Sunday, January 29, 2012

I told you so

The following is an abstract from an article which appeared earlier this month in some journal of the academy of science. The New York Times said something about it too.  It testifies to something I have been saying for years. New instruments are just as good, if not better, than old ones. Anyone spending a million dollars on an old violin is just wasting their money, unless they are buying it as an investment, the way one would buy an antique.  If you just want a violin to actually play on, buy a new one.  You will save a bundle.  By the way, the exact same thing applies to bows.  “Most violinists believe that instruments by Stradivari and Guarneri “del Gesu” are tonally superior to other violins - and to new violins in particular.  Many mechanical and acoustical factors have been proposed to account for this superiority; however, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has not yet been properly investigated.  Player's judgments about a Stradivari's sound may be biased by the violin's extraordinary monetary value and historical importance, but no studies designed to preclude such biasing factors have yet been published.  We asked 21 experienced violinists to compare violins by Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesu with high-quality new instruments.  The resulting preferences were based on the violinists’ individual experiences of playing the instruments under double-blind conditions in a room with relatively dry acoustics.  We found that (i) the most-preferred violin was new; (ii) the least-preferred was by Stradivari; (iii) there was scant correlation between an instrument's age and monetary value and its perceived quality; and (iv) most players seemed unable to tell whether their most-preferred instrument was new or old.  These results present a striking challenge to conventional wisdom.  Differences in taste among individual players, along with differences in playing qualities among individual instruments, appear more important than any general differences between new and old violins.  Rather than searching for the secret of Stradivari, future research might best be focused on how violinists evaluate instruments, on which specific playing qualities are most important to them, and on how these qualities relate to measurable attributes of the instruments, whether old or new.”  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hans Letz

Hans Letz (Jean Letz) was a German violinist born (in Ittenheim) on March 18, 1887.  He is mostly remembered as a teacher of many students at Juilliard (New York.)  He studied at the Strasbourg Conservatory and at the Berlin Royal Academy of Music with the famous Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), concertized in Europe for a while then came to the U.S. in June of 1908.  He was 21 years old.  He soon joined the Chicago Symphony (in 1909) and was appointed concertmaster in 1910.  Theodore Thomas had already left the scene, so to speak.  Letz left this position in the spring of 1912 and in May of that year joined the Kneisel Quartet (the best string quartet in the country according to several critics) as second violinist.  (For some odd reason, Chicago Symphony concertmasters do not stay on for long periods, unlike other top orchestra concertmasters at the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.)  Letz also began teaching at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard) in 1912 and continued doing so until 1920.  When Kneisel disbanded the quartet in 1917, Letz formed his own – the Hans Letz Quartet it was called.  It was active until 1925.  It is doubtful that any recordings of the quartet exist – I do not know.  Letz then again taught at Juilliard (the Institute of Musical Art) from 1925 onward.  He was 38 years old.  Letz retired from Juilliard in 1960, though he took two years off between 1956 and 1958.  He had been there more than forty years.  Letz played a Pressenda violin from 1829, a Guadagnini from 1783, a Testore from 1739, and a Montagnana from 1730.  The Guadagnini eventually ended up in the hands of Lorin Maazel, a sometime violinist who became a conductor - he sold it late last year for an undisclosed sum.  Letz is said to have favored a small, refined tone, especially suited to chamber music.  Among Letz’ many pupils are Mary Canberg, Dorothy DeLay, Sally Thomas, Vittorio Giannini, Anatoly Kaminsky, Robert Kurka, Peter Marsh, Calvin Sieb, Andor Toth, and Patricia Travers.  Hans Letz died (in Hackensack, New Jersey) on November 14, 1969, at age 82, largely forgotten.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Miranda Cuckson

