One might think that after 10 days of grueling competition -- playing Paganini, solo Bach, Ysaye, Mozart, a new modern piece, a recital program, a full concerto -- Belgian violinist Marc Bouchkov might be able to rest, having won the gold medal. Not so!
Yet he seemed very much up to the task of being the laureate, with all the interviews, socializing and extra concerts that involves.
Last Friday, after playing Ysaye's "L'Aurore" from Sonata No. 5 for a special group at CBC Radio-Canada headquarters, then appearing for a long radio interview in French, he sat for an interview -- in English -- with me. This was all just a few hours before performing the competition's Gala Concert, followed by a reception in which he greeted many well-wishers, sponsors and fans.
Marc Bouchkov and Laurie, at the CBC Radio-Canada headquarters in Montreal
It's no wonder that Marc is rather at-home with the whole process -- violin competitions are in his blood. Marc's father, Evgueni Bouchkov, placed third in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1989, and his paternal grandmother, Zoria Shikmurzaeva, placed fourth in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 1963. Born in France to a Russian family, Marc started playing at the age of five, with his grandfather, Matis Vaitsner, as his first teacher.
"The violin was part of our family," Marc said. "Of course, when it is like this, it is a very musical home -- you can hear the violin from every room. As a child, it's like hearing someone speaking. If you hear somebody speaking, you start to speak the same language -- usually! (he laughs) So if somebody plays the violin, you will not say, "I want to play the trumpet." You probably want to play the violin. That is what happened to me. Of course it starts with the imitation, you take a wood thing and pretend to play like a big soloist and things, and then the parents ask, 'Do you really like it? Would you really like to do this?' And the child answers, 'Yes, of course! I want to be like you!'"
His grandfather taught him for about eight years, then he studied with Claire Bernard at the Conservatory of Lyon, then with Boris Garlitsky, first at Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, then in Hamburg. He has participated in many contests competitions, including the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition, at which he was an unranked laureate.
He played his first big competition at age 15, the Louis Spohr Competition in Weimar. "I did it because I saw that a lot of other people were doing competitions, and we decided to try," he said. He was well prepared and made it to the finals -- then, "I didn't get anything, no prize! At that age, this is really a shock, like taking hammer shot on the head." It brought him down to earth with a big thud. Fortunately, his parents had perspective. "They taught me how to learn from the mistakes; how to learn from a failure." One failure should not make you give up and be destroyed; instead, one can learn and come back even better afterwards. And that he did, winning first prize in the Henry Koch International Violin Competition in Belgium several years later.
He continues to seek to learn from the mistakes, and even from the victories. "You need the nerves to think this way, but if you do, you will never stop. There is no moment when you will say to yourself, 'Well now it's over.'" Marc said. It's tempting to reject negative comments from judges, but analyzing those comments can lead to great self-improvement.
"You analyze and you analyze -- it's a very important characteristic to have, to be able to analyze what's going on: to analyze yourself, to be self-critical, and to analyze the people around you," he said. He said he learned a lot from his colleague, Andrey Baranov, who won first prize at the 2012 Queen Elisabeth Competition. "I basically discovered him, not only on the violin but also as a person, and I must say that I learned a lot from him. I really respect what he's doing, and I think he is a model, as far as being self-critical, being able to analyze, and also -- not speaking too much! The more you keep for yourself, the more then you can provide on the instrument later. And he's very good at it."
Marc plays on a Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume violin from his sponsor, Brigitte Feldtmann. The shoulder rest on the back is home-made -- a very low rest designed simply to keep his shoulder from dampening the sound:
Back of the Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume that Marc plays
One obvious characteristic of Marc's playing is his presence -- his involvement in the here and now -- and his awareness of his partners in music-making, be they one pianist or a whole orchestra.
"The music we are performing can be personal, but you have to share it," Marc said. "You have to share it whether is is a symphony, or a concerto, or chamber music, or even if it's solo music. If it's alone, you have to listen to yourself, and to the silence which accompanies you. You have to share it with the silence around you.
