What a recording this is, and I love the analog, the sound of the record going 'round, the extraneous noise. Ahh. Mischa Elman plays the Schubert Serenade:
Happy birthday, Philip Glass!
Perhaps Gustavo Dudamel should have his own entry in the Guinness Book of World Records: Youngest Conductor to Conduct All 10 Mahler Symphonies (by Memory) -- a feat he will complete with the performances of Symphonies 7, 8 and 9 over the next week.
Maestro Dudamel turned 31 last Thursday, (they did play him a birthday tune during rehearsal) and a very large party indeed turned up on stage and off for his performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5, with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, as part of The Mahler Project.
Before the concert, I noticed a stack of CDs at the front of the Disney Hall gift store -- they were a recording of Dudamel conducting this same piece with the Simón Bolívar orchestra in 2007. Undoubtedly there is turnover in a youth orchestra, even one with ages spanning 18 to 28, but during the performance I sensed a certain sure footing with this piece, a bit more free and confident than the Mahler 3 I'd seen them perform a few nights before. Energy, fire, exertion -- no hesitation on this night. They seemed to share a deep communication; I had the feeling that every nod from Dudamel referenced a hundred well-discussed and rehearsed moments.
Mahler 5 opens with a trumpet call and then settles into the first movement's funeral march. Overall, though, the work is fairly bright, and this performance sizzled with energy -- even during the smallest moments. During the third-movement Scherzo, there is a moment of utter silence -- with some 175 people onstage, it makes for a weighty quiet. From this nothingness blooms a rollicking dance, which pushes to a pinnacle of drama and noise.
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
After all the bombast, the symphony turned intimate in the Adagietto -- which is likely to sound familiar even if you've never heard it. It has been used in popular culture -- in the film Death in Venice and at John F. Kennedy's funeral. The music has been imitated often, and certainly it influenced later composers. Compare it, for example, to Barber's Adagio for Strings.
The Adagietto began like still water, with the harp making gentle ripples against the suspended strings. It's shimmering and beautiful, but not quite warm, not even when the violins enter with their aching melody. Dudamel kept it restrained, with the occasional brief and bright ray of sun, which then was quickly internalized. Even when reined in, the great energy of this orchestra was always at the door. The movement came to an exquisite ending -- no simple crescendo from piano to forte, imagine instead a crescendo that ascends about 45 steps of volume, followed by an equally profound denouement. Beautifully done.
To begin the final movement, Dudamel cued the horn with his eyebrows. It's a swirling and playful movement, with a kind of happy fugue in the strings, which they played with great accuracy. And once again, the audience was on its feet for a good 10 minutes, with several audience members waving colorful "Venezuela" jackets for good measure.
Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti has had a busy year, with a schedule that has her criss-crossing the globe to play with London Symphony Orchestra at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Zurich Chamber, Cincinnati Symphony, Detroit Symphony and Hallé orchestras…
On Monday she will perform a release concert at Le Poisson Rouge in New York for her new album of Baroque music called Italia, then she will fly across the United States to perform the Bruch Concerto Thursday, Friday and Saturday with the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California.
I spoke to her over the phone about her new exploration of Baroque music, about playing with a Baroque bow, and also about her involvement with Sistema Scotland, the El Sistema-inspired program that is taking shape in her native Scotland.
Decca / Simon Fowler
Laurie: It can't be the easiest thing to dive right in and make a recording of Baroque music, with all the competing approaches. There are the authentic performance people, the period instrument people, the Romantic performance tradition … I wondered what kinds of things you explored in preparing for this album, and how you became comfortable with your own approach.
Nicola: I approached it by trying as much as I could, and being as experimental as I dared. Then I stripped it back to what I was comfortable with at this stage. I don't spend the majority of my time playing Baroque music -- or playing with the Baroque bow, Baroque violin and gut strings.
I really learned a lot from a wonderful British Baroque violinist, Rachel Podger. The more you're exposed to really great Baroque specialists, the more you'll find that the overwhelming lesson is how free you can be, how experimental you can be, and how unrestricted you should feel, playing that style of music. Yes, they will tell you that using a little less vibrato is great, or that using a different kind of bow and more bounce in your stroke is great. But in actual fact, any sort of dos and don'ts about how to play this music -- it's sort of a crazy notion. So it was just a case of finding my own voice with the music.
Also, it was very important for me to pick the right repertoire, for my first Baroque disc: repertoire I was totally convinced by, nothing that I was feeling lukewarm towards. You have to have a certain amount of belief, conviction and confidence in every note you're playing.
Laurie: You know, I've listened to -- and played -- a lot of Vivaldi, but I had never heard the first concerto on this disc!
Nicola: The Grosse Mogul…
Laurie: Yes, and in addition to the well-known Tartini "Devil's Trill" and Vivaldi "Summer," there are some pieces by Tartini and Veracini that are less-known. Where did you find them?
Nicola: I must have listened to a few hundred concertos, searching for the right repertoire for this disc. Within a four-month stretch, I would listen to something new every few days, trying to familiarize myself with as much as possible. I tried not to listen too much to each piece. Instead, I tried to listen to a broad spectrum of things and go with my gut reaction. I would take notes on each one. I got the scores for quite a few, took a look at them and practiced them.
That piece -- the Grosse Mogul -- is very virtuosic and very challenging. It's a kind of virtuosity that you don't really use in Romantic concerti, which is what I've played more of than anything else. So it was breath of fresh air, like learning to play a new instrument.
Laurie: What were some of the virtuoso things that were different about this kind of piece than in a Romantic concerto?
Nicola: Mainly in the cadenzas of the first and last movements: extremely high playing, always with a very short stroke. Also, I'm holding one line with another moving line. It's not really double-stops, but it sounds kind of like two voices. That kind of stroke requires different muscle movement, because the sound and the stroke need to be quite dance-like, very energetic, very uplifting. At the same time, it's actually really quite tiring to play less heavy -- in the same way that it's tiring to play pianissimo for 20 minutes.
Laurie: And you were also using a Baroque bow, right? What were some of the things you had to adjust to, using a Baroque bow?
Nicola: I tried a whole range of different Baroque bows: ones that are not so different to a modern bow, ones that were early Baroque bows and others that were mid-way between the two. In general, the Baroque bows are a little bit shorter, and the arc of the wood is not concave, it's slightly the other way; and they're a little bit lighter.
I wasn't very comfortable with a lot of the bows, until I had a lesson with Rachel, and she let me try one of her very early-Baroque style bows. She gave it to me, I started playing, and I felt, 'Okay this is weird, and this feels strange, but this one's right.' None of the bows I had tried were quite as extreme as that one, yet that was the one I felt instantly comfortable with. That's after having tried many Baroque bows over the years, and specifically while I was choosing this Baroque repertoire. It's extremely light, and it's very, very wide -- you have to tighten the bow a lot. It's a totally different instrument, altogether.
Laurie: Who made that bow? Was it made in modern times?
Nicola: It's a 1720 model, but it was made by a modern French bowmaker by the name of René-William Groppe.
Laurie: What kinds of strokes are easier to do with a Baroque bow? I've always wanted to get one, myself.
Nicola: It's not that they're easier, but if you're searching for that kind of sound, you're able to achieve it. The effect is very different, and the result is very different, especially with techniques such as playing a fast spiccato, or string crossing. I would say string crossing is probably the only thing that is actually a bit easier with a Baroque bow, simply because of the weight. It's less effort to get from the G string to the E string.
Laurie: Did it illuminate anything about how this music is written, to have that equipment?
Nicola: Definitely. Certain things start to fall into place and to make so much more sense; they have a much more natural feel and sound. A passage that would feel so unnatural with a heavy bow suddenly just rolls off the tongue -- that's kind of how it feels.
Laurie: I understand you are involved in El Sistema in Scotland. In Los Angeles, where I live, this has been big deal, with Gustavo Dudamel -- the Venezuelan system's most successful musician -- conducting the LA Philharmonic.
Nicola: I have to say that Sistema Scotland is doing astonishingly well. They have such a brilliant team in place; they are so serious about being serious about music, which to me is the key. If you're not serious about teaching music to a high standard -- and to the same standard as you would get if you were paying through your nose for the best tuition in the country -- then you're not giving them what you're promising them: a really good music education and therefore the chance to be a confident, happy, fulfilled child.
In Scotland, they've been going for four years, with 400 children now learning. They have a good number of teachers and now a music director, I'm on the board of that organization, and I go every few months to teach the kids. I also play with them, and I play for them. Last time I was there, I was sitting in the back of the orchestra! I even went to some of the homes of the kids. It's something I've taken very, very seriously, and I'm in touch with the people from Sistema Scotland all the time.
My message to them is just to be as serious as possible about making music to a high level, because if you think about any child managing to stick at playing a musical instrument, it's really tough -- even if they come from a very supportive background. It's difficult to be serious about practicing and to be motivated. Take away that supportive background, and immediately you can see how difficult it may be to stay motivated and serious about practicing. What would make a child see that as such a priority?
What is needed to keep them there is a level of music-making that is so infectious, that it replaces all the other desires that they have surrounding them. They're desperate to come into orchestra because they're making a good sound in orchestra. I think Sistema Scotland supports and understands that. That's largely the reason El Sistema has worked so fantastically well in Venezuela: very quickly these kids were actually sounding good, so they have something exciting to be involved in.
In Scotland, it's not a government-supported organization, but they have support from Creative Scotland, private sponsorship and a mixture of a lot of different donations.
Laurie: Do the kids go every day?
Nicola: It was three days a week, and now it's four days a week.