Miranda Cuckson is an American violinist, violist, and teacher known for her lucid and translucent performances of contemporary works.  She is also known for her stunningly precise technique.  Her extremely fine, silken sound is often and uniquely juxtaposed against angular, rugged, and muscular music which she champions.  However, her tastes are famously eclectic and her repertoire very broad.  She has played complete Beethoven sonata cycles as well as – on the opposite side of the spectrum - music by Luigi Nono (La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura) for violin and electronic tape.  She is largely responsible for bringing the music of a single person - Ralph Shapey, well-known but cantankerous Chicago composer - to the general public’s attention.  Cuckson’s career has taken her to the most famous concert venues in the U.S., Europe, and China, including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, the Library of Congress, and the Berlin Philharmonie.  Anthony Tommasini, one of the most regarded music critics in the world at present, has described her playing this way: “Miranda Cuckson is a brilliant young performer who plays daunting contemporary music with insight, honesty, and temperament.”  (I should point out that her surname is often mispronounced: it is COOKSUN and not COXSUN.)  She first began to study violin at age 5, having arrived in the U.S. from Australia with her parents while still a very young child.  At the age of nine, Cuckson began her studies at Juilliard and went on to receive her BM, MM and DMA degrees there as well.  She studied with Dorothy DeLay, Shirley Givens, Robert Mann, and Felix Galimir, among others.  She made her recital debut in Carnegie Hall in 2003 playing an all-American program, and her concerto debut there in 2010 playing Walter Piston’s Concerto No. 1.  Precisely because she champions contemporary music, she has in recent years been a greatly sought-after advocate in that area of music performance.  She has also given numerous premieres of solo and chamber pieces, some of which have been written expressly for her.  Her father is composer Robert Cuckson and she sometimes plays his works, including several he has written for her.  This year, on February 3, she will perform a new work (at the Library of Congress) by Harold Meltzer, which was commissioned for her by the McKim Fund in honor of Fritz Kreisler.  The McKim Fund is tied to the late American violinist Leonora Jackson – Jackson played what used to be Joseph Joachim’s violin for many years but retired at age 36 and died in obscurity.  Cuckson’s first CD recording was a disk of concertos by Erich Korngold and Manuel Ponce with the Czech National Symphony, on Centaur Records.  She subsequently made four recital CDs of 20th-century American music for Centaur: disks of music by Ralph Shapey (a two-CD set), Donald Martino and Ross Lee Finney.  In 2010, Vanguard Classics released her CD “the wreckage of flowers”, comprising violin and violin/piano music by Michael Hersch, with pianist Blair McMillen.  Upcoming releases include solo and duo works by Anna Weesner and a disk of microtonal solo violin pieces. She directs the concert series nunc (previously called Transit Circle), which she founded in 2007.  Among the many organizations Cuckson plays with in New York are counter)induction, Sequitur, ACME, Talea Ensemble, Astoria Music Society, and the ISCM.  She was the founding violinist of the Momenta Quartet, with which she played for three years.  As of 2005, Cuckson has been teaching violin at Mannes College and also teaches classical violin to students of the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.  She is on the faculty at the Composers Conference at Wellesley College and has given numerous master classes and workshops for both performers and composers, at schools such as Peabody Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, and Temple, Cornell, Columbia, Yale and Princeton universities.  Since 1996, Cuckson has been playing the Bazzini Guadagnini, the one from 1742 (there are two Bazzini Guadagninis – the other one is from 1758.)  As were Eugene Ysaye and  Jascha Heifetz, she is a devoted tennis fan.  YouTube has several videos of her, one of which is here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Elias Breeskin

