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Million Dollar Trio


ARM IN ARM -- From left: Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, Program Director Francis Knight, Arthur Rubinstein. To seal the deal, Knight guaranteed Rubinstein top billing, Heifetz the most money, and Piatigorsky the stage to himself to perform as a soloist. (photo courtesy of Steven Fischer)

It started as a rumor. It seemed hard to believe that three such musical giants as Arthur Rubinstein (piano), Jascha Heifetz (violin) and Gregor Piatigorsky (cello) could be performing together. They were supremely gifted, and highly individual musicians from Eastern Europe, who had been performing in public since the age of four. By the age of ten, they each had moved to the United States, where, in their early teens, made their debut as soloists with the finest orchestras this country had to offer. Humility (the soul of chamber music) was not their strong suit, so it seemed unlikely they could ever perform together with the sensitivity that makes chamber music come alive. But they would try.


After ten grueling weeks of rehearsals and arguments, working ten hours a day, at a private home in Beverly Hills, California, the Million Dollar Trio, as they were called, was ready for the footlights. In August of 1949, they performed during a series of four concerts in Chicago’s Ravinia Park.


How to get such giant egos together? They were already singularly wealthy, so it wasn't about the money, it was about who got top billing.


Rubinstein reported later that Heifetz was particularly annoyed by the billing in the concert program because Rubinstein’s name came first, followed by Heifetz and then Piatigorsky. Rubinstein explained, "As far as I know, all trios are written for piano, violin, and cello, and traditionally one advertises the names of the players in exactly that order."


Heifetz wasn't buying it, and wondered aloud why the billing couldn’t rotate so that each of them would be mentioned first in at least one of the programs.


Exacerbated, Rubinstein replied: "Even if God were playing the violin, it would be printed 'Rubinstein, God, and Piatigorsky', in that order!"


What really mattered was the music, and when it came time to do the show, for all appearances, they were the best of friends, opening with Beethoven's exquisite Archduke Trio. According to Time magazine, it was "a perfectionist's performance, marred slightly by the accidentally turned microphone and the snort of commuter trains. By week's end, when the three had got through their program of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Ravel (in trios, duos and solos) they had Chicago in the palms of their hands."


Pleased with their performance, they agreed to stay together and record as a trio for RCA Records, but the still-festering issue of top billing remained. Finally, an agreement was reached where Rubinstein and Heifetz's name would appear side-by-side on the record jacket, over that of Piatigorsky's. However, the matter of easily bruised egos would not be so easily resolved, and, despite public demand, the Million Dollar Trio would never perform in public again.


READY FOR PRIME TIME -- From left: Arthur Rubinstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz. Bruised egos aside, the Million Dollar Trio is ready to live up to its billing (photo courtesy of Steven Fischer)

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