Laurie: It's wonderful to see it working. I think eventually it will work in the United States; it just takes a while, and I think the discipline aspect of it is an interesting thing that nobody was quite prepared for, with the kids.
Nicola: I've been to Venezuela, and I've seen every piece of film you can get your hands on about El Sistema, and I think an overwhelming fact is the hours those children put in. They will rehearse up to eight hours a day. They put in similar hours to what I have done, and I was working towards a solo career! We're talking about 450,000 children putting those hours in -- it's absolutely astonishing.
But you don't become good at an instrument without putting in the time. There's just no other way.
* * *
And here is a video Nicola made to promote Italia; it's mostly music and lovely Italian landscapes, and lovely Nicola!
Mahler's Symphony No. 3 is longest of all the Mahler symphonies; on Tuesday night, the six-movement symphony lasted nearly two hours (the first movement alone was 45 minutes). It is scored for a huge orchestra and demands much of the brass section, with extended solos for trombone and French horn. It also requires a well-trained children's choir, as well as an adult female choir and a mezzo-soprano soloist.
These considerable demands may be one of the reasons why it played less often than the other symphonies; or why sometimes its movements are played on their own. Certainly I've not heard this piece as much as I've heard the other Mahler symphonies. I do believe American union musicians (I'm one of them) would have to seek an exception from their rules in order to stay on stage for two hours straight.
On Tuesday, the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela performed this symphony, along with members of the Los Angeles Master's Chorale and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn. My 11-year-old son was among 40 (epically patient) children from the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, directed by Anne Tomlinson, singing the "Bimm Bamm" bell part in the fifth movement -- which they performed with clarity, pitch-perfection and professionalism (if I do say so myself). Seriously, I was thrilled that these children from my community in Los Angeles (another young chorister was one of my longtime violin students) were sharing the stage with such fine young musicians from another continent, and that their efforts together, under Gustavo Dudamel, were making this extraordinary symphony come alive for this moment in time.
Another interesting revelation about his symphony came beforehand, with a pre-concert talk by British author Norman Lebrecht, whose sociological take on Mahler is expressed in his book Why Mahler? He promised the packed audience that he would not talk about Mahler 3, but instead he would talk about racism, social conflict, relationship breakdown, alienation, depression and premonitions of war -- because Mahler 3 holds all of that in its opening bars.
Lebrecht drew a line between the First Symphony by Brahms, a composer worshiped in Germany as the heir apparent to Beethoven, to the Third Symphony by Mahler, a German Jew barred from so much of normal life because of his religion. Lebrecht said that German audiences often don't hear the connection, and at first I didn't, either. But listen for just a few seconds to each: Brahms 1, last movement (it's all cued to the right part); and then the beginning of Mahler 3. Both composers, Lebrecht said, were using a nationalist student song, which translates, "I have given myself, heart and hand, to thee … my German fatherland." While Brahms sets it in loving triumph, Mahler makes it a menace. It's there, and once I heard that resemblance, I continued to hear it all night as the symphony unfolded.
Indeed, the symphony began with that rather ominous horn call, which quiets into a low, toneless drumbeat -- a heartbeat of dread, not quite steady. A tremolo in the strings sounded downright tremulous -- the masses shaking in their boots while the trumpets sounded the call. It's all pretty dark and unsettled.
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic
Last week, LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour predicted that Dudamel just might conduct every Mahler symphony without a score, and so far he has been correct: on Tuesday Dudamel conducted Mahler 3 without a score.
Principal trombonist (Pedro Carrero?) carried his own in several extended solos, which turned in many directions musically and required quite a range of pitch. He captured the lament and nailed the very low notes. The celli and bass also showed their stuff as a section, with great passagework. The ending of this very long movement was simply too huge for the audience to resist applauding, so there was much clapping, then a short break. Both choirs, neither which had yet sung, stood for a 8:45 p.m. stretch while the orchestra tuned.
The second movement, originally conceived as "what the flowers in the meadow tell me," sounds like a soupy movie score at times, and at other times a roadrunner version of Mahler's greatest hits (for example, we get a preview here of the last movement of Mahler 4, in greatly condensed and accelerated form). Dudamel, always mesmerizing, nimbly negotiated this rather sunny collage of tempos and musical ideas.
"The creatures in the forest" were the original subjects for the third movement, which has a familiar melody, woven with the deferred-beat effect of the slurs. A sweet little melody grows unwieldy, grows enormous -- then it jumps back into its original form. Or, sometimes it jumps out of the closet as a monster of itself. Then -- where is that horn coming from? A posthorn solo is played off stage -- a powerful disembodied effect. Again, the program was not completely clear about who played this major solo, and certainly this person deserved to be credited. It was full of beauty and purity -- and just a few minor falters. In fact, a number of wobbles and falters in the horns throughout the night made me wonder if it's a bit of a strain to perform Mahler 2, then 3, then 5, all within the course of five days. There's a difference between a fault caused by incompetence and one caused by exhaustion, and I was certainly not hearing incompetence.
Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn was the star for the fourth movement, which was about the night; and then the choirs arose for the fifth movement, with the children imitating bells under a women's choir. I wanted this movement to last longer!
The sixth movement moves in a more straightforward way, like a pool of shifting light; all forces unite in a slow-motion climax -- and then the same thing happens again. It ends and ends and ends! And then finally, it ends.
I have to confess that for the first part of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, ("Resurrection") at Disney Hall Sunday night, I was counting people on stage.
That's because the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela is one big group! The Venezuelan orchestra came to Los Angeles to share the privilege -- or burden -- or gargantuan task -- of playing all nine completed Mahler Symphonies over the next few weeks for The Mahler Project with conductor Gustavo Dudamel. While LA Phil has performed or will perform symphonies 1, 4, 6, 8, 9 (and the unfinished 10), The Simón Bolívar orchestra will play 2, 3, 5, 7 and share the stage with LA Phil for 8 -- the "Symphony of 1,000," in which literally 1,000 musicians will share the stage.
The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is the premiere orchestra of El Sistema, the huge, government-funded music program in Venezuela that trained LA Phil conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has been making waves in the music-education community all over the world in recent years.
They may not have had their full complement onstage for Symphony No. 2, but it was close. The program listed 175 musicians in the orchestra, and the numbers seemed to correspond; for example, the program listed 25 first violins, and indeed, on Sunday there were 25 first violins. Of the 175-some musicians on stage, 24 were women. Another friend of mine must have felt the urge to count as well, because she noted that "22 of the women were wearing sleeveless dresses!" Well, they looked nice, and remember, this is a youth orchestra. The musicians are all age 18 to 28.
With so American orchestras coping with budget cuts by cutting musicians from orchestras, here's a reminder of why it pays to think big: there's power in numbers. That power was on display all night: from the first vigorous tremolo in the strings that begins the symphony, to the presence those numbers brought to the quietest pianissimo. Joining the orchestra were 100 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, as well as soprano Miah Persson and mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn.
With so many on stage, there were still standouts in this crowd; most notably for me, the beautiful, flowing flute solos in the first and fourth movements played by Katherine Rivas, and also excellent piccolo solos (I could not locate the name of the piccolo player in the program).
Mahler's second symphony explores death -- for Mahler, the death of the hero he created in his first symphony; and then it explores redemption and the resurrection of the spirit.
The first movement is full of note patterns that creep downward, as well as a fugue whose subject seems almost like a Dies Irae, the well-known requiem chant, though not quite. The short col legno section gave it menacing punch (think 50 violinists clap-clapping with the wood of their bows, instead of 30). All marches marched downward, and the movement ended in an emphatic chromatic scale that tumbled down into three very final-sounding pizzicati: Pluck. Pluck. Pluck.
Mahler apparently instructed that the orchestra observe a full five-minute silence after the first movement, as the composer wrote it in isolation from the rest of the symphony. For this performance, the orchestra tuned in between, which seemed both practical and sufficiently observant of the request.
The second movement is polite and careful: "May I have this dance?" Here is where so many strings made for such a full and rich piano -- quiet, but with presence. The dance had its contrast with a more complex section in triplets -- something a little more mathematical-sounding. The dance, a ländler, kept coming back, very restrained, like a quiet dance in the night. Its last iteration, a gentle dance in pizzicato, was accompanied for me by my neighbor's cell phone. NO! Yes, it happened. Nothing like the scandal in New York, but it certainly broke my reverie!
The third movement sounded like a careening ride through a fun house -- a dark fun house full of spooky-weird images. Toward the end was a giant, 175-member full-orchestra blast, which came to its height and then floated down, suspended as though a parachute had opened and was gently carrying the musical line downward.
Mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn began the fourth movement singing alone -- how the small moments contrasted with the giant ones! Her voice ascended beautifully.
Midway through the last movement came my favorite spot, when 200 voices in the LA Master Chorale entered, full and low, almost unexpected, singing a-cappella, "Rise again, yes, rise again, will you my dust, after a brief rest..." Miah Persson's soprano pierces through all-- everything soars. It's one of the most beautiful moments in all of Mahler.
The entire last movement is all uplift: notes ascend, the choir sings, "rise again, yes rise again ...prepare yourself to live." Even the entrance of the organist had a feeling of ascension at Disney Hall, taking his seat an alcove above both the choir and orchestra. The music grows and ascends, the pipes sound, the violinists reach around, nearly to the end of their fingerboards to play ever higher and higher.
I wasn't the only one lifted. The audience stood, clapping for at least 10 minutes, continuing after the house lights came on, continuing even as the musicians finally walked off the stage.