Elias Breeskin was a Russian (Ukrainian) violinist, composer, arranger, teacher, and conductor born in 1896 – the exact date is unknown.  One source gives his year of birth as 1897, but that source (Cozio) is usually messy and unreliable.  He was a notorious gambler and con man who was a very successful musician in spite of his addiction to gambling.  He began violin lessons very early in life and, according to one source, by age 7 was studying formally at a conservatory in Poland.  He played in public at age 8 and was acclaimed.  It has been said that he studied with Leopold Auer in Russia.  Whether that is true is quite debatable.  At age 10 (1906), he played for Franz Joseph, the Austrian Emperor.  After this performance, the Emperor supposedly gave him a priceless ring right off his finger.  That, too, is highly questionable.  Soon after, the family came to the U.S. and settled in Washington D.C., a very odd place for a European musical family to settle – then and even now.  Sponsored by a Washington benefactor, he may have first gone to Baltimore to study at the Peabody Conservatory.  However, Breeskin himself stated that after securing financing from (among a few others) Frank Damrosch (brother of conductor Walter Damrosch and, at the time, Director of the Institute of Musical Arts which later became Juilliard), he began his American musical education at Juilliard (New York) in the spring of 1908.  He studied with Franz Kneisel for about seven years.  A magazine from that era (The Violinist) and the New York Times reported that Breeskin attended Columbia University after hours, studying languages and other subjects.  Possibly upon graduation from Juilliard – in 1915 - he shared the Loeb Memorial Prize with Sascha Jacobsen.  He was 19 years old.  Afterward, as part of the Loeb Prize awarded him, he made his debut in Carnegie Hall and was very well received.  In February or March of 1917, he received (on loan) a Stradivarius violin (the 1703 Rougemont Strad) and a Tourte bow from a benefactor – Edward Schafer – which he used for about ten years.  In 1929, for understandable reasons, the violin was returned to the benefactor to help him with payment of debts after the stock market crash.  The Rougemont was later played for two years by Jacques Gordon, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony.  I do not know where it is now.  Breeskin joined the New York Symphony in 1917.  At that time, this orchestra was being conducted by Walter Damrosch.  Though it was organized many years after the New York Philharmonic, it was the first American orchestra to tour Europe - it merged with the Philharmonic in 1928.  Among the New York Symphony’s members were Mischa Elman and Pablo Casals.  In early February, 1917, Breeskin appeared in recital at the Aeolian Hall in New York City.  A little over a year later (February 28, 1918), he played there again.  One of the works he played at this second recital was Bruch’s second concerto with Lawrence Goodman at the piano.  On April 1, 1919, he finally made his Carnegie Hall debut, a debut which for unknown reasons, had been postponed several times.  Among the works he played was Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnol.  This time, he was accompanied by pianist Josef Adler.  He was very favorably received at each of his recitals.  In June of 1920, he married into a very wealthy American family.  Anyone else would have used these newly-acquired resources to become a very major and influential figure in music, but not Breeskin.  He was about 24 years old.  At about the same time, it became known that he was a serious gambler.  Around this time, he also became concertmaster of the Capitol Theatre Orchestra in New York.  He was named conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony in 1925.  Because of his gambling habit and the consequent accumulation of gambling debts, that job did not last long.  Having left Minneapolis within the year, he went to Pittsburgh where he helped re-organize the Pittsburgh Symphony.  There, he was concertmaster and associate conductor.  The gambling continued.  His last year in Pittsburgh (1929-1930), he was named Principal Conductor.  He left Pittsburgh after his divorce from his wealthy wife.  I am guessing that up to this time, his wife’s family may have been taking care of his huge gambling debts.  Then, he returned to New York.  He worked as an orchestral musician and arranger for a few years.  He did some recording as conductor of a pickup orchestra for the KBS (Keystone Broadcasting System) label.  Those recordings may still be available though they mostly feature light classical or salon music.  He also recorded several violin pieces with pianist Theodore Saidenberg for KBS, one of which can be found on YouTube.  Breeskin may have also recorded for the RCA and Brunswick labels.  Many years later (1937), he found himself in Hollywood.  There, he wrote and arranged music and he helped form the Hollywood Bowl Symphony.  Nevertheless, having at one point in 1940 stolen the orchestra’s payroll, he exited to Mexico City, where he worked as musical director for radio stations XEW, XEX, and XEB, gave lessons, and composed movie soundtracks.  His second family later joined him.  If it’s true that he studied languages at Columbia, those studies now came in handy.  One source has it that he lived like a king, surrounded by servants.  