Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jacques Singer

Jacques Singer (Jakob Singer) was a Polish (some would say American) violinist and conductor born (in Przemysl, Poland) on May 9, 1910.  Although he was a very fine violinist, he is today remembered as a conductor, owing to the fact that he spent the latter part of his career as a conductor of various well-known orchestras, having almost given up playing the violin altogether.  In this respect he joins Edouard Colonne, Eugene Ormandy, Theodore Thomas, Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux, Neville Marriner, David Zinman, Alan Gilbert, Peter Oundjian, Orlando Barera, Jaap Van Zweden, and a few others.  Singer acquired a reputation for improving orchestras as well as improving audience attendance dramatically but he also faced problems wherever he went, feuding with music critics, orchestra members, or boards of directors.  He began his violin studies at a very early age and by age 7 had already performed in public.  When he was 10 years old, the family moved to the U.S, arriving in November of 1920.  They settled in Jersey City, a place very close to New York City.  In 1925, at about age 15, Singer made his American debut at Town Hall.  He then attended the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia), studying with Carl Flesch.  A year later (1927) he began studying at Juilliard.  He was 17 years old.  His teachers there were Paul Kochanski and Leopold Auer.  Singer graduated in 1930.  Two years before he graduated, he had joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, becoming the youngest player at that time.  One source claims he was fourteen years old when he joined the orchestra but that is very unlikely.  According to one source, Leopold Stokowski encouraged him to take up conducting.  By 1936, Singer had become the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra.  He was 26 years old.  The New York Times said he was a conductor to watch.  Singer was one of the first conductors to address the audience during concerts, something which violinist Henri Temianka also used to do before everyone else thought it was a good idea.  Singer was permanent conductor with the Dallas Symphony from 1938 to 1942.  He was very well received in Dallas but his tenure there was interrupted by the war.  In the Army, he conducted bands but also served as a soldier.  He possibly could have rejoined the Dallas Symphony after the war but he didn’t.  Why that is so is anyone’s guess.  During his tenure there, subscriptions tripled.  In 1946, he conducted summer concerts for two months in New Orleans.  In 1947, he was appointed music director at Vancouver (Canada.)  He stayed until 1951, leaving after feuding with the board of directors over budget issues.  He then formed a competing orchestra (the British Columbia Philharmonic) but that didn’t last.  He guest conducted in New York (Broadway) and in Israel (Jerusalem Radio Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, and Haifa Symphony) in 1952.  From 1955 until 1962, he served as conductor of the Corpus Christi Symphony.  In 1962, he was again guest-conducting in England (London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic) among many other places, including South America.  He renewed his contract with the Corpus Christi Symphony in 1962 but soon asked to be released because the Portland Symphony offered him a position (and possibly a better financial deal) beginning the same year.  He conducted in Portland from 1962 to 1971 – he did not conduct during the 1972-1973 season although he was paid for it.  He left after a feud about artistic matters.  The Portland Symphony became the Oregon Symphony during his tenure.  Players in that orchestra (and others) often complained about his brusque, bombastic manner, his volatile temper, and his poor conducting technique, but admired his musicianship and exciting entrepreneurial style.  Singer spent the rest of his life in New York and DeKalb (Illinois), conducting, among others, the American Symphony Orchestra and the Northern Illinois Philharmonic.  I’m guessing that there are some recorded broadcasts around somewhere although not readily available.  Singer died in Manhattan on August 11, 1980, at age 70.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Heinrich Biber

