Sunday, January 14, 2018

Franz Benda

Franz Benda was a Czech violinist, teacher, writer, and composer born (in Benatek, Bohemia) on (approximately) November 22, 1709.  It has been said that his 1763 autobiography is an excellent source for information regarding the lives of many important musicians of his time, including the great J.S. Bach.  Benda was one of many family members who became indistinguishable from the musical arts, down to the present day, in the same vein as the Bach family.  This musical tradition (or music dynasty) was started by Franz Benda’s father, Jan Benda.  In addition, the family gave rise to at least two female composers, a rarity in those days.  Franz Benda spent much of his career working at the court of Frederick the Great, the Prussian (German) King – in fact, Benda died the same year as his benefactor.  Benda received his earliest music education from his father.  At age nine, he was engaged as a singer at the St Nicholas Monastery in Prague.  At age 10 he ran away from home and settled in Dresden where he also found work in the choir of the Royal Chapel.  He also began to study the violin while there.  At age 12 he returned home and joined the choir of the Jesuit College in Prague.  In 1726, at age 17, he began playing violin in orchestras engaged by various members of the nobility situated in or near Vienna – in effect, he was a free-lance violinist since he also played for social events such as weddings and fairs.  In Vienna, he continued to study the violin, most notably with a court musician named Johann Gottlieb Graun, a violinist who had studied with the famous Italian violinist Giuseppe Tartini.  Two years later, Benda moved to Warsaw with a group of musician friends and was eventually appointed concertmaster of the Chapel orchestra in Warsaw.  He remained there until the orchestra was dissolved after their patron died.  Benda moved to Dresden after that.  He was either 22 or 23 years old by that time.  Finally, he entered the service of the Crown Prince Frederick (who later became Frederick the Great) in 1733 – one source says 1732.  He was either 23 or 24 years old.  Henceforth, he participated in countless concerts with the King, often working alongside C.P.E. Bach who was the King’s harpsichordist for many years.  Although he spent most of his time in Potsdam, Benda met J.S. Bach while working in Dresden.  (One source states that Benda played 50,000 concertos over the course of forty years – an utterly ridiculous statement on the face of it.)  Benda was appointed concertmaster of the orchestra in 1771 – he was 62 years old.  Three of his brothers eventually joined him as members of the orchestra.  For at least two decades between 1740 and 1760 (approximately), Benda toured Germany as a soloist while in the employ of his patron.  He also had many violin pupils, among them being Johann Peter Salomon, the man who became Haydn’s impresario in London.  In addition to exercises and study books for the violin, Benda composed many symphonies, concertos, and sonatas, many of them (understandably) for flute.  YouTube has some files of his recorded output.  His composition style bridged the gap between the Baroque and the Classical epoch.  Franz Benda died on March 7, 1786, at age 76, five months before his famous benefactor.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Tibor Serly

