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Eugene Fodor: Too Much, Too Soon?

August 1, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Gene Fodor’s violin was a magic key, opening the way to a tour when he was 12, a debut with the Denver Symphony when he was 16, and top prize in the Tchaikovsky competition when he was 24.

But last weekend, at 39, Fodor found his violin - ″an instrument,″ he once said, ″that is truly one of the most noble ever devised″ - couldn’t get him out of jail.

A judge on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard refused to accept Fodor’s offer of his 300-year-old violin to guarantee bail following his arrest on drug and burglary charges. Instead, bail was set at $50,000 cash.

He was released on his own recognizance Monday.

The musician, whose clean-cut good looks and love of the outdoors helped make him a star 15 years ago, was arrested Thursday after hotel maids found him in a room that was supposed to be empty. Police said they found 20 grams of cocaine, heroin, a hypodermic needle and a dagger in Fodor’s possession.

For Fodor, who burst on the scene as a horse-riding violin prodigy, equally handy with the reins and the violin bow, the arrest was another setback in a career that never quite lived up to its promise.

In 1974, when Fodor shared a silver medal with two Soviets at the Tchaikovsky violin competition in Moscow, the rewards came swiftly - an invitation to perform at the White House, the key to New York City, concert offers and television appearances.

Here, finally, was a classical musician who seemed unbowed by hours of practice and the stress of competition, a personable young man who had grown up on a ranch in Turkey Creek, Colo., and still loved to jog, ride and swim.

Once, when asked to describe a premier violinist, Fodor replied that he is healthy: ″I think running and swimming are the best exercises for anyone. And racquetball, I play racquetball. And scuba diving, though actually skin diving is better exercise.″

And he could play. Audiences are supposed to hold their applause for the end of a composition, but they often interrupted Fodor’s performances of Paganini’s First Concerto with standing ovations after the first movement.

Within a year, however, ″Mr. Fodor’s luck began running out,″ critic Allan Kozinn has written, ″and his career became a classic example of unfulfilled promise.″

New York Times critic Harold Schonberg, reviewing a performance by Fodor the same year he won the Tchaikovsky, faulted the violinist for selecting ″fluffy, showy salon pieces that are usually played as encores.″

″If he is to specialize in this music,″ the critic added, ″he will remain an entertainer and nothing more.″

Fodor was only doing that which he did best and which drew the greatest ovations: pieces written by other great violin virtuosos to display their own technique. In as many as 100 concerts a year, Fodor breezed through left-hand pizzicatos, trills and double stops, and basked in the applause.

″Their interest was very flattering,″ he later said of his audiences. ″And ... I like to please people.″

He was not pleasing the critics, who wanted him to demonstrate a more sophisticated musical sensibility. They also seemed put off by the publicist’s image of the violin-playing cowboy, and most wrote him off as another prodigy who had failed to develop into a mature artist.

By 1984, even Fodor was dissatisfied with his career and his image. He tried to play less Paganini and Tchaikovsky and more Beethoven and Brahms, and he cut his schedule in half.

″I needed to think about what I am, what I do best, and which areas I need to work the hardest in,″ he said at the time. ″I needed more time to learn new music.″

Harold Wippler, a former member of the Denver Symphony Orchestra who taught Fodor for more than 10 years, said this week that early publicity that made Fodor a sort of pop star may have backfired. But he said Fodor ″was very up when I talked to him about two months ago. He sounded very up.″

Drugs seemed an unlikely problem for Fodor, and a family member in New York who spoke on condition of anonymity said Fodor had become involved in drugs relatively recently.

″The only explanation I can think of is that he does everything in a thorough way,″ she said. ″He’s a genius in his work and he devotes all his energy to his work. He’s very intense in whatever he does.″