Monday, May 30, 2011

Giovanni Somis

Giovanni Battista Somis was an Italian violinist, composer, and teacher born (in Savoy-Piedmont – a then French-Italian state in northwest Italy of which Turin was once the capital) on December 25, 1686 (Bach was born the previous year.)  Although rather obscure, many consider him a critical link between Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and virtuoso violinists who came after him.  It has been suggested that the connection follows this sequence: Corelli-Somis-Pugnani-Viotti-Baillot-Kreutzer-Massart-Wieniawski (1835-1880.)  His first teacher was his father, Lorenzo Francesco, a violinist in the court orchestra of Duke Vittorio Amedeo II’s mother (Marie Jeanne Baptiste.)  Somis' family was well-known for its important musical role at the royal court.  (Lorenzo Francesco was also employed by the prince of Carignano, the duke’s cousin.)  At age 10, little Somis was already playing in the orchestra as well.  In 1703, at age 17, he was sent to Rome (by the Duke) to study with Corelli and he remained under Corelli’s tutelage until 1706 or 1707.  He may also have studied with Vivaldi in Venice.  Upon finishing his studies, he became leader of the orchestra (at Turin) and eventually solo violinist to the king of Turin (1713) – the former Duke of Savoy, the same patron who had sponsored his studies with Corelli.  In 1709, he was made an assistant at court to the prince of Carignano as well.  Although he sometimes traveled with the royal household, he almost never ventured outside Turin after these appointments.  He did play – in 1731 – a concert in Paris for the Concerts Spirituel for which he was highly praised.  Records indicate that some of his music, though written in Turin, was intended for performance in Paris, where musicians from the Piedmont region were active.  It is not certain how much music he composed; however, it is known that he published (between 1717 and 1750) eight collections of violin sonatas, some of them for two violins (Opus 5 and 7) – 78 sonatas in all.  One source conjectures that Somis also wrote 134 concertos, although only nine survive (in manuscript.)  In composition, Somis’ influence on the transition from Baroque to Classic styles is considered negligible.  His pupils included Gaetano Pugnani and Jean-Marie Leclair.  Somis died on August 14, 1763, at age 76.  Joseph Haydn was 31 years old and Mozart was already six.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pierre Gavinies

Pierre Gaviniès was a French violinist, teacher, and composer born (in Bordeaux) on May 11, 1728 – one source gives his date of birth as May 26, 1726 (J.S. Bach was 43 years old and would live another 22.)  Gaviniès was the son of a violin maker (Francois Gavinies, 1683-1772) and is famous for his 24 Caprices (1794), probably, next to Paganini’s, the most difficult set of etudes for any violinist.  He has been credited with being the founder of the French violin school of violin playing – whatever that may be – though that distinction is debatable.  His teachers are unknown, although he may have studied with Leclair in Paris, having moved there with his father in 1734.  Many of his contemporaries spoke of him as being the greatest living violinist.  Judging from the Caprices, he may have been.  Gavinies was also then famous for his rendition of Vivaldi’s Spring from the Four Seasons.  His first important appearance in concert took place in 1741.  He was 13 years old.  For thirty years (and perhaps more) he was associated with the Concerts Spirituel, which he directed from 1773 to 1777.  Mozart was in his late teens at the time.  (The Concerts Spirituel was a French public concert series founded by musicians of the Paris Opera - it ran from 1725 until 1790.  Mozart’s Paris Symphony was played at these concerts.)  While he was esteemed as a great virtuoso (Viotti called him the French Tartini), Gavinies rarely left Paris and eventually, at the age of 67, ended up teaching at the Paris Conservatory, alongside Pierre Rode, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Pierre Baillot.  In 1794 he was actually named Director but did not take this office until 1796.  Kreutzer dedicated his third violin concerto to Gavinies.  Few have heard this concerto and it might not even be currently published.  It has been written that Gavinies was one of Joseph Chevalier De Saint George’s teachers and that may well be so – in any case, it is a possibility.  An indication that he somewhat favored the Baroque style during the transition from Baroque to Classical is that many of his works for violin have accompaniments marked in figured bass only.  He composed – besides the Caprices - an opera, twelve violin sonatas (1760), six violin concertos (1764), six violin duos, and several other pieces which are now never played, except, perhaps, in France.  Gavinies died in Paris on September 9, 1800, at age 72.  Mozart was dead by then but Paganini was only 18 years old.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Joseph Lambert Massart