"In chamber music, you have to play with other people -- their part is exactly as important as yours," Marc said. "Without their part, you're nobody, and without your part, they're nobody." Even in an orchestra, everyone's part is equally important, "everybody has to participate, everybody has to be involved." A soloist may play louder, may play for a longer time, may have the melody or more notes, but the other parts must be given equal consideration. "To consider every part is extremely important, and a pleasure, when you come to play with an orchestra," Marc said. "It's a very social thing to be a musician. You don't have to be social out of the music -- maybe you can be totally alone and living in your place. But as soon as you take out the instrument to make music, you have to be social. Even if you're alone, you have to be social with the atmosphere around you."
Another place that Marc feels a link is with the orchestra, and not just as a soloist, but as an orchestral player. He has played for several years as a section player in the North German (NDR) Radio Symphony Orchestra
"I respect it and I love it," Marc said of orchestra playing. "This is my counterstrike against all this policy of: 'Never go in the orchestra, you're a soloist! The losers go into the orchestra!' You hear this from a lot of teachers and from a people who consider themselves big artists. But never listen to it! It is totally wrong."
For Marc, playing in the orchestra has allowed him to see how it works from the inside. "If you know it from inside, really from the inside, then you can build an image when you're coming to play as a soloist with the orchestra." In other words, he can feel at home, as a soloist playing with a professional orchestra.
And what if the orchestra is conducted by Maxim Vengerov, as it was in the finals and gala concert in Montreal?
"Honestly speaking, it has been an unbelievable experience," Marc said. "I grew up with Vengerov's recordings. I loved so much the way he played Max Bruch Concerto, I wanted to learn like him! I even studied some concertos by ear -- I didn't have the score, but I would play with earphones, listening to his recordings. For me, Vengerov is still this unbelievable figure of the violin of this century. He conducts very well."
"I was really pleased that he was going to conduct (at the competition)," Marc said. "I didn't know him at all as a person, and I was a bit scared to meet him, of course! But when I saw him and when we started to speak, I was sure that it could be nothing but good. He's very respectful towards the younger musicians and towards the less-experienced musicians, and he helped us. His way of dealing with the orchestra is very respectful and very noble. I love that -- this has been a very nice experience."
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BELOW: Marc Bouchkov performs Ysaye's "Caprice d'après l'étude en forme de valse" in the semi-finals of the 2012 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition:
How heartening to see such a big turnout on Friday night for the final Gala Concert of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition!
The three laureates -- Marc Bouchkov (first prize), Stephen Waarts (second prize) and Zeyu Victor Li (third prize) -- and three remaining finalists -- Fédor Roudine, Ji Young Lim and Chi Li -- played to a nearly-full house at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal.
Above, I have linked the performers' names to their semi-final performances, because I do believe the semi-finals truly showcased their emerging artistry, and in many cases they gave truly stunning performances.
Left to right, Maxim Vengerov, Stephen Waarts, Chi Li, Zeyu Victor Li, Ji Young Lim and Marc Bouchkov. Photo: Gunther Gamper
This final concert -- well, it was a bit more like those final Olympic figure skating exhibition galas, when the competition is over, the athletes are exhausted, and nobody is making their triple-lutz jumps any more. Maxim Vengerov finally did get to conduct something besides the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with Chi Li playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn, Ji Young Lim playing Saint-Saens "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso," Zeyu Victor Li playing Ravel's Tzigane and Marc Bouchkov playing Sibelius Concerto. Fedor Roudine reprised his last movement of the Tchaikovsky and Stephen Waarts, the first movement of the Brahms.
Winners of the special awards were announced in an awards ceremony that preceded the performance. They included:
Best performance of the Compulsory Canadian Work ("Rhapsodie pour violin et piano" by Jean Lesage)
Radio-Canada People's Choice Award
Wilder and Davis Award for the Best Semi-Final Recital
MIMC Grants for the Unranked Finalists
To reiterate, the winners of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition were named on Wednesday night, and they are:
Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium, first prize of $30,000 CAD, and a "Sartory" model bow by Sandrine Raffin, valued at $3,700 CAD.
