Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Rodolphe Kreutzer

Rodolphe Kreutzer was a German (many would say French) violinist, composer, teacher, and conductor born (in Versailles) on November 16, 1766 (Mozart was 10 years old, Beethoven would not be born for another 4 years, and Paganini would be born 16 years later.)  Despite his having written much concert music, including nineteen violin concertos and more than forty operas and ballets, he is remembered for his book (1796) of 42 etudes for violin – Canadian violinist Jacques Israelevitch was the first to record them.  Kreutzer is also remembered as the violinist to whom Beethoven dedicated his ninth violin sonata (1803), after having first dedicated it to another violinist, George Bridgetower - Bridgetower even premiered the work.  Ironically, Kreutzer never played the sonata and even declared it incomprehensible.  (He had met Beethoven in Vienna in 1798.)  His name is now synonymous with the famous sonata.  There are also no fewer than four Stradivarius violins which bear his name.  He studied first with his violinist father then with Anton Stamitz.  He may also have studied with Giovanni Viotti, but that is far from certain.  In 1782, after his father died, he took his father’s place as concertmaster of the royal orchestra.  He was 16 years old - Marie-Antoinette was a patron of his.  He eventually (1801) became concertmaster of the Paris Opera orchestra, where he later conducted (from 1817 until 1826.)  Together with Pierre Rode and Pierre Baillot, he wrote the Paris Conservatory’s violin method book.  He taught at the Conservatory from 1795 until 1826 – thirty one years.  In 1806, he was solo violinist to Napoleon Bonaparte.  In 1815, he also held the title of concertmaster for Louis XVIII.  All the while, he kept composing.  It has been written that his style of playing was individualistic, full of fiery flourishes, fine finish, and pure tone.  He broke an arm in 1825 (I don’t know which) and retired from playing.  He then also retired from conducting in 1826.  He was 60 years old.  In 1831, after being repeatedly rebuffed by the Paris Opera administration (they refused to produce his last opera), he moved to Switzerland, where he died (in Geneva) on June 6, 1831, at age 64.  His music (other than the etudes) is now almost never played. Here is an audio file of his violin concerto number 18, a very rare performance. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Richard Burgin

