It's almost 2014, so it's time to look back on some of our most popular stories of the year 2013! Below, you'll find a list of links to our 10 most popular stories.
Our interview with Maxim Vengerov was our top blog post of 2013. Photo: Naim Chidiac
Early in the year, the "Vieuxtemps” Guarneri del Gesu, which had been up for sale for some time (with a staggering price tag of $18 million) found a home, bought by an anonymous sponsor for lifetime use by Anne Akiko Meyers.
In February, the world lost a great violin maker, Carl Fredrick Becker, who was mentor to so many luthiers, and whose work lives on in the instruments he made and restored.
Maxim Vengerov also spoke to us at Violinist.com about his return to the violin, including his participation as a conductor in the 2013 Montreal International Musical Competition, which took place in May and which we were happy to attend.
Spring also brought the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard, which always brings together wonderful players and teachers for a week's worth of classes and masterclasses that provide years' worth of food for thought! One of the favorite stories of this year was from the Starling-DeLay master class with Itzhak Perlman.
Other top stories took on the problems violinists and parents face so frequency, like how to balance practice and homework, or how to pick the proper-sized violin.
This year has been one of great hardship for the Minnesota Orchestra, which was locked in a no-win downward spiral of non-cooperation, with much blame going to the bad intentions and practices of that orchestra's management. It led to one of our popular blogs, about reasons a person might NOT make a good board member.
Yet we end the year with great hope for orchestras. In November, we spoke with Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda, whose leadership and organizational success is an inspiring example for all.
Wishing you a happy new year!
Top Violinist.com stories of 2013
I'm here to reason with you on the topic of gift violins. I know that you mean well and aim only to fulfill the wishes of good girls and boys, while operating on a shoe-string budget during difficult economic times.
The problem is, when it comes to the price of a violin, some things are too good to be true. For example, the $199-and-under violin.
Here is the alarming news: This kind of violin is not really a violin, it is a "VSO," or "Violin-Shaped Object."
I've described it in great detail in this article, but I thought it might bear repeating during the crazed week before Christmas, when people sometimes make impulsive purchasing decisions.
A real violin is an object made with care. It has the potential to lead its owner on a journey of discovery full of hard work, increasingly beautiful sounds, epiphanies of all kinds, and ultimately, a glimpse at the sublime in harmony and art. It costs some money, usually at least $450. Or perhaps you can find one from a relative or in an attic.
But please beware of the shiny-new, super-cheap models peddled by Internet elves.
Here's why: A VSO is a cynically-made copy, a race-to-the-bottom in which every expense has been spared. The VSO is made with bad wood, bad pegs, a bad bridge, bad strings, bad paint, bad varnish, bad sound. You won't "get lucky" and accidentally get a good one. The VSO impedes discovery and takes its owner on a journey of frustration and increasing expense: futile attempts to produce a pleasing sound from the instrument, inability to tune the violin ever, replacing all strings only to find it doesn't help all that much. Its inability to ever stay in balance keeps its owner from being able to get beyond the basic level of fighting the instrument. This is especially sad when the owner is a bright-eyed seven-year-old with great initial enthusiasm for learning to play.
The $199 fiddle is a false economy. You pay for what you save, and that payment can be downright heart-breaking when it leads to a student quitting in frustration, or an adult wondering for years why he or she can't make progress.
An investment in a quality instrument helps pave the way for a special life experience, served by an instrument that was made with great care to do its job.
Thanks for listening, and may your holiday be filled with joy and music.
Last week I found myself listening to some very young string quartets playing very old and established music, the Beethoven String Quartets.
The concert was a "Beethoven Quartet Celebration," the culmination of a semester-long examination of these works, led by cellist Paul Katz, who spent this past semester as a guest professor at University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, which is where the concert took place. Katz is a Professor of Cello at New England Conservatory and was cellist of the Cleveland Quartet for 26 years. He also founded the fantastic cello online community, Cellobello.com.
