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‘What a doll. Aren’t all violists dolls?’ asks the author, rhetorically.

The young Zaslav, fresh out of Juilliard but stumped for ideas, is unexpectedly given a chance to earn some cash playing the viola on Broadway. The trouble is, he’s a violinist and needs to find a viola in short order. Sure enough, a violist pal (and the doll in question) helps him out.

And there, one would normally say, a career is born. He will shortly be hired by George Szell for his Cleveland Orchestra – no small gig that – but after two years, dissatisfied and struggling somewhat to make ends meet, he returns to New York (now with wife and child), spending nine years helping his father’s business by day while moonlighting on Broadway.

It turns out that, for a viola player, the plumbing supply business is no more fulfilling than playing with one of the ‘big five’, so he throws in his lot with freelancing. Before long he has a busy diary of engagements and, finally, a career is born.

Zaslav will become one of America’s foremost chamber musicians, his 12 years as the Fine Arts Quartet’s viola player perhaps the highlight, at least in terms of international acclaim. The Viola in My Life (the title refers to a series of pieces by Morton Feldman; Zaslav is also a noted champion of modern music) is his memoir, and like the best memoirs livens up a chronological account with observations, historical notes, digressions, tangents, non-sequiturs, sardonic little digs, jokes and frivolous – even saucy – anecdotes. Earnestness of tone is of secondary importance, the conversational mood helped along with a liberal use of Yiddish and other idiomatic phrases, to the extent that one wishes there were a recording of the author’s voice to help colour the words we read.

Instead we get two CDs featuring Zaslav the violist, one of solo and duo items, another a selection of chamber music. If Zaslav’s breezy narrative gives the impression that his successful career came suspiciously easily to him, these performances reveal the truth – that Zaslav is not only a doll but a player of exceptional quality.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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