Heinrich Biber (Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern) was a Czech (some would say Austrian) violinist and composer born (in Wartenberg) on a date unknown but probably in July or August of 1644.  Although he was a virtuosic violinist and highly regarded in his day for his skill in playing the violin, he is today better known as a composer.  One source states that he seldom (if ever) toured as a concert violinist.  He was in the employ of the nobility and wrote music, both secular and sacred, for them.  He was even ascended to the nobility (1690 - at about age 45) by one of his employers.  Just as Bach, Vivaldi, Zelenka, and a few other Baroque composers lost favor and remained obscure during a time span of one hundred years or more but were re-discovered, Biber and his music enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1900s.  This was due mainly to the discovery of a brilliant set of violin sonatas known as the Mystery Sonatas or the Rosary Sonatas.  The set is comprised of 15 works plus a Passacaglia attached to the end as number 16.  There are quite a number of recordings of the Sonatas, just as there are dozens of recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Biber is said to be one of the most important composers of violin music – just as are Locatelli, Corelli, Vivaldi, Tartini, Paganini, Spohr, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Sarasate, and a few others.  Little is known of his early life.  He did work at various courts from an early age.  Eventually he ended up spending the bulk of his career in Salzburg – from the year 1670 onward; playing, conducting, and composing for Maximilian Gandolph, Archbishop of Salzburg.  This was about 90 years before Mozart’s time.  Biber first published his works in 1676.  He was 32 years old.  In 1679, he became assistant music director and in 1684, he was appointed music director.  Today, his most popular and best-known work consists of the Mystery Sonatas, although they were not published during Biber’s lifetime.  If he played these sonatas himself, he must have been an extraordinary violinist because they are riddled with difficulties.  In addition, all of the sonatas require that the violin be tuned other than in the usual fifths – only the Passacaglia is played with normal tuning.  Biber composed much music for choir and orchestra as well as other instrumental works, some of it quite exploratory or experimental in nature.  A piece entitled The Battle (that’s the abbreviated title) makes use of effects which would not again see the light of day until more than two hundred years later – extreme polytonality, imitations of drums, imitations of canon fire, unusual harmonic progressions, and insertion of extraneous objects into instruments to change their texture.  Here is part one of a YouTube video of a performance of the piece.  Here is part two of the same performance.  This is part one of a partita (Partia) for six players in seven movements.  This is part two of the same partita.  And finally, eight of the famous Mystery Sonatas can be found here.  About one minute and 15 seconds into the Praeludium of Sonata number one you may think you hear a striking resemblance to the main melody in the second movement of Saint Saens’ first piano concerto but that is probably just a striking coincidence.  Similarly, Sonata number 15 contains a tiny portion which somewhat resembles the theme of Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice.  Biber died on May 3, 1704, at age 59.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Andras Agoston

Andras Agoston is a Romanian (some would say Hungarian) violinist and teacher born (in Cluj) on March 17, 1947.  (Cluj is about 230 miles northwest of Bucharest.)  For the most part, Agoston has made his career in Eastern Europe but is recognized the world over, though mainly by audiences who keep very close tabs on the world of classical music.  To the general public, he is definitely not a household name and there is scant information about him on the internet.  Nonetheless, he is a very brilliant and unique artist.  He first studied in his native city with Paula Kouba, Peter Zsurka, and Istvan Ruha.  An audio file of the famous Handel-Halvorsen passacaglia with Ruha on viola is located here – in my opinion, it’s the best recording of this work available anywhere and it’s not even a studio recording.  (Ruha’s viola playing is also simply phenomenal.)  After graduating from the Klausenburg Music Academy (in 1972?), he taught there for 20 years.  Between 1991 and 2001, he was concertmaster of the Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra (mainly composed of self-exiled Hungarian musicians) which was initially based near Vienna, Austria.  The orchestra later settled in Marl, a small city about 30 miles northeast of Dusseldorf, Germany.  It became famous for its recording of the complete Haydn symphonies – one of only three orchestras to produce such a project.  The recording project received every award imaginable.  However, the orchestra recorded much more music than this – a total of about 130 discs.  The Philharmonia Hungarica was funded by Germany between 1956 and 2001, after which it ceased to exist.  Agoston continues to give master classes and perform throughout Europe.  As far as I know, he is still based in Marl, Germany.  What violin he plays is unknown to me. Here is a YouTube file in which he plays the Brahms double concerto.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Victor Tretyakov

Victor Tretyakov (Viktor Viktorovich Tretiakov) is a Russian violinist, teacher, and conductor born (in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia) on October 17, 1946.  He is known for an extraordinary technique.  Though Russia was his home base for the first fifty years of his career, he has performed with (almost) every major orchestra in the world and toured far and wide as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber ensemble musician.  He has been awarded every major prize and been given every honor Russia offers its artists.  Tretyakov began studying the violin at age 5 in Irkutsk (Siberia) with a teacher whom I could not trace.  At age 10 (1956), he entered the Central Music School in Moscow where he studied with Yury Yankelevich (pupil of Abram Yampolski and among whose students are Leonid Kogan, Vladimir Spivakov, Ilya Kaler, and Albert Markov.)  At age 19 (1966), during his first year at the Moscow Conservatory, he won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition.  In 1969, he was named soloist of the Moscow State Philharmonic.  He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory one year later (1970.)  He was 23 years old.  However, he continued to study with Yankelevich.  His first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic was on October 17, 1981.  He played the Brahms concerto on that occasion.  He was 35 years old.  In 1983, he became artistic director of the USSR State Chamber Orchestra which later became the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.  He gave that post up in 1991.  From 1986 to 1994, he served as President of the jury for the Tchaikovsky Competition.  He also taught at the Moscow Conservatory for many years but I do not have the dates.  In 1996, he moved to Germany to teach at the advanced school for music in Cologne.  He was 50 years old.  He has also held master classes all over the world.  Here is a YouTube audio file in which he plays Paganini’s concerto in D.  With Yuri Bashmet (viola), Natalia Gutman (cello), and Vassily Lobanov (piano), he formed a piano quartet whose name I do not know.  Among other violins, he has played a 1772 Nicolo Gagliano violin and a gorgeous modern violin by Alexander Hazin.  His discography is not extensive (it fills ten CDs) but it covers all of the standard concertos and sonatas.  