"Mahler sang the last rueful songs of nineteenth-century romanticism," said conductor Leonard Bernstein, and they continue to speak to us today, from the vantage of the 21st century.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic started its first season with Gustavo Dudamel with a performance of Mahler's First Symphony in 2009, and on Friday they returned to the piece as part of The Mahler Project, in which Dudamel will direct the LA Phil and Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra in all 9 Mahler Symphonies over a period of five weeks.
I'm not sure how I feel about "Casual Friday" concerts, with the orchestra sporting a wide-ranging assemblage of plaid, solid, flannel, jeans, khakis, etc. The audience didn't look, or act a whole lot different (clearly no one wants clapping between movements, even when we're all supposed to be feeling "casual.") Frankly, when the music is this good, they could all be wearing feathered chicken costumes and I would forget by the second bar!
But I digress: I did enjoy the "Casual Friday" tradition of having an orchestra member introduce the work at hand. On Friday, Barry Gold, who has played in the LA Phil's cello section for 20 years, introduced Mahler's First Symphony with some well-chosen food for thought. He described the music being "the greatest challenge imaginable, and by the end of a performance, it can be quite transporting."
Apparently the symphonies of Mahler were not greatly appreciated in his own life time, as is so often the case with forward-thinking composers, Gold said. Mahler wrote, in a 1902 letter to his wife, Alma, that "my time will come. If only I could conduct my symphonies 50 years after my death!"
It was a prophetic idea: one of the biggest Mahler champions, Leonard Bernstein, brought Mahler's symphonies to the fore, just about a half-century after his death, said Gold. Bernstein also penned an essay, well worth reading, and called it, His Time Has Come.
The First Symphony begins with an "A" harmonic, static and tightrope high. For Friday's performance, I sat over stage right, where I could see Gustavo Dudamel, dressed in jeans and a black shirt and not using a score -- from about the same angle as the violins. It's a tricky and rather treacherous beginning, with little outbursts from offstage trumpets and chirping woodwinds. Dudamel kept things contained, even after the icy "A" melted into a warm melody from the cellos, then an outburst of pure joy, such an outburst, with Dudamel taking it so fast!
Farther into the first movement, Dudamel smiled as he pulled a random viola pizzicato out of the texture -- a little bit of wit that often stays hidden. He seemed to uncover and polish up all kinds of such gems in this rather dense music. I found myself able to see the thread, passed from cello to viola section, etc. With so much going on, it's often hard to see the one thing that is meant by it all, and Dudamel excels in cutting through to that.
Likewise, the climaxes throughout the symphony were -- climactic! If the LA Phil is a Ferrari, Dudamel isn't reluctant to take it all the way up to 185 miles an hour -- my arms were burning, just watching the fiddles working so hard. Dudamel clearly enjoyed it -- wearing a wild smile while joy-riding this fast, well-oiled machine.
The second movement is a dance in three, a rather heavy-footed version of an Austrian "Ländler," with the strings frequently sliding into the first beat. Dudamel started the dance deliberately before settling into a tempo, and in fact, the whole movement had a changing and malleable tempo. As Gold noted at the beginning, Mahler wrote no metronome markings in his scores -- indeed! A horn call launches the music into an even soupier, soaring melody, which then returns to the Ländler.
A comic that recently made the rounds on the Internet shows a flow chart to help you identify which Mahler symphony you just heard. The dead giveaway for Mahler 1: "Do you ever remember thinking, this sounds like "Frere Jacques"?
It sounds like that because movement three is based on both "Frere Jacque," (or in Austria, "Brother Martin") and a klezmer-sounding, Bohemian street melody. The juxtaposition of these two kinds of music has given rise to speculation about Mahler's complex and conflicted feelings toward his own Jewish background and the Catholic culture that surrounded him.
The movement begins with "bim, baum, bim, baum" in the timpani, like footsteps on "do" and "sol," and the "Frere Jacque" melody is played by a single bass (Principal bassist Dennis Trembly, I believe, on Friday) -- well done. Somewhere in the middle of the movement Frere Jacque quits plodding and a harp ushers in a timeless, heavenly shaft of light. At this point my daughter laid her head on my shoulder and fell asleep. I don't think this is an entirely inappropriate reaction to such music, either -- if it gives a stressed-out teenager (who attended the concert despite being in the middle of intense study for final exams) a few moments of peace, then so be it.
But as we know, peace is never long-lived in Mahler. The plodding begins again, this time with more resolve and a brighter tempo. Here the trumpets shone, weaving in and out of one another's melody. The music took a bit of a sarcastic tone, but never to the point of sneering, which I've heard in other interpretations.
The fourth movement began with a boom (anyone napping would be awake now!) and a clash and a swirl of notes everywhere. It spins into a quiet line that is sustained for some time in the violins, and here I must note that we had the opportunity to witness 30 amazing G strings. Giggle if you must, but please try to imagine an entire violin section of fine-quality fiddles -- and fiddlers -- that still sing when pushing their lowest string to the highest notes. The effect is sort of an insistent wailing. The end was a joyous, manic climax, galloping to the end. The horns all stood, as if to show us the towering nature of this music, with all forces at full blow.
Without hesitation came a full-house, standing ovation, including the 60 young members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, who'd been sitting at the back of the stage to observe and who will perform Mahler 2, 3, 5, 7 and 8. The ovation lasted more than five minutes.
Here is an excerpt from the Casual Friday "Talk Back" with the conductor, which followed the concert.
Very good news for violinists (and other instrumentalists) wanting to study Baroque performance practice at the graduate level: The Juilliard School will continue to offer full scholarships to all students in their Historical Performance graduate program, thanks to a $20 million gift from Juilliard Board Chairman Bruce Kovner that was announced Tuesday. The grant will fully endow the program.
The Juilliard Historical Performance program, started in 2009 and headed by Baroque specialist Monica Huggett, right, focuses on the performance of music composed from about 1600 to the early 19th century.
Juilliard Historical Performance students perform about 17 concerts annually in New York, under the name Juilliard415. Students may use their own period instruments or those from Juilliard's collection.
The first victim identified in the cruise ship Costa Concordia disaster in Italy is a violinist from Hungary who worked as an entertainer aboard the ship, who had apparently gone back to his cabin to pack up his violin.
Sándor Fehér, 38, was among 11 people confirmed dead so far in the accident, which occurred when the ship carrying 4,200 passengers collided with a reef Friday and turned on its side.
Fehér had helped a number of crying children to put on lifejackets, and he was wearing a lifejacket himself when he apparently went back to his cabin to pack his violin, pianist Jozsef Balog said, according to several news reports.
Fehér came from a musical family -- both his father and grandfather played the violin -- and started playing the violin when he was six years old, according to a video clip that the violinist had posted on YouTube in December. He graduated in 1998 from the Franz Lizst Academy in Budapest, where he studied with László Dénes.
He taught violin lessons to students ages six through 20 and believed strongly in a method devised by his teacher Dénes, as well as by Rudolf Nemeth and Judit Szaszne-Reger, called Violin ABC. The method is known better in Hungary and Germany than in the United States. He described it as a method that included folk songs from all over the world, and he said he aspired to teach in other countries and to "use this amazing system for the next generation of violin players."
Many years ago, a friend gave me a gift: it was a boxed set of all the Mahler Symphonies on CD.
My jaw dropped to the floor. It wasn't because of my friend's thoughtfulness and generosity, though that was considerable.
It was because I could not believe that all 10 of these epic symphonies -- hours of music that capture worlds within them, a life's output from a genius composer, performances involving up to 1,000 musicians -- could be reduced to a five-inch cube that fit in my hand. Not only did it seem impossible, it even seemed wrong!
The Los Angeles Philharmonic's Mahler Project -- "nine symphonies, five weeks, two orchestras, one conductor" -- seems more appropriate in its scale. The one conductor is Gustavo Dudamel, who will celebrate his 31st birthday on Jan. 26th by conducting Mahler 5.
I've committed to attending the entire cycle over the next month, which takes place mostly at LA's Disney Hall, although for Mahler 8 ("Symphony of 1,000" which will feature both the LA Phil and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, as well as 16 choirs) the forces are so great that the concert will be held at the larger Shrine Auditorium.
On Friday I spoke to LA Phil Concertmaster Martin Chalifour about the joys and challenges of this formidable project.
It's not the first time the LA Phil has played Mahler with Dudamel, who is in his third year as Conductor and Music Director of the orchestra. Mahler 1 is one of the first pieces the LA Phil played with him.
"Actually, he's quite elegant with (Mahler)," Martin said of Dudamel. "He's very respectful of the score, and he doesn't try to make it sound like a 'Dudamel' piece. He studies things in great depth. He fools you because he has fun with it, but he knows every detail. And what's amazing, I have a feeling he's going to challenge himself and do several of them from memory, if not all of the whole cycle. So stay tuned!"
And there is plenty of detail -- and depth -- in the symphonies of Mahler.
"The basic feeling I come away with, after performing a Mahler symphony, is that you've gone through an entire life story, or an entire great book, and you are changed by that book, by that experience," Martin said Friday, before the first performance. "Each of those symphonies is like that, to a very different degree.... Basically, they are thought-altering experiences, each of these symphonies. You come away whistling a tune from a great Mozart or Schubert or Dvorak symphony, but that's not necessarily how you're going to feel after a Mahler symphony. You'll have fragments of music, but emotionally you'll feel different. The emotional impact it can have on people is so strong, that I would be afraid, almost, to go through the experience!" (He laughs.)
Good thing they're easing us into it.
"We're starting the cycle with Symphony No. 4, which is the lightest one, the most pastorale one," Martin said Friday. "That one seems a little bit different than the others. It's much more optimistic; it's sunnier, shorter."
