Sunday, March 13, 2016

Johan Halvorsen

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist, conductor, teacher, and composer born (in Drammen, Norway) on March 15, 1864.  He was the kind of violinist we do not encounter anymore.  We have lots of violinists who are also conductors and teachers – Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Jaime Laredo, Maxim Vengerov, and Leonidas Kavakos quickly come to mind – but no violinist-composers.  Although he composed many other works, Halvorsen will probably remain immortal due to his having composed one of the staples of the cello-violin (or viola-violin) repertoire – the famous variations on a theme by Handel.  After having studied in Oslo and Stockholm, he began his career as a concertmaster in Norway (1885) and Scotland (1888.)  He began his studies at age seven.  Later on, his teachers were Jakob Lindberg (in Stockholm), Adolph Brodsky (in Russia), Adolf Becker (in Berlin), and Cesar Thomson (in Switzerland.)  In 1889, he was appointed professor of violin at the Helsinki Music Institute.  In 1893, he was appointed conductor of the Bergen (Norway) Philharmonic.  He was 29 year old.  In 1899, he was appointed conductor of the National Theater in Oslo.  By this time, he had established himself as one of the top musicians in Norway.  He remained at the National Theater until 1929, the year he retired.  During this period, he composed a lot of incidental music for plays as well as concert music.  The famous Passacaglia was composed in 1897 although he later revised it several times.  In 1909, he wrote a violin concerto (Opus 28) which he dedicated to Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow.  After she premiered it (in the Netherlands) and played it a couple of times in Norway, the concerto was lost.  After that, it was believed to have been destroyed by Halvorsen although that was not the case.  In January of 2016, it was announced that the score had been discovered (by James Mason) among sheet music which had been donated to the University of Toronto many years before.  It had been misfiled.  The concerto will receive its 21st century premiere in July of this year – in Norway.  The soloist will be Henning Kraggerud.  Johan Halvorsen died on December 4, 1935, at age 71. Here is a video of the Passacaglia.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Uto Ughi

Uto Ughi is an Italian violinist, teacher, writer, and conductor born (in Busto Arsizio) on January 21, 1944.  His name has been closely associated with the National Academy of Saint Cecilia (in Rome) for many years.  He is a high-profile promoter of musical culture all over the world, but especially in Italy, as is Vladimir Spivakov in Russia.  Ughi has founded several music festivals along the way.  His discography covers most of the standard violin repertoire.  Because he came of age in the 1960s, he has had a chance to work with some of the legendary names in the conducting world (who are for the most part now dead) as well as the most current luminaries of the baton.  He began his lessons at age 4.  His father was an amateur violinist but his first formal teacher was a nameless violinist from the opera orchestra of La Scala.  At age 7, Ughi gave his first recital in Milan.  Though it’s hard to believe, according to one source, he played some Paganini Caprices as well as the ubiquitous Bach Chaconne at that recital.  Ughi studied for ten years at the Chigiana Music Academy in Siena (Tuscany.)  He also took lessons from George Enesco for a time.  He began his uninterrupted concertizing career in 1959 – he was 15 years old.  Among his pupils are Augustin Hadelich and Sayaka Shoji.  Ughi’s recording of Paganini’s fourth concerto is my favorite recording of that particular concerto.  Here is a YouTube video of one of his performances.  He has also recorded a seldom-played work – the Schumann concerto.  Here is the first movement from that recording - the second and third movements are here.  Between 1987 and 1992, he was the principal conductor of the Orchestra of the St Cecilia Academy.  Ughi has owned or played the Kreutzer Stradivarius (the one from 1701 – there are 4 Strads named Kreutzer), the General Kyd, the Ole Bull, and a Guarneri from 1744.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Russian Violin Makers