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Wolfgang Schneiderhan

Wolfgang Schneiderhan (Wolfgang Eduard Schneiderhan) was an Austrian violinist, conductor, and teacher born (in Vienna) on May 28, 1915.  He was well-known for being a concertmaster as well as a concert violinist.  His many recordings for the German record label, Deutsche Grammophon, are also well-known and his portrait is easily recognizable in that he almost always wore horn-rimmed glasses – he even bore a resemblance to an American diplomat.  He spent most of his career in Europe, though he toured the U.S. in 1958 as part of a chamber orchestra.  He was also caught up in political movements of the time as were most German and Austrian musicians of that era.  His first teacher was his mother, beginning at age 3.  He made fast progress and his first public performance took place at age 5 in Vienna.  In 1923, he started studying with Otakar Sevcik in Pisek (Czechoslovakia) but later returned to Vienna to study with Julius Winkler because Sevcik was not one to linger long in any one place.  In 1926, he played the Mendelssohn concerto in Copenhagen and subsequently began to tour as a prodigy.  He was 11 years old.  Between 1929 and 1932, he worked in England.  He was 17 years old when he returned to Austria.  He then became concertmaster of the Vienna Symphony.  In 1937, he became concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic and remained there until 1951 (some sources say 1949.)  All the while, he was concertizing and recording as a soloist.  He also formed the Schneiderhan Quartet in 1937 (which he disbanded in 1951) with Otto Strassner, Ernest Moravec, and Richard Kroschak.  In 1947, he presented Elgar’s violin concerto in its first performance in Vienna.  He was 32 years old.  In 1948, he joined a piano trio with which he also recorded, though not much.  He left the trio in 1956.  In that same year, he left the Mozarteum in Salzburg – where he had been teaching since 1938.  He had also taught at the Vienna Academy (Hochschule Fur Musik) from 1939 to 1950 (one source says 1937 to 1950.)  He began teaching at the Lucerne Conservatory (Switzerland) in 1949 and co-founded the Lucerne Festival Strings in 1956.  His first solo appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic took place on November 3, 1942.  He played Viotti’s concerto number 22 in a minor – he was 27 years old.  He soloed with this orchestra many times.  His last appearance with them took place on October 3, 1987.  He played Frank Martin’s violin concerto on that occasion.  He was 72 years old.  He founded the Fritz Kreisler violin competition in Vienna in 1996.  His most popular recordings are probably the Beethoven concerto and the ten Beethoven violin sonatas.  Here is a YouTube audio file in which he plays his cadenza to the Beethoven concerto.  It is actually an arrangement by Schneiderhan of Beethoven’s own revised cadenza to his piano version of the violin concerto.  Schneiderhan does a magnificent job playing it.  The Beethoven concerto probably has had at least ten cadenzas written for it but the most played are the ones composed by Joachim and Kreisler.  Schneiderhan took up conducting in the middle 1970s but he did not do too much of that.  Among Schneiderhan’s violins was a 1715 Stradivarius - now known as the Schneiderhan Stradivarius – which had previously been owned by Martin Marsick – and a 1704 Stradivarius, currently owned by an Austrian Foundation.  Schneiderhan died (in Vienna) on May 18, 2002, at (almost) age 87.  

