Stuart Canin whips open the door to his Berkeley home and shakes my hand with the kind of solid clasp you’d expect from any lifelong violinist. While many in the Bay Area music scene know him as the celebrated former concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony and first music director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, history buffs may recognize him from his role in a unique performance right after World War II.
Canin, a Far Rockaway, Queens, New York native, was an army rifleman who thought to bring to war a cigar-box violin to “keep it in the fingers” while away from his famed teacher Ivan Galamian. Months later, he found himself on a balcony porch off a private home in Potsdam, Germany, with pianist Eugene List.
The mysterious task: Perform for President Truman. The date: July 17, 1945—what would later be known as day one of the Potsdam Conference.
I pick up a Brahms sonata now that I’ve played all my life and for some strange reason, I get a whole different look at it. You get, I think, closer to the composer’s intention as you mature. So, that’s how life goes. If you stay with it.
“Suddenly we heard automobile motors coming around the block and a bunch of limousines showed up and out of one stepped Joseph Stalin in his Marshall’s uniform,” Canin says, chuckling. “And Winston Churchill stepped out of the other. And Molotov, and Secretary of State Byrnes. Everybody who was ever on the front page of the New York Times came out of those cars and started into the house, and we said, ‘What’s this?’”
Hours later, the three titans—Truman, Churchill, and Stalin—sat on a small couch before the musicians. “And then Truman said, ‘Gentlemen, would you play something for us?’” Canin smiles as he recalls, “You could imagine, I was all of 19.”
Seventy-one years after the Potsdam concert, Canin was gearing up last November for a sold-out January Lincoln Center concert reenacting that exact program, to take place after the premiere of a documentary charting his role in the performance.
But Canin’s involvement in culturally significant moments hardly ended—or even began—with Potsdam. Canin, who, at the time of our interview looks forward to his 90th birthday in April, is warm and grounded as he glances back at his remarkable musical life.
So, you picked up the violin at age five, correct?
My father actually picked it up. I didn’t know anything about the violin. [Laughs.] And he brought it home one holiday season and said, “Let’s try.” My father was absolutely nuts about the violin.
Did you take to it immediately?
At age seven, I remember playing a Vivaldi concerto with a little orchestra. My first teacher lived on 84th Street in Hammels near Rockaway Beach, so I used to go up there for lessons. He had a little orchestra and I played the Vivaldi A minor violin concerto at age seven for people—that’s pretty good. So, my father goes, “Hmm, maybe this has got a future.”