Sunday, February 27, 2011

What you get for $5 million

As almost everyone knows, old Italian violins – especially Strads, Guarneris, and Guadagninis - are priced at far more than their weight in gold.  Their prices are now set so high hardly any artist can afford them.  In the old days, it was not unusual for someone in the nobility or a wealthy patron to gift a valuable instrument to a violinist.  Such a thing happened to Nicolo Paganini, Teresa Milanollo, and a host of other violinists.  Nowadays, pricy violins are owned by philanthropic foundations, banks, investors, or private collectors.  They usually lend their instruments out to worthy players – most of them young.  However, players are beginning to realize that many new instruments are as good as old ones – even the very best Strads – and the new ones can be purchased for less than two percent of the price of an old one.  That’s right, two percent.  During the time he owned it, Menuhin would take his (1934) replica of his Strad (the Khevenhuller - 1733) to concerts where he thought the original might be in danger.  Nobody knew.  Obviously, the sound did not give it away.  That tells you something.  Outstanding modern makers such as Sergio Peresson, Douglas Cox, David Burgess, Joseph Curtin, Greg Alf, Michael Darnton, David Gusset, Mario Miralles, Gregory Sapp, and quite a few others have constructed stupendous violins which have been praised by some of the world’s top violinists.  These violins are priced between ten and forty thousand dollars.  It has been stated that it can take a violin anywhere between six months to seventy five years to open up (though that, of course, is highly debatable.)  My own replica of Paganini’s famous Cannone was constructed by Daniel Houck from Ohio.  It is my second violin from Houck.  Since I am not a concert violinist with a sizable budget, I partly based my decision to commission Mr. Houck on price comparisons.  Houck’s price cannot be beat because he is at the beginning of his career as a maker.  The violin itself, which was completed just three weeks ago, is a wonderful instrument – it does everything a good violin should: it’s extremely responsive, clear, powerful, warm in quality, and even in tone across all strings.  What more can anyone ask?  The rest is entirely up to my bow arm. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Joseph Achron

Joseph Achron (Youssel Yulyevich Akhron) was a Russian (Lithuanian) violinist, teacher, and composer born on May 13, 1886 (Brahms was 53 years old.)  Although he was a prodigy on the violin and a virtuoso violinist in his adult life, he is mostly remembered as a composer and, particularly, as an early advocate for the incorporation of Jewish folk melody in classical music.  (Smetana, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Bartok, Bloch and other composers undertook a similar journey.)  He first studied with his father at age five and later (1891) in Warsaw (at the Warsaw Conservatory with Isidor Lotto), where he gave his first public performance at age 7.  By age 10, he had already played for the Russian nobility (the Czar’s brother.)  At age 13 (1898 – some sources say 1899) he began studying with Leopold Auer at the St Petersburg Conservatory (Heifetz was not yet born.)  Composition he studied with Anatoly Liadov and Maximilian Steinberg.  He graduated from the Conservatory in 1904.  In 1913 he became head of the violin department at the Kharkiv Conservatory in Northeastern Ukraine.  1916 through 1918 he spent in the Russian Army, performing wherever he was assigned.  Achron toured Europe and Russia from 1918 until about 1924, playing more than 1000 concerts during this time.  Between 1919 and 1922, he was head of the violin department at the Leningrad Artists’ Union.  The Revolution had already taken place.  He moved to Berlin in 1922.  In 1925 (December 31, 1924), he came to the U.S. and settled in New York City.   He taught at the Westchester Conservatory, played many concerts, and wrote music for the Yiddish Art Theatre.  Achron premiered his first violin concerto, Opus 60, (1925 - dedicated to Jascha Heifetz) with the Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky on January 24, 1927.  It is said to be a very difficult work.  Some sources say that his actual first violin concerto was his Opus 4 from 1899, whose manuscript is lost.  A recording (of Opus 60) by Elmar Oliveira and Joseph Silverstein (conducting) is available on the internet.  Achron moved from New York City to Los Angeles in 1934, where he composed for films, gave concerts, and played in the Hollywood studio orchestras as well.  His second and third violin concertos he premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on December 19, 1936 and March 31, 1939, respectively; both times with Otto Klemperer on the podium.  His best known work is probably Hebrew Melody, written early in his composing career (1911 – Opus 33).  (You can listen to the Joseph Hassid recording of it on YouTube.)  Jascha Heifetz was one of his benefactors, commissioning the third violin concerto in 1938 or 1939.  I don’t think Heifetz ever recorded it.  (Kreisler never recorded the Elgar concerto either, though it was dedicated to him.)  On the website of the Joseph Achron Society, Heifetz is quoted as saying: "He is one of our foremost modern composers and I cannot say enough on his behalf both as a musician and as a man."  This site also contains very detailed information on recordings (old and new) as well as published works available to the general public.  Achron eventually composed nearly 100 works – more than half of them unpublished.  The lion's share of his manuscripts are at the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) in Jerusalem (although some sources state that they are at the University of Tel Aviv and others say they are at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In any case, they are not hard to locate.)  Hagai Shaham recorded a CD of some of his unpublished works on a British label more than ten years ago (Biddulph - B000001ZEC) but I do not know if the recording is still available from their catalog - I very much doubt it.  Something that is not well-known is that Achron wrote cadenzas for the Beethoven, Mozart, Paganini, and Brahms violin concertos - none are published.  He probably used these in his own performances.  He also edited (using the term loosely) eleven of Paganini’s 24 Caprices (still unpublished.)  A recording of these seriously re-worked Caprices with violinist Ingolf Turban (founder of the Virtuosi Di Paganini Chamber Orchestra and a recognized Paganini specialist) and Jascha Nemtsov (pianist) is available and referenced in detail at the Joseph Achron Society page. Achron was the brother of the pianist and composer Isidor Achron, who became an early Jascha Heifetz accompanist.  After Achron, only Albert Markov composes and plays his own concertos – the only one in the world to do so.  The University of Rochester Library has a website with several of Achron’s digitized scores available.   Late in life, Achron played a Giovanni Guadagnini violin (1774) but what instrument he used before then I do not know.  Joseph Achron died in Hollywood, California on April 29, 1943, at age 56.
Thanks to Bridget Carr of the Boston Symphony, Steve LaCoste of the LA Philharmonic, and Samuel Elliot Zerin of the Joseph Achron Society for providing critical details for this profile.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oskar Back