As far as I know, he never set foot in the U.S. again.  In any case, his great success in Mexico lasted about five years.  The gambling had continued and he was finally imprisoned for supposedly being on the wrong side of the political agenda – he may have been a Communist - and, presumably, for his gambling debts as well.  He was pardoned in 1958.  He was 62 years old.  While in prison, he wrote a piece entitled the City of the Dead.  It got good reviews when he premiered it later on.  Whether it is still performed is anyone’s guess – I’m guessing it is not.  He married for a third and final time after leaving prison.  Breeskin died May 9, 1969, at about age 73.  He left three wives (Adelyn, Anna, and Lena) and seven children.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Simon Jacobsohn

Simon Jacobsohn (Simon E. Jacobsohn) was a Russian violinist and teacher born on December 24, 1839 (in Mitau or Jelgava, Latvia – Latvia and Lithuania are closely related – Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania) – Brahms was about six years old.  He was a very highly respected and successful violinist and educator working in the U.S. in the late 1800s.  Many American orchestras owe him a great debt for having prepared so many high caliber musicians who later occupied their ranks.  He came from a very modest family - he had to help support them from age seven by playing at social functions.  His father had died by then and left them penniless.  Though it cannot be said that Jacobsohn was entirely self-taught, he did not receive formal training until he was 15 years old.  At age 20 he made his way to Germany.  He studied with none other than Ferdinand David (Mendelssohn’s concertmaster) in Leipzig, where among his fellow pupils were Joseph Joachim, August Wilhelmj, Johan Svendsen, Edvard Grieg, and Henry Schradieck.  He served as concertmaster in Bremen (Germany) from 1860 to 1872.  In Europe, Jacobsohn also formed the Jacobsohn Quartet which achieved fame and was highly regarded.  In 1872, he came to the U.S.  In this country, one of his first jobs was as concertmaster for the Theodore Thomas Orchestra.  He was 33 years old.  In 1877 he joined the Mendelssohn Quintet of Boston then afterwards was invited to teach at the Cincinnati College of Music but continued giving concerts before moving permanently to Chicago in the fall of 1887.  Henry Schradieck was also teaching violin at the Cincinnati College of Music at the time – it is possible that the invitation to teach in Cincinnati came from him.  In 1890, the Chicago Symphony was beginning to take shape – I do not know whether Jacobsohn ever played in it but that’s unlikely since no source out of ten that I checked mentions it.  In Chicago, he also again established a string quartet – the Jacobsohn String Quartet - in which Theodore Thomas played second violin.  Nevertheless, just as is the custom of the Emerson String Quartet in more modern times, Thomas and Jacobsohn alternated playing the first and second violin parts.  Among Jacobsohn’s hundreds of pupils were Nahan Franko, Max Bendix, Nicholas Longworth, and Hugh McGibney.  He was a teacher of violin at the Chicago College of Music until the day he died.  Jacobsohn died in Chicago on October 3, 1902 at age 62.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eugene Ormandy

Eugene Ormandy (Jeno Blau) was a Hungarian violinist, conductor, and arranger born (in Budapest) on November 18, 1899.  Since he became a famous conductor, hardly anyone remembers that he played violin.  He enjoyed the longest tenure (unlikely to ever be surpassed) of any American conductor – 44 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Nobody seems to know where the name “Ormandy” came from – he only adopted it after coming to the U.S. in 1921.  He began studying violin at the Royal Academy of Music (the Franz Liszt Academy) at age 5 then studied with Jeno Hubay (from age 9) for a number of years graduating at age 14, though some sources say at age 17.  Eddy Brown was a fellow student of his – in fact, when Brown and Ormandy competed in the Budapest Concerto Competition, Ormandy took second prize and Brown took first.  He then also studied Philosophy and received a degree in that subject in 1920.  For a time, Ormandy served as concertmaster of the Bluthner Orchestra in Germany and made recital and concert appearances as well.  In the U.S., he started out playing second violin in the Capitol Theatre Orchestra in New York City.  This was a rather large orchestra comprised of about 75 players of which Elias Breeskin, the notorious gambler and future father of Olga Breeskin, was concertmaster.  However, being a superlative violinist, Ormandy was soon promoted to concertmaster.  He was 22 years old.  