You can listen to performances from both nights of finals on the CBC website. A Gala Performance will take place Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET, featuring the winners playing with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and guest conductor Maxim Vengerov. Winners of the special awards will be announced at the official awards ceremony, preceding the gala concert.
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Here are a few highlights Wednesday's performances, as well as some thoughts to follow.
Wednesday's performances featured Zeyu Victor Li; Fédor Roudine, 20, of France; and Stephen Waarts.
Zeyu Victor Li played the Tchaikovsky Concerto with tidy technique, and a nice buoyant quality to his sound. He took some very fast turns with the tempo, which is the soloist's prerogative; yet, one must be aware of how fast a large organism such an orchestra can respond, even under the best circumstances. Music takes place in real time and requires give-and-take -- not-together is not-together, whatever one's ideals. That said, this was a very fine performance, with uncomplicated sound, good projection and great technique in the cadenza. In a concerto that can be an avalanche of notes, every note was clear, even in the fastest and most technical passages.
Photo: Gunther Gamper
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The Tchaikovsky concerto remains that infamous piece whose dedicatee pronounced it "unplayable," and on Wednesday, Fédor Roudine didn't quite have the kind of control over intonation and consistency of tone quality that puts an audience at ease. He does have a nice deep sound and some incredible chops, taking the third movement at quite a fast clip.
Photo: Gunther Gamper
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Stephen Waarts had a beautiful grace in his playing from the first note of the Brahms Concerto -- and then he warmed up and got even better! His impeccable intonation soothed the soul, and his concept of the piece was a cohesive whole -- he made it look easy. I stopped worrying, relaxed and enjoyed the beauty that is Brahms: the soaring melodies, the quirky rhythms that pop out of a cluster of notes well-played, the warmth of emotion.
Photo: Gunther Gamper
FINAL THOUGHTS + scroll down for COMPETITION ART!
I will confess to you a certain kind of wariness, when I learned that I'd be listening to four Tchaik concertos and two Brahms during this final round of the Montreal competition, but I found all the performances so very individual.
Isn't that the complaint, that high-level music schools stamp out musicians who all play the same? That there's nothing new left to do with the classics? It's not a legitimate complaint. I saw very distinct personalities and enjoyed their musical revelations.
Hats off to Maxim Vengerov, who had the task of conducting the Tchaikovsky four different times, with four different sets of tempi, four different personalities and all the possible pitfalls that come with accompanying pre-professional soloists. He impressed me as a solid and steady leader, displaying an attitude of support toward each soloist.
For me, Stephen Waarts was a very close second in this competition, with his mature and refined Brahms, and I fully expect to see him winning a major competition in the next few years. That said, Bouchkov seems so clearly ready for the concert stage; he has that special kind of charisma and awareness of both orchestra and audience that draws a listener in, makes one want more. I enjoyed listening to all six of these fine young musicians and only regret I was not here to hear the other rounds! Fortunately we can all listen to them, and here is the website for that.
I love that music inspires people in different ways. It inspires some people simply to look at the world in different way, but it can also fan our creative urges, inspiring some to make more music, or to write. Last night inspired my friend, Los Angeles artist Lark Larisa Pilinsky, to draw! Here are her sketches of the evening's three performers; I feel like she really captured something of their playing.
Left to right: Stephen Waarts, Fédor Roudine and Zeyu Victor Li.
MONTREAL -- Winners of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition were just announced!
1st: Marc Bouchkov of Belgium,
2nd Stephen Waarts of US and
3rd Zeyu Victor Li of China
Photo: Gunther Gamper
More to come in the morning.
The sun appeared in Montreal Tuesday; it was actually setting as I walked over to the Place des Artes for the Montreal International Musical Competition finals, in which six young violinists will play their final concerto with orchestra, over the course of two days.