Joseph Lambert Massart was a Belgian violinist and teacher born (in Liege) on July 19, 1811 (Paganini was 29 years old and would live another 29.)  He performed as a soloist only infrequently and devoted most of his time to teaching. As a young student, because he was not admitted to the Paris Conservatory (because he was a foreigner), he took private lessons with Rodolphe Kreutzer.  Luigi Cherubini (the Italian composer) was the Conservatory Director at the time. Paradoxically, at age 32, he was accepted as a Professor at the same Conservatory (1843.)  He then taught there for 47 years.  Massart performed Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata with none other than Franz Liszt – his teacher had previously rejected it as unintelligible.  Among Massart’s students were legendary violinists Isidor Lotto, Fritz Kreisler, Franz Reis, Eugene Ysaye, Pablo Sarasate, Julius Conus, Teresina Tua, Arma Senkrah, and Henryk Wieniawski.  When one teaches for forty seven years, one is bound to find at least a few good students.  Among this group, Pablo Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler are the only ones who produced no extraordinary students although, to be fair, Kreisler did teach Samuel Dushkin, the violinist who premiered Stravinsky's violin concerto.  Massart has been credited with the origination of the systematic vibrato.  This is his claim to fame, since he is not among the trio of violinists who earlier established the violin method taught at the Paris Conservatory – Rode, Baillot, and Kreutzer.  It has been conjectured that Kreisler championed such a system, though it was widely criticized at the time, being considered a little too emotive and perhaps even vulgar.  Massart was also a chamber music player and gave many concerts with his wife (Louise Aglae Marson), who was a pianist.  He died in Paris on February 13, 1892, at age 80.  Other than in connection with his famous pupils, his name is infrequently mentioned nowadays.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Silvia Marcovici

Silvia Marcovici is a Romanian violinist and teacher born (in Bacau) on January 30, 1952 (Itzhak Perlman was 7 years old.)  She is practically the only artist in the western world without a website.  Marcovici began her studies at an early age in Bacau.  Her formal studies took place at the Conservatory in Bucharest.  Stefan Gheorghiu, a pupil of Oistrakh, was one of her teachers.  At 13, Marcovici made several public appearances and played on Romanian Television.  She made her professional debut at the age of 16 at The Hague.  At age 17, she took second prize in the Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris – nobody took first prize.  (Something similar happened to Eugene Fodor at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1974.)  Marcovici later said that she was so nervous before this competition that someone had to push her on stage to perform.  The following year, she took first prize in the George Enesco Competition in Bucharest.  Marcovici first toured the U.S. at age 20.  She played the Glazunov Concerto with the London Symphony (with Leopold Stokowski) at the Royal Albert Hall in 1972. (Please see comments below.) That was Stokowski’s final appearance with the London Symphony.  It has been frequently remarked that her stage presence is striking.  Her first appearance with the New York Philharmonic was on January 24, 1980.  She was (almost) 28 years old - the third concerto of Saint Saens was the work she played.  Her second (and most recent) appearance with the Philharmonic was on September 28, 2001,  Of the Big Five American orchestras (New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston) the only one she has never soloed with is the Boston Symphony.  She has recorded under the Decca, BIS, Doremi, and Aurophon labels.  Her discography includes the concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Sibelius, and Nielsen.  One of her specialties is the second concerto of Bartok.  Marcovici has toured Japan, Europe, South America, the U.S., and the Middle East, and played with some of the world’s leading conductors.  She also frequently participates in chamber music concerts.  Her playing has been described (by the Daily Telegraph, London, UK) as “beautiful, perfect, with genuine eloquence and feeling.”  There are many great videos of her playing on the internet, including this one on YouTube.  Marcovici currently teaches at the University for Music and Art in Graz (Austria) and has also taught at the Conservatory in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Her views on the career of an artist are stated thus: “The secret of a career lies in the knowledge of how to manage it - adapt your repertoire to your talent, choose carefully where, when and with whom you play.  Know your strengths and your weaknesses.  And then, just pray to the gods that luck may smile on you." 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ilya Kaler