Though he had been trained as a concert violinist, he never got a chance to concertize in this country since he quickly developed a taste for conducting.  Nevertheless, he recorded as a solo violinist between 1923 and 1929.  I do not know where those recordings can be found; perhaps among his archives at the University of Pennsylvania.  Among other conductors who entirely abandoned the instrument are Neville Marriner, David Zinman, Pierre Monteux, Charles Munch, Orlando Barera, Theodore Thomas, and Jaap Van Zweden.  Though he conducted the New York Philharmonic in 1929, Ormandy’s big break came on October 30, 1931, when he was asked to substitute in Philadelphia for an indisposed Toscanini – the ill-tempered Italian conductor.  Many a big career has been launched under similar circumstances.  It is known that Arthur Judson, another violinist who abandoned the violin (in favor of concert management), helped him to establish his career.  In 1931, he was appointed conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony and stayed until 1936.  That year (1936), he was appointed to his post in Philadelphia where he stayed for 44 years (1936-1980.)  He actually shared the post with Stokowski for the first two years.  Though he conducted many U.S. premieres, he never came close to Theodore Thomas’ record of 112 works premiered with the Chicago Symphony.  His most historic recording might be the three Rachmaninoff piano concertos he recorded with the composer at the keyboard.  His recorded legacy is very extensive and can be easily accessed on the Internet.  The Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy was the first to tour China (1973) and the first to appear on American Television (1948.)  He sometimes guest conducted other orchestras too - the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera among them.  Ormandy died (in Philadelphia) on March 12, 1985, at age 85.  He died of pneumonia, just as did Theodore Thomas eighty years before him. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Violin Labels and PayPal

You may have read the story about an “antique violin” and PayPal recently.  It appears that a lady named Erica sold a violin (advertised on Ebay) worth approximately $2,500 to a buyer in Canada.  The buyer used PayPal to pay Erica for it.  However, Erica never got the money because, before PayPal paid her, the buyer claimed the violin was a fake, even though it was accompanied by a certificate of authenticity by a well-known Australian expert.  PayPal agreed to return the money to the buyer but insisted that he destroy the “fake” violin (above shown) before it did so.  The buyer then obediently destroyed the violin and subsequently got his $2,500 returned to him.  Erica, of course, will never see her violin in one piece again.  To be fair, PayPal said it was merely applying its policies in this matter, even if they did immediately side with the buyer and not the seller who had actual proof that the violin was genuine.  Erica was quoted as saying that "In the violin market, labels often mean little and there is often disagreement over them.  Some of the most expensive violins in the world have disputed labels, but they are works of art nonetheless."  Even if Erica’s violin was a very, very cheap violin by professional standards, she was lucky the disputed label was not attached to a Strad – not that anyone would sell one through Ebay or transact the payment through Paypal, of course.  Cheap as it was, I hope Erica’s violin was insured. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ruth Posselt

Ruth Posselt (Ruth Pierce Posselt Burgin) was an American violinist and teacher born (in Medford, Massachusetts) on September 6, 1914.  She is best remembered as the wife of Richard Burgin, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 42 years, and for premiering several contemporary violin concertos – those by Edward Hill (1939), Walter Piston (1940), Paul Hindemith (1941), and Vernon Duke (1943.)  Although these works are probably worth listening to at least once, nobody plays them anymore.  She also premiered Aaron Copland’s sonata in 1944.  Copland was her accompanist.  Having begun violin lessons at age 3, she made her public debut in Boston at the age of six, afterwards studying with Emmanuel Ondricek, pupil of Eugene Ysaye.  Her recital debuts at Carnegie Hall in 1923 and Symphony Hall (Boston) were followed by a debut in New York in 1928 under Walter Damrosch (with the New York Philharmonic), playing the Tchaikovsky concerto.  She was 14 years old.  She studied with Jacques Thibaud in Paris later on and she toured throughout Europe and the U.S. afterward.   She first toured the U.S. in 1935, playing with all of the major orchestras.  She played in the White House for President and Mrs. Roosevelt in 1937.  