Oskar Back was a Hungarian (some would say Dutch) violinist and teacher born (in Vienna) on June 9, 1879, (Brahms was 46 years old.)  He first began lessons with his father then continued with Jacob Grun (teacher of Oskar Morini, Erica Morini's father.)  At age 17 he travelled to Belgium.  There, at the Brussels Conservatory, his main teacher was Eugene Ysaye.  Although his achievements as a violin virtuoso earned him the respect of many outstanding musicians, he eventually became an important violin pedagogue because, just as Ivan Galamian did, Back suffered from debilitating stage fright.  He taught for many years at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.  Among his famous students are Theo Olof (concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for many years), Herman Krebbers (teacher of conductor Andre Rieu), Davina Van Wely (teacher of violinist-conductor Jaap Van Zweden – the youngest concertmaster in the history of the Concertgebouw), and Alma Moodie (Carl Flesch’s favorite pupil.)  A Stradivarius violin built in 1666 is known as the Back Stradivarius, even though he only owned it for one year (1957), and a well-known violin competition in Amsterdam, begun in 1967, is named after him – this year, it runs from April 22 to April 28.  Back died on January 3, 1963, after an unsuccessful surgery (just as Camilla Urso also died), at age 83.  As far as I know, he never recorded anything, although that seems very unlikely.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Anna Rabinova

