Sunday, July 31, 2016

Enric Casals

Enric Casals was a Spanish violinist, composer, teacher, and conductor born (in Barcelona) on July 26, 1892.  He is now completely forgotten, unlike his older brother, the cello player Pablo Casals.  His first studies were with his father.  Later on, he studied with a little-known teacher, Rafael Galvez.  He then traveled to Brussels where he again studied with little-known teachers: Mathieu Crickboom and Joseph Jongen.  I do not know if he ever settled in Brussels.  In Europe, travel distances from one large city to another are not great so commuting and setting up temporary residence in any one place for a few weeks just to study is no big deal.  From 1910 to 1912 he was solo violinist with the Barcelona Symphony.  Casals was now 18 years old.  Between 1912 and 1914, he played with the Kurot Symphony in Saint Petersburg.  I do not know where he was between 1914 and 1918 – the war years.  He moved to Prague in 1918, becoming a pupil of Frantisek Suchy, another little-known teacher.  He was 26 years old.  I do not know if Casals graduated from any conservatory after his many years of study.  By 1920, he was back in Spain.  Between 1920 and 1936 he was playing and (sometimes) conducting the Pablo Casals Orchestra.  Whether he was the concertmaster or just a section player is anyone’s guess.  I didn’t trouble myself with researching that detail of his career.  During almost the same time, he also played in the orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceo (1924-1935.)  It is common practice – even in modern times – for musicians to play in various ensembles simultaneously when scheduling allows it, giving the musician enough playing opportunities to make a living.   In 1921, Casals founded the Enric Casals String Quartet and did a lot of touring with the quartet.  I don’t know when the quartet was disbanded.  It’s possible that the quartet was active until 1940.  Casals later devoted a lot of his time to conducting and composing.  From 1940 to 1942 he was permanent conductor of the Orquesta Iberica de Concerts and also served as resident conductor of the Orquesta Profesional de Camara in Barcelona for several seasons.  Other orchestras which he guest conducted were the national orchestras of Portugal, Hungary, Greece, and Mexico, as well as the famous Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris.  He founded the Casals Music Institute and was a director of the Prades Festival (in France) from 1955 to 1983.  His compositions include a violin concerto, a cello concerto, and a suite for cello.  Casals died on July 31, 1986, at age 94. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Franz Vecsey

Franz von Vecsey (Ferenc Vecsey) was a Hungarian violinist, conductor, and composer born (in Budapest) on March 23, 1893.  He was a child prodigy in the early part of the last century but is for the most part now forgotten.  There are a few YouTube audio files which attest to his unbelievable artistry at a very young age.  Bela Bartok served as his piano accompanist for a time.  The Sibelius violin concerto was dedicated to him (in 1905) when he was only 12 years old.  Although he did not premiere the concerto, he first played the Sibelius concerto one year later.  His first teacher was his father, Lajos Vecsey.  He studied with Jeno Hubay from age 8.  It has been said that he became Hubay’s favorite pupil.  (Eugene Ormandy and Joseph Szigeti also studied with Hubay.)  His debut took place on May 17, 1903 in Berlin.  He was ten years old and on that occasion played the Beethoven concerto while Joseph Joachim conducted the orchestra.  Afterward, he studied with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Russia.  Jeno Hubay dedicated his third violin concerto (probably his best-known among the four he composed) to Vecsey.  Later, after concertizing for about ten years, Vecsey married into an aristocratic family, as did four or five other famous violinists (Teresina Tua, Johanna Martzy, Cesar Thomson, and Georges Enesco come to mind.)   He managed his career from a palace in Venice.  It has been suggested that he became psychologically scarred after serving in the Austrian army during World War One and that his career suffered as a result.  He was very interested in a conducting career in the mid-1930s but became seriously ill just about then and died after an unsuccessful operation in Rome.  Vecsey’s compositional output consisted mainly of miniature violin works, one of which is Le Vent (Caprice number 1), a rather difficult work which is still very popular today.  A 1716 Stradivarius instrument was among the violins he played.  It is now owned by an Italian philanthropic foundation, which also owns other great and valuable string instruments.  Here is a YouTube audio file where Vecsey plays a Paganini caprice.  Vecsey died on April 5, 1935, at age 42.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen (Carl August Nielsen) was a Danish violinist, composer, conductor, writer, and teacher born (in Norre Lyndelse, on the island of Funen) on June 9, 1865.  Although now remembered almost exclusively as a composer – in fact, Denmark’s greatest composer - he spent many years earning his livelihood as a violinist as well as an Army bugler.  His parents were most likely his very first teachers, although it was not their intention that he become a professional musician.  In late 1879, he became a bugler and trombonist for the army.  He was 14 years old.  Nevertheless, he continued to study the violin, sometimes performing at barn dances.  In 1881, he began studying privately with Carl Larsen, a custodian at the Odense Cathedral.  After receiving a release from his army job, he entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1884 - one source calls this the Copenhagen Conservatory.  His violin teacher there was Valdemar Tofte, a very obscure violinist and teacher.  He left (or graduated) from the conservatory in late 1886.  He was 22 years old.  In 1887, he joined the second violin section of the Royal Danish Orchestra and remained there for about 16 years – one source says this happened in 1889.  Later on, he was also hired to conduct the orchestra every once in a while.  In 1910, he was officially appointed assistant conductor.  However, he had to give up this post in May of 1914.  All the while, he had been giving private violin and piano lessons simply to improve his income.  His opus 1 was premiered when he was 23 years old – September of 1888.  In 1916, he took a teaching post at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  He was 50 years old.  He continued to teach there until he died.  Outside of Denmark, among the works that continue to be very popular are his symphony number 4, the violin concerto, the Aladdin Suite, the Helios overture, and his string quartet number 4.  He produced well over 100 works during his lifetime.  He also wrote - aside from voluminous correspondence - a set of short essays in 1925 and a memoir of his youth in 1927, both available in English translations.  Nielsen died on October 3, 1931, at age 66.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Johan Halvorsen

