Rolfe Sokol is a musician who plays and teaches music as a means of communicating for deep humanistic purposes. His training and his life in music have given him a unique outlook on music and its place in the world.
Through his teachers, Rolfe has a strong connection to an earlier era of music-making, where music was seen as a form of spiritual and individual searching. Eric Rosenblith, one of Rolfe’s important teachers, studied violin with such legendaries as Carl Flesch, Jacque Thibaud, and Bronislav Hubermann, and learned chamber music from figures such as Georges Enescu.
These early 20th-century musicians had an outlook on the meaning of violin playing that featured a quest for individual identity and meaning. Flesch, for instance, used the metaphor of a prism to represent the role of the musician in the creative process: the musician must filter the light of the composition through his / her soul and emotional disposition to create the refraction that will be unique from person to person. In a stylistic sense, that era was characterized by players seeking to be distinctly individual.
Rolfe has a sensibility about the connections between music and the individual’s life that is more similar to the aesthetic of an earlier era of great musicians than to today’s musical priorities.
At the same time, Rolfe’s training as a world-class violinist, studying with Elmar Oliveira and other violinists, gives him an authoritative command of string technique and a wide-ranging perspective on the variations of technical approaches to the instrument.
My lessons with Rolfe over the years, both when I was a high school student, and in recent years, have always been unusual by the standards of a typical violin lesson. It would not be unusual for us in the course of three or four hours, for instance, to watch a film about an important musician, to discuss Rolfe’s thoughts about people who have made deep commitments to humanity, and to listen to a particular recording, all before opening the violin case.
Then, in the course of working through a piece of music, it wouldn’t be unusual for our discussions to range from events in my personal life, to a technical detail of how to play a half-step, to how a particular phrase might in fact conjure the despair of a prisoner in a totalitarian labor camp.
I find Rolfe to be an exceptional and unusual musician, and I think he has a tremendous amount to offer to both musicians early in their careers and to accomplished professionals. I have great hopes for how this residency opportunity will allow many musicians to experience Rolfe’s approach, and also what that influence may mean for their lives in music afterward.
For me, Rolfe’s influence has led me to a career that combines musicianship and public service in a way that incorporates service to underprivileged communities. Whether or not other musicians go on to literally engage in public service through their musicianship, I think Rolfe’s spirit of serving humanity through music is one that could be impactful in many contexts.
The combination of Rolfe’s influence and the atmosphere of the Saltonstall Arts Colony will, I think, be inspiring and renewing for the musicians who come for this retreat.