Tuesday performances featured Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan; Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea; and Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium. You can listen to those performances on the CBC website, where tonight's performances also will be webcast, beginning at 7:30 ET. Tonight's performances will include Zeyu Victor Li, 16, of China; Fédor Roudine, 20, of France; and Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States. All the candidates will play with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, with guest conductor Maxim Vengerov.
Here are some highlights from Tuesday's performances, which took place at Montreal's Maison symphonique ("Symphony House") against the backdrop of 13 flags, representing the countries of the 24 candidates who participated in the Montreal International Musical Competition:
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Next, Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea played the Brahms Violin Concerto, her performance picking up energy and momentum as she went along. The first movement ended with beautiful poignance, and if I could personally give her a prize for "string-crossing technique," I would. Also, hats off to the Orchestre symphonique's oboist, whose beautiful solo opened the second movement.
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As happens in competitions, we will be hearing a lot of the same concerto: four Tchaikovsky concertos and two Brahms! Tonight was a two-Tchaikovsky night: Marc Bouchkov, 22, of Belgium closed the evening with a playful and competent performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. His awareness of and involvement in the orchestra part gave off a feeling of happy camaraderie and music-making, as he channeled the drama by nodding to this section or that, showing how the violin was answering the cellos section's question, or playing along in parts of the orchestral tuttis.
Again, here are all those performances on the CBC website. Happy listening!
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And on a different note, I'm really enjoying Montreal, and I'm attempting to speak more French. Here are a few pictures from my adventures. First, Les tulipes:
And many thanks to longtime V.com member Christian Vachon, for leading me to perhaps the best coffee in North America, at Pikolo Café. I'm holding a ristretto latte, they call it a "Pikolo latte." Très bien!
I'd never seen Maxim Vengerov play live, then for the four years when he stopped playing, it looked like I never would.
But never say never! On Monday night, Vengerov played the Beethoven "Triple Concerto" for violin, cello and piano in a "Concert Prestige" to benefit the Montreal International Musical Competition Foundation. I was happy to be in attendance, among 1,200 people in the new Maison symphonique de Montréal ("Montreal Symphony House"), an impressive concert hall that is not yet two years old. It's a lovely hall with some modern aesthetic touches, such as organ pipes that dangle like silver stalagtites along the back wall, and three decks of wooden balconies that surround the floor.
Credit : Jacques Robert
I was immediately caught by Vengerov's presence and sound, playing the 1727 “Ex-Kreutzer” violin, and also the young cellist Tetreault, who played on the 1707 "Countess of Stainlein, ex-Paganini" Strad.
While these two were quite dramatic, pianist Salov simply nailed everything with quiet competence and little fuss. I wondered about the stage placement that had his back to the others (is this standard in this piece?) -- but nonetheless he was spot-on. Though clearly Salov's background points to a lot of solo piano playing, he seemed a natural collaborator.
The Triple Concerto is full of virtuosity of a non-flashy nature for the cello and violin, like fast, awkward passages that nonetheless require impeccable intonation. Even in places where the soloists play accompaniment to the orchestra, Beethoven doesn't settle for an easy, restful, "I'm not the melody here" pattern; he makes them grab crazy notes from the sky and flutter conspicuously over the orchestra. Would you like to walk a tightrope, wearing a bathing suit? While juggling knives?
I thought our heroes gave a generous and heartfelt performance. The cello solo at the beginning of the second movement was captivating, and the third movement featured some nice high-speed tandem coordination among the three soloists.
For an encore, Vengerov played a favorite, "Meditation from Thais," accompanied by all. My only regret was that I'd have loved to have heard the cellist play an encore as well!
But the Meditation brought goosebumps to all, myself included, and I've heard it more than a few times. It's an oldie, it's a goodie, but I'm still impressed when a performer can get 1,200 people to all stop breathing at once, and Vengerov absolutely did. (Geek note, he played that harmonic at the end way up the fingerboard, not as an artificial harmonic. Nice, I like it.)