Katz and other chamber faculty from USC -- Karen Dreyfus, Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu and Che-Yen Chen -- coached three quartets of USC students, as well as six high school quartets from the Los Angeles area. The high school quartets had one coaching and two masterclasses; the college students, more.
The concert began with the high school groups each playing one movement from a Beethoven quartet, then progressed to the three USC quartets, which each played a full quartet, one each from Beethoven's Early, Middle and Late Periods (Op. 18 No. 6; Op. 135; and Op. 59 No. 3).
It was interesting to see what went right and what went wrong for the high school chamber groups. Most had trouble justifying their intonation with each other, resulting in a distracting lack of agreement on pitch. The better the quartet, the more "in-tune" they seemed with each other, both musically and inter-personally. I noticed a better ease in the quartets that could breathe together, or that could raise their heads from their music and look at one another. One of the high school quartets had been together for some time, and it really showed. What was it, besides better intonation? More ease in physical movement, a better sense of collective effort and, then, end result: joy and fire. It seems to me that quartet-playing takes a certain capacity to yield to the group, and yield to the music. My pitch isn't right if our pitch isn't right, my rhythm isn't right if our rhythm isn't right. The logical step the dedicated quartet takes is: We do a lot of work to get it right!
USC Professor Che-Yen Chen and violinist KJ McDonald
I'm glad all those high school groups could sit in the audience to see their older colleagues in the USC quartets, which were fantastic, playing with a high level of technique and musical sophistication. Katz admitted afterwards, he pushed them hard!
That seems about right for Beethoven, whose music, life and personality would be fairly well summed-up in the word "intense." This music is rhythmically complex and intricate; bombastic in one moment; breathtaking in another.
Katz wrote in the program notes that Beethoven was just finishing his Opus 18 string quartets when the reality of his hearing loss became apparent; by the Late Quartets, he was deaf. Katz quoted Beethoven: "…I might easily have put an end to my life. Only one thing, Art, held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing, and so I prolonged this wretched existence." Beethoven's triumph over self-destruction is apparent in his Middle- and Late-Period music, in its general strength and optimism. (Remember, it's an "Ode to Joy" in that last Symphony.)
I sensed that so much Beethoven would have to have an effect on these students, and it seemed most pronounced in the group that played the Late-Period quartet. Cellist Yoshi Masuda stood up to say a few words to the audience, before he joined his colleagues, violinists Gahyun Cho and EuEun Kim and violist Erkman Karagul, in playing Op. 135 in F major, which was Beethoven's last work, written four months before his death.
Erkman Karagul, Yoshi Masuda, Paul Katz, GaHyaun Cho and YuEun Kim
Writing this quartet, Masuda said, Beethoven was completely deaf and facing much adversity, including the attempted suicide of his beloved nephew Karl. The last movement is entitled "The Difficult Decision," and in the manuscript Beethoven actually wrote "Must it be?" over the introductory chords, then "It must be!" in the Allegro that follows.
As they played the quartet, I thought about the miracle of live music; that this group of musicians could play the last work that Beethoven wrote, in this very moment, in the very room where I sat. "Must it be?" No, it's not inevitable; young people will not necessarily take up Beethoven -- we have to make it happen. But when we invite young people to bring the music alive -- then it can live on.
Gift-giving is one of the great joys of the holiday season, and each year we compile a list of some of the year's best new offerings from violinists for you to consider in your holiday gift-giving, gift-asking — and post-holiday loading of the Kindle, iPod or other device! We hope this allows you to consider a music-related gift.
We would also suggest considering supporting your local live music scene by purchasing tickets to local music events or simply making a year-end donation to a musical non-profit of your choice. I've tried to be inclusive, but I'm sure I have missed some ideas, so please feel free add your suggestions in the comments section. And yes, in this case, you are allowed to toot your own horn and recommend your own CD or book or product! You may also wish to refer to our gift-giving guides from previous years; I've listed links to those at the end of this blog.