The concertmaster plays a unique kind of solo in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony -- a rollicking tune written for "scordatura" violin, meaning that the tuning of the violin is altered.
"It's always intriguing when you have to tamper with how you tune the instrument," Martin said. "That's the first thing you ever learn on an instrument: how to tune it, or how to tell your parents to tune it!"
For Mahler 4, "the entire instrument needs to be tuned one whole-step above." So it's still in fifths, but instead of G-D-A-E, it's A-E-B-F#. It puts a lot of stress on the instrument.
"An E-string already usually feels like it can't take any more pressure, and you're tuning a whole-step above," Martin said. "It gives a different color to most instruments: it's a little more nasal, acerbic -- almost a sarcastic color.
"Initially, it's an extra logistic problem for people who have perfect pitch, like me," Martin said. "The first time you do it, it's very disorienting because you put your fingers down and definitely the wrong notes come out. A lot of people have to first learn the piece by ear and by geometry: is it second-finger high or low, when I start the passage? It's written the physical note that you play, so the real note does not appear on paper. So the real note -- it just sounds differently."
During the second movement, the concertmaster plays both a normally-tuned violin and the scordatura violin, sometimes with only a few seconds to switch. The solution is to use two violins, but it does pose some logistical challenges.
"For the last two times we've played this piece, I've used a simple hook that goes just under the music stand, on the stem of the music stand. It hangs freely, but it doesn't bang against the stand because of the shoulder pad. It works very well to protect it. The conductor, even if he tried, could not really brush his legs against this," Martin said. "So for the brief time that the Stradivarius is on the hook, we're playing and nobody comes near it anyway. It is definitely solid-as-can-be, protected. (By the way, if you're curious about the hook, "It comes from Shar!")
Speaking of that Stradivarius... Martin currently plays the ex-Earl of Plymouth, ex-Kreisler Stradivarius from 1711, owned since 1965 by the LA Phil.
"This is the Strad that is the most prized possession of the Philharmonic," Martin said. "It's one of three Strad violins here, the one that is in perfect condition, from the Golden Period. It just turned 300, and it belonged to Fritz Kreisler, who fell in love with it and bought it immediately, when he saw how pristine it was.
He's been playing the instrument for only about a year and a half.
"I played on it my very first season, 17 years ago. To me, initially, it felt too much like a Vuillaume: very strong, but more difficult color changes to achieve." Martin said. "My approach to the instrument has changed enough since then that I wanted to try the Strad again, when it became available when someone retired. I changed my views on it and changed my way of playing with it. It's a very different, more robust instrument than the other one, than the smaller-sized one."
Playing the same instrument that Kreisler played, "it's incredible," Martin said. "It's an incredible privilege, and it makes you feel humble every day."
On Saturday I attended the first concert in the cycle, which featured Mahler 4. My son Brian, 11, will be among those singing in Mahler 8 and in Mahler 3, as part of the LA Children's Chorus. After so many rehearsals, his curiosity was up, so he attended Mahler 4 with me as well.
For me, Mahler 4 is an old friend: it's the first Mahler symphony I played (in college) and I have a particular recording I enjoy, with Kathleen Battle.
On Saturday, the program began with Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer," a four-song cycle with orchestra which predates all the symphonies but contains plenty of melodic material that Mahler uses later, particularly in the Symphony No. 1 (which is next in the Mahler Project, on Friday).
Baritone Thomas Hampson captured the frequent mood swings in these songs, for which Mahler wrote both music and text while in his 20s, lovesick over the soprano Johanna Richter. The basic gist: How can the birds sing, when what I love can never bloom for me? A translation of the German words was projected on a small screen overhead. These songs have quite a musical range, and Hampson drew a broad range of colors from his easy baritone voice: from a gorgeous low and slow pianissimo to the ringy-dingy second song that requires a high register, and more. If you like Mahler 1 you should become familiar with this song cycle as its genesis.
And then... the familiar sleighbells that begin the Fourth Symphony. In the first movement, I noticed, as never before, all the intricate lines the cellos had -- Dudamel seemed to make a space for that to happen. Overall, the lower strings rocked.
As predicted by Martin, Dudamel conducted with no score, and every subtlety of rhythm was crystal clear. The first movement ended with a wonderful, mad acceleration, from a dead stop to a complete frenzy -- so fast!
Martin played that scordatura violin solo with great energy. The movement feels like a ride on a lopsided vehicle, maybe something created by Dr. Seuss, with three wheels that are all different sizes, then in a big glissando it melts into a sultry summer afternoon, one of those long, yawning days of summer sunshine.
The third movement begins with stillness and suspension, and the way this orchestra played it, a bit icy at first and then warming. A beautiful oboe solo. There are several climaxes, gorgeously in-tune trumpets sounded the first one, with great clarity. The end of this movement is so dramatic, it's almost funny. Everything seems to lull into a sunset, a musical picture of serenity, when out of nowhere comes a crazy loud octave, with drums and brass and the kitchen sink. My 11-year-old companion actually turned to me, raised an eyebrow and made one of those "What the?" faces when this happened. It calms down and is then followed by such a weird modulation at the end, like lemon juice suddenly spurting out of the very mild candy you've been chewing.
Soprano Miah Persson stepped forward for the last movement, in which she sings a song that describes a child's view of what heaven must be -- it's one of my favorite pieces of music, and she sang it beautifully. The LA Phil took this at a fairly brisk tempo, and I enjoyed being able to read the subtitles.
I realized that here, I had my own child next to me. As Persson sang, my young companion yanked my sleeve to observe that the children's chorus in Mahler 3 has a lot of the same note patterns. Okay, but you can't start singing!
As we drove home, Brian said that he'd been a little concerned that the whole song was going to be about the food in heaven, as it did go on and on about the bread, asparagus, green beans, apples, pears, grapes...
"And you know," he said, with a grin and some sacrilegious pleasure, "the McDonald's burgers, the Del Taco, Doritos..."
"...the Twinkies, Milk Duds, microwave popcorn," I said, laughing. "But you heard the end of the song, that's my favorite part. The best part of heaven..."
"Is the music!"
David Lockington is in town this week to conduct the Pasadena Symphony, and I just had to talk with him.
It's not just because he happens to be violinist Dylana Jenson's husband of nearly 30 years, or because he's guest-conducting an orchestra in which I sometimes play.
It's because when I was a teenager, David conducted the Denver Young Artists Orchestra, of which I was a member for five years, and the experience of being in that orchestra had a profound effect on my life.
Watching David guest-conduct a rehearsal for the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, I realized that David himself had a profound effect on my life as well.
There it was again: His assurance on the podium, his obvious love for the music, his ease of communication, the English accent -- and his way of using words like "penultimate" when he speaks with kids! As in, "Please sing the penultimate chord." (They looked around in puzzlement for a moment but then figured it out!)
He's also a Renaissance man, which the kids discovered when one asked, "What are your hobbies?" Beyond doing triathlons, he mentioned his three-decade devotion to yoga, which stemmed from a back injury he suffered in a bad car accident. "I wanted to make sure that I could continue to move well while I aged."
I can see why he was a role model for me: He doesn't talk down to kids, and he's devoted to music, life and family.
I spoke to David just before that rehearsal, not just about old times, but also about David's career and his vision about what an orchestra can be in a community.
David, who is music director of the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan (where he, Dylana and their four children live) and of the Modesto Symphony in California, became interested in music because his father, a podiatrist, was an amateur cellist.
"I heard him play the cello all the time, so it was very natural for me to, at first, hide in his cello case and want to experiment," David said. "He eventually bought me a little one of my own, probably when I was just about 10; I started taking lessons then."
Cello became David's love as well.
"I love the tone, I love the feeling of the wood on my chest -- and the natural-ness of the position," he laughs, as I demonstrate an awkward violin position, "…and the singing quality. I think I was really touched by my father's passion, because he was a good cellist and put his heart and soul into everything he played, particularly Bach. Sunday mornings he'd play through the Bach suites, and I would hear the sound floating upstairs, when I would wake up."
As a boy, Lockington sang in the English National Opera in productions such as the Magic Flute. David was principal cellist of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain -- (which incidentally, is where he first met Andrew Shulman, who will be playing the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Pasadena Symphony when David conducts on Saturday.)
David had just discovered conducting when I met him in the early 80s. He was assistant principal cellist of the Denver Symphony, and the Denver Young Artists became a testing ground for him.
"This was a great proving ground -- I know that I learned a lot on you, and your colleagues!" he said, laughing. (Incidentally, we learned a lot from him!)
Working with students and youth can be quite helpful in the development of a conductor, he said. "I personally think it's essential. There are a lot of conductors who, in their youth, get to conduct great orchestras through whatever program, or they become an assistant or an associate. But an orchestra at a high level will play itself. Learning how to pull something apart and to be very specific about what's needed, how to get it, and even to hear clearly, it's really instructive.
"It also kind of sets up the tone of how you want to lead, in a way," he said. "Is it your job to put something into a box and keep it there, or do you like to create the skills that allow musical flexibility? I fall into the latter group. I like the idea of keeping everybody -- not exactly guessing, but making sure that people are learning the skills of playing in orchestra: being able to go between the conductor and the page, being in the ensemble, being part of this morphing emotional entity, in time."
Can a conductor transform a professional orchestra over time as well?
