Joan Rivers: Yutz, or Audiophile Hero?

Written by Bill Leebens

More often than not, it used to be that weekday mornings I would be rushing around, behind schedule, trying to get out the door to get to work. Since I was going to be late anyway, just before leaving, I was usually unable to resist the temptation to turn on the T.V.,  just to make sure there wasn’t something on that I would want to watch. Instead of being just late for work, I would then be very late for work.

One morning I happened upon the Joan Rivers talk show, and her guest happened to be Itzhak Perlman, whom I think is arguably the most famous classical musician in the world. He had already performed, and was now seated on the couch discussing his personal violins with Rivers. He said that the fiddle he held was a Guarneri and not a Stradivarius (one of which he also owned), and he discussed the subtle differences between them. He also explained the care taken to protect the Guarneri, especially regulating temperature and humidity.

Rivers seemed to be interested only in how much his violin cost—which Perlman kept diplomatically side stepping. Finally, Rivers reached behind the couch and pulled out a hidden violin. She explained that, just that morning she had given one of her assistants $200 to go out in Manhattan and come back with a violin. The assistant had returned with a violin, and $50 change. Rivers handed that violin to Perlman, and asked how it was any different than his violin.

Perlman looked at the very cheap violin, then back to Rivers, and asked if she was being serious. She assured him she was; so he looked at the violin, put it under his neck, and tuned it up and then ripped off what I recollect to be Mozart. It sounded great to me— but that is with the understanding that I was hearing it as most everyone else watching it on television was, which is to say through a tiny, tinny TV speaker.

He stopped, looked at her and said: “Did you hear that?”

She replied: “Hear what? That sounded exactly the same as your violin!”

Perlman then studied the violin in his hands while he seemed to mull over what she said. He then replied to her: “Well, there is only one of 2 possible explanations for this. Either you have no ear for music, or I paid WAY too much for my violin.”

For years I would occasionally dredge up that story, always making the point that Rivers had to be the most incredible Yutz (a Yiddish word meaning a person not worth taking seriously). Rivers just had one of the greatest violists ever play a “priceless” violin for her, and then told him his priceless violin sounded the same as a “cheap as they come” beginner’s violin. I always got a laugh out of that story at Rivers’ expense; always implying that I, and whomever I was hearing the story, would of course hear the big difference in sound quality— as Perlman implied that he heard, and Rivers didn’t.

Then, all at once, I had this complete change of perspective. I suddenly asked myself what I thought Joan Rivers should have said instead: a lie? If she could not hear any difference between the violins, then she was just being honest. To her, the two violins sounded the same, so that is what she said. I have to wonder what I or anyone else would do given the circumstances.

Would I have had the courage to tell classical music star Itzhak Perlman, in front of a huge audience no less, that I could not hear any difference between the sound of a very cheap beginning student’s violin and a multi-million dollar violin revered for its sound? I don’t know.

I do know the language. It would be easy to say that Perlman’s Guarneri violin sounded “rich, lush, warm, sweet, beautiful, full….” On the other hand, I could say Rivers’ cheap student violin sounded “thin, harsh, strident, edgy, and so on.”

I sometimes wrestle with the fear that my opinion might hurt someone’s feelings. I might listen to music or sound that I dislike, and try to lie diplomatically to protect someone’s feelings. That’s different.

It’s a hard thing to do to stand against the crowd and trust yourself over the opinions of experts. But— that’s the honest and the brave thing to do.

I saw that a Guarneri del Gesu 1743 “sauret” violin was sold for 16 million dollars. I don’t know about Perlman’s Guarneri, but using this record setting sale price for a violin, one can see that the Guarneri cost around 100,000 times more than the student violin. Mull that over: one Guarneri violin cost the same as 100,000 beginner’s violins. Even discounting the incredible museum and exclusivity value differences between the violins, I still think that instruments (and sound reproductive equipment) that cost that impossibly far apart should sound more than just a little different. Actually, for that kind of money, they should be hang glider vs. fighter-jet on afterburner sort of different.

When it comes to musical talent or musical understanding, I know that I am less than a grain of sand compared to Perlman’s Mt Everest, but a lot of fabulous sound has passed through my ears. How do I know it was fabulous sound? Because I say it was fabulous sound, that’s how I know. If I don’t hear it like Perlman does, that is just the way it is! For music analysis, I’ll kowtow to Perlman, but not for sound. My ears are wired to my own unique brain/mind/soul/spirit, just as yours are. Nobody knows what anyone else hears, thinks, or feels. If we hear things differently, there should be no problem with that. Each and every one of us is wired to our own set of ears, leading up to a brain/soul sort of contraption which decides how it is heard and. No two of us hear or feel in exactly the same way.

I was not there to hear the differences between those two violins— but in terms of the way they sounded I may well have, like Rivers, come to the conclusion that, yes indeed, Itzhak Perlman did pay “WAY too much” for his violin.

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