There must have been something special in American water during the 1910s, something that allowed an unusual number of the children born during the decade to develop into violin prodigies of extraordinary gifts: Yehudi Menuhin and Ruggiero Ricci come straight to mind, and of course Isaac Stern (who was not really a prodigy as such, but why quibble?), and then, a minute later, the lesser-known but equally-brilliant Oscar Shumsky, born in 1917 and active as a performer all the way up into the 1990s. With this group of young American violinists, the North America made its first true bid for musical equality with the First World. When Shumsky passed on in July 2000, one of the last remaining links (they are growing ever more precious) to a beautiful bygone era was lost -- but not, thanks to modern recording technology and a class of distinguished pupils, forgotten.
Shumsky was born in Philadelphia, PA, to a Russian immigrant family on March 23, 1917. Early lessons on the violin were fully absorbed, and, at Leopold Stokowski's invitation, Shumsky appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Josef Suk's Fantasy for violin and orchestra (or, according to alternate accounts, in Mozart's Violin Concerto No.5!) at the tender age of 8. During the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, Shumsky studied with a pair of the finest teachers in the world: Leopold Auer (teacher of, among other distinguished pupils, the great Jascha Heifetz) and Efrem Zimbalist (a great violinist, who is nevertheless better known today as the father of the Hollywood personage by the same name). Shumsky joined Toscanini's NBC Orchestra just before the outbreak of World War II and stayed with it for about three years, all the while working to build a solo career and also playing with the Primrose String Quartet. He taught at one time or another at many schools, including the Peabody Conservatory, the Juilliard School, and the Curtis Institute. In the 1950s he began adding appearances as a conductor to his résumé. His solo career was not a particularly steady one -- he all but ceased giving concerts in the 1950s and only took up an active schedule again when he was in his sixties!
Shumsky's playing was distinguished by a velvety sonority (partly the product of the fine 1715 Stradivarius violin, the "ex-Rode," that he usually played) that nevertheless was wholly capable of steel-rimmed force when need be, and also by a refinement of manner that, while doing little to make his name one widely known to the general public, endeared him to serious music lovers around the world. Of his many recordings, the complete set of Mozart violin sonatas that he made with Artur Balsam is of special value.