The concert opened with Orchestre de chambre I Musici de Montréal and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni, performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, a frequently played piece that is dear to orchestral musicians' hearts everywhere (that's right, if you don't like it, you are a tiny-hearted Scrooge, in my estimation). But it's not a piece to take for granted -- I worried a bit during the (very exposed) introduction, when members of the string section had different takes on the tempo offered, but the orchestra warmed up nicely in the "Vivace." In fact, I was still out of breath when they segued straight into the second movement -- how can one land in the second movement with such a calm heartbeat, after riding at such a breathtaking gallop in the first?
The first and seconds sat opposite one another, a nice choice in a symphony that has so much back-and-forth, question-and-answer. In the third movement, the chamber orchestra showed that it is indeed a fast-driving car, and I think I enjoyed them most when they played fast -- very exhilarating! By the fourth movement I was jumping out of my skin. It is almost too much to ask, to listen to this piece live, without playing it! But being outside the orchestra does give one a larger perspective. I never noticed how the fourth movement is so triumphant, but with a strange limp! A joy to hear this symphony.
A joy to be in Montreal!
MONTREAL -- Here I am in Montreal, where the Montreal International Musical Competition, which features the violin this year, has been in progress since May 7.
The annual competition rotates between voice, violin and piano -- this year it's all about the violin. Judges, which include Vladimir Landsman of Canada; Mark Kaplan of the U.S.; Andre Bourbeau of Canada; Rodney Friend of the U.K.; Michael Frischenschlager of Austria; Yuzuko Horigome of Japan; Regis Pasquier of France and Barry Shiffman of Canada, have narrowed 24 competitors from 14 countries down to six finalists.
The finalists (left to right) are: Zeyu Victor Li, 16, of China; Ji Young Lim, 18, of South Korea; Stephen Waarts, 16, of the United States; Marc Bouchkov, 22 of Belgium; Chi Li, 19, of Taiwan; and Fédor Roudine, 20, of France. They are competing for prizes valued at CA$130,000, including $30,000 for first prize; $15,000 for second and $10,000 for third.
If you'd like to hear performances from the semi-finals, they are all on the CBC Music website. (For example, I've been listening to American finalists Stephen Waarts' Ravel Sonata for the last 20 minutes and it's totally thrilling.) Here also is more coverage, www.espace.mu/cmim, with a nice introductory video which is in French.
Tonight I will attend the "Concert Prestige," a performance that will feature violinist Maxim Vengerov playing the Beethoven Triple Concerto with cellist Stéphane Tétreault and pianist Serhiy Salov, with Orchestre de chambre I Musici de Montréal. That concert benefits the Montreal International Musical Competition Foundation. Vengerov also will conduct the Finals and Gala concerts later this week, with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal.
I'll be reporting back from all those concerts! Meanwhile, I've been getting to know Montreal, this beautiful, French-speaking city in Canada that some how I'd never before visited! I explored a bit of Old Montreal today and got my California blood going with some actual cold weather! Here are some pictures:
First, I definitely can see what people mean, when they describe the Old World charm of Montreal. For example, the cobblestone streets I found next to the Bonsecours Market:
And horse-drawn carriages:
I also like the Build-a-Bear (or in French, Univers Toutou) right next to this grand church.
On my way back from Old Montreal to the hotel, I popped in to Steve's Music Store, which is really more of a guitar store than anything else. Nonetheless, I caught this father, Jonathan, outfitting his four-year-old girl, Tea, with her first violin. He said he comes from the Magdelen Islands, where a very high percentage of the population plays fiddle -- kind of a Celtic/French folk/bluegrass mix. Nice! And maybe Tea is the world's newest violinist, eh?
Here's how Milwaukee Symphony Concertmaster Frank Almond describes his relationship with the 1715 Lipinski Stradivari violin, which he has played since 2008:
"It is an honor and privilege to be passing through its life."