"I hope so! I think, if you know what you're hearing and know what you want, then it's inevitable," David said. "You're just trying to find a match with your inner ear, and heart -- musical heart. So that's going to affect the tone you get. As soon as you move in front of an orchestra, the orchestra will reflect the spirit of something in your gesture, and that will be reflected in the tone. If you're not hearing what you want, you'll modify it, one way or the other, either by saying or by gesturing; by the kind of phrases that you pull, the kind of precision that you require or don't require; whether you're training the orchestra to listen to itself, to be discerning about intonation, to be willing to work together to solve problems, to admit that there are problems. A big part of the job, in a way, is to become a facilitator, and at the same time to provide authoritative leadership that inspires confidence and trust. That's the job."
What can an orchestra can do for a community?
"My mantra is that the orchestra has to reflect the community, thereby making itself relevant," David said. "It can reflect the community in the repertoire, in the people that play, and being a cultural leader. The orchestra is at the center of so many things: ballet, opera. And it can play all the different musical styles and genres. The musicians are so adept at doing everything. We are marginalized, as a genre: symphonic music. But we are part of just about everything musical that you hear. Even the technology that's been created -- there's a whole sound world out there that doesn't include orchestra, but it grew out of the sounds of orchestras. So we're sort of second-cousins to a lot of musical genres."
"I feel that we have a great opportunity, not only to be leaders in the arts, reflecting culturally; but to be educating, too. This kind of institution, and others like it, are vital for providing opportunities for young people to express themselves. We all know that if kids don't have these opportunities, then they may not do as well. Music facilitates learning and teamwork."
"We have to advocate strongly for the music that we play and the importance of music in people's lives," he said. "Teaching young people is a very strong way of advocating. If it's going to go on, generation to generation, they've got to play the great repertoire. It's got to be a part of their blood -- as sort of a proving ground, but also a leaping off point for other repertoire."
"Doing music and being a part of it has been life-changing for me, and I've seen a lot of people for whom it also has been life-changing, who are not musicians," David said. Having a community around the making of music can be transformative. "Music is nondoctrinaire, and it's secular for the most part. It's open to everybody. Even though it's very culture-specific, it can also embrace a very diverse cultural mix of people."
When it comes to promoting the symphony in our communities, we all have a responsibility.
"You can't just put up a sign and say, 'Come and see it,'" David said. "You've got to go out and talk to people, go to the libraries, go to homes. It's one-to-one. That's the only thing that works: person-to-person. You can have a great marketing budget, but unless people are really moved to come, they won't."
How can musicians get involved?
"Of course a lot of musicians are deeply involved with the community, with teaching," David said. "They are teaching thousands of hours a month. But this is something that has struck me, especially in Grand Rapids: our audience members will often come out and support a player from the orchestra playing a concerto, more than they'll support a well-known soloist. So the audience really does pay attention to who is playing in the orchestra, and they have a projected relationship with that person. The more opportunities that there are for the audience and the orchestra to connect in real time, the stronger that bond is. It's possible to move a ticket buyer to a subscription buyer to a donor to a conductor's circle…that's what we are always trying to do. We've got to move people up this chain of giving."
David himself does quite a lot of outreach. He still plays his cello (in fact next season he will premiere a cello concerto by his longtime friend, the composer Philip Sawyers, whose "The Gale of Life" is also on the program this weekend in Pasadena).
As a conductor, "I tell everybody what to do all the time," David said. "I like the idea that I can actually do it. But apart from anything else, the habit of keeping these fingers in shape -- I need it, it's like exercising. I need to get out and run or swim or bike, every few days. Gotta do it, gotta do it!"
Here's a little something from an outreach program David performed for kids at a library in Grand Rapids.
A violinist and pianist together can explore some of the finest musical repertoire ever written, and what an exciting road that can be.
The road certainly has been exciting for violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk, who have played some 80 recitals all over the globe -- fighting blizzards, braving U.S. airports, even showing up despite a major power outage -- during their seven-year collaboration. On Tuesday they released their first recording together, French Impressions, with sonatas by Saint-Saëns, Franck and Ravel.
"Every piece on the recording represents piano and violin equally," says Joshua. As for his seven-year musical partnership with Jeremy Denk, "I love rehearsing with him, arguing him and thinking about what we are going to do. I will defend my ideas, and he will defend his. That's how you get into the truth of the matter, you might say. So it's a good partnership."
Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
Indeed it is, and these two give a stand-out performance in this recording of the Franck Sonata, which has one of the most difficult piano parts in the violin/piano sonata repertory. Because of his important role in this music, I wanted to speak with Jeremy Denk about the Franck, as well as his performing and writing career. Aside from his collaboration with Joshua, Jeremy regularly performs as a soloist with orchestras around the world. He also writes a blog, Think Denk, which he started in 2005 at the request of NPR Music Executive Producer, Anya Grundmann. He was working with Anya on some programs for Performance Today when she called him and said, 'You have to blog.' Jeremy started a blog that day. He also wrote the program notes for this CD (highly recommended reading for insights on the Franck, Saint-Saëns and Ravel Sonatas), and he has at least one more writing project in the works.
Born in Durham, N.C., Denk started playing the piano when he was 5, and by the time he was 13 he was getting together with friends to play chamber music. "There were a bunch of us little nerds out there in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and we used to get together to learn things like Brahms piano quartet, and the Schubert Trout." He started at the Oberlin Conservatory at age 16, and he supplemented his piano lessons with a lot of collaborating, benefiting from non-piano teachers such as Norm Fischer (cello), Stephen Clapp (violin), Greg Fulkerson (violin), and more. He graduated from Oberlin with a degree in piano and chemistry, then earned his master's degree at Indiana University and doctorate at The Juilliard School.
Jeremy points out in his program notes that both he and Joshua associate the Franck Sonata with their time at Indiana University -- for Joshua, because the piece was written as a wedding present for Eugène Ysaÿe, who taught Josef Gingold, with whom Joshua studied in Bloomington. For Jeremy, it was because of the inspiration he took from his piano teacher György Sebok.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece," Jeremy said. "I've had a long affection for it, especially ever since I heard Sebok play it in Bloomington with János Starker. Everyone was talking afterwards about Sebok's first four bars, that they were the most beautiful bars ever played."
I realized, as Jeremy described this concert, that I had been in that audience, at the very same performance in Bloomington, when I was also a student there in the early '90s. It was one of the most moving and memorable performances I've seen -- of any piece. And I hadn't until that point realized that the Franck could be played on the cello!
"When they played together it was always something very special," Jeremy said. "I don't think they rehearsed very much, but they both knew each other so well. Josh and I have played together for seven years, but had been playing together since the 50s. That's four decades!"
In his program notes for the new recording with Joshua, Jeremy describes French Romantic music in terms of the French Impressionist painters: "The Impressionists did paintings, for instance, of a hay bale in a field…not to create a life-like landscape, not primarily to paint the thing, but to paint the light falling on the thing…the point being, there is no such thing as just a field with a hay bale in it, everything we see is colored by color."
Similarly, Franck casts the Sonata's various musical themes in different light throughout.
"It is sort of this enormous drama of color," Jeremy said to me as we spoke over the phone on Sunday. "Color becomes not just a decoration, but an essential part of the meaning of this music. Light vs. dark -- it's beautifully balanced and worked-through in that sonata. As a pianist, you have to be thinking constantly about the nature of the colors you're making, and of the place that you're in, in the larger drama of the piece. Sebok used to talk about Franck's spirituality, and also even Liszt's, in these sorts of pieces, which are sort of titanic struggles between good and evil, or joy and sadness."
Also, for the pianist, "it's a pretty colossal piano part. The violin and the piano are waged in, not exactly a war, but a kind of a profound, often difficult dialogue with each other. Even in the first movement, the violin has the first long sentence, then the piano has a very long, different idea in response. You have to have a tremendous emotional presence and a great emotional investment in the piece. Because of Franck's idiosyncratic writing for the piano, you have to do a lot of fancy footwork to get around just the notes themselves. He loved to have very large chords, very large stretches and a very large distance for the instrument to cover."
And here I was thinking that an organist would write in a fairly "pianistic" way, but not necessarily:
"He was an organist, yes," Jeremy said, "and sometimes it feels like there's a part that you would play with your foot! The chords are often slightly larger than my hands can normally accommodate. But that's part of the style."
For the violinist playing the Franck, it's important to "be attuned to the working of the bass line. Because Franck was an organist, every motion of the harmony is -- not just significant, but signifying. It has almost symbolic resonance. So how you play the melody line is going to be very profoundly influenced by how you understand the motion in the bass. That can be a complication in the first movement. The violin melody seems so self-sufficient, but there are shades of light and darkness in the piano harmony that you really have to pay attention to."
"And there are a lot of subtleties in the second movement, of what the pianist might need in order to bring off some of these extraordinary places," he said. For the pianist, "the second movement is obviously difficult, and there are some places, really awkward places, where the piano has to suddenly switch from a crescendo or a forte, to a pianissimo. Those are very magical moments, and they require a lot of attention back and forth, to make it work. The famous place I'm thinking about is where the violin enters on the upbeat -- that place is tricky, and I think often violinists don't realize the sheer level of complication the pianist is dealing with."(he laughs)
How have he and Joshua kept things harmonious, over the years, and over several 30-concert tours?
It helps that "we're very independently minded on tour," Jeremy said. "Josh has always got a group of people who he's meeting, and I always like to practice and then watch HBO and go to bed so that I don't collapse in the middle of the show." There's always the struggle to keep up with 'real life,' and that can be a little complicated when someone else is always in the car with you. "When you're traveling, you have to always be on the phone to keep your regular life in order."
"But then, once we would slip into the routine of playing that many concerts, it's self- sustaining, " Jeremy said. "After that first week, which always felt a little weird and exhausting, then I would sort of get into the groove of it."