In terms of fame, and very likely in terms of expertise, Italian, French, and German violin makers have the Russians beat by a long shot. At least that’s the general opinion. Whether that is so because the violin was actually invented in Italy (around 1530) and the most prolific makers worked from there and were the first to become famous is anyone’s guess.  The names of da Salo, Amati, Stradivari, Tononi, Guarneri, Maggini, Carcassi, Storioni, Gagliano, Guadagnini, Ventapane, Rogeri, Ruggieri, Pressenda, Albani, Gobetti, and Montagnana, are certainly very well known.  Their violins are prized above all others.  On the other hand, Russian makers are not known at all.  This peculiarity is striking since the whole world knows that most of the world’s celebrated violinists are Russian.  To filter them further, most among these superlative Russian players are Jewish – Oistrakh, Goldstein, Kogan, Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, Seidel, Milstein, and Gitlis, to name a few.  So, why aren’t there any great Russian violin makers – makers whose names are household words – Jewish or otherwise?  Perhaps it has to do with tradition – like the tradition of exceptional French wine making or fine watch making by the Swiss.  After Amati (and his relatives) and other early makers started violin making enterprises, the violin construction economic engine took off; soon, imitators sprang up elsewhere in Italy - some of them really good.  Entire families (such as the Guarneris and the Stradivaris) got involved in the trade and the tradition of fine Italian violin making was thus established.  By the time the ideas and patterns for violin making spread to other parts of Europe, the Italians had been at it for more than fifty years.  Then the Italian violin virtuosos got going as well.  Up until 1750, they were dominant in the violin playing sphere.  Italian violinists like Corelli, Somis, Pugnani, Tartini, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Tommasini, and Locatelli had few (if any) corresponding contemporaries in the other European countries or Russia. There was a time when Spain ruled the seas.  There was also a time when the Roman Empire ruled the world.  Nothing lasts forever.  Who knows whether the Russian violin makers will not someday soon take over the business?  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Olga Bloom

Olga Bloom (Olga Bayrack Bloom) was a Russian violinist and violist born (in Boston, USA) on April 2, 1919.  She is best known as the founder of Bargemusic, a very successful venue for chamber music concerts which she founded in 1977, located in Brooklyn, New York, close to the famous Brooklyn Bridge.  Bloom began her violin studies at age four.  I do not know who her first teacher was although it could have been her father – he was an amateur violinist.  Later, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and at Boston University.  One of her teachers was Jacques Hoffman, associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony.  None of the sources I visited stated whether Bloom graduated from the schools she attended and I didn’t bother to check any further.  In any case, Bloom moved to New York where she worked in pit orchestras and recording studios for many years.  At about age 57, she retired from regular playing and looked for other ways to make a living.  (Unless you are a star musician, as you get older, playing opportunities begin drying up – it happens all the time.  Then, if you don’t hustle a teaching post, you have to find other ways to make a living.)  She purchased a used barge for ten thousand dollars at about that time (with her own money) and the rest is history.  Bloom ran the Bargemusic operation for almost 30 years, until 2005.  She was 85 years old.  She was very devoted to chamber music and she famously said: "One gets the greatest gratification and fulfillment in working in concerted effort with one's peers."  Olga Bloom died on November 24, 2011, at age 92.  

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Joseph Roisman

Joseph Roisman (Josef Roismann) was a Russian (Ukrainian) violinist born (in Odessa) on July 25, 1900.  He is best known for playing in the Budapest String Quartet from 1927 to 1967.  Prior to 1932 he played second violin and then played first violin from 1932 onward.  Although he was a very prominent chamber music player, known throughout the world, there is scant information about him on the internet and no Wikipedia article on him.  He began his violin studies at age 6.  One source states that his first teacher was Peter Stolyarsky although that is highly debatable since prominent pedagogues like Stolyarski never take on beginners.  From Odessa the family went to Berlin where Roisman studied with Alexander Fiedemann.  In 1914, they returned to Odessa where the young Roisman studied with Naoum Blinder at the Imperial Conservatory.  After graduating, he was appointed concertmaster of the Odessa Opera Orchestra.  After the 1917 revolution, Roisman made a living in Russia playing in farms and factories.  In 1923, he left Russia and soon settled in Prague, playing in the Czech Philharmonic and in cafes.  By 1925, he had arrived in Berlin where he landed a job in a movie theatre orchestra.  According to one source, the theatre orchestra paid better than the Berlin Philharmonic.  He supplemented his income by playing in cafes there too.  He joined the Budapest Quartet after auditioning in the spring of 1927.  He played his first concert with the quartet on September 17, 1927 in Oslo, Norway – it was an all-Beethoven program.  Roisman, as far as I know, never played solo concerts or recitals.  Here is an audio file of the quartet playing a Haydn quartet in (circa) 1925, prior to Roisman's joining.  Here is a recording (from 1934) of a Mozart quartet, including Roisman and the players which lasted the longest with the Budapest String Quartet and are traditionally associated with it.  Roisman played a Domenico Montagnana violin constructed in 1723 and a magnificent 1785 Lorenzo Storioni.  Joseph Roisman died on October 10, 1974, at age 74. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Naoum Blinder

