Alan Alda may be a grandfather, but he’s as curious as a toddler. The 74-year-old actor, director, and writer revealed an inquisitive mind when he hosted PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years, and in the recent three-part PBS series, The Human Spark.
Now Alda is transitioning from science to the arts. On March 20, he and violinist Arnold Steinhardt will discuss one of the loftiest but most elusive pieces in music literature: Bach’s Chaconne, the last movement of his Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. In this Chamber Music Society of Detroit presentation, Alda and Steinhardt, who are also longtime friends, aim to dissect and clarify this mysterious work.
Alda, of course, is familiar with dissection, having played surgeon Hawkeye Pierce on the long-running series M*A*S*H. More recently, he’s appeared on such TV hits as ER, 30 Rock, and The West Wing, as well as in the film The Aviator. The six-time Emmy Award winner also penned two memoirs: Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, and Other Things I Learned and Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself.
Steinhardt was the first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet until that group’s dissolution last year. He’s also the author of Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony and Violin Dreams. The latter devotes much ink to the Chaconne and includes a CD of Steinhardt playing the entire Partita — once in 1966, and again 40 years later. Alda chatted with us via phone from his New York home.
How did you become interested in classical music? I know your dad [Robert Alda] portrayed George Gershwin on screen.
My father came out of burlesque, and he was a singer. He always loved music and wrote songs, but he had no interest in serious music. But when he played George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue he had to learn to do the fingering. … So around the house were recordings that Oscar Levant had made that my dad would practice to. I would lie on the rug and listen to the recordings. I thought they were just gorgeous. I loved them. It was the first time I heard anything other than “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”
Tell me how you met Arnold Steinhardt.
We met … maybe 40 or 45 years ago. It was at a mutual friend’s house. We just met casually then, but we became good friends later. My wife, Arlene, and I are very close to Arnold and his wife, Dorothea.
In Violin Dreams, the Bach Chaconne keeps working its way into the narrative. It’s a piece Arnold has recorded twice, and performed for decades, but he finds it elusive. Is there a comparable role you’ve portrayed that has a similar effect?
Yes — everything I’ve ever played [laughs]. The great writers, like the great composers, seem to write challenges [for actors] that seem daunting, but they also give you a chance to explore them your own way. A lot of actors say that about Shakespeare’s parts — that they come out as different people, depending on who’s playing them. That may be true of the Chaconne, too, because just like a Shakespeare character, the Chaconne comes out differently, depending on who plays it. If I go to YouTube and listen to six great violinists, everybody is saying something different.
And Arnold’s two recordings of the work are quite different.
Yeah, they are. What’s wonderful and amusing about that is that it’s hard to compare them because the publisher misnamed them and got the wrong dates on them. Then I compounded it when I put it on my iPod and switched the dates again, and now I have no idea which is the first recording [laughs]. Arnold knows, but he’s not saying.
You’re quoted on the cover blurb of Violin Dreams as saying, “My heart soared while I read this book.” What was so exhilarating about it for you?
I’m sorry that the description is a little purple, but I really did love the book. I don’t say this just because he’s a friend, but Arnold has an unusual ability to write about music. He not only can describe music itself, but he can describe it in a very vivid way, his personal experience in coming to terms with music, with the Chaconne, and with the violin itself. He has a very strong talent as a writer. I was just talking with him last night and complimenting him again.
One of the things I liked in the book is the way he describes the violin so sensually, from caressing the instrument’s neck and scroll, down to the feel of the varnish, almost as if it were human.
That’s right. He talks about it as an instrument you must get into intimate contact with; you don’t play it at arm’s length.
How much of the discussion will be rehearsed, and how much of it will be spontaneous?
As [Arnold and I] talk about it, I get the impression that there will be some kind of skeletal structure, because there’s so much I want to get out of him. I know I’m going to try to lead him down certain pathways. I hope, and I think, that it will be very spontaneous. My role is very much like what I do on the science shows … where I’m really curious and interested. Through conversation, I want to get to a deeper understanding of the music, and if I get to a deeper understanding, I think the audience will, too.
How much will Arnold actually play during this evening?
He’ll play the whole Partita. And I think he’ll play snippets during the conversation, and maybe other things, too, to illustrate what we’re talking about. I want to try to get at it every way we can so that we really get inside the Partita and arrive at a magical or mysterious moment that happens sometimes when I’ve worked with great actors. Something happens that you didn’t expect, which completely changes the color of what happens next.
You had a close call with death in Chile in 2003 [an end-to-end anastomosis, or obstructed intestine], and since then you’ve written and talked about how much you revel in appreciating life. Does music heighten your joy for living?
It does. My wife is a musician; she was a professional clarinetist when we got married [in 1957], and played with the Houston Symphony under Stokow-ski. Once in a while, she picks up the clarinet, but she plays the piano for her own amusement pretty much every day. And I just stop whatever I’m doing when I hear her play because it really does touch me. I listen to recorded music all the time, but nothing gets me like her going to the piano and [the process] that goes from her brain to her fingers to the keys.
What do you have planned for 2010?
I wrote a play over the last year and a half. I don’t want to talk yet in public about the subject until we’re ready to put it on, but I’m looking into getting it produced. I’m very excited about it. I’m not in it; I just wrote it.
Alda and Steinhardt will appear at 8 p.m. March 20 in the Seligman Performing Arts Center, 22305 W. 13 Mile Rd., Beverly Hills. Tickets are $100, which include a copy of Violin Dreams for Opus 9 subscribers; 248-855-6070.