Sunday, February 19, 2012

Emanuel Vardi

Emanuel Vardi (Emanuel Rosenbaum) was a Russian (many would say American or Israeli) violinist, violist, composer, arranger, conductor, teacher, and painter, born (in Jerusalem, Israel) on April 21, 1915.  There is anecdotal evidence which actually gives his date of birth as October 14, 1917.  He is known for having been one of only two violists to have ever given a solo recital in Carnegie Hall.  He was also the first violist to record the 24 Paganini (violin) Caprices – transposed a fifth lower, of course.  Vardi began his violin studies with his violinist father at about age 3 in Israel (Palestine, at that time.)  He began piano studies simultaneously with his pianist mother.  The family was already settled in New York when he – at age 6 - gave a piano recital in Aeolian Hall which created a very favorable impression, even among professional critics.  Vardi continued private violin lessons with Joseph Borisoff and others until age 12, at which time he entered the Institute of Musical Art, the precursor of the Juilliard School.  There, he studied with Constance Seeger.  It has been said that he also took one lesson from Leopold Auer, who died soon thereafter (1930.)  Later, he enrolled at Juilliard, where he studied with Edouard Dethier and Felix Salmond, among others.  However, he was then still a violinist.  At age 21 he left Juilliard to join the NBC Symphony as a violist.  He became the youngest member of this legendary orchestra.  Carlton Cooley and William Primrose were on the first stand of the viola section so Vardi was further back, but I don’t know how far back.  In any case, after Primrose left the orchestra, Vardi moved up to the first desk as Assistant Principal.  The ill-tempered Arturo Toscanini was the conductor.  Five years later, Vardi’s New York recital debut at Town Hall in February, 1941 was a sensation.  He was 25 years old.  He also soon thereafter played at the White House, accompanied by pianist Earl Wild, for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.  During World War II, he played in the Navy Band (the Navy’s Symphony Orchestra) and with the Navy’s string quartet, which included violinists Oscar Shumsky and David Stone, and cellist Bernard Greenhouse.  He was one of four official soloists, the others being Shumsky, Earl Wild, and David Soyer, whose duty it was to alternatively perform a concerto with the orchestra once every month.  After the war, Vardi rejoined the NBC orchestra, but continued to expand his solo activities.  On May 23, 1946, he appeared as viola soloist in Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic - something considered unorthodox in those days - playing Alessandro Rolla’s viola concerto – Rolla had been a violinist and violist and was one of Nicolo Paganini’s teachers.  From 1950 to 1952, Vardi was studying art in Florence, Italy, and concertizing all over Europe, playing a 1770 Guadagnini violin.  Returning from Europe, Vardi again played with the NBC orchestra but became Principal Violist of the Symphony of the Air, the orchestra which was formed after the NBC Symphony was disbanded.  He also played with the Guilet Quartet, led by the last NBC Concertmaster Daniel Guilet – Guilet later organized the well-known Beaux Arts Trio.  By then, Vardi had begun to solidly put the viola on the musical firmament as a solo instrument.  From that point, Vardi’s career encompassed painting, teaching, concertizing, conducting, and recording with both classical and jazz and pop musicians - this was many years before crossover work had become fashionable or had even been contemplated by violinists Ivry Gitlis, Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, and Nigel Kennedy, and cellist YoYo Ma.  Among many others, he worked with Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone.  As have Joshua Bell, Toscha Seidel, Louis Kaufman, Yehudi Menuhin, Ytzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, Israel Baker, Endre Granat, and Glenn Dicterow, Vardi recorded for many movie soundtracks – Aladdin, Tootsie, Fame, Kramer Vs Kramer, and Sleepless in Seattle are among them.  He also championed contemporary composers and inspired them to write music for the viola.  A very rare audio file of Alan Shulman’s Variations for Viola (with Vardi and the NBC Orchestra) is available here.  YouTube also has various audio files of Vardi’s Paganini Caprices recording – you can listen to number 17 here.  Several of his solo recordings are also available on the internet although Vardi recorded on violin as well – the two Bartok Rhapsodies and the Tibor Serly violin concerto are examples of Vardi’s violin discography.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s (1978 to 1982), Vardi was chief conductor of the South Dakota Symphony.  In addition, he conducted for movie and television soundtracks.  In 1984, at age 69, as have several other highly gifted artists (Andre Previn, Charles Dutoit, Eugene Ysaye, Ole Bull, Pablo Casals, and Richard Wagner), Vardi married a much younger woman – violinist and painter Lenore Weinstock, a student of his.  They relocated from New York to the state of Washington in 2007.  By then, Vardi had injured an arm (in 1993 – I don’t know which arm) and had given up playing almost entirely.  He had nevertheless continued giving master classes, teaching privately, working with various music festivals around the world, and painting.  An iconic painting of William Primrose by Vardi can be seen at the Vardi art website.  I do not know where the original painting is.  I do know that Lenore Vardi plans to publish a book about Vardi’s life in the near future.  Among his many compositions for viola is the Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Paganini.  As far as paintings go, he completed more than 300 originals.  Vardi played two Strad violas early in his career – one of them the Strauss Stradivarius (Stradivari possibly only made between 13 and 18 violas – nobody knows for sure.)  I had not heard of the Strauss Strad viola until now.  The Strad violas I know of are the Archinto, the Axelrod, the Gibson, the Cassavatti, the Mahler, the Russian, the Tuscan, the Spanish Court, the MacDonald, the Paganini, and the Kux.  Nonetheless, Vardi’s favorite viola was one constructed in 1980 by Hiroshi Iisuka of Philadelphia.  He also played a Vincenzo Postiglioni violin.  Vardi died (in North Bend, Washington) on January 29, 2011, at age 95.


  1. In case you are wondering, Constance Seeger was songwriter and political activist Pete Seeger's mother.

  2. My sister and I learned things about our father that we didn't know! Thanks so much for posting this.
    Andrea Vardi Smith.

  3. You are most kindly welcome Andrea. He was an artist who actually shaped the course of musical history. Very few have had that privilege - it was an honor for us to witness it.

  4. Rodolphe Kreutzer also injured an arm - actually broke it - and had to give up playing in 1825. This happened to Heifetz as well though he fully recovered - I believe it was a shoulder injury in his case.

  5. Do you know all teachers whom Mr.Vardi had studied with ??

  6. Manny injured his left wrist in the fall.
    After Doctors set his broken bone/s his wrist didn't mend exactly straight.
    Although he was still able to play ANY standard rep., He felt if screwed up his ability to play Paganini Caprices.
    I was his TA (and longtime student) and lived with him during this time.