Anna Rabinova is a Russian violinist who plays in the New York Philharmonic.  She is also a concert violinist, teacher, and chamber musician whose career includes playing as a soloist and recording artist as her schedule allows.  I have chosen her to exemplify the high caliber of artists currently playing in the world’s best (and most prestigious) orchestras – Berlin, Concertgebouw, Vienna, London, Chicago, Philadelphia, and, of course, the New York Philharmonic, to name a few.  I was recently captivated by her live recording of the Mendelssohn concerto on YouTube (with a European Orchestra) which you can listen to here.  I am very discreet with compliments but I must say that its lyricism, sincerity, and beauty took me by surprise.  (As so often happens, I found Rabinova’s YouTube performance purely by accident – while researching something else – but I was very glad I did.)  She began her violin studies at age 6 with Lev Kogan (pupil of Peter Stolyarsky, the eminent Russian pedagogue who was himself an orchestral violinist.)  Later on, at the Moscow Conservatory, she studied with Igor Bezrodny (who premiered Kabalevsky’s violin concerto and was the violinist of the Moscow Trio and pupil of Abram Yampolsky), Mikhail Kopelman (first violinist with the Borodin Quartet and concertmaster of the Moscow Philharmonic), and in New York with Joseph Fuchs.  Her debut was in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.  Rabinova first played in the U.S. in August of 1992 and soon after decided to stay.  She joined the New York Philharmonic in 1994.  In April 2004 she served as concertmaster of the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra.  In October 2008, she was a soloist with the Philharmonic in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with Lorin Maazel on the podium.  Of course, she also frequently performs as a chamber musician when the members of the Philharmonic break up into trios, quartets, sextets, and other larger combinations to perform in New York or elsewhere, as do also musicians in other top orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic (with its famous 12 cellists), the Pittsburgh Symphony, and others.  Rabinova, whose repertoire includes all of the standard concertos, has toured Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, performing with the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and numerous other European orchestras.  These include the Halle Philharmonic, Moscow Radio Orchestra, Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Russian State Symphony, and Berlin Symphony.  In the U. S., she has made solo appearances with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the American Symphony Orchestra, among many others, and has premiered works by John Corigliano, David Winkler, and Alfred Schnittke.  As a recitalist in Europe, she has appeared in the Shauspielhaus in Berlin, Tchaikovsky Philharmonic Hall in Moscow, and the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, as well as in venues in Rome, Leipzig, and Belgrade.  In the U.S. she has performed at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C., Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and many other venues too numerous to mention.  Her festival performances have included appearances at the Schleswig Holstein, Berlin Chamber Music, Long Island Mozart festival, the Music Festival of the Hamptons, and Tanglewood.  Rabinova’s recordings include works by Schuman (for Germany’s Auris-Subtilis) and David Winkler’s Violin Concerto (Naxos); in 1998 she recorded sonatas by Brahms and Schubert for an NHK-TV (Japan) chamber music series.  Rabinova also recently premiered (May, 2010) a new double violin concerto (with Dmitri Berlinsky) by Winkler.  I do not know whether that recording has been issued.  She has performed on television in New York, as well as on German and Russian radio.  Her violin is a Carlo Landolfi (1758 – Mozart was two years old when it was constructed.) 

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.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Franziska Hoelscher

Franziska Hoelscher is a German violinist born (in Heidelberg) on November 9, 1982 (Heifetz was 81 years old.) She began her studies at the age of five, her first teacher being Dietmar Mantel (Academy of Music, Mannheim, Germany.) Even though Hoelscher is a concert violinist with a very extensive repertoire, she has a very strong affinity to chamber music and has studied with various artists who are very closely connected to that intimate musical art. While she is now completing her conservatory studies with violinist Nora Chastain (violinist - granddaughter of American composer Roy Harris) in Berlin, she has already embarked on a concertizing career. Many other violinists before her have done the same thing, including Joshua Bell, Salvatore Accardo, Chloe Hanslip, Leonid Kogan, and Midori. Hoelscher’s debut took place in 1999 at the Philharmonie of Cologne. She was 16 years old. Her teachers have included Ulf Hoelscher (not related to her), Thomas Brandis (former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic) Ana Chumachenko (professor at the Advanced Music School in Munich), Rainer Kussmaul (former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic), and Walter Levin (first violin of the LaSalle Quartet), among several others. In 1999, she won the international Radio Competition in Prague – her first important win in a competition. That was followed by her winning different prizes and awards at international competitions in the Netherlands, in Berlin, and at the Competition of the German Conservatories. For many years she was the first violinist of the Viktor Ullmann Quartet, named after the Austrian composer who was a sad casualty of a concentration camp in 1944. She has performed with Adrian Brendel (cellist, son of pianist Alfred Brendel), Ivry Gitlis (violinist), Martin Helmchen (pianist), Sebastian Manz (clarinetist), and Gustav Rivinius (cellist), among many other artists. Many of her performances as soloist and chamber musician have taken place at the Philharmonie in Berlin (home of the Berlin Philharmonic), Philharmonie in Cologne, the Konzerthaus (Berlin), the Gewandhaus (Leipzig), the Liederhalle (Stuttgart), and the Rudolfinum in Prague. She has already concertized throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S. (New York, Washington D.C., Boston, etc.) Hoelscher has also performed and recorded for many radio and television networks in Germany, Italy, and Czechoslovakia. Classical artists in Europe are fortunate to have radio and television as additional venues whereas in the U.S., these are totally closed to our solo violinists and other classical musicians. Alongside her concert performances, she has been a part of the Rhapsody in School organization founded by Lars Vogt (pianist), which is committed to bringing classical music into schools. Her 2011 agenda includes her graduation, exploring new music, and expanded concertizing. Hoelscher plays a very rare violin – a Daniel Parker (1717.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Louis Persinger

