Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jacques Singer

Jacques Singer (Jakob Singer) was a Polish (some would say American) violinist and conductor born (in Przemysl, Poland) on May 9, 1910.  Although he was a very fine violinist, he is today remembered as a conductor, owing to the fact that he spent the latter part of his career as a conductor of various well-known orchestras, having almost given up playing the violin altogether.  In this respect he joins Edouard Colonne, Eugene Ormandy, Theodore Thomas, Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux, Neville Marriner, David Zinman, Alan Gilbert, Peter Oundjian, Orlando Barera, Jaap Van Zweden, and a few others.  Singer acquired a reputation for improving orchestras as well as improving audience attendance dramatically but he also faced problems wherever he went, feuding with music critics, orchestra members, or boards of directors.  He began his violin studies at a very early age and by age 7 had already performed in public.  When he was 10 years old, the family moved to the U.S, arriving in November of 1920.  They settled in Jersey City, a place very close to New York City.  In 1925, at about age 15, Singer made his American debut at Town Hall.  He then attended the Curtis Institute (Philadelphia), studying with Carl Flesch.  A year later (1927) he began studying at Juilliard.  He was 17 years old.  His teachers there were Paul Kochanski and Leopold Auer.  Singer graduated in 1930.  Two years before he graduated, he had joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, becoming the youngest player at that time.  One source claims he was fourteen years old when he joined the orchestra but that is very unlikely.  According to one source, Leopold Stokowski encouraged him to take up conducting.  By 1936, Singer had become the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra.  He was 26 years old.  The New York Times said he was a conductor to watch.  Singer was one of the first conductors to address the audience during concerts, something which violinist Henri Temianka also used to do before everyone else thought it was a good idea.  Singer was permanent conductor with the Dallas Symphony from 1938 to 1942.  He was very well received in Dallas but his tenure there was interrupted by the war.  In the Army, he conducted bands but also served as a soldier.  He possibly could have rejoined the Dallas Symphony after the war but he didn’t.  Why that is so is anyone’s guess.  During his tenure there, subscriptions tripled.  In 1946, he conducted summer concerts for two months in New Orleans.  In 1947, he was appointed music director at Vancouver (Canada.)  He stayed until 1951, leaving after feuding with the board of directors over budget issues.  He then formed a competing orchestra (the British Columbia Philharmonic) but that didn’t last.  He guest conducted in New York (Broadway) and in Israel (Jerusalem Radio Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, and Haifa Symphony) in 1952.  From 1955 until 1962, he served as conductor of the Corpus Christi Symphony.  In 1962, he was again guest-conducting in England (London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic) among many other places, including South America.  He renewed his contract with the Corpus Christi Symphony in 1962 but soon asked to be released because the Portland Symphony offered him a position (and possibly a better financial deal) beginning the same year.  He conducted in Portland from 1962 to 1971 – he did not conduct during the 1972-1973 season although he was paid for it.  He left after a feud about artistic matters.  The Portland Symphony became the Oregon Symphony during his tenure.  Players in that orchestra (and others) often complained about his brusque, bombastic manner, his volatile temper, and his poor conducting technique, but admired his musicianship and exciting entrepreneurial style.  Singer spent the rest of his life in New York and DeKalb (Illinois), conducting, among others, the American Symphony Orchestra and the Northern Illinois Philharmonic.  I’m guessing that there are some recorded broadcasts around somewhere although not readily available.  Singer died in Manhattan on August 11, 1980, at age 70.  

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Heinrich Biber

Heinrich Biber (Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern) was a Czech (some would say Austrian) violinist and composer born (in Wartenberg) on a date unknown but probably in July or August of 1644.  Although he was a virtuosic violinist and highly regarded in his day for his skill in playing the violin, he is today better known as a composer.  One source states that he seldom (if ever) toured as a concert violinist.  He was in the employ of the nobility and wrote music, both secular and sacred, for them.  He was even ascended to the nobility (1690 - at about age 45) by one of his employers.  Just as Bach, Vivaldi, Zelenka, and a few other Baroque composers lost favor and remained obscure during a time span of one hundred years or more but were re-discovered, Biber and his music enjoyed a renaissance in the late 1900s.  This was due mainly to the discovery of a brilliant set of violin sonatas known as the Mystery Sonatas or the Rosary Sonatas.  The set is comprised of 15 works plus a Passacaglia attached to the end as number 16.  There are quite a number of recordings of the Sonatas, just as there are dozens of recordings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Biber is said to be one of the most important composers of violin music – just as are Locatelli, Corelli, Vivaldi, Tartini, Paganini, Spohr, Viotti, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski, Sarasate, and a few others.  Little is known of his early life.  He did work at various courts from an early age.  Eventually he ended up spending the bulk of his career in Salzburg – from the year 1670 onward; playing, conducting, and composing for Maximilian Gandolph, Archbishop of Salzburg.  This was about 90 years before Mozart’s time.  Biber first published his works in 1676.  He was 32 years old.  In 1679, he became assistant music director and in 1684, he was appointed music director.  Today, his most popular and best-known work consists of the Mystery Sonatas, although they were not published during Biber’s lifetime.  If he played these sonatas himself, he must have been an extraordinary violinist because they are riddled with difficulties.  In addition, all of the sonatas require that the violin be tuned other than in the usual fifths – only the Passacaglia is played with normal tuning.  Biber composed much music for choir and orchestra as well as other instrumental works, some of it quite exploratory or experimental in nature.  A piece entitled The Battle (that’s the abbreviated title) makes use of effects which would not again see the light of day until more than two hundred years later – extreme polytonality, imitations of drums, imitations of canon fire, unusual harmonic progressions, and insertion of extraneous objects into instruments to change their texture.  Here is part one of a YouTube video of a performance of the piece.  Here is part two of the same performance.  This is part one of a partita (Partia) for six players in seven movements.  This is part two of the same partita.  And finally, eight of the famous Mystery Sonatas can be found here.  About one minute and 15 seconds into the Praeludium of Sonata number one you may think you hear a striking resemblance to the main melody in the second movement of Saint Saens’ first piano concerto but that is probably just a striking coincidence.  Similarly, Sonata number 15 contains a tiny portion which somewhat resembles the theme of Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice.  Biber died on May 3, 1704, at age 59.