Richard Burgin was a Polish (many would say American) violinist, conductor, and teacher born (in Warsaw) on October 11, 1892 (Stravinsky was ten years old and Joseph Szigeti had been born about a month before in Hungary.)  He is best known for being the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for many years (1920-1962); easily the longest tenure by a Boston Symphony concertmaster.  Burgin began the study of violin at age 6.  After studying with local teachers and with Isidor Lotto in Poland, Burgin moved to Germany in 1903 to study with Joseph Joachim at the Advanced Academy for Music in Berlin.  Burgin's first public performance was in 1904 with the Warsaw Philharmonic.  He was 11 years old.  From 1908 to 1912, he studied with Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he graduated in 1912, winning the Silver medal in violin in that year. Mischa Mischakoff took the Gold.   He was never a star pupil of Auer’s, as were Milstein, Elman, Heifetz, Zimbalist, and Seidel.  Burgin became concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1914, at age 22.  (He was not the youngest concertmaster the Warsaw Philharmonic had ever had; Paul Kochanski was, at age 14.)  He was concertmaster of the Oslo (Norway) Symphony in 1915, and of the Stockholm Concert Society (Sweden) from 1916 to 1919.  Some sources list Helsinki (Finland) and Leningrad as other cities where he worked, presumably as concertmaster.  Only Steven Staryk and Mischa Mischakoff have been concertmaster of as many orchestras.  During those years, he played under several famous conductors, including Richard Strauss, Arthur Nikisch, and Jean Sibelius.  Burgin came to the U.S. in 1920 and soon joined the Boston Symphony as concertmaster.  Within a few months after that, he founded the Burgin String Quartet.  According to the Boston Symphony, he used to spend summers in Paris during the 1920s and 30s, probably up until the beginning of World War Two – what he did while there is not known.  From 1927 until he retired, Burgin also served as Assistant Conductor of the orchestra, conducting more than 300 of its concerts in diverse places, including Japan and Australia.  He declared a well-known attitude of concertmasters when he was quoted thus (by TIME Magazine): "I know many virtuosos and I do not envy them. They tell me what it's like to play the same few pieces over and over and know they have to go here and then be there. Not for me. I like the orchestra."  He played under Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitzky, and Charles Munch.  He also, of course, played in dozens of recordings under these, and other, conductors.  One of the high points of his career was his playing the U.S. premiere (in Boston under Koussevitzky) of Prokofiev’s first concerto on April 24, 1925 (two years after it was written.)  Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Koussevitzky conducted the world premiere of the concerto with the Paris Opera Orchestra, its concertmaster (Marcel Darrieux) playing the solo part, on October 18, 1923. One obscure source actually states that the world premiere of this concerto was given by Mischa Mischakoff in Russia in 1917, before the work was even published.   Burgin taught violin and conducting (and directed the Conservatory Orchestra from 1953) at the New England Conservatory.  At the Berkshire Music Center he taught conducting.  In 1959, he began teaching at Boston University.  His most famous pupil is probably Sarah Caldwell, Boston organizer and director of operas.  Because all this was (evidently) not enough to keep him totally busy, he conducted the Portland, Maine symphony as well.  I ordinarily don’t touch upon personal details of a violinist’s life but I must report that, in 1940 (July 3), Burgin married Ruth Posselt, about whom I will write something later.  He was 47 and she was 25.  Her concert career (as a violinist) was just beginning to blossom.  As far as I know, Burgin was not a chess player, as are (and were) so many other top violinists, but he was an accomplished Bridge player.  Burgin retired from the Boston Symphony in May, 1962, and moved to south Florida, where he taught at Florida State University and founded the Florestan Quartet.  He was 69 years old.  Burgin also conducted the Florida State Chamber Orchestra.  A great source of very detailed information about him is at this site. Among the several violins he owned and played was a 1744 Guarnerius Del Gesu which is unusual in that it is the only known Guarnerius made entirely of beech wood (instead of spruce and maple.)  It is now somewhere in Europe.  Richard Burgin died (in St. Petersburg, some sources say Gulfport, Florida) on April 29, 1981, at age 88.  His widow died 26 years later. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Victor Young

Victor Young was an American violinist, composer, arranger, and conductor, born (in Chicago) on August 8, 1899 (two years before Heifetz was born.)  He is an example of instrumentalists who gravitate from concertizing to other endeavors – in his case, composing, arranging, and conducting for films and records.  Violinists Iso Briselli, Pierre Monteux, Jaap Van Zweden, Eddy Brown, and Joseph Achron are five others who more-or-less switched careers as other things drew their attention.  Young is remembered as having been nominated for an Academy Award 22 times (an all-time record) and never actually winning – in any case, not while he was alive.  He began violin studies with Isidor Lotto (pupil of Joseph Lambert Massart and teacher of Bronislaw Huberman) at the Warsaw Conservatory at age 10 and later studied piano with Isidor Philipp (pupil of Camille Saint Saens) at the Paris Conservatory.  Being highly gifted, at age 13, he made his debut with the Warsaw Philharmonic.  He toured Europe as a soloist for a while, but with the outbreak of World War One in 1914, his grandparents, who had been raising him since his arrival in Europe, sent him back to the U.S.  Young then embarked on a career as an orchestral violinist with popular and classical orchestras, often serving as concertmaster or conductor in theatre and radio orchestras, all the while teaching himself the art of arranging popular music.  He was barely 16 years old.  These activities were mostly centered in Chicago.  He played in the Isham Jones and Ted Fiorito orchestras during this time - other members of the Jones orchestra were Woody Herman and Benny Goodman, both of whom would become more famous than Young.  He participated in early recordings with Bing Crosby and radio programs with Betty Grable too.  In New York, where he moved in 1931, Young recorded with Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Al Jolson, and Lee Wiley (his girlfriend), among many others.  In 1933, he started writing music for films, his first one being Murder at the Vanities (a rather obscure but notorious film.  Some sources say his first movie score was Wells Fargo – a film about the stage coach company, not the bank.)  In 1934, Young signed a contract with Decca Records and stayed with them for the rest of his life.  In 1936, he moved to Hollywood, initially writing music for Paramount Pictures and leading the orchestra at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.  In Hollywood, he eventually wrote soundtracks for movies and television and recorded with many legendary stars, Judy Garland among them.  His scores include Golden Boy, Around the World in Eighty Days, Shane, Samson and Delilah, Scaramouche, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It is known that Young was a workaholic.  In fact, he died while working on a movie score (China Gate), on November 10, 1956, at age 57.  By then, he had worked on over 350 movies and had spent almost 90 percent of his professional life in the popular music sphere.  It had been a long way from the Warsaw Philharmonic to the Hollywood sound studios.  Brandeis University (Boston) has  a collection containing more than one hundred scores and recordings of Young's music.  About Victor Young, Henry Mancini has been quoted as saying “All he had to do was sit down at the piano and the melodies fell out of his sleeves.” 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fabio Biondi

