Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sergiu Luca

Sergiu Luca was a Romanian (some would say American) violinist and teacher born (in Bucharest) on April 5, 1943 (Heifetz was 42 years old.) He is best known for having been the first to record the Bach unaccompanied violin works on a baroque violin. That recording is an early example of one of the causes he championed. The desire for playing (and learning to play) on original (authentic) instruments took off after that, especially in England, where the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert were founded. He began his violin studies at age 4 and entered the Bucharest Conservatory at age 5. His family moved to Israel when he was 7 and he made his public debut as a soloist with the Haifa Symphony when he was 9. Prior to coming to the U.S. to study under Ivan Galamian at the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia), he studied in London (with Max Rostal) and in Switzerland. He is one of a handful of prodigies whom Isaac Stern helped bring from Israel to study in the U.S. - Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, and Shlomo Mintz are three others. None of them ever returned, except to play concerts or participate in music festivals now and then. Luca made his American debut playing the Sibelius Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1965. He played it again later that year with the New York Philharmonic (February 13, 1965), though he only played the first movement of the concerto. It was for one of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts - he was 21 years old. I do not know why but he did not play with the Philharmonic ever again. In contrast, over the years, Zino Francescatti soloed with this orchestra more than 50 times – so did Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Isaac Stern. Luca made his New York recital debut at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in November, 1969. For many years afterward, he concertized in Europe, Latin America, Israel, Japan, and the U.S. Luca founded the Chamber Music Northwest festival in Portland, Oregon (1971-1980), and the Cascade Head Music Festival in Lincoln City, Oregon (about 60 miles southeast of Portland) (1985–2006.) He was one of the first artists to speak to audiences from the stage prior to concerts. In 1983, he became a violin professor at Rice University, a job from which he never retired. He was forty years old. He was also director of Houston's Texas Chamber Orchestra from 1983 to 1986. In 1988 he founded the Da Camera Society of Houston (1988-1994) – some say it was his most ambitious project. Until now, I had never heard of it. He also had a hand in starting the Context chamber group (in 1995) in Houston, which was dedicated to performances on period instruments. I should note that these quoted dates vary by as much as a year (in both directions) from one source to another. For instance, in one source, Luca’s tenure at the Texas Chamber Orchestra is given as 1982-1987. In another, those years are given as 1983-1986. He recorded with Context on the Zephyr label, but also recorded with several orchestras and chamber ensembles on Nonesuch and other labels. He also recorded works, such as the Mozart Sonatas, for violin and piano. In the mid 1970s, he began his forays into authentic baroque performances. Although by appearances he was very involved in original instrument performances, he plainly stated several times that he wanted to embrace as large a repertory as possible and be immersed in all styles and musical ideas. An audio recording of his playing Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata is at YouTube. Luca's favored instrument was the Earl of Falmouth violin by Carlo Bergonzi (1733); however, he also owned a large collection of violins, including ones by Sanctus Seraphin (1733), Antonio Stradivari (1713 – the Wirth Stradivarius), Nicolaus Sawicki (1829 – Paganini considered Sawicki a genius), Stefano Scarampela (1909), and Isabelle Wilbaux (2008 – Canadian luthier.) He was quoted in The Houston Chronicle (by Tara Dooley-July, 2008) as saying, about violins, "They are sort of a human thing that is somewhere between something alive and something that is inanimate." Luca died on December 6, 2010, at age 67.

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