And then there's the music-making.
"Josh is a tremendous, communicator, and he has a tremendous ability to let the music kind of soar and fly," Jeremy said. "I think the audience can really understand the story he's telling, and it's easy for them to be swept up in it because he works so much for that quality of playing. Josh has great judgment for what catches the ear and what will not. That's a powerful thing. I've learned a lot from him, playing all these concerts, listening to what he will do at certain moments when he perceives that the moment is flagging, what he does to reinvent, in the moment."
I asked Jeremy what advice he has for young violinists who are just beginning to work in chamber situations, or with a pianist. I already knew this much on my own: if you view the pianist as a background person who is just plunking out some harmony behind the spotlight in which you stand, you won't likely benefit from the arrangement. Nor will the audience!
"If you're playing a Beethoven sonata, or the Franck Sonata, or even the Saint-Saëns… a vast amount of the actual music is in the piano part," Jeremy said. He suggested finding a pianist who inspires you, and vice-versa. When it comes to communicating, "I often see people get into the trap of arguing a lot about certain points, or trying to turn every musical point into an either/or proposition. And that is often a very unproductive way to go about it. It leads to a lot of problems."
What is the best way to bring up a musical idea, or difference, without offending each other?
"When I'm working with my colleagues, I try to avoid any kind of blameful language," he said, laughing. "It's definitely not about blame. For me, you can talk until the cows come home, but I find the most effective way to get someone to play something the way you want it is to play it incredibly beautifully for them, the way that you want it, so that they hear it and they say, 'Oh yes, that sounds fantastic, let's do that.' That, for me, is the ultimate solution to all musical arguments."
"Also, you have to be willing and open enough to listen to other people's beautiful playings of things, and to say, 'Oh yes, that is beautiful and I want to do that,'" he said. "That is the complicated, two-way street of being a good chamber musician. If you're more consumed with making the music sound wonderful than making yourself sound wonderful, then all of this should follow."
In a blind taste test, violinists can't tell the difference between old violins and new ones, according all the hype surrounding a recent study about player preferences among new and old violins published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A. journal.
I was one of those violinists (don't judge me!) Yes, during the Violin Competition of Indianapolis in Sept. 2010, I went to a hotel room so that I could spend one glorious hour with two Strads, a Guarneri del Gesù and three cream-of-the-crop moderns. Here's the evidence:
Headlines across the world proclaimed this week that "Concert Violinists Can't Identify the Sound of a Multi-Million-Pound Stradivarius" and "Study Shows Even Professional Musicians Can't Tell Old Master Violins from New."
Well, that's a little irksome.
Now a lot of you found it easy to pick the Strad in NPR's Strad vs. Modern test, in which the beginning of the Tchaik concerto was played on a Strad and on a modern fiddle. And guess what, I got that one right, too.
But it wasn't actually our task to pick the Italian in this study -- it was to pick our preference.
I was happy to serve as a guinea pig for this study; and I'm not a bad choice for the taste test. I've played the violin for 35 years; recently my regular violins were a modern fiddle (for some 10 years) and for the last five years, a mid-1800s Italian. I've tested a good number of Strads and Guarneri del Gesùs, and I'm a competent violinist with a degree in music from Northwestern University.
Upon arriving, I was fitted with modified welders' goggles, and I entered a darkened room. I was then presented with 10 pairs of violins. For each pair, I had a minute to play whatever I wanted on the first violin, then a minute to play whatever I wanted on the second, without switching back and forth. After playing each for one minute, I was asked to choose which of the two I preferred. Then on to the next pair -- 10 times altogether. I thought I was testing 20 violins!
As it turns out, I was testing 6 violins, just paired up differently each time. One always was an old violin, the other was a modern, and they used different combinations against each other.
A few things to know about the six violins involved: there were three moderns, two Strads and one Guarneri del Gesù. To quote directly from the full text of the study: "The new violins were each by a different makers and were between several days and several years old. They were chosen from a pool of violins assembled by the authors (*of the study, that would be Claudia Fritz, Joseph Curtin, Jacques Poitevineau, Palmer Morrel-Samuels and Fan-Chia Tao) who then selected the three that they felt had the most impressive playing qualities and contrasted with each other in terms of character of sound."
As for the old violins: one was a Guarneri del Gesù (circa 1740) and two were Antonio Stradivari (circa 1700 and 1715) "These violins were loaned with the stipulation that they remain in the condition in which we received them -- precluding any tonal adjustments or even changing the strings." That means that, whatever happened to the old violins during their trip -- if they got jostled on the airplane, etc. -- there was no soundpost adjustment, no bridge adjustment, no check for open seams. If the strings were a little older, they were a little older.
The study stated that "although the instruments were not all set up with the same strings, all had the very typical combination of a steel E with metal-wound, synthetic core strings for the rest. All strings appeared to be in good condition." Well, okay, they looked good. Have you ever had strings that looked good and sounded bad? But I digress. My concern is this: it sounds to me like the older instruments were not optimized -- by either selection or by luthier adjustments -- while the new moderns were.
The test was not over after the 20 violins, which were really six violins. After that part of it, the six violins were laid out on the bed, and I was given 20 minutes to play with them as I liked. My task was to choose which of these violins I would take home if I could, and also to decide which of the six was "best" and "worst" in each of four categories: range of tone colors, projection, playability and response.
According to the results of the study, one of the Strads was fairly universally disliked, but beyond that, the results were like a coin toss. I have to chuckle here because, if I'm comparing my answers (which I was given by Claudia Fritz) and the study, it appears that I liked the Strad that did not compare well for others against the moderns. My guess is that it reminded me of my familiar Italian at home: sweet and actually not extremely projecting. I'm an orchestra player, after all!
However, the instrument I liked best at the end of this ordeal was one of the moderns (Modern 1), and I said, "I like the feedback it was giving me, a consistent sound over the strings, you can make it sweet. It has potential." (Interesting that I would say it has potential, yes? I suspected it was a modern.) But looking at my comments over the course of the experiment, I rated that same violin best in terms of playability, worst in terms of projection.
Of the del Gesu I said, "It has a more complicated personality." Of the Strad that others didn't like but I did: "Good projection and not as harsh as M2." Basically, I thought Modern fiddle 2 sounded "harsh" compared to the Strad; I think my ears were not liking "loud" that day!
Overall, a lot of us were very inconsistent; the only consistent thing was that a good number of people did not prefer the 1700 Strad.
I was not asked to identify specifically which was the modern violin and which was the old violin; only which I preferred. If people are concluding from this study that "professional violinists can't tell the difference between modern violinist and old Italians," then I think we need a different study in which violinists are actually asked to identify that.
But do violinists prefer one or the other, or can we conclude that all things are equal, based on this study?
I think we can conclude that, with a very limited amount of playing time and under circumstances that are a lot like those in a violin shop (a dry room, lots of testing), we are just as impressed with the tonality of great new instruments as with the tonality of great old ones. Also, different violinists look for different attributes. I'm an orchestral musician, with small hands: I probably prefer something colorful over something loud; and something that fits my hands over something unwieldy for my particular body-type.
This study certainly doesn't tell us what happens between a player and a fiddle over a long-term relationship, and this is an important factor. Even over the course of this short testing situation, people's opinions changed and evolved. It's sort of like dating; that chemistry on the first date could be the prelude to a blissful, 40-year union. Or, on the third or fourth date, you could begin discovering that your new beau has unbearably bad breath, hates classical music and just wants to watch re-runs of the "Dukes of Hazzard" and listen to Asia.
Modern violins can improve with age, or they can "lose their sound," as I've heard so many people lament, and as I've experienced myself. Old violins have their antique value and can lend a certain wisdom to a person's playing, but they can be inconsistent in their tone from one day to the next and difficult to play, a complaint I've also frequently heard. (People don't tend to voice those complaints too publicly, when borrowing a $10 million violin from a benefactor, but there you have it.)
Honestly, I have no issue with the idea that a well-made modern can sound as good as a $8 million Strad. The moderns I played under these odd circumstances were just beautiful-sounding. The old Italians were, too. This is good news for us violinists, because virtually none of us can afford a multi-million dollar Strad.
During the same event when this study took place, another more informal "study" was done by those who did this one. While jurors were deliberating over the outcome of the Indianapolis violin competition, the audience that was gathered was asked to evaluate some moderns vs. old Italians. Indianapolis Symphony Concertmaster Zach De Pue played four pairs of violins, allowing the audience to decide which they liked best of each pair, based on playing excerpts from "Scheherazade" and Strauss's 'Don Juan.' Each pair included one old and one modern violin. The votes were very close each time, but ultimately the audience chose one modern violin and three Strads, from the years 1699, 1714 and 1715. Several more tests and votes narrowed the fiddles to the one the audience liked best: Jimmy Lin's 1715 Strad. (Was that non-preferred Strad from the study in the mix? I'm guessing it was, and it was the one not-preferred).
None of these violins were "bad." As I said, it was a close contest.
I want to state that I absolutely support modern makers, who are artists themselves and who deserve our attention and support.
But let me also offer some perspective about these extremely exceptional old fiddles and why we hold them in very high regard:
Yesterday I stood with my daughter in front of a 250-year-old painting, The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough. No little Internet replica can lend a clue as to why this painting is great. There it was, high on the wall, larger-than-life, this boy staring out at us from 1770. No photo could have looked so real; I can't fully explain what captivated us so thoroughly. We stood and stared. This painting was made before every human currently standing on the planet; how could it have survived so well, so long? I had the same feeling, when I held the Vieuxtemps del Gesù -- how could this beautiful object remain so pristine, so intact, after so many years? The wood -- it was probably standing in a forest for 200 years even before it was carved by the master into this object. But there was an added dimension: here was the violin played by Vieuxtemps and so many artists after -- what music it has made! And it isn't through making music; I raised it to my shoulder and played it -- such an easy and satisfying response -- it lives. This object made by an artist from centuries past not only has survived in body, it has survived in soul.
