Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Heimo Haitto

Heimo Haitto was a Finnish violinist, teacher, conductor, writer, and actor born (in Viipuri, Finland) on May 22, 1925.  He is Finland’s most famous violinist, although he is now (unjustly) forgotten.  Haitto was a notorious, unconventional classical musician, in the style of Nicolo Paganini, Arthur Hartman, Elias Breeskin, and Eugene Fodor.  He was a gambler and loved drinking, although it has been said he was not an alcoholic.  He deliberately turned his concertizing career off a couple of times.  For a time, he actually lived the life of a vagabond, being literally homeless, traveling by train, in boxcars.  However, notwithstanding all of the turmoil, idiosyncrasies, romantic excesses, and bohemian lifestyle, he was a brilliant violinist and a genuine artist.  I think it can be said he had an extraordinary zest for life.  YouTube now contains some of his performances.  As Pinchas Zukerman has done, Haitto married a cellist (Beverly LeBeck, pupil of Pablo Casals) and, later on, an actress (Marja-Liisa Nisula.)  He married a third time in the mid 1970s.  Haitto’s playing style reminds me somewhat of Ivry Gitlis.  Haitto wrote his memoirs in the early 1970s (Heimo Haitto Maailmalla - published in 1976) but I don’t think there’s an English translation available.  He also published a book on his violin playing experiences in 1994 - Viuluniakka Kulkurina.  Although his father worked for the railroad, he was also a violinist and gave Haitto his first lessons, beginning at age 5.  At age 9, Haitto’s father took him to the Vyborg Music Academy and left him entirely in the care of professor Boris Sirpo (1893-1967.)  (Vyborg and Viipuri are one and the same city.)  Under Sirpo’s tough and rigid supervision, Haitto practiced almost constantly.  At age 13, Haitto made his public debut in Helsinki with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Sirpo on the podium.  He also appeared in his first movie – Soldier’s Bride – playing the part of a boy violinist.  In that same year he won an international violin competition sponsored by the British Council of Music in London and soon after briefly toured the Scandinavian countries.  In that year also, due to the Russian-Finnish war, Sirpo brought Haitto to the U.S. to tour on behalf of the Red Cross.  In fact, Haitto's Guarnerius had been destroyed in an air raid.  By then, Haitto had already been studying rigorously under Sirpo’s very strict tutelage for five years.  According to some sources, Haitto was not allowed to have contact with his family during those years.  Arriving in the U.S. in February of 1940, Haitto appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra in April of that year, playing the Paganini D major concerto.  That was his U.S. debut.  He also soloed with many other American orchestras.  He played in Carnegie Hall under John Barbirolli as well.  Eventually, accompanied by Sirpo, he settled in Portland, Oregon in 1942.  Most European artists arriving in the U.S in those years chose to begin their American careers from home bases in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, or even Chicago, but not Haitto.  In 1943, Haitto was released by his strict teacher and set out on his own.  He then settled in Los Angeles.  There, he played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic (September/1952 to May/1954) and in Hollywood studio orchestras but appeared far and wide as a soloist as well.  He was 18 years old.  He also appeared in another movie: There is Magic in Music.  That's the same movie that violinist Patricia Travers appeared in as a very young teenager. One source says he enlisted in the military but another says he was not accepted because he was foreign-born.  In actuality, he desired to be a parachutist in the Marine Corps but his enlistment was declined, even though he had a letter of recommendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Instead, he was made a part of the Army Special Services.  That's how he ended up in New York.  Among the group that was in that Special Services Unit with Haitto were Ruggiero Ricci, Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney, and Eddie Fisher.  In New York, he studied privately with Ivan Galamian, famous teacher at Juilliard.  Haitto and Isaac Stern became friends there during this time - Stern was studying with Louis Persinger.  With five other violinists, Haitto performed Paganini's 24 Caprices, each Caprice being alternately played by each violinist until all five played together at the end.  Later, in Los Angeles, Haitto became friends with Jascha Heifetz and was a guest at Heifetz' house many times.  Haitto had married Beverly LeBeck in New York in the spring of 1945.  He was 20 years old.  His new wife later (like him) became a cellist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic - 1949-1950 and, again, 1954-1955.  Evidently, they did not play in the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the same time.  Brilliant as he was, Haitto was dismissed from the orchestra due to excessive absences and other problems.  It has been reported that he loved to go to Las Vegas and gambled heavily.  During the 1950s, he concertized and became the conductor of an orchestra in Salem, Oregon.  Haitto and Beverly moved to Seattle after Beverly left the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  He eventually became the concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony and also conducted a youth orchestra at the Cornish School of Arts in Seattle.  The third photo (circa 1955) shows Beverly and Haitto in the kitchen of the home of a close friend in Seattle.  The photo is courtesy of Mr Ed Vainio, now a resident of Montana (USA), in whose parents' home the photo was taken.  Haitto visited Finland in 1948 and again in 1956.  He moved to Mexico City and lived there (with Beverly LeBeck) between 1960 and 1962, serving as concertmaster of an orchestra, but I don’t know which orchestra.  At the time, there were four professional orchestras in the city.  In 1962, Beverly LeBeck began playing in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (New York.)  Haitto spent the years between 1963 and 1965 in Finland.  After divorcing LeBeck, he married Marja-Liisa Nisula (the actress) in 1964 but divorced her 2 years later.  From 1965 to about 1976, he was a vagabond (in the U.S.) and even spent some time in jail.  In 1976, Haitto returned to Finland permanently and began to practice again.  He was 51 years old.  He also remarried (Eva Vastari this time) in that year and, six months later, he was ready to play again.  Vastari had been a journalist.  In childhood he had played a Guarnerius violin but in adulthood I don’t know what he played.  He actually built two (red) violins which he used for performances and recordings.  Those violins now hang in Haitto's favorite restaurant in Helsinki - Tin Tin Tango.   Vastari and Haitto formed a duo.  She read poetry and he played.  He also did some teaching and lecturing at the Lahti Conservatory and other schools.  They finally settled in Marbella, Spain.  The photo shows him playing dominoes there.  Haitto fell ill in 1995 and died on June 10, 1999, at age 74.  Haitto made several commercial recordings which are still available, though they are not easy to find; however, his recording of the Sibelius concerto (along with Six Humoresques which Sibelius wrote as Opus 87 and Opus 89) can be found here.  Finlandia Classics has also released Haitto's recording of the Paganini concerto (number 1) and the Vieuxtemps concerto (number 4) - that release can be found here.  He also recorded for Finnish National Radio (YLE) broadcasts -  those recordings might not be available.  You can hear his unique style of playing here and here.  Most of Heimo Haitto's video and audio files can be found on this Channel - it is Tuomas Haitto's YouTube channel - Tuomas Haitto is Heimo Haitto's nephew.  


  1. Most of the facts used for this profile were made available to me by Tuomas Haitto, Heimo Haitto's nephew. I hereby thank him for his generosity. Tuomas Haitto has a Channel on YouTube which contains many video and audio files on Heimo Haitto:

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