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist, conductor, teacher, and composer born (in Drammen, Norway) on March 15, 1864.  He was the kind of violinist we do not encounter anymore.  We have lots of violinists who are also conductors and teachers – Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Jaime Laredo, Maxim Vengerov, and Leonidas Kavakos quickly come to mind – but no violinist-composers.  Although he composed many other works, Halvorsen will probably remain immortal due to his having composed one of the staples of the cello-violin (or viola-violin) repertoire – the famous variations on a theme by Handel.  After having studied in Oslo and Stockholm, he began his career as a concertmaster in Norway (1885) and Scotland (1888.)  He began his studies at age seven.  Later on, his teachers were Jakob Lindberg (in Stockholm), Adolph Brodsky (in Russia), Adolf Becker (in Berlin), and Cesar Thomson (in Switzerland.)  In 1889, he was appointed professor of violin at the Helsinki Music Institute.  In 1893, he was appointed conductor of the Bergen (Norway) Philharmonic.  He was 29 year old.  In 1899, he was appointed conductor of the National Theater in Oslo.  By this time, he had established himself as one of the top musicians in Norway.  He remained at the National Theater until 1929, the year he retired.  During this period, he composed a lot of incidental music for plays as well as concert music.  The famous Passacaglia was composed in 1897 although he later revised it several times.  In 1909, he wrote a violin concerto (Opus 28) which he dedicated to Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow.  After she premiered it (in the Netherlands) and played it a couple of times in Norway, the concerto was lost.  After that, it was believed to have been destroyed by Halvorsen although that was not the case.  In January of 2016, it was announced that the score had been discovered (by James Mason) among sheet music which had been donated to the University of Toronto many years before.  It had been misfiled.  The concerto will receive its 21st century premiere in July of this year – in Norway.  The soloist will be Henning Kraggerud.  Johan Halvorsen died on December 4, 1935, at age 71. Here is a video of the Passacaglia.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Uto Ughi

