Concert of a lifetime, redux: Berkeley virtuoso replays program from historic post-WWII conference

In 1945, at the age of 19, Stuart Canin played his violin at the Potsdam Conference near Berlin, where world leaders were meeting to determine punishment for Nazi Germany, establish postwar order and draft a peace treaty.

Who was his audience?

President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The three sat squeezed together on a small loveseat to hear the American soldier play. 

Stuart Canin at home photo/courtesy citizen film-sophie constantinou

“It was July 19, 1945. That day is imprinted on my mental hard drive like you wouldn’t believe,” said Canin, 88, of Berkeley. “Though it’s almost 70 years ago, to me it seems like yesterday.”

Canin will replicate that musical program at “Potsdam Revisited: Overture to the Cold War” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19 at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall. Pianist Hélène Wickett will accompany him.

The program will include the premiere of a locally made documentary short about Canin and a panel discussion about the Potsdam Conference’s impact on history.

Canin’s distinguished career includes serving as concertmaster with the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Opera, as well as work with the New Japan Philharmonic, the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Opera. He also worked in Hollywood, serving as concertmaster for strings and playing violin for many movies, including “Schindler’s List,” “Titanic” and “Forrest Gump.”

He was a founding member of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco, and served for seven years as its first music director. A graduate of Juilliard, in 1959 Canin was the first American to win the Paganini International Violin Competition.

Yet it’s the Potsdam performance that still stands out in his mind.

Over the years, Canin has often wondered whether his story about that unforgettable day in Germany would ever reach a larger audience. “Now it’s miraculous that people are taking it and running with it,” he said.

Sam Ball is one of those people. He directed “The Rifleman’s Violin,” the 12-minute documentary about Canin. Ball is co-founder and director of Citizen Film, a San Francisco-based nonprofit production company that has brought many a Jewish story to film.

Ball called Canin’s story a great one — “a no-brainer” for a filmmaker.

Drafted as a rifleman in the Army, 19-year-old Stuart Canin was asked to play before (insert, from left) Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin at the post-WWII Potsdam Conference outside Berlin. photo/courtesy hoover institution library and archive

“Here he is, starting his career as one of the world’s great violinists, when he is drafted,” said Ball. “He expects to be sent into battle, but instead he gets a call to go to Germany at the request of the White House. And suddenly Canin finds himself playing for the Big Three.”

Canin was drafted into the Army in 1944 before starting at Julliard and just as the war was ending. He was sent to Paris to help form a G.I. orchestra to entertain the troops. Soon after that he got the call to go to Potsdam, where he performed that memorable concert with pianist Eugene List. The two were asked to stay for the duration of the conference so they could play for U.S. military brass.

To capture spontaneity in the retelling, Ball asked Canin to hold his violin as he told the story to the camera, over and over. With each telling, Ball said, Canin recalled more details.

“The Rifleman’s Violin” includes current-day reflections from Canin as well as historic films and photos, including some that the violinist provided from his time in Germany.

The idea to hold a panel discussion at the program came from Abraham David Sofaer. “I suggested we put Stuart’s story in historical context,” he said. 

A former federal judge and legal adviser to the State Department, Sofaer is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and a trustee of the Koret Foundation of San Francisco, which provided a grant to help fund the program at Stanford.

The panel includes former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, Stanford political science professor Scott Sagan, and Norman Naimark, an historian at Stanford.

Canin will also speak about that day in 1945. The musical program will include works by Gaetano Pugnani, Fritz Kreisler, Henryk Wieniawski, Manuel de Falla and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Canin chose the music.

When he and fellow soldier List started to play for the Big Three, they weren’t certain what to expect. “Stalin had kind of a dour face, stolid, not smiling,” Canin recalled. “But when my colleague played the first notes of the Tchaikovsky piece, Stalin leaped out of his chair and called out ‘a toast to the musicians!’ I wrote about this to my parents the next day in a letter they saved and later gave me to keep.”

That letter and other materials — including films, oral histories, photos and rare documents — will be assembled for an online and physical multimedia archive, complete with a teachers guide. The archive, which will be made available next year, is a collaboration among Citizen Film, Stanford’s music department and the Hoover Institution Library and Archive.

Ball said the multimedia archive represents “an evolution in documentary filmmaking.

“This is an opportunity to create something that leads an audience from a single story to a much deeper understanding of historical and societal forces at play.”

Ball is convinced that Canin’s experience warrants a longer story, a longer film. “Stay tuned,” he said.

“Potsdam Revisited: Overture to the Cold War,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University. $30-$100. (650) 724-2464 or www.live.stanford.edu.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.