your thumb to be so loose that you could sort of play without it. And if your head was on the violin, resting—resting, not clenching—it would be so easy. There was something magical he brought to it, a kind of ‘look-ma-no-hands’ kind of thing.’”
Baker was a popular figure around L.A. He gave violin lessons to Jack Benny, and was friends with Jerry Lewis, who even attended L’histoire rehearsals. Following those rehearsals, according to Dukov, Baker would drive Stravinsky home in his Jaguar. “He was hoping to hear some great musical knowledge,” Dukov recounts. “But he said: ‘All Stravinsky wanted to talk about was my car!’”
The Heifetz-Piatigorsky concerts carried over into Christmas and New Years’ celebrations and chamber-music parties, sometimes at Baker’s home. Hilary Baker still remembers the giant Piatigorsky picking up his cello and putting it under his chin to play like a violin. One friend, however, was banned: “My father wanted to ask my mother if they could invite Jerry Lewis, and she said ‘Absolutely not!’ because he was notorious for his antics, and breaking things. My mother said, ‘We have too many valuable things in the house!’” Writer Henry Miller, however, was a welcome and well-behaved guest.
Relations with Heifetz were not always rosy. Granat recalls sitting with Baker for Heifetz’s final recording, the Tchaikovsky String Serenade: “Israel had a trick. He could make the E-string whistle at will. Heifetz was listening to this in total disbelief, and he went to Israel and said, ‘How do you do that?’ So Israel gave a master class to Heifetz. And Heifetz learned it very quickly. But Izzy didn’t tell him that after you did it, the E-string learns it, and from then on it’s going to whistle.
“Heifetz’s private lesson was in the lunch break. In the afternoon session, Heifetz starts playing the Valse, in the Auer transcription, which has all the open E-strings. And guess what, they were all whistling, every single one—just like Izzy taught him! Heifetz was beyond angry, and tried to hit it as hard as he could, and it was still whistling! Israel didn’t know where to hide.”
Baker’s approach wasn’t always in harmony with Hollywood’s materialistic ethos, either. “He had visions sometimes,” says Granat, “and visions cost a lot of money in Hollywood.” Granat recalls one recording session that was about to end early. “He said that he doesn’t like the way the trills are sounding—so he asked, ‘Why don’t we start the trill, half of us on the top note, half of us on the bottom note.’ So we did that. And then he said, ‘That’s good. But why don’t we divide on the stand rather than by the stand.’ We did that. Then he said, ‘I hear the top note more, let’s more of us start on the bottom note.’ And by the time this experiment ended, we went overtime.”
Nor were other players always happy that Baker was so eager to share his bowing and fingering ideas. Dukov remembers a record date in which “the violin section was comprised of mostly older guys who had stopped practicing, who were sort of buddies with the contractor. There was a passage that was a little difficult and was sounding scrappy, so Israel stood up, and started giving everybody a fingering that he wanted them to do.” At this point, the former concertmaster of a major orchestra “put his bow down, and in a very imperious manner said, ‘I’ve never been so insulted in my entire career.’”
But overall, he was a thoroughly popular man. Though Baker was no fan of rock or jazz, despite playing countless record dates, he always made friends. In his old age, Hilary Baker relates, “We would take him kind of kicking and screaming to hear jazz. So we took him to hear Benny Carter, and my Dad said, before Benny got onstage, ‘Oh, I know Benny.’ I turned to my husband and said, ‘He has no idea who Benny Carter is.’”
After the show, they went backstage: “The first thing we hear from Benny Carter is ‘Izzy, how the hell are you?!’”
Israel Baker died in 2011. His legacy includes many recordings that have never been transferred from LP—of Viotti string quartets, Guillaume Lekeu’s piano quartet, Korngold and Ives trios, sonatas by Erich Zeisl, George Antheil, Ernest Kanitz, and Vernon Duke. Available digitally are the Schoenberg Phantasy, the Berg Chamber Concerto, and the Lekeu Trio. A must-hear is Baker’s 1963 Scheherazade with Erich Leinsdorf. In Granat’s opinion, “there are two great recordings of Scheherazade. Israel is one. The other is David Oistrakh.” And there is his L’histoire, which Granat believes is “not just the best. It is by far the best.”
He remained devoted to his craft until the end. Granat recalls arriving early to a session, in about 2004: “Suddenly I hear somebody play amazingly well. He was playing scales like very few people on Earth can do.” And Schiff remembers: “Right before he died, he called up to say, ‘Are you practicing your double-stops? I did my fingered octaves today!’”