Ilya Kaler is a Russian violinist and teacher born (in Moscow) on June 2, 1963 (Anne-Sophie Mutter was born 27 days later that same year and Heifetz was already 62 years old and would live an additional 24 years.)  He is known for his unique achievement of winning three major violin competitions, namely the Paganini (1981), the Sibelius (1985), and the Tchaikovsky (1986) competitions, the only one to do so – so far.  At the Central Music School in Moscow he studied with Zinaida Gilels (Anastasia Khitruk and Stefan Jackiw also studied with her. She is Elizabeth Gilels' niece.)  He later studied with Leonid Kogan and Victor Tretyakov at the Moscow Conservatory, and with Abram Shtern privately (in Kiev, Russia and Los Angeles, U.S.A.)  Kaler has been praised (by The Washington Post) as being “a consummate musician, in total control at all times, with a peerless mastery of his violin.”  His recordings of the Paganini Caprices have been described (by American Record Guide) as being “in a class by themselves – combining the perfection, passion, and phrase sculpting of Michael Rabin with the energy, excitement, and immediacy of Jascha Heifetz.”  Kaler has performed with the Moscow, Leningrad, and Dresden Philharmonics; and the Montreal, Seattle, Detroit, Baltimore, Danish, and Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestras among many others.  (For reasons known only to those immediately involved, Kaler has never soloed with the orchestras of New York, Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Philadelphia.  He has also never appeared with the top orchestras of London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, or Paris.  It is an odd and freakish thing that while the concertmasters of these orchestras – none of whom achieves his level of artistry - get to solo with these prestigious ensembles, a phenomenal player like Kaler does not.  It could be the Eugene Fodor phenomenon at work – blacklisting – but who really knows? - there may be other factors at play about which I know nothing.)  From 1996 to 2001, Kaler was concertmaster of the Rochester Philharmonic.  He has toured with a group called the World Orchestra for Peace, an ensemble led by Valery Gergiev – I had not heard of this orchestra until just now.  Kaler has also toured Russia, Europe, the U.S., South America, and Asia, as a recitalist and as a soloist.  With Amit Peled (cello) and Alon Goldstein (piano), he recently formed the Tempest Trio.  The trio has received enthusiastic reviews and has been compared to the legendary Heifetz-Piatigorsky-Rubinstein trio.  Kaler has taught at the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, New York) from 1998 until 2001, Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana), and (currently) DePaul University (Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.).  As do almost all concert violinists nowadays, Kaler performs frequently at far-flung music festivals in the U.S. and abroad.  His recordings include the concertos of Paganini, Brahms, Dvorak, Glazunov, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich.  They are very easy to find on the internet.  He has recorded for the Naxos, Melodya, and MCI labels.  YouTube has several videos of his playing, one of which is this Slavonic Dance by Dvorak.  Kaler has played and recorded with the Sennhauser Guarnerius del Gesu (1735 – from the Stradivari Society.)  He has also played and recorded with more modern Joseph Curtin violins (1998, 2003, and 2010.)  Ilya Kaler is married to a concert violinist (Olga Kaler), as is Gil Shaham (Adele Anthony), Albert Markov (Marina Markov), and as were also Leonid Kogan (Elizabeth Gilels), and Richard Burgin (Ruth Posselt.)  Among Kaler's pupils are Sean Bradley and Daniel Kurganov. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Max Bendix