Many of the recordings below are linked to Amazon.com. Note that if you follow these links and make a purchase from Amazon, a portion of that will go to support Violinist.com. And whenever you buy any of these selections, from any source, you'll be helping to support the musicians and other artists who created them.
Happy holidays, and may your season be filled with good music!
Mendelssohn & Schumann: Violin Concertos; Beethoven Romances
A Violin's Life: Music for The 'Lipinski' Stradivari
Brahms Violin Concerto; Clara Schumann Three Romances for Violin
Dvorak Cypresses for String Quartet / String Quartet No. 13 & Op. 106
Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends
Saint-Saëns: La Muse et le Poète
Histoire Du Tango
In 27 Pieces: the Hilary Hahn Encores
Signs, Games and Messages
Brahms Violin Concerto
Hindemith: Violinkonzert, Symphonic Metamorphosis, Konzertmusik
Violin Sonatas by Shostakovich, Janacek, Bloch
The Soviet Experience, Volume 3 and Volume 4
Made in Germany
Bach: Sonatas & Partitas 1
Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia
The Violinist.com Interviews, Volume 1
Duet Arrangements for Suzuki Volumes 1-8
The Violin Lesson
* * *
Still haven't found the right gift? Check out our gift-giving guides from previous years, which also include recent releases and violin-related projects by current-day violinists, composers and authors!
If you would like to consider a music-related gift other than recordings or books, please visit our Violinist.com Business Directory, and support the music businesses that support our Violinist.com community.
How is it that Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos has such impeccable sound, articulation and musicality, and can still keep a kind of raw human quality in his playing?
His musical phrases have the motion of an arrow soaring on its own momentum. No technical feat, however difficult, seems to keep it from hitting its mark every time.
Leonidas, now 46, won the Sibelius Competition in 1985; then first prize in both the Paganini and Naumburg competitions, in 1988. Over the last 23 years he has steadily built a stunning discography and a solid reputation as a thoughtful musician as well as a violinist with virtuoso technique. Some of the highlights of his recording career: in 1992, he made the first-ever recording of the original version of the Sibelius concerto. He has also recorded the 24 Paganini Caprices, the Six Sonatas by Ysaÿe; all five Mozart Concertos and in January of this year, the Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Enrico Pace.
His newest recording includes the Brahms Violin Concerto, with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and also the Brahms Hungarian Dances and Bartok's "Rhapsodies," with pianist Peter Nagy. In the new recording, Kavakos gives a breathtaking performance of the Brahms Concerto, clear and streamlined, with no murkiness in the Romantic texture. The recording also includes Bartók's "Rhapsodies" and Brahms "Hungarian Dances," with pianist Peter Nagy.
Leonidas currently plays the ‘Abergavenny’ Stradivarius of 1724, and this November, he was awarded an honorary degree from the New England Conservatory. His teachers included Stelios Kafantaris, Josef Gingold and Ferenc Rados.
We spoke over the phone while he was in Boston to conduct the Boston Symphony in a performance of Mozart Violin Concerto 4; Prokofiev Classical Symphony and Schumann Symphony No. 2. We talked about his family's connection with folk music, about Brahms' connection to the Gewandhaus Orchestra, about Josef Gingold and the ethics of teaching music and more.
Decca / © Daniel Regan
Laurie: How did you get started, playing the violin?
Leonidas: I was born in Greece, in Athens, and my family was a musical family. My father was a violinist and my mother played the piano; that's how they actually met. My grandfather from my father's side played the violin, but he played folk music, mainly. I had the music all over the place there because folk bands were practicing, so I was listening to them. So music was in my life since I was born, more or less.
Laurie: Before, probably.
Leonidas: Before, that's actually right!
Laurie: I really enjoyed the Bartók Rhapsodies on this new recording, and I wondered if all that folk music in your background influenced how you approached them.
