Too Old?

Washington Times 4.18.00
Balint Vazsonyi

As the "Re-Elect America" national bus tour rolls across the states of the Union, panelists at our town meetings - we call them "We The People" Forum - often justify their limited enthusiasm for the U.S. Constitution by recalling that it was written a long time ago. So much has happened, they say, so much is different, they say, how could something so ancient retain its relevance for our fresh, vibrant, forward-looking times?

One is tempted to ask them about the wheel, still going strong after more than 5,000 years, but that might be seen as a cheap shot.

And yet...

The day after a professor of history in Topeka, Kansas, recited the standard mantra about the shortcomings of the Constitution, my wife and I were partaking of the legendary fried chicken at Stroud's in Kansas City.

They have been serving it since 1933.

As we drove back to Topeka, we stumbled into the live broadcast of a concert over the radio. The overture had just finished, and the soloist for the concerto was about to be announced. We were delighted to hear the name of violinist Joshua Bell who had first walked into my studio as a twelve-year-old, partnered by one my piano students. The experience was unforgettable: the little boy couldn't put a foot wrong, as the saying goes, neither in the technical nor in the musical sense.

On this occasion, Joshua was playing the violin concerto of another child prodigy, the one by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. As is often the case, we arrived at our destination - the parking lot of a shopping center - unable to turn off the radio in the middle of all that loveliness.

"All that loveliness," we said to each other, realizing how much has been written for the violin during the 155 years since, yet nothing to compete with the loveliness of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Chances are, nothing ever will. As generations of violinists who have gone before, generations of violinists to come will be measured by the way they display their art in playing the Mendelssohn Concerto, and a handful of others.

Neither the age of the work nor that of the artists seem to be of interest in the real world. How great the composition, how worthy the artist - these are the only considerations.

As if to chime in, the parking lot began to fill up with cars as we sat in ours, listening. Not ordinary cars, but vintage ones, going all the way back to a Ford Model "A." We have never seen that many oldies, all in showroom condition, glistening in the sunset, proudly displaying engines clean enough to touch with a white glove, perfection in every department.

Their owners appeared to glisten as well.

Obviously, the material world of motor cars makes a poor comparison with the spiritual worlds of music. Yet, the instrument from which the magical sounds had emanated is older than the cars; older than Mendelssohn's Concerto; older, even, than the Constitution of the United States.

The violin, that strangely shaped box of wood, varnish, and thin strands of cow's gut known as strings, reached its finite, perfect form of existence nearly four centuries ago. Not only have the violins of Italy's master builders retained their unassailable supremacy while just about everything around them has changed, changed, and changed again; they have also resisted every modern technique of analysis. No one knows, perchance no one will ever know what makes them inimitable.