And what a life it's had: from the practiced hands of Antonio Stradivari in his "Golden Period"; to the famous and prolific violinist Giuseppe Tartini; to Karol Lipinski, rival to Paganini and friend to the Schumanns; to the Röntgens, a three-generation family of violinists tied to the Gewandhaus Orchestra; to America, to Cuba, then to the Estonian violinist Evi Liivak, who had escaped the Nazis in World War II -- and now to Frank Almond.
"The more I learned, the more I was amazed," said Frank, speaking to me over the phone from Milwaukee. "It was like a movie that you couldn't possibly have written -- it was way past The Red Violin -- and it was real. From Tartini on down, there was a real story to tell, and I felt like it needed to be told, not just because of the mystique of Stradivari, but also because it's just amazing information. And here it is, sitting in the city of Milwaukee."
Frank's latest project, A Violin's Life, aims to tell that story by resurrecting pieces from centuries past that were likely played on this instrument -- some still well-known, others largely forgotten. Aided by a successful Kickstarter campaign, he and pianist William Wolfram recorded the "Devil's Trill" Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini; Violin Sonata No. 2 by Julius Röntgen; and Violin Sonata No. 2 by Robert Schumann, as well as Karol Lipinski's solo Caprice No. 3.
Even the story of how Frank came to play the Lipinski Strad sounds like the unlikely plot of a novel, perhaps one called "The Stradivari Code."
"It's still my favorite instrument story, and I've had a lot of really good instrument stories," said Frank, who has been concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony since 1995 (minus a few years in Europe) and currently teaches at Northwestern University. "This one was really -- shocking, in a way!"
It all began with an email from a stranger: We have an old violin, left in an estate; we think it's quite valuable. What should we do with it? He'd seen this type of email before; "it happens a few times a year, somebody finds a violin in their attic or something -- it's an old story."
Naturally, he was a little skeptical. "But the thing is, there were a couple of really interesting details that they happened to drop in the email," Frank said. "It seemed clear that they knew they had something really important, that it wasn't just a dumb violin up in somebody's attic."
For example, they called it by its name, the "Lipinski" Strad, and all the information they gave added up: the year it was made, and the last time it was sold.
A peek into Toby Faber's 2006 book, Stradivari's Genius, stoked the mystery further: "Since its last recorded sale in 1962, the Lipinski (Strad) has dropped from sight." (p. 9)
He sent an email to his friend, Chicago-based luthier Stefan Hersh, who agreed, this might be for real.
As it turned out, the family was in Milwaukee to take care of their relative's estate, so they met a few days later.
"I met them at this storage locker, and we hit it off really well," Frank said. "They showed me old programs, old papers from Jacques Francais and insurance. It was clear that they were talking about this instrument."
The Strad itself, however, wasn't there. Where was it?
"It turned out that they had put it in a bank vault -- a regular bank vault at M & I Bank, which happened to be about, I'd say, 100 yards from the concert hall," Frank said. "It was ironic -- I'd been playing all the time in this hall, and there was a 1715 Strad, down the street in a bank vault!"
A few days later, Stefan came up from Chicago, and they went with the family to the bank vault.
"We sat in a room with a table, somebody brought in this old Jaeger case, and there it was!" It had been in the bank vault for some nine months -- safe, but probably not ideal with its extremely low humidity. Still, "it was actually in pretty good shape. At that point, it probably hadn't been played for about 20 years. It wasn't really in playable condition at that time, but there was nothing really major wrong with it. You could tell immediately that it was The Violin, just from the identifying markings -- it's hard to fake a 1715 Strad."
After poring over their many options for many months, the family ultimately decided to keep the violin --- and lend it to Frank, who has experience with Strads, having played the 1710 Davis Strad (1710) while concertmaster of the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra and the Dushkin Strad in Milwaukee.
The violin, a "large-pattern" Strad, had been played by Evi Liivak, who had died in the late '90s. Evi's husband, pianist Richard Anschuetz, who had Milwaukee roots, just hadn't been able to part with the fiddle.
