Sunday, December 25, 2016

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Higinio Ruvalcaba (Rodolfo Higinio Ruvalcaba Romero) was a Mexican violinist, conductor, and composer born (in Yahualica, Jalisco) on January 11, 1905.  He is probably the best-known Mexican violinist of all time, although not the best-known Mexican classical musician.  His first lessons began at age 4 with his father, an upholsterer and cellist and member of the local band.  He began playing violin left-handed because one of his first teachers played left handed (with the bow held by the left hand) and simply had the young child imitate him.  Later on, while still very young, Ruvalcaba studied with Federico Alatorre, Ignacio Camarena, and Felix Peredo (Director of the String Academy in Guadalajara), three violinists from Guadalajara.  With these teachers, he was obligated to switch from left-handed playing to right-handed playing.  (In the history of violin playing, there are extremely few left-handed players, although there are a few left-handed players who play right-handed – concert violinist Caroline Goulding is one; Nicola Benedetti is another.)  He gave his first public performance at age 5 at the Degollado Theatre in Guadalajara.  Several sources state that his father took him around taverns and dance halls to earn money to help support the family.  He was also a street musician for some time.  There are many other classical musicians who did the same as kids – Johannes Brahms, Theodore Thomas, Carl Nielsen, and Marie Hall come to mind.  According to one source, Ruvalcaba made his formal debut with the Guadalajara Symphony playing the first Bruch concerto (the one in g minor) at age 11 – another source says age 10 and still another says age 12.  In 1916, he became a member of the string orchestra directed by Peredo and also joined Peredo’s string quartet as first violinist – Peredo (who had been playing first violin) switched himself to second violin.  In 1918, Ruvalcaba joined the Guadalajara Symphony where he played cello and viola in addition to violin.  He was 13 years old.  In 1920 (some sources say 1922) he relocated to Mexico City.  He entered the National Music Conservatory in 1922.  He was 17 years old.  There, he studied with Mario Mateo, a Spanish violinist, until 1925.  It has been said that he joined the YMCA and took up boxing and physical fitness at that time.  It has also been said that he fractured the middle finger of his left hand and lost visual acuity in his right eye as a result of boxing.  For a while – probably while still a student and shortly thereafter – he played in a local band (conducted by Miguel Lerdo De Tejada) where he was obligated to wear a police uniform and also (sometimes) play guitar.  He had also founded, back in 1921, a string quartet which took his name – Cuarteto Clasico Ruvalcaba.  As far as I know, it remained active until 1942 but it only gave concerts in Mexico.  Ruvalcaba joined the second violin section of the National Symphony in Mexico City in 1928.  He was 23 years old.  In 1931, he soloed with this orchestra playing Wieniawski’s second concerto.  In 1935, he became concertmaster of the National Symphony.  He was 30 years old.  Five years later, he was fired by conductor Carlos Chavez for insubordination.  A similar thing happened to concertmasters Scipione Guidi (in 1942 in St Louis) and Max Bendix (in 1896 in Chicago) under conductors Vladimir Golschmann and Theodore Thomas, respectively.  One source states Ruvalcaba was also concertmaster and conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Mexico City – presumably after his stint with the National Symphony - although I could not verify that information.  Several sources state that for 25 years (1942 to 1967), Ruvalcaba played first violin with the famous Lener Quartet (Joseph Smilovitz on second, Sandor Roth but later Herbert Froelich on viola, and Imre Hartmann on cello) but some sources say he joined the quartet in 1959.  Still others say he joined the quartet in 1948, after the first violinist (Jeno Lener) died.  The actual documented date Ruvalcaba joined the quartet is (October) 1942 – it gave its first concert on December 4, 1942, at the Palace of Fine Arts.  (The Lener Quartet, which was founded in 1918 and very famous in its time, was the first to record all of Beethoven’s string quartets.)  Many sources state that Ruvalcaba loved to play chamber music, a fairly common sentiment among concert violinists.  Ruvalcaba ultimately concertized in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., playing under famous conductors such as Erich Kleiber, George Solti, Sergiu Celibidache, and Antal Dorati.  He gave world premieres of many works by Mexican composers (some of which were dedicated to him), including the violin concerto by Hermilio Hernandez in 1968.  He also formed a duo, in 1946, with pianist Carmen Castillo Betancourt who also became his third wife in that year.  He briefly held the post of Principal conductor of the Puebla Symphony Orchestra; although I was not able to determine which years he held the post.  Ruvalcaba was also a studio musician for many years, participating in well over 200 film soundtrack recordings.  As a composer, Ruvalcaba began early in his career, writing about 14 string quartets by age 15.  He wrote eight more after that.  Of that total (22), numbers 2, 4, and 6 survived.  The others were either destroyed or lost.  Quartet number 6 was composed in 1919 but not premiered until November 17, 1955 (by the Lener Quartet in Mexico City.)  Here is one movement from the work.  He also wrote three (or four) violin concertos, a bass concerto (Concierto Miramon), a piano quintet, two string sextets, many works for violin and piano, many salon pieces for piano (some including voice), a transcription of 22 of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin and piano (I don’t know which two he left out), and a symphonic poem.  You can listen to his gypsy dance for violin and piano here.  I do not know whether Ruvalcaba ever owned or played a modern violin or an old, Italian violin such as a Guadagnini, Guarnerius, or Stradivarius.  Here is an audio file of Ruvalcaba playing Manuel Ponce’s violin concerto – it appears to be a studio recording.  In 1970, Ruvalcaba suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed while playing Bach’s E major concerto.  As far as I know, he never played in public again.  He was 65 years old.  Ruvalcaba died (in Mexico City) on January 15, 1976, at age 71.