Fabio Biondi is an Italian (Sicilian) violinist and conductor born (in Palermo) on March 15, 1961 (Heifetz was 60 years old and would live another 26 years.)  He is known for leading the Italian baroque ensemble which he founded (in 1989 – some sources say 1990), Europa Galante, one of the many original (authentic or period) instrument groups in Europe, with which he has toured the world.  Biondi is to Europa Galante what Simon Standage is to the English Concert except much more.  (Biondi has in fact recently conducted the English Concert ensemble.)  He began violin lessons at age five with Salvatore Cicero (concertmaster of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra) in Palermo.  He made his public debut with the well-known Italian Radio Symphony (RAI) at age 12.  Interestingly, and perhaps foretelling the huge celebrity he would later attain, on this occasion, Biondi played Vivaldi's Concerto number 9 out of his Opus 8. (Vivaldi's Opus 8 also contains the Four Seasons, the best known baroque work for violin - they are the first four concertos in the set of 12 concertos in Opus 8.) Later on, he studied at the Conservatory of Rome with Mauro Lo Guercio (pupil of Salvatore Accardo and violinist with the Trio Modigliani), where he won a first prize in violin in 1981.  He was 20 years old; however, by age 16, he had already played a recital comprised of Bach violin concertos at the Musikverein (concert hall) in Vienna.  After that, he decided to concentrate on authentic baroque performance practice and subsequently played with a number of chamber music ensembles for a number of years, including the Musicians of the Louvre (Les Musiciens du Louvre), Seminario Musicale, and Vienna’s Musica Antiqua.  (Sergiu Luca was one of the first to delve into this area of performance but never became a specialist.)  In addition to the music of the typical baroque composers - Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Corelli, Locatelli, Scarlatti, and Tartini – Biondi has also recorded the works of Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann.  However, Biondi still performs as a soloist with other orchestras and ensembles, including the Mozarteum Orchestra, the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, and the Chamber Orchestra of Norway.  It has been said of him that he “pursues style, free from dogmatism, in a quest for the original language.”  There are many videos of his on YouTube.  The one I have linked here is not Vivaldi or Corelli but it displays his fluid virtuosity quite well.  He plays a Gofredo Cappa violin (1690), a Carlo Gagliano (1766), and an Andrea Guarneri (1686.)  In 2005 Biondi was appointed artistic director for baroque music of the Stavenger Symphony (Norway.) 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Alison Whalen's mystery

Alison Whalen, violinist, cellist, and painter, recently sent me this story and I am very pleased to pass it along (almost) verbatim. The violin shown here is the subject of this fascinating mystery.

“I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, but I've been living in California for the last three decades. Several years ago, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and I moved back to Buffalo for four months to be with him during his last days. One Sunday morning after his hospice nurse arrived, I decided to take the morning off, and headed over to my favorite old haunt, the local flea market. While en route, I suddenly remembered a dealer there from whom I used to buy wonderful paintings many years ago, and I decided to look for him on the off chance that he might still be doing business at that flea market. Amazingly, I found him, still in the same location, and I saw that he had three violins in his booth. The first two were nothing special, but when I opened the lid of the third case, I found an instrument with a beautifully timeworn patina. Even though the inner label was long gone, I got that special little zingy chill that told me I'd found a treasure. Her tailpiece was inlaid with a mother-of-pearl bird on a branch, and when I turned her over, I was surprised to see my initials - A.W. - carved into her back. I took the bow to her, and the tone that emerged was dark and rich like melted chocolate. After awakening from a long hibernation, she had quite a bit to say, and I fell instantly in love with her.