Tibor Serly was a Hungarian violinist, violist, conductor, composer, and teacher born (in Losone, Hungary) on November 25, 1901.  He studied with some of the greatest musicians of the late nineteenth century, including Jeno Hubay and Zoltan Kodaly.  Although he was an orchestral violinist for many years, he is now mostly remembered as a composer and the arranger of the Bartok viola concerto.   Serly’s first teacher was his father who was a composer of theatre works and conductor as well.  Interestingly, Serly began his studies in the U.S. since his family brought him here as a very young child.  He played in pit orchestras in New York (which his father conducted) until he was 21 years old, at which time he returned to Hungary (in 1922) to study at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.  His main teachers there were Jeno Hubay, Zoltan Kodaly, and Leo Weiner (teacher also of Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, and Janos Starker.)  Serly graduated from the academy in 1925.  He was 24 years old.  He then returned to the U.S. and played in the Cincinnati Symphony (as violist from 1926 to 1927 under Fritz Reiner), in the Philadelphia Orchestra (as violist – one source says violinist - from 1928 to 1937 under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy), and the NBC Orchestra (as violist from 1937 to 1938 under ill-tempered Arturo Toscanini.)  It has been said that Stokowski appointed Serly Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1933 – perhaps it is true.  (I made an inquiry of the Philadelphia Orchestra to confirm that but they never responded.)  After 1938, Serly mostly devoted his time to composition, conducting, and teaching.  He was 37 years old.  His friendship and professional association with Bela Bartok began in 1925 (in Hungary) - he met with him sporadically thereafter.  However, Serly was in regular and frequent contact with Bartok between 1940 and 1944, after Bartok came to the U.S.  Serly completed Bartok’s viola concerto from many sketches which Bartok didn’t have time to assemble himself prior to his death.  (The concerto has subsequently been further revised by Bartok’s son Peter Bartok and violist Paul Neubauer as well as by violist Csaba Erdelyi – every edition is quite different so that an orchestra must be careful to use the same edition as the soloist when performing it.)  Serly also completed the last 17 bars of the third piano concerto – some say he merely orchestrated the last 17 bars of the piece – others say he orchestrated the entire piece.  Serly’s own works are now very seldom played but he remains an important figure in modern music because he promoted atonal and other non-traditional ways of putting notes together to form a whole.  He became a professor at the Manhattan School of Music (New York) but taught at other institutions as well.  Serly was one of many musicians who became well acquainted with poets and other artists of that period, including the notorious Ezra Pound and his violinist-lover, Olga Rudge.  (Few people know that Ezra Pound was also a composer.  It has been said that Rudge discovered 300 of Vivaldi’s forgotten concertos in Italy and thus greatly helped the resurgence in interest in Vivaldi’s music.)  Serly helped Pound organize concerts in Rapallo, Italy, to which he frequently traveled.  As late as 1976, Serly was still publishing books on music theory which are now not widely known.  He wrote a viola concerto in 1929 and that work is still sometimes played.  He also wrote a violin concerto.  His other works remain quite obscure.  He died after being struck by a vehicle (some sources say it was a car) while visiting London in 1978.  His exact date of death is October 8, 1978.  He was 76 years old.  

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Peter Rybar

Peter Rybar was a Czech violinist and teacher born (in Vienna, Austria) on August 29, 1913.  His playing style was not showy and flashy but he was very well regarded as a soloist and concertmaster - Rybar’s recordings (mostly produced prior to 1960) are now collector’s items.  (His recording of the Bach Double Concerto (for two violins) with Henryk Szeryng is probably the best I have ever heard.)  Nonetheless, as were so many other artists of the time, he was eclipsed by the likes of Heifetz, Ricci, Oistrakh, Menuhin, Milstein, Francescatti, Kogan, Grumiaux, and a few other soloists who performed in the limelight during the same period.  Like Szeryng, he became fluent in seven languages, although (ironically) English was his mother tongue.  His first teacher (a pupil of both Otakar Sevcik and Cesar Thomson) was his mother.  He then studied in Geneva and Leipzig with teachers whom I don’t know anything about.  He eventually (in 1929, at age 16) ended up at the Prague Conservatory where he spent three years (perhaps more.)  One of his teachers there was Josef Suk - the elder Josef Suk (1874-1935.)  (There are three Josef Suk: the grandfather (composer and son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak); the father (an engineer but also an accomplished amateur violinist); and the son (the well-known concert violinist.)  Rybar also later (from 1934 onward) studied with Carl Flesch in Paris.  By then, he had already begun his concertizing career (at age 19) and been playing professionally for at least two years.  He toured Europe many times and became known for playing the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin to which he had dedicated more than a year of study during a sabbatical in Portugal.  Although he did not premiere the piece (Samuel Dushkin did in Berlin), Rybar was the first to play the Stravinsky violin concerto (composed in 1931) in Prague and in Paris.  He was also the first to record the Goldmark and the Viotti (number 22 in a minor) concertos.  In 1937 (some sources say 1938), he was hired as violin professor at the Winterthur Conservatory (one of the oldest in Europe) and as concertmaster of the Winterthur Symphony in Switzerland.  He was 25 years old.  (Winterthur can almost be considered a suburb of Zurich.)  In 1952, he formed a duo with his wife who was a pianist.  He retired from his posts (as well as first violinist in the orchestra’s string quartet) after about 30 years.  In 1970, he was persuaded to abandon his retirement to become concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Suisse Romande in Geneva.  At the same time, he began teaching at the Geneva Conservatory.  He was 57 years old by then.  In 1980, he left the orchestra but I don’t know if he left the conservatory as well.  He often gave recitals with pianists Wilhelm Backhaus, Edwin Fischer, and Helene Boschi.  He also sometimes partnered with Clara Haskil as well (who often accompanied Arthur Grumiaux) in recitals and recordings.  Rybar last played in public in 1986.  His discography is not extensive but it fills at least two dozen CDs and includes the standard concertos as well as some not-often-heard works like the Tartini d minor concerto and the Schumann concerto.  A few of his hard-to-find recordings are priced at over one thousand dollars.  Here is a YouTube audio file of the Tartini concerto.  Rybar died in Lugano, Switzerland, on October 4, 2002 at age 89.  