Uto Ughi is an Italian violinist, teacher, writer, and conductor born (in Busto Arsizio) on January 21, 1944.  His name has been closely associated with the National Academy of Saint Cecilia (in Rome) for many years.  He is a high-profile promoter of musical culture all over the world, but especially in Italy, as is Vladimir Spivakov in Russia.  Ughi has founded several music festivals along the way.  His discography covers most of the standard violin repertoire.  Because he came of age in the 1960s, he has had a chance to work with some of the legendary names in the conducting world (who are for the most part now dead) as well as the most current luminaries of the baton.  He began his lessons at age 4.  His father was an amateur violinist but his first formal teacher was a nameless violinist from the opera orchestra of La Scala.  At age 7, Ughi gave his first recital in Milan.  Though it’s hard to believe, according to one source, he played some Paganini Caprices as well as the ubiquitous Bach Chaconne at that recital.  Ughi studied for ten years at the Chigiana Music Academy in Siena (Tuscany.)  He also took lessons from George Enesco for a time.  He began his uninterrupted concertizing career in 1959 – he was 15 years old.  Among his pupils are Augustin Hadelich and Sayaka Shoji.  Ughi’s recording of Paganini’s fourth concerto is my favorite recording of that particular concerto.  Here is a YouTube video of one of his performances.  He has also recorded a seldom-played work – the Schumann concerto.  Here is the first movement from that recording - the second and third movements are here.  Between 1987 and 1992, he was the principal conductor of the Orchestra of the St Cecilia Academy.  Ughi has owned or played the Kreutzer Stradivarius (the one from 1701 – there are 4 Strads named Kreutzer), the General Kyd, the Ole Bull, and a Guarneri from 1744.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Russian Violin Makers

In terms of fame, and very likely in terms of expertise, Italian, French, and German violin makers have the Russians beat by a long shot. At least that’s the general opinion. Whether that is so because the violin was actually invented in Italy (around 1530) and the most prolific makers worked from there and were the first to become famous is anyone’s guess.  The names of da Salo, Amati, Stradivari, Tononi, Guarneri, Maggini, Carcassi, Storioni, Gagliano, Guadagnini, Ventapane, Rogeri, Ruggieri, Pressenda, Albani, Gobetti, and Montagnana, are certainly very well known.  Their violins are prized above all others.  On the other hand, Russian makers are not known at all.  This peculiarity is striking since the whole world knows that most of the world’s celebrated violinists are Russian.  To filter them further, most among these superlative Russian players are Jewish – Oistrakh, Goldstein, Kogan, Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, Seidel, Milstein, and Gitlis, to name a few.  So, why aren’t there any great Russian violin makers – makers whose names are household words – Jewish or otherwise?  Perhaps it has to do with tradition – like the tradition of exceptional French wine making or fine watch making by the Swiss.  After Amati (and his relatives) and other early makers started violin making enterprises, the violin construction economic engine took off; soon, imitators sprang up elsewhere in Italy - some of them really good.  Entire families (such as the Guarneris and the Stradivaris) got involved in the trade and the tradition of fine Italian violin making was thus established.  By the time the ideas and patterns for violin making spread to other parts of Europe, the Italians had been at it for more than fifty years.  Then the Italian violin virtuosos got going as well.  Up until 1750, they were dominant in the violin playing sphere.  Italian violinists like Corelli, Somis, Pugnani, Tartini, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Tommasini, and Locatelli had few (if any) corresponding contemporaries in the other European countries or Russia. There was a time when Spain ruled the seas.  There was also a time when the Roman Empire ruled the world.  Nothing lasts forever.  Who knows whether the Russian violin makers will not someday soon take over the business?  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Olga Bloom

Olga Bloom (Olga Bayrack Bloom) was a Russian violinist and violist born (in Boston, USA) on April 2, 1919.  She is best known as the founder of Bargemusic, a very successful venue for chamber music concerts which she founded in 1977, located in Brooklyn, New York, close to the famous Brooklyn Bridge.  Bloom began her violin studies at age four.  I do not know who her first teacher was although it could have been her father – he was an amateur violinist.  Later, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and at Boston University.  One of her teachers was Jacques Hoffman, associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony.  None of the sources I visited stated whether Bloom graduated from the schools she attended and I didn’t bother to check any further.  In any case, Bloom moved to New York where she worked in pit orchestras and recording studios for many years.  At about age 57, she retired from regular playing and looked for other ways to make a living.  (Unless you are a star musician, as you get older, playing opportunities begin drying up – it happens all the time.  Then, if you don’t hustle a teaching post, you have to find other ways to make a living.)  She purchased a used barge for ten thousand dollars at about that time (with her own money) and the rest is history.  Bloom ran the Bargemusic operation for almost 30 years, until 2005.  She was 85 years old.  She was very devoted to chamber music and she famously said: "One gets the greatest gratification and fulfillment in working in concerted effort with one's peers."  Olga Bloom died on November 24, 2011, at age 92.