In 1940, she married Burgin and made Boston her home.  She was 25 years old.  She again played, at age 29, with the New York Philharmonic on January 1, 1944, playing the Duke concerto.  She did not appear with this orchestra ever again.  With the Boston Symphony, she appeared more than 60 times.  Her last tour of Europe took place in 1949.  Thereafter, she only worked in the U.S.  In 1958 she formed a duo with pianist Luise Vosgerchian (one of Yo-Yo Ma’s teachers at Harvard.)  She moved to Florida when Burgin retired from the Boston Symphony and then taught at Florida State University (Tallahassee, Florida) from 1963 to 1978, where he was also a teacher.  She also played in the Florestan Quartet which Burgin formed after coming to Florida.  As far as I know, she never recorded commercially although there are a few live performance recordings available.  YouTube has a very short snippet of audio of a live performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto on its site which is so short it’s almost not worth mentioning.  According to a usually reliable source, she played a Giovanni Pressenda violin constructed in 1844.  Rudolf Koelman plays a Pressenda violin too but his is from 1829.  Posselt died on February 19, 2007, at age 92.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Regina Strinasacchi

Regina Strinasacchi was an Italian violinist, singer, composer, and guitarist born (in Ostiglia, near Mantua, Italy) in 1764.  Her date of birth has been obscured since the day she was born, perhaps because she was illegitimately born.  Most sources give the year of her birth as 1764.  Three sources give it as February 28, 1761.  We only know of her today because she once played a violin sonata written for her for a recital she played for the Austrian Emperor (Joseph II) and other aristocrats on April 29, 1784.  Mozart was her accompanist.  Articles about her are often linked to those dealing with Maddalena Lombardini because both grew up in similar circumstances.  The sonata Mozart wrote for Strinasacchi was his number 15 for the instrument, K454.  He wrote 18 violin sonatas in all, although these are only the ones composed as a mature artist – he composed 18 more as a child.  Strinasacchi was educated at the Ospedale della Pieta (an orphanage for girls) in Venice, where Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) had twice been the music director.  From around 1780, she toured as a soloist in Italy, France, and Germany.  She was 16 years old (if the 1764 year of her birth is correct), a very young age at which to be touring.  It has not been unusual for performers to present themselves as being younger than they really are, so an earlier year of birth is quite possible.  She finally got to Vienna in 1784, playing one concert in March then again that fateful day in April.  Mozart was very impressed with her playing – documented in a letter to his father - and the recital they presented was very successful.  Nonetheless, since the sonata was only completed the day before the recital – allowing Strinasacchi exactly one day to learn it - Mozart was obliged to play his part from memory because he did not have time to write the piano part.  For him, that would not have been a problem at all.  In 1785, Strinasacchi married Johann Schlick, a very fine cellist and director of the orchestra at the court in Gotha.  At least one source guesses that Strinasacchi actually played regularly in her husband’s orchestra, perhaps becoming the first female orchestral player in history.  However, there is no proof that she either played in or conducted the orchestra.  In 1786, the couple had a daughter (Caroline), a pianist who later became an actress.  In 1801, they had a son (Johann) who became a cellist and a luthier.  That same year, Louis Spohr was appointed concertmaster of the Gotha orchestra.  Whether the Schlick family was still there or remained there is unknown.  That is very likely the case.  Strinasacchi’s husband died in 1818 – one source says 1825.  She subsequently moved from Gotha to Dresden with her son.  Most sources state that her final performance took place in Rome in 1809.  She would have then apparently been 45 years old.  However, in the only letter of hers which has been found, dated 1824, she tells a friend that she is still making music.  Whether it refers to private playing or public is anyone’s guess.  It is known that the 1718 Stradivarius she played was sold to Louis Spohr in 1822.  It quickly became his favorite violin.  That violin eventually ended up with Miriam Fried, though it passed through at least ten others before getting to her, including August Kompel, Paul Stassevitch, and the notorious W.E. Hill violin dealer.  Strinasacchi died in Dresden on June 11, 1839, at (perhaps) age 75.  Mozart had been dead for 47 years.