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rusanda Panfili

Rusanda Panfili is a Moldovan-Romanian violinist, actress, dancer, singer, teacher, and arranger born (in Chisinau, Moldova – Chisinau is about 80 miles Northwest of Odessa, Ukraine) on November 1, 1988.  She is known for her extreme versatility and ease in performing in very different styles (genres) and for being one of very few contemporary violinists who arrange music for their own performance and their own style.   Many violinists from the past (to name a few: Cesar Thomson, Eugene Ormandy, Maud Powell, Paul Kochanski, Arthur Hartmann, Elias Breeskin, Nathan Milstein, Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz) used to do just that but the current generation has forgotten that tradition.  An indication of her diverse interests in music can be understood by knowing that she has collaborated with artists ranging from Aleksey Igudesman to Vadim Repin and everyone in between.  Panfili is also one of very (very) few living violinists fluent in five languages – German, Russian, English, Romanian, and Spanish.  Panfili began her violin studies with her mother at age 3 in Bucharest, Romania, where her family had relocated after living in Moldova for a number of years.  Though there were quite a few teachers involved in her early training (at the George Enescu Music School in Bucharest), her mother (who had studied violin but was not a professional violinist) remained her main tutor and inspiration.  At age 11, Panfili began studying in Vienna, Austria at the well-known Vienna Conservatory with Alexander Arenkow, a pupil of David Oistrach.  (None other than Dimitri Shostakovich worked with Arenkow on his late string quartets - Arenkow was the leader of the Glinka String Quartet.)  Three years later, she transferred to the University of Music and Performing Arts (in the same city) to begin studying with Christian Altenburger.  She was 14 years old.  By that time, Panfili had already made her professional debut, at age 12.  She had also already won a major violin competition in Italy, at age 10, the age at which it can be said she began her professional life.  By her late teens, she had already toured Europe, Russia, Japan, and Latin America.  She has stated that she likes uniqueness – if you see one of her YouTube videos, you will understand perfectly what that means.  Among the works in her extensive repertoire is Piazolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a work full of extraordinary difficulties for the soloist as well as the orchestra.  Here is one of many YouTube videos with Panfili in a performance of Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs.  In addition to her solo career, Panfili leads a group of musicians known as Panfili and Friends which has its own schedule of concerts.  Panfili’s violin is one constructed (in 1927) by the French maker Rene Cunne (better known as Renato Conni.)  The photo is courtesy of StefanPanfili, photographer of (mostly) European Artists and Musicians.  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pekka Kuusisto

Pekka Kuusisto is a Finnish violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher born (in Espoo, Finland – a small city ten miles west of Helsinki) on October 7, 1976.  He is known for presenting unusual programs of music which are quite eclectic while maintaining their seriousness.  He has been known to sing at his recitals.  He also sometimes uses an undulating bow stroke which produces a subtly different sound.  As strange as it might sound, Kuusisto was the first (and – up to the present time - the only) Finn to win, in 1995, the Sibelius Violin Competition.  He was 19 years old at the time.  Here is a YouTube video of his performance at the competition.  Kuusisto began his studies at age 3.  His first teacher was Geza Szilvay at the East Helsinki Music Institute.  (Szilvay is well known for teaching young children.)  Four years later Kuusisto enrolled at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki.  One of his teachers there was Tuomas Haapanen.  Nine years later, he studied for four years at Indiana University with Miriam Fried and Paul Biss (husband of Miriam Fried.)  He finished his studies there in 1996.  He was 20 years old.  A very curious anomaly about Kuusisto’s career is that his discography is rather slim given his extreme virtuosity as a musician.  (That is very striking and reminds me of Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen’s discography which is also rather slender.)  Besides solo concertizing, Kuusisto regularly participates in music festivals around the world and often performs with ensembles focused on contemporary music.  Here is a video of a concert with Kuusisto conducting the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a performance of modern music, including electronics – one of the pieces shows the strings using what look like practice mutes, not regular mutes.  As far as I know, Kuusisto’s violin is still a 1752 G.B. Guadagnini. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Jacob Dont