Not so scientific-sounding, eh? But we are artists, and history and imagination are part of it. We can make history as well.
Composer George Antheil's autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, seems so crazy as to be fiction, but even if he exaggerated, his real life was still pretty unbelievable.
A native of Trenton, N.J., Antheil (1900-1959) was a concert pianist who moved to Europe at age 22. A darling of the Paris salons in the 1920s, his friends included Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso; and his compositions caused riots. (His most famous was Ballet Mécanique, scored for 16 player pianos, 2 regular pianos, 3 xylophones, 7 electric bells, 3 propellers, siren, 4 bass drums, and 1 tam-tam). But it gets more peculiar from there: he went on to write a love-advice column that was nationally syndicated in the U.S.; ran an art gallery for a short time; wrote a book on endocrinology; and wrote a column called "On the Hollywood Front," for the periodical "Modern Music." Perhaps most surprising, in 1941 he and the steamy actress Hedy Lamarr also patented a radio-guided torpedo designed distribute torpedo guidance signal over several frequencies to protect from enemy jamming. Their invention turned out to be an important technological precursor to some of our most prized modern toys -- cell phones, WiFi and GPS.
I wasn't terribly surprised to find a certain open-mindedness in Canadian violinist Mark Fewer, 39, who along with pianist John Novacek, has recently released George Antheil: Sonatas for Violin and Piano. These sonatas, some written in the 1920s and others later, are zany fun: a kaleidoscope of ragtime, jazz, movie music, classical music and 20th century sound. They've rarely been recorded (one work on the album, the 1927 Sonata for Violin Solo, had actually never been recorded until now) -- so this recording is a long-awaited, special treat. (By the way, the liner notes by Mauro Piccinini are worth reading; if you want the CD, here's the link, or you can get it on iTunes.
A classically-trained musician, Mark Fewer was concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony from 2004 to 2008, and in addition to the Antheil recording, he also recently released a recording of a new jazz violin concerto called 'Changing Seasons,' written for him by Phil Dwyer. Mark is Artistic Director of the SweetWater Music Festival and chair of strings at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University.
Mark and I spoke several weeks ago over the phone, about his unique path that led him to embrace so many styles of music on the violin, about what appealed to him about the music of Antheil, and about modern violins and bows.
Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your beginnings on the violin, what got you playing the violin in the first place?
Mark: I was born and raised in St. John, Newfoundland, in the easternmost part of Canada. It's the island kind of just off the coast, east of Cape Breton, which has a substantial fiddle music tradition. Newfoundland has its own version of that, which is mostly Irish-based. I started on classical violin when I was six, but you can't really hold a violin there for very long and not play traditional fiddle music! So I did a lot of that as a kid, as well. Before I started violin, I first was playing piano. When I turned about 11, I added alto saxophone, which is something I haven't actually played professionally since I was in my mid-20s. I left home when I was about 15 to study first in Toronto, then overseas, in London, England; and then finally at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. So that's kind of my story.
Laurie: Were you studying piano at the Liszt academy?
Mark: No, I studied violin, but I studied actually with a pianist, Ferenc Rados, whom I hold in very high regard as a teacher of music in general -- a force of nature.
Laurie: Why did you study with a pianist?
Mark: I was on a recital tour of Hungary, and the pianist suggested we play for her teacher. So we went and played.
This guy, who's kind of a tall version of Yoda, sat there and listened to us play Schubert, and the lesson was spectacular. I was about 20 or 21, and at that time, and he was everything I was looking for, in terms of musical inspiration. So I asked him if I could come back and have more lessons with him, and that's what I ended up doing. I never really graduated from the Liszt Academy with a degree or a diploma, I just went back to him to study for a while. I used London still as a center of operations, going back and forth to Budapest to see Rados.
Laurie: What do you think a pianist was able to give you that was different from what a violinist could?
Mark: I'll be really honest… I think that we tend to be pretty insular, in the classical violin world. I believe strongly that we should be able to see external sources as being valid for our musical education.
People often ask me, in interviews, who my favorite musicians are. By the time I reach a violinist on that list, I'm at number five or six. So I don't see the instrument as a dividing line, between one source of really great musical inspiration and another.
Certainly when you're younger and you don't know what you're doing yet, you need guidance on the instrument, no question. But at that point in my life, I really wanted more musical thought than I wanted violin thought.
Laurie: Tell me about how you came upon these sonatas by George Antheil.
Mark: It was quite by chance. It would have been in the late 1990s, and I was playing a late-night recital in Ottawa, for the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. A violinist named Stephen Sitarski -- he's currently the concertmaster of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony -- was at the recital, where I played a Martinu Jazz Sonata, which is another great work for piano and violin. He came to me afterwards and said, "Oh, man, I just loved this concert, but if you like that repertoire, you would really dig this guy named George Antheil!" I'd never heard of Antheil up until this point. So I went out and I searched for a record of Antheil's music -- this was back in the days when you actually go to a record store, there was no such thing as 'online.' So I went to a record store and the first thing I found was a really fantastic recording of these sonatas by violinist Vera Beths and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, who is the director of a lot of modern music in Amsterdam, and a wonderful pianist as well. He made this really great record with Vera that blew me out of the park, I thought 'I just can't believe I'm hearing anything like this, this is incredible.'
After finding this album, I just became hell-bent on playing this stuff. The difficulty was finding a pianist who would be willing to put in the time. The piano parts are brutal. The only one that isn't brutal, in terms of chops, would be No. 2, the short one with drums at the end. But you still need someone who has the theatrical ability to be able to pull it off on that one.
Laurie: Do you mean chops on the piano, or on both instruments?
Mark: I'd say on both instruments, for sure. But technically, even if you're not Jascha Heifetz, you could get away with No. 2, if you've got the theatrics. But No. 1 and No. 4 -- you really have to have chops, there's no question. And to find a pianist who is willing to put in time to learn something like that, well those people are few and far between.
I first had the chance to play this repertoire with Marc-André Hamelin, who is also a big Antheil fan.
Then, when I was at a festival in Colorado one summer, I met John Novacek. John and I hit it off, and it turned out that we both had similar taste in music; particularly, we both liked to improvise, in kind of straight-ahead jazz style. We started doing a lot of work together, and when I presented him the idea of doing Antheil, he said, 'I'd love to do that!'
We started playing these a lot, and as we played them more and more, it became obvious that we needed sit down and record them. A lot of times people will make a record and then bring (the music) out on the road to tour, but we kind of did it the opposite way. So I'm delighted to be able to say that, before we actually got into the studio, we had performed these sonatas a lot.
When we played these sonatas as a set in New York at Le Poisson Rouge, there was someone from the Antheil estate in the audience. Afterwards, I got a call, asking if I would be interested in looking at the score for an 'unfinished' violin sonata and possibly recording it; they'd heard I was going to be making a record of Antheil Sonatas. I didn't even know it existed; it was something that the estate had held in their hands, waited until they could find somebody to play it.
Laurie: What an honor!
Mark: Absolutely. So they sent me the music -- it's all handwritten and unfinished. It's not to the same level of difficulty as the other sonatas; it's a very different style of Antheil's world. It's much more rhapsodic, and it's trying to do things that he'd never tried to do before. It was a challenge for me to get my hands around that one, but I'm delighted to have had the chance to lay it down. That's the only one I've never really played in public before we recorded.
Laurie: I am a violinist myself, and I have to say, this music does sound hard to play! It made me wonder how much it was really played, right after it was composed. I mean, did Olga Rudge really play this? In living with these pieces so long, did you ever find any evidence that people had recorded it way back then?
Mark: Not really. People who are really big Antheil supporters have flooded me with a lot of information about his life, and one thing that seems clear is that he had relationships with a few violinists in North America, most notably, the concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony (Werner Gebauer). He wrote his violin concerto for him. I went to look at the violin concerto in the Library of Congress, to see if it would be something I could resurrect. Nobody's recorded it; nobody's really played it since it was premiered (in 1946). But yeah, I've not gotten a lot of information about a lot of different violinists from way back when tackling his music. It's only very recently that his name has become connected to the violin, I think.
Laurie: It's just incredibly modern, in style, it's almost Internet-age type of short-attention-span stuff.
Mark: Absolutely, its time is now. I agree completely.
Laurie: I was going to ask you what the first one would be, if a person were going to study these sonatas, and it sounds like No. 2?
Mark: Yes, No. 2 would be the best one to get your feet wet. If you can get through No. 2 and understand what you have to do as a performer, as opposed to trying to be a perfect classical violinist, then you're probably in a better position to start really investigating No. 1 or No. 4. I've heard performances of No. 1 and No. 4 -- mostly by students, in the last 5-6 years -- and they're incredibly dry and they just miss the point.
Laurie: Tell me what the point is.
Mark: I feel like if you're going to play Antheil's music, you have to have complete respect for him, which also means having complete respect for the fact that he was a showman. He was a shameless self-promoter, no question. I think there's no problem with that, whatsoever. In fact, if ever there was an age in our world where we are all shameless self-promoters, now is it, with everybody having their own Facebook page and web page and Twitter account. We're all doing it. He would have fit right in, in 2011!
Laurie: I'd love to see what his Facebook page would have looked like! (both laugh)
Mark: I'm sure if it existed, half of it would not be about music!