Considering their story, one can understand why. Richard and Evi's romance blossomed in the rubble of World War II; they met at the Nuremberg Trials. She had been a child prodigy in Estonia. Her studies at the Imperial State Academy of Music in Budapest were interrupted when her father was killed by the German Gestapo. He was an Estonian patriot, and after his death, so was she, playing for Estonian refugees and refusing to play for German officers. Anschuetz, an American pianist, was working for the U.S. Army as a translator at the War Crimes Trial when they met. The two married in Paris and eventually wound up in New York City. Their life with the Lipinski Strad began when Anschuetz's mother, Rosalind Elsner Anschuetz, bought it for Evi's use from the Wurlitzer Instrument Company of New York in 1962 -- for $19,000! (One can only ponder what it would collect now -- millions, no doubt!) Though she was never a huge name, Evi Liivak toured some 35 countries, playing recitals and concerts with the Strad.
But where was the violin before that?
"There was a family in Cuba that owned the instrument from the 1940s until the early '60s," Frank said. He learned more about this several years ago, when the son of that owner tracked down Frank after a concert he played in Florida. The owner "had literally escaped Havana in about 1961 -- he sort of saw the writing on the wall. He wound up in Florida, where he sold the instrument because he had to start over. He basically escaped Cuba with the instrument and his two daughters. He was the last person to own it before it was sold to the current owners."
"Well, remember that Havana was a very culturally aware place, with a long history of classical music, up until the early '60s," Frank said. "The son was a violinist, he was taking violin lessons, his father bought the violin as an investment in the 40s, from Wurlitzer."
The owner was a supporter of the Havana Symphony, and "when soloists would come through, they'd come over there and he'd show him his instruments." The son showed Frank a card with the years and the names of everybody who had come over to the house to play the violin. How many violinists were on that list? "At least 15 -- 15 of the most famous violinists I'd ever heard. It was amazing. He specifically remembered that Heifetz played on the instrument for a little while and thought it was too big. He didn't like the fingerboard -- said he wasn't comfortable playing on it!" Among the other names included Nathan Milstein, Isaac Stern, and Michael Rabin.
But we're just scratching the surface, here. Let's crank up the way-back machine and go back to the early 18th century: this instrument was first owned by Giuseppe Tartini, the colorful Italian who dodged life as a priest to become a violinist whose most famous work is arguably the "Devil's Trill" Sonata, which Frank plays on the album.
Tartini's pupil, Signor Salvini, inherited the fiddle and gave it to Karol Lipinski -- and that's also a heckuva story (well-documented but possibly a bit exaggerated). As Lipinski related to a friend: Upon hearing Lipinski play for him at his house, the elderly Salvini smashed Lipinski's violin to bits. He then offered him his teacher's Strad, the beauty which he said could be best unlocked by Lipinski's hands.
"Lipinski was incredibly famous, and a prominent cultural figure in the 19th century, even though a lot of people don't know who he is now," Frank said. "He was very close with the Schumanns, he had a long history with Ferdinand David and Mendelssohn." He also played a number of public duet contest concerts with Paganini.
Of course, we've all heard of the 24 Caprices by Paganini, but how about the Caprices by Lipinski? Frank plays his solo Caprice No. 3 on A Violin's Life and he admits that it was both hard to play and hard to find.
"Lipinski came from that sort of virtuoso tradition; there was a reason he was up there with Paganini, playing those little contests," Frank said. "He was a fairly prolific composer himself, certainly not as much as Paganini, but definitely from the same philosophy. Nobody's going to lump Lipinski in with the Hall of Fame composers of the last 200 years, but I thought it was a nice little piece for solo violin, and I thought it was representative of that tradition and his work." Frank found the music through a student who was playing it on YouTube, but also "you can still get a lot of this music from the Karol Lipinski Academy in Poland, in Wroclaw."