After a bit of half-hearted haggling, I wrote a check and took her home, excited to show my dad what I'd found. We were sitting on the couch, and as I passed the violin to him, I noticed more carving along the reverse upper bout that I hadn't previously seen. Closer examination revealed the name 'A. Whalen.' My first initial and my last name!

Some folks may write this off as mere coincidence, but as a firm believer in the threads that guide us through our destiny, I know better. 2500 miles from my home, this violin was waiting for me. A whim directed me to a favorite flea market where I searched for and found a dealer whom I hadn't seen in 10 years, and he just happened to have a violin bearing carvings of my initials and my name. This connection was meant to happen. This violin perfectly suits my playing style. The minor keys reveal her soul, and it's as though she's always a hair ahead of me, somehow intuitively knowing exactly what I'm trying to express, no matter what I'm playing. I call her my gypsy girl, my serendipity. She may not be worth a fortune at auction, but to me, she's priceless. By the way, my dad was a professional magician. He used to tell me that I had magic in my DNA, and that my life would be filled with unusual occurrences with no logical explanation. I'm glad that he and I had the chance to share this special one. He passed away two weeks later. “ 

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hyman Bress

Hyman Bress was a Canadian violinist born (in Cape Town, South Africa) on June 30, 1931 (Heifetz was 30 years old.)  He is known for having recorded the violin concertos of Joseph Joachim and Ernest Bloch, probably the first to do so, among many other obscure works.  He was also the first violinist of the Montreal String Quartet in its third incarnation in 1955.  It was composed of Hyman Bress, Mildred Goodman, Otto Joachim, and Walter Joachim (cellist and brother of Otto Joachim, violist.)  In fact, on May 21, 1956, the quartet played the premiere of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s string quartet (Gould’s Opus 1), a work that has kindly been described as being serious and pensive.  Bress later recorded a series of five records for Folkways Records entitled The Violin.  (Folkways is a special project of the Smithsonian Institution.)  The series covered material from the Baroque to the Twentieth Century (1960s) and included one of his own electronic compositions – the Fantasy for Violin, Piano, and electric tape.  (One of the pieces recorded in this series is the Sarasate Zapateado played at the fastest tempo I have ever heard.)  He first studied with his father and gave his first public performance in Cape Town (South Africa) at age nine with the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra.  After that debut, he performed throughout South Africa for a time.  In 1946, at age 15, he began studying with Ivan Galamian at the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia) and continued with Galamian until 1951.  In 1951, he moved to Canada and established himself in Montreal, giving recitals and playing in radio as well (mostly for the CBC.)  He performed regularly there, in the U.S., and in Europe, eventually founding the Montreal String Quartet in Canada with the Joachim brothers.  He became concertmaster, at age 27, of the Montreal Symphony for one season (1958-59) then continued his concertizing career as a soloist, often with major orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony.  He first appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic on April 1, 1968, playing a work by Boris Blacher.  Reinhard Peters was on the podium.  (Bress was never a guest artist with the New York Philharmonic.)  He also continued playing with the quartet (until 1963.)  A Canadian newspaper reported that in 1966, Bress became the first Canadian violinist to tour Russia, though it seems unlikely.  In 1973 he toured the Far East.  He settled in Europe for a time but returned to Canada in the 1980s.  By this time, he was no longer playing, being prevented by what has been called mental illness.  He was 55 years old.  Bress premiered several works which are no longer heard and will most likely not be heard again for some time, including Violet Archer’s violin concerto, Udo Kasemets’ concerto, and Kelsey Jones’ Introduction and Fugue.  In New York, he presented his Fantasy in 1962 (or thereabout) while the score of the piece was being shown on a large screen as it was being played – one of the first instances of a multi-media concert presentation.  YouTube has a sound recording of his – the Tchaikovsky concerto – which you can listen to by pressing here.  His recordings are not hard to find on the internet.  Hyman Bress died on October 30, 1995, in Montreal, largely forgotten, at age 64.