Naoum Blinder was a Russian (Ukrainian) violinist and teacher born (in Lutzk) on July 19, 1889 – since various sources vary his exact date and place of birth are approximate.  He is best remembered for being one of Isaac Stern’s teachers – between 1932 and 1935.  He was a touring concert violinist for a while but finally settled in San Francisco to become the orchestra’s concertmaster for 25 years.  He began his violin studies as a child although I don’t know at what age.  By age 14 he had graduated from the Imperial Conservatory in Odessa.  There, he had studied with Peter Stolyarsky and Alexander Fiedemann.  He then entered the Moscow Conservatory (in about 1904) and studied with an unknown teacher there until about 1910.  He was by then 21 years old.  From there, he went to pursue further study in England at the Royal Manchester College of Music.  His main teacher there was Adolph Brodsky.  Blinder graduated from the RMC in 1913 or 1914 and then returned to Odessa to teach at the Conservatory.  He was 25 years old.  He remained there until 1920.  All the while, he toured (mostly Russia and the Middle East) as a soloist.  Between 1923 and 1927, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory.  I don’t know what he did or where he was between 1920 and 1923.  Blinder and his family (his wife and daughter) came to the US (via Japan) in December, 1927.  Between 1929 and 1931, Blinder taught at Juilliard in New York.  In 1931, he became the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony at the invitation of a friend who had known him in Russia.  Blinder was 42 years old.  He continued to tour intermittently as a soloist and founded the San Francisco String Quartet in 1935 as well.  In that year, he and Isaac Stern played the Bach concerto for two violins with the orchestra.  That is fairly typical of teachers and their favorite students to do.  Blinder had a very large body of students; many of them became members of the San Francisco Symphony and other orchestras.  Glenn Dicterow also studied with him for a time.  Blinder owned and played several violins – a 1774 G.B. Guadagnini, a 1753 G.B. Guadagnini, and an 1850 J.B. Vuillaume are among them.  He died on November 21, 1965, at age 76.  Here is a rare solo recording of his. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Antonio Brosa

Antonio Brosa was a Spanish violinist and teacher born (in La Canonja, Spain) on June 27, 1894.  He is best known for having premiered Benjamin Britten’s violin concerto.  The premiere took place in New York on March 28, 1940 with the New York Philharmonic - John Barbirolli conducted.  Brosa was also known for being fluent in 5 languages.  It is not unusual at all for violinists (and conductors) to be fluent in two or three languages but five is rather unusual.  It has been said that Henryk Szeryng was fluent in seven.  According to one usually-reliable source, Brosa was also the first to record the Britten concerto – in April, 1952 or September, 1953.  That recording – as far as I know – is not commercially available.  The concerto was at first not very successful but by 2005, there were more than twenty recordings already produced.  He began his violin studies with his father at age 4.  At age 10, he made his public debut in Barcelona.  Brosa later studied in Brussels with Mathieu Crickboom.  His training there must have taken place in the early part of the twentieth century.  He made his debut in London in 1919.  He was 25 years old.  In 1924 (one source says 1925), Brosa founded the Brosa String Quartet.  The quartet was disbanded in 1939.  His first tour of the U.S. occurred in 1930.  From 1940 to 1942, he was first violinist with the Pro Arte Quartet as well.  He later also taught at the Royal College in London and concertized until his retirement in 1971.  Brosa played the 1727 (or 1730) Vesuvius Stradivarius (now in a Cremona museum) as well as a Giovanni Paolo Maggini violin from the year 1600 (approximately) which had previously been owned by Ole Bull. Here is an audio file of a Brosa recording of the slow movement of the Mendelssohn e minor concerto.  Brosa died (in Barcelona) on March 23, 1979, at age 84.