Jacob Dont (Jakob Dont) was an Austrian violinist, composer, and teacher born (in Vienna) on March 2, 1815.  Although he was a well-known musician in his day, he is now mostly remembered as a composer of several violin etude books.  His father, Joseph Valentin Dont, was a cellist who was well-acquainted with Beethoven.  I don’t know who Dont’s first teachers were but he eventually studied with Josef Bohm and Georg Hellmesberger, Sr. at the Vienna Conservatory.  (Josef Bohm was also the teacher of Joachim, Ernst, Hubay, Remenyi, and Grun.  Interestingly, there are two Georg Hellmesbergers and two Josef Hellmesbergers – all four were related and all four were violinists.)  In 1831, Dont joined the Hofburgtheater orchestra and three years later the Vienna Hofkapelle.  He began concertizing while still a teenager but decided against a solo career.  One source states he taught at the Academy of Art (Akademie der Tonkunst) and the Seminary at St Anna at around this time, although I have no idea what or where those places are - I suspect they are both located in or near Vienna.  He simply continued to play in the imperial orchestras until he was appointed violin professor at the Pedagogical Institute in Vienna in 1853.  He was 38 years old by then.  In 1871 (some sources say 1873) Dont became violin professor at his old school, the Vienna Conservatory.  He was now 56 years old.  Ironically, Dont’s many instructional books for violin were not allowed to be used at the Conservatory.  His Opus numbers 17, 18, 20, 33, 35, and 37 are his best known works for violin studies – most violin students are familiar with these etudes.  Dont also wrote considerable vocal music, some chamber music, piano music, and solo works for violin and piano.  Almost all of this music was published during his lifetime.  His most famous pupil is Leopold Auer, the Hungarian violinist and pedagogue.  This fact alone makes Dont nearly immortal as a musician and violinist.  Dont died (in Vienna) on November 17, 1888, at age 73.  

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Suna Kan

Suna Kan is a Turkish violinist and teacher born (in Adana) on October 21, 1936.  She is very likely the best-known Turkish violinist, having concertized throughout the world for many years, appearing with many high profile orchestras, artists, and conductors, including Zubin Mehta, Walter Susskind, Arthur Fiedler, Yehudi Menuhin, Pierre Fournier, and Igor Bezrodny.  She began her studies at age five, making her first public appearance at age 9, playing Mozart’s Turkish concerto (number 5) and Viotti’s most popular violin concerto - number 22 in a minor – with the Presidential Symphony Orchestra – I don’t know who was on the podium.  (Viotti’s 29 concertos have been recorded by Italian violinist Franco Mezzena, in case you’re interested.)  Kan’s initial teachers included Walter Gerhard, Lico Amar, and Izzet Albavrak.  At age 13, she began studying at the Paris Conservatory, graduating in 1952.  She was 16 years old.  She then began her international career.  In 1971, Kan was named State Artist by the Turkish government.  She was also one of the founders of the Ankara Chamber Orchestra at about the same time.  Kan has also received meritorious awards from the French government.  In 1986, she became violin professor at Bilkent University in Ankara.  She was 50 years old.  Her most famous pupil is probably Ertan Torgul, concertmaster of several American orchestras.  A violin competition which was very recently inaugurated is named after Kan.  Although her discography is not extensive, she has recorded several CDs of concertos and other music by her countrymen, whom she champions.  Here is the third movement of Ulvi Erkin’s violin concerto.