Laurie: Okay, more on the point of Antheil's music...
Mark: I think, if you're going to play his music, you have to be willing to look through and past the notes. You have to look really adventurously, you have to look to it as theatre in action. It is performance art, on one level. Maybe not every movement to the same degree, but a lot of it is performance art.
I've gone to audiences who have been ready to turn themselves off when we start playing Antheil's music -- because they don't know his name, they think it's going to be modern…They're the first people to stand up at the end, thinking it's the greatest thing they've heard.
A lot of people will try to understand Antheil's music is through classic interpretive methods. I don't mean that in a negative way. But I think that the way you would have to interpret it would be through theatric methods, first.
Laurie: In the program notes, I was reading that Antheil wrote some pretty interesting directions in the music itself. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Mark: It's him trying to be as descriptive as possible, in a way that other composers have not. For example, there are things in there like, "up to the minute," or "giggle." Or "sad," and a few minutes later, "sadder." Those are things you don't usually see. I think he's trying to be as smart as he can with his choice of words. Like it goes from being "blown up" to "church-like" within two measures. And then another thing would say, "riddled." What the hell does that mean? (both laugh) Who can figure that out? Again, you have to be willing to play the pantomime or the actor to a lot of his stuff. I think that's where a lot of those words come from -- his theatrics.
It may be through his connection to people like (the poet) Ezra Pound, that he had a need to describe his scores in emoticons, if you like --words that were more artsy-fartsy, or more literature-based, or stage play-based, than they would be musically-based.
Laurie: He seems to me almost synesthetic, the kind of person who hears colors and sees sounds. He did so many different things: he wrote, he did scientific discovery…
Mark: …endocrinology, all of that. He was also a covert operative for the Paris police for a while. He had all these extra lives. He wrote a love advice column for one of the Los Angeles newspapers . All these things about him just seem kind of nonsensical.
Laurie: It seems like he had six lives in one!
Mark: Absolutely! (laughing)
Laurie: I was rather curious about this cover art, I sort of love the saw! (laughing)
Mark: We were given that from Mauro Piccinini, who wrote the liner notes. He has access to all the paperwork and many of the drawings from the Antheil estate, and so when we were putting this whole project together, he sent me a large pile, with sketches by Antheil that had not yet been released to the public. That one caught my eye right away; I thought, this is a perfect idea for some kind of part of the outer shell of this CD. I don't know that there's any others-- I didn't find one with a flute, or a trumpet, or any of those things -- other type of Barbaric ways to play them. But that's where that comes from: his own hand.
Laurie: It makes you wonder what he thought about the violin, I mean: the saw.
Mark: It's possible that he was trying to make it a more expressive rather than Barbaric instrument, with the last piece he wrote for violin, which was the solo violin sonata. But I actually find that some of the things he wrote for violin and piano in those other three sonatas are actually quite beautiful; he uses the violin very well as a vocal voice.
Having said that, that's overshadowed from his capacity to use the instrument as an actor.
Laurie: A percussive instrument, too, it seems.
Laurie: Speaking of violins, what kind of violin do you play?
Mark: I have a modern American fiddle from Ann Arbor, made by Feng Jiang. It's an instrument I found through Elmar Oliveira. When I was still playing in the symphony in Vancouver, Elmar came to play the Dvorak with us. I thought he had his Guarneri with him. He came back to my dressing room before the show, and he said, "Hey, you should try this violin." I thought, "Sure, I'll play on your Guarneri any day!" I played it, and he said, "What do you think?"
I said, "Well, it's a great fiddle," and he said, "It's not what you think; it's by a guy from Ann Arbor." So I called Feng right away and told him I would be interested in seeing more of his work. He didn't have anything available immediately -- the one instrument that he had made was already en route to New York City for somebody at Juilliard. But they didn't like the violin because they felt it was too big -- it was a large-size pattern. So he sent it out to me, and I played three notes on it and bought it right away. It's a great fiddle.
He's from the Curtin and Alf schools, he's one of the proteges of Gregg Alf.
Laurie: It's wonderful that there are so many modern instruments that work these days, especially when the Guarneris are $6 million.
Mark: Way out of the reach of all of us.
Laurie: Well it sounds really nice, I was definitely noticing that. And before I forget to ask, what kind of bow do you use?
Mark: For years I've been using a Michael Taylor. His most famous bows were a commemorative set of 24 bows with etchings of starting phrases of every Paganini Caprice on the tip and the frog. They're spectacular. And they're somewhere in Italy now, behind a glass case. Nobody has those, you can't buy them. He never let them go for sale. And actually his bow that I've had for years, it's also spectacular, I've had it since 1994. It's been my primary bow until literally last month. I've just actually purchased another bow that I'm over the moon with, by a youngster, Emmanuel Begin. I picked up a bow of his about a month ago -- I now wish I could go re-record my Brahms Sonatas! It's fantastic! He's here in Quebec. He's using pernambuco, and he's designing them kind of à la Tourte. But there are lots of people trying to do that, and not a lot succeeding. His general level of bow is excellent; this one that I found is like a great Peccatte. And because it's a modern maker, I love that.
Laurie: It's nice to support the modern makers -- who else is going to keep that art alive?
Laurie: Is there anything in these Sonatas where you had to use anything other than a bow?
Mark: Well there's a lot of smackin' going on, that's for sure! No, I used the Taylor throughout.
Hilary Baker shares with us this obituary she wrote for her father, the violinist Israel Baker, who died on Christmas day.
Israel Baker, the esteemed violinist considered by many to have been the preeminent soloist in Los Angeles in the 1960's, died peacefully at home on Christmas day.
Mr. Baker was born in Chicago on February 11th, 1919, the youngest of four children to Russian immigrant parents. His musical talent was discovered when, while still in his crib, he called out to his sister that she had played the wrong note on their piano.
After debuting on national radio at the age of six, he went on to play with numerous national orchestras including the Dayton Philharmonic, and the Illinois and Indianapolis Symphonies. At the age of 22, Leopold Stokowski selected Mr. Baker as concert-master for his All-American Youth Orchestra. Still later, he joined the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. Mr. Baker quipped that during WWII he "fought the Battle of the Boardwalk" in Atlantic City where he played his violin in hospital wards for wounded servicemen. He met his future wife, Caroline Lotterman, in Central Park where she was raising funds for Russian war relief.
Mr. Baker was chosen by Jascha Heifetz to perform and record the legendary Heifetz/Piatigorsky concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Pilgrimage Theater in Los Angeles. In an interview in The Hollywood Reporter he said, "Heifetz once gave me a new piece of music and said, 'Play this.' I didn't make a mistake in two pages," he recalled. "He was surprised, but I'd learned from Franz Waxman that good, trained musicians can sight read. You look through it once and play." Other highlights of his career include his recordings of Stravinsky's l'Histoire du Soldat with Stravinsky conducting, Schoenberg's Phantasy for Violin and Piano with Glenn Gould and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (Erich Leinsdorf conducting).
Israel Baker with Yaltah Menuhin
His rogue's gallery includes such varied musical luminaries as Yehudi Menuhin, Eric Zeisl, Bruno Walter and Isaac Stern. Mr. Baker was concertmaster for Paramount Pictures, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra and Capitol records and spent decades working with composers including Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, John Barry, Franz Waxman, Andre Previn, and Lalo Schifrin. His daughter Hilary recalls accompanying her father to Jack Benny's house and watching Mr. Benny receive violin lessons. Mr. Baker's musical journey crossed many borders. His discography, a who's-who of jazz, pop and classical, is a reflection of his friendship and collaboration with artists of all genres, including jazz great Benny Carter, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme', Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, Barbra Streisand and the Rolling Stones.
Mr. Baker always gave credit to his beloved teacher, Adolph Pick.
He is survived by his wife Imelda Baker, and daughters Hilary Baker, Merrill Baker, Abby Dart and five grandchildren. A private memorial is planned.
* * *
Here is Israel Baker, playing the Mendelssohn Octet with Heifetz, etc.
For those with more adventurous ears, here is Israel Baker playing Arnold Schoenberg's Fantasy for Violin and Piano, with pianist Glenn Gould:
As 2011 ends and 2012 begins, I thought it would be fun to look back on the top blogs and discussions of 2011.
Indeed, they do reflect on events within the violin world and continuing issues about practicing our art overall. As for news in the violin world: 2011 brought some deaths: violinist Eugene Fodor, luthier René A. Morel, violinist Josef Suk and Suzuki pioneer and pedagogue John D. Kendall. Young people also showed their emerging talents at competitions, including the Sphinx Competition, the 2011 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the Primrose Competition and the Tchaikovsky Competition. Other news included Hilary Hahn's encore commissions; the premiere of the first major documentary on Jascha Heifetz; Gidon Kremer's public rant against the Verbier Festival and young artists in general; the arrest of violin dealer Dietmar Machold and more.
As for 2012, here are a few of our plans for Violinist.com: We'll start the year with a Mahler Marathon, when I go to nine Mahler Symphonies, performed over January and February with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. Look for more interviews, as well as a continual expansion of our new Frequently Asked Questions page (talk to me if you'd like to write an article for this); a violin terms glossary; the return of our Violinist.com T-shirts as well as some new V.com tote bags; and also, the publication of a "Best-Of" e-book with Violinist.com interviews. As always, we welcome your suggestions for content and improvements!
The top 15 Violinist.com blogs of 2011:
The top 15 Violinist.com discussion threads of 2011:
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
Please consider supporting Violinist.com by becoming a sponsor, and reaching our dedicated community of violin professionals, students and fans!