Max Bendix was an American violinist, conductor, teacher, and composer born (in Detroit, USA) on March 28, 1866 (Brahms was 33 years old and would live an additional 34.)  He is mostly remembered for his long-term professional ties to Theodore Thomas, one of the founders (and first conductor) of the Chicago Symphony.  His most important, and perhaps his only teacher was Simon E. Jacobsohn, a very significant (but now forgotten) violinist and teacher of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century.  (Jacobsohn began his American career in New York but later established himself in Cincinnati then in Chicago in 1887.  Bendix may have studied with him from 1874 until about 1878.  Bendix himself later said that the total sum of formal training he had was about four years. According to Bendix, Jacobsohn kicked him out of his class for being undisciplined. Among Jacobsohn's other pupils was Nahan Franko.)  Seemingly without bothering with a lot of formal training and its attending rituals (such as a formal debut and subsequent concert tours), Bendix first played with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra in May of 1878, when the orchestra was playing in Cincinnati.  In 1880, he became concertmaster of the Cincinnati Orchestra, the precursor of the Cincinnati Symphony.  He was 14 years old.  Bendix went on to play in other orchestras as concertmaster or in the first violin section, including the Germania Orchestra (in Philadelphia, 1883-1884), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (New York, 1885-1886), and the Arion Society of New York.  Bendix told an interviewer in 1898 that he also played in small theatre orchestras and in circus bands as well simply to make a living (probably during the off season.)  By the Spring of 1886, he was concertmaster of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, which would much later (some sources say 1895) become the Chicago Symphony. It is important to say here that the Theodore Thomas Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony were, for a time, two distinct groups, even though they shared many of the same players. The Chicago Symphony has actually played under three names: The Chicago Orchestra (1891-1905), the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (1905-1912), and finally, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1912.)   (Similarly, in 1882, Benjamin Bilse's Band became the Berlin Philharmonic.)  Bendix went to Europe for about 7 months in 1889 but rejoined the Thomas group in 1890, again as concertmaster.  (It is probable that he studied with Emile Sauret while in Europe.)  In October of 1891, Bendix played the U.S. premiere of the Dvorak violin concerto in Chicago with Thomas conducting. Maud Powell claimed to have given the concerto's premiere but that is incorrect - Bendix gave the first U.S. performance of the Dvorak concerto and that performance is well-documented. Bendix remained with the orchestra until about 1896, actually leading the orchestra as conductor for a time in 1892 and 1893, filling in for Thomas when the latter left suddenly after some political battles which he (apparently) lost.  It is well-known that Thomas was not pleased by this and a rift between the two started to develop.  After Thomas decided not to renew his contract, Bendix said “One thing is true: either I have conducted the concerts too well or not well enough.”  In 1897, Bendix toured the U.S with none other than Eugene Ysaye (whom he had met in Europe) and a small group of other (less well-known) musicians.  In 1899, the Musical Courier pronounced Max Bendix the “finest American violinist.”  He conducted regularly as well, wherever such opportunities arose, including St Louis, Seattle, New York, and Chicago.  In 1904, he was concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera and, in addition, began conducting there beginning in 1905.  1907 found him serving as concertmaster and assistant conductor of a now forgotten organization called the Manhattan Opera Company – he had taken over for Sam Franko, another violinist who had played with Theodore Thomas.  He also formed the Bendix String Quartet, about which little is known.  He briefly conducted a group called the People’s Philharmonic Orchestra (in 1919 in San Francisco) formed out of a break-away group of musicians from the San Francisco Symphony.  His best-known pupil was (violinist) Arthur Judson, the famous (some would say infamous) manager of classical music artists and orchestras.  Bendix also taught someone named Marion Carpenter, whom he praised.  Bendix died in Chicago, almost forgotten, on December 6, 1945, at age 79.  Heifetz, Milstein, and Ricci were in their prime.  However, Bendix’ association with Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Symphony, and Arthur Judson ensures that his name will be in the history books forever.