Virtuoso violinist Ida Haendel still playing at 81

By Lisa Orkin Emmanuel
Associated Press Writer / July 1, 2010

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MIAMI BEACH, Fla.—Ida Haendel plays what she calls her "fiddle" to a small audience at a friend's apartment late into the night. Her chin fits snugly into the violin. Her body is still, only her hands move as she plays for a young student, who has waited most of the day for this moment.

Passion is something with which you must be born, the 81-year-old says.

"It's called talent," she says "The genius is given to very few. ... There are many gifted people, but something that is really exceptional? How many times do you experience that in life?"

Haendel has been called one of the world's greatest violinists and, despite her age, she is extremely active, mentally and physically. Still playing concerts, she also participates in master classes and guides the next generation of violinists with her one-on-one tutorials, when she is asked.

Acclaimed conductor Zubin Mehta, who formerly led the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, admires Haendel's "honesty towards her music and the great command over her instrument."

"When she plays the Beethoven concerto, you can imagine Beethoven wanted it that way," Mehta said in an interview from Valencia, Spain. "She has been a violinist for violinists."

Haendel was a child prodigy. At 3 1/2 years old she picked up her older sister Alice's violin and played a song her mother had just sung. Her mother couldn't believe it and called the neighbors in Chelm, Poland, to tell them.

Haendel's family left Poland to give her the opportunity to study with great violin teachers, and they settled in Britain in 1937. Years later, they moved to Canada. She chose the life of a musician, touring the world and playing with the greatest orchestras and conductors, rather than being a wife and mother. She played for the troops throughout the United Kingdom during World War II. She played for Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. She said organizers wanted her to play a Jewish score. She chose Handel's "Prayer."

"Imagine a Jewish woman playing where it all happened, playing in front of the Holy Father," she says.

She seems to know every major classical musician and conductor playing today on a personal basis.

But she says she is more than just a violinist. In fact, she says she originally wanted to name her 1970 book "I Am Also a Woman" and not "Woman With Violin," which was the title the editor chose.

Mementos of the past are all around her. She has stacks of photos with famous musicians, politicians, royalty and conductors in her home. A photo of her meeting the late Princess Diana is stuck on the wall of an alcove. Another with Queen Fabiola of Belgium is on her piano. She has medals and honorary doctorates on a little table. A British citizen, in 1991 she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

She had two of her beloved dogs stuffed -- they were named after Decca Records -- and placed them near her front door.

Her father's paintings decorate her cluttered little cottage in Miami Beach. A large painting of a younger Haendel is focal point of the living room; two small paintings of her parents, Nathan and Fela Haendel, hang along each side of it. She talks to her sister Alice, who now lives in Canada, at least once a day. She never married, but had a "deep friendship" with Romanian conductor Sergiu Celibidache.

She doesn't believe that she should practice and rarely does, but she will pick up the fiddle when the urge strikes.

Estera Greenbaum Spiro was Haendel's first teacher in Poland. Today, at 95, she lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. She still keeps in contact with her famous pupil. After years of no contact, the two reconnected in the early 1990s and Haendel calls and talks to Greenbaum's nurse once a week to check in.

Greenbaum Spiro's daughter, Joanna Kermani, remembers when Haendel played to her mother over the phone.

"We put the telephone to my mom's ear and my mom said I would like to hear you play again. My mom could hear it. Ida, my mom and the nurse started crying," she said.

"She has so much energy, especially when she plays the violin," said Chen Huifang, a fellow violinist and conductor in South Florida. "To still be able to play that well is rare. ... Nobody is like her."