Louis Persinger was an American violinist, teacher, and pianist born (in Illinois) on February 11, 1887 (Brahms was 54 years old.)  Some sources give the year of his birth as 1888.  So fleeting was his fame as a virtuoso that Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Third Edition, 1953) has no mention of him.  His concertizing career was short-lived.  However, his name is now immortal thanks to several outstanding violinists he taught – Yehudi Menuhin, Ruggiero Ricci, Isaac Stern, Donald Erickson, Zvi Zeitlin, Guila Bustabo, Camilla Wicks, Louise Behrend, Nannette Levi, Fredell Lack, Leonard Posner, Francis Chaplin, and Hermilo Novelo  among them.  In fact, he not only taught them, being an accomplished pianist (as were Fritz Kreisler and Arthur Grumiaux and now Julia Fischer and Arabella Steinbacher), he accompanied several of them on recitals and recordings.  (Ricci, Erickson, Wicks, Zeitlin, and Lack are still with us and Zeitlin and Ricci are still actively teaching.  I believe Camilla Wicks easily rivaled Heifetz, Ricci, Milstein, and Kogan.  It is an artistic tragedy that she had to interrupt her career in order to raise her five children.)  Persinger also taught Dorothy DeLay who then went on to become the teacher of some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century.  Some time during his childhood, Persinger moved to Colorado (USA.)  With financial backing from a generous and wealthy patron (Winfield Scott Stratton, Colorado Springs gold mine owner) he started out on his career and eventually travelled to Europe (1909) where he studied with Hans Becker at the Leipzig Conservatory, later with Eugene Ysaye (presumably in Brussels, Belgium), and with Jacques Thibaud in France for two summers.  He made his London debut on May 9, 1912 (at age 25) at Bechstein Hall (now Wigmore Hall) and received excellent reviews.  The Titanic disaster had already occurred - April 15, 1912.  On November 1 and 2, 1912, he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra with Stokowski on the podium.  On November 9 of the same year he made his New York recital debut at the Aeolian Hall, the site of the world premiere of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1924.  It was a small hall, seating about 1100.  His accompanist was pianist Samuel Chotzinoff, who would later accompany Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist as well, become Director of Music at NBC (1936), become a music critic, and write Toscanini’s biography (1956.)  Among the works Persinger played were a concerto by Pietro Nardini (an obscure work though Pinchas Zukerman has made a recording of it) and the Bruch g minor concerto.  He also played six encores.  The reviews were very favorable.  More than a month later (December 22, 1912), he played Edouard Lalo’s violin concerto in f minor (Opus 20 – not the better-known Symphonie Espagnole, Opus 21) with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.  Returning to Europe, he served as concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic (some sources say he played in the first violin section) and was also concertmaster of the Royal Opera Orchestra in Brussels, Belgium.  In 1915, he accepted the post of concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony.  He was also named assistant conductor.  He was 28 years old.  He later became the Director of the Chamber Music Society of that city.  It was in San Francisco that he had the good fortune to be sought out by Ricci, Menuhin, and Stern.  In 1925, he moved to New York.  In 1930, he was appointed professor at the Institute of Musical Art (Juilliard) to replace Leopold Auer.  He taught at Juilliard until the day he died.  Menuhin later said “I was, in some ways, the pupil of Persinger’s abandoned dreams.”  Persinger played a Nicolas Lupot violin for some time although he also played a Stradivarius and a Guarnerius violin.  YouTube has a recording of him playing the Capriccio Espagnol solos with the San Francisco Symphony and some with him playing piano for Menuhin.  The only other recording by Persinger that I know of is the one with his son Rolf, the late principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony (1963-1976), featuring works by Hindemith and Handel.  He was a chess player too, though not a very good one.  David Oistrakh, among others, beat him at it.  (Since I have beaten a computer at its top level, I know I would probably have been able to beat him, too.  On the other hand, he was a much, much better violinist than I.)  Persinger died in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1966.  He was 79 years old.