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lola Bobesco

Lola Bobesco (Lola Violeta Ana Maria Bobesco) was a Romanian violinist born (in Craiova, Romania) on August 9, 1921.  She spent most of her career in Europe and many of those years were spent in Belgium, which is why Bobesco is frequently referred to as a Belgian violinist.  She initially studied with her father, a noted composer and conductor.  At age 6, she gave her first public recital.  From 1928 to 1935, she studied at the Normal School of Music in Paris.  Her main teacher there was Marcel Chailley, a well-known violinist of the time.  She almost simultaneously studied at the Paris Conservatory from 1931 to 1935, with Jules Boucherit.  She also studied privately with George Enesco and Jacques Thibaud.  She apparently made her orchestral debut in Paris in 1936 with the (Edouard) Colonne Orchestra with Paul Paray conducting.  Paray would later become chief conductor of the Detroit Symphony, when Detroit was in its prime.  It was an unusual debut in that she performed not a concerto from the standard repertoire but a work by a now-obscure Romanian composer, Stan Golestan.  She was 17 years old.  The next year, she won seventh prize in the Queen Elizabeth (Eugene Ysaye) violin competition – David Oistrakh came in first.  After that, she returned to Romania and established a career in Bucharest.  On January 17, 1960 she made her first appearance with the Berlin Philharmonic, playing the Brahms concerto, She was 38 years old.  She performed with most of the major European orchestras, including the Concertgebouw, the London Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic, under conductors famous at the time, including Rudolph Kempe, Ernest Ansermet, Karl Bohm, and Otto Klemperer.  Having relocated to Belgium in her early thirties, from 1958 to 1978, she led the Royal Wallonia Chamber Orchestra in Mons, Belgium.  Mons is situated about 30 miles south of Brussels.  She was also violin professor at the Brussels Conservatory.  From 1962 to 1974, she taught at the Liege Conservatory.  In 1990, she founded a string quartet as well – the Arte Del Suono Quartet.  She was 69 years old.  You can hear how this quartet sounds here and – I predict - you will most certainly be (pleasantly) surprised.  She recorded quite a bit for various labels and those recordings – mostly standard violin sonatas and concertos – are available and easily found on the internet.  Her violin, among others, was a 1754 GB Guadagnini.  Bobesco died (in Spa, Belgium) on September 4, 2003, at age 82, largely forgotten. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Stolen Lipinski Violin Found

News pages have recently been awash in stories about Frank Almond’s stolen Lipinski Stradivarius violin.  On the evening of January 27, 2014, he was attacked with a stun gun while leaving a concert venue near the city of Milwaukee and the thieves (a man and a woman, according to Almond) quickly ran off with the violin, which he dropped - due to the shock – at the very spot he was approached.  Almond was apparently not unduly physically injured.  The papers have been saturated with stories and the FBI and Interpol have become involved with the expected hope that the violin may become impossible to sell or even to show because of the publicity.  I predict it will not reappear for a very, very long time.  My own theory is as follows: This was a very deliberate theft and well-planned.  The attackers were merely hired guns who quickly turned over the violin to another person whom I shall call an intermediary – a professional smuggler, if you will.  The exchange probably took place within minutes of the actual theft – I’m guessing no more than thirty minutes.  The smuggler would have made a fast run (by car or truck or some other inconspicuous vehicle) for the Canadian border - the most likely crossing point being Detroit.  The smuggler would have driven during the night and been in Detroit before 7 a.m. on Tuesday.  He (or she) would have waited for the most opportune time to cross into Windsor but well before the news of the theft was broadcast.  Once in Canada, the most likely place to hide a violin like that would be Montreal.  The problem of getting it out of Canada would be someone else’s and not the smuggler’s – most likely a broker for a trusted ally of the end buyer.  I’m guessing that the buyer is known only to his (or her) trusted ally.  At this time, I’m guessing the violin is still in Montreal and will remain there until sometime in the spring or early summer.  It is unlikely the violin would be stashed in a small city because moving it from place to place presents further risk of being discovered.  If it’s not smuggled out of Montreal (or Toronto) by mid-June, it will have to wait until mid-September and beyond.  The reason for that is that the easiest way to transport an instrument without arousing curiosity is in the midst of traveling groups – most likely chamber ensembles of ten to fifteen players.  Most of these ensembles include violinists who carry their instruments as carry-ons or in luggage compartments.  Walking a violin into a plane under those conditions would be easy for someone pretending to be part of a touring group or even as an independent traveling musician traveling on the same plane as the group, especially if the broker is knowledgeable about classical music or is a violinist – I will assume an amateur violinist, of course.  Concert activities slow down considerably after June but pick up again after September – a person would have to be quite stupid to try to smuggle something like this during the off season.  By April, the attention being paid to this stolen violin would have died down a lot and the time for the broker to act would be ripe.  If I were Interpol, I would be watching every touring ensemble coming into and leaving Montreal (and Toronto as well) for the foreseeable future.  I would also be reviewing video of all border crossers into Windsor on that Tuesday morning.  The final destination of the Lipinski is probably Japan.  It could also be Russia.  The transit points would most likely be Berlin, London, or Paris.  Of course, all of this is pure conjecture on my part – for all I know, at this very moment, the Lipinski might be in somebody’s house in Milwaukee.  This newspaper article contradicts pretty nearly everything I have theorized here.