Frank included Schumann's second Violin Sonata in A Violin's Life because "Schumann and Lipinski were very close. He and Clara and Robert played quite a bit of chamber music together, and my guess is that they almost certainly played this sonata, on this violin, with either with Robert or with Clara at the piano."
After Lipinski died, the violin found its way into the Röntgen family of Leipzig, Germany.
Engelbert Röntgen played this violin as concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1853 to 1897 -- a crucial time and place in the history of Western music. "We did the math and realized that this was the violin the concertmaster was playing for the premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Joseph Joachim standing 10 feet away with his 1715 Strad," Frank said. "There were tons of those stories. It was also the violin being played for premiere of the Brahms Double Concerto, with Brahms conducting."
One of the most interesting pieces Frank plays on this CD is the Sonata by Engelbert's son, Julius Röntgen.
"Nobody really knows who he is any more, but he was extremely prolific; he wrote hundreds of works," Frank said. Finding even one of those works required a some detective skills: "I started at the Northwestern Library. There were copies of various sonatas around, but nobody would loan them out because they were in places like the Vienna State Library or in Amsterdam, and most were out of print." Finally he found a copy of the violin sonata at Juilliard.
"It was really something, to sit in a room with Bill (pianist William Wolfram) one day and read this music through, because, for sure, nobody had read that piece in probably 80 years," he said. "Certainly nobody had performed it --it was totally out of print. So we thought it would be great to record it.
Bridging the Röntgen era to the present, "there are several decades of this century that we left out of the project," Frank said. "Maybe that's a future project."
And the future of the Lipinski Strad? Frank has everything to do with that. Is he haunted at all, by the extraordinary history behind the fiddle that is now his constant companion?
"If you start thinking about everything behind that instrument, it's easy to feel quite tiny!" Frank said. "Sure, it was creepy to play the 'Devil's Trill' Sonata for the first couple times. But that's what the violin is for: playing. It's going to be here a lot longer than I am, and every day that I'm able to play on it, to me, it's amazing."
Frank Almond performs, and talks about, Tartini's "Devil's Trill" Sonata, with pianist Jeannie Yu:
One of the many wonderful things about teaching young students is the fact that I get to be the first to tell them certain fascinating, even awe-inspiring things about the violin, its history and its heros.
That is, if I remember.
It's pretty easy to forget, actually, while tending to other important details:
"What does that sharp mean in this key signature?"
Yesterday, I raised the topic of Paganini, almost as an after-thought: "You are playing Witches Dance! You must hear the original!"
I fished out our V.com friend Emil Chudnovsky's recording of "Le Streghe" from my tower of CDs and let it roll.
Here is another favorite, with Eugene Fodor (Skip to 3:20 if you want to go right to the part excerpted in the Suzuki book. Then of course you'd best go back and listen to it all!):
That's right, in the middle of Suzuki Book 2 is an arrangement of Paganini's "Le Streghe," translated as "Witches Dance." One might not be thinking of Paganini quite yet, when working with a Book 2 student. But why not? There it is!
"Have you ever heard of this gentleman, Niccolò Paganini?" I asked.
(By the way, Eugene Fodor himself corrected me, when I kept saying "Paganini" like "magazini" while interviewing him -- "It's POG-anini! Not PAAAG-anini! Say it right!")
She had not heard of Paganini -- I had not expected that she would have. So as we listened to "Le Streghe," I told her about this wonder of the early 19th century, who amazed people so thoroughly that they were convinced he had sold his soul to Satan in return for that wicked technique. (Another explanation for his amazing technique could possibly be: a great deal of practicing, combined with an unusually wide hand-span, which many believe was actually due to Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition which causes unusually long limbs and fingers.) I also told her that Paganini wrote "some of the hardest music for the violin," which she had no trouble believing, while listening to "Le Streghe"!
Such things are worth the occasional five- to ten-minute tangent, yes?
Previous entries: April 2013
Revisit Violinist.com editor Laurie Niles' coverage from Canada of the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, including her interview with gold medalist Marc Bouchkov.
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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