Leonidas: The greatest thing about folk music is actually the process of playing: when you actually get to see how these musicians function. My father started with folk music, and the way the lessons worked was that the teachers would play the tune and you had to pick it up and play it yourself. It's a very literal kind of training (compared to) the training we have as classical musicians, where there is a method, there are steps, and slowly you learn how to read music, then you stand in front of a text which you are learning, and so on. The whole mentality, the whole approach to playing, is totally different when you are a folk musician. Everything is much more instinctive, everything is much more improvisatory, more spontaneous.
And (folk musicians) don't play 'concerts,' they play gigs where they have to keep the pace. It's like a good deejay today, only with live music instead of recordings: You have to play in such a way that the people are in a great mood the whole time -- ready to dance and ready to celebrate -- so that the good spirit doesn't get lost somewhere. This approach is a fantastic one which, for us in classical music, is something that we can appreciate and learn from.
The great thing about Bartók is that, even though he was such a talented and wonderfully gifted and skilled composer himself, he had the vision to understand how valuable the sources of the tunes are. Then he had the patience to travel and to collect them in a systematic way, in order to be able, later on, to embody what he collected, into the music that he wrote. His music is so fantastic because the folk music is at the center, it always has a human life to it. Therefore what comes out of that human life are the experiences -- personal experiences or the collective experiences, because sometimes you have folk music that characterizes a country or religion or a tribe. Then all this folk music that is very unique, personal and pronounced, becomes part of Bartók's music.
A few years ago I did a concert where I invited a folk band from Hungary, whose leader Andras Janosi, teaches folk music history. He brought his band, and they played the tunes that Bartok had collected, which are the tunes that one hears in the Rhapsodies. We did it in such a way that they would play the tunes and then after a certain number of bars, I would start with the piano, playing what Bartók wrote, so the audience could actually see the transformation of a simple folk tune into what we think of as Bartók's world.
It was quite an experience, both for the audience but especially for us, I think it was fantastic. Also for the folk musicians because they played their tune, probably in the way that Bartók heard it, but then they also had the chance, right next to them, to see what actually he did with this tune, because it's exactly unchanged, the same tunes.
Laurie: Did it change, for you, the way you were approaching those pieces by Bartók? How do you capture that folk spirit?
Leonidas: Oh yes. One needs to be informed about how these musicians play in that part of Europe, and there is a certain way of articulating, even the melodies. It's nothing to do with the way we learn to play melodies in the classical world.
The main and the most important element of the music is the rhetoric, the rhythmic rhetoric. There must be a rhetoric. That means that even in the melody, that there is some kind of rhythm that is under it, which suggests certain a certain kind of swing. For instance, if you have a singer, then you have the words, then the rhetoric, in a way, is there and the words are dominating how you're going to sing and how you're going to present the musical text. But when you have no words, if you just play instrumental music, then the rhetoric is created by the articulation of the swings that lie inside the music, whether it's a melody, or whether it is something that is very strong rhythmically, which of course, is easier because it's more obvious.
It's important to see, as a player, how folks musicians play, how they articulate. I think this is also what Haydn heard. Haydn was one of the first people who brought the popular music into the palaces, and we should really acknowledge that folk dances were the first form of revolution against the monarchs of the time.
Laurie: The Brahms Hungarian Folk Dances are also on the recording, also folk music.
Leonidas: And the Brahms Violin Concerto itself includes this idea of the folk music, even in the first movement. It is everywhere, and you have many times this very strong atmosphere, for instance in the second entrance of the violin, after, there's the introduction, the first big entrance of the violin, and then there is the next big tutti and then the second entrance of the violin, this is as Hungarian, almost gypsy, as it can be. And this is in the first movement.
In the third movement, of course, it's extremely obvious that this is a Hungarian Dance. This is also the reason that I included the Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Those were originally composed for four hands, but this version is a transcription made by Joachim. That also strengthens the link of Joachim and Brahms. Of course, without Joachim, Brahms would not have completed this concerto.
For me, the message behind all this is that folk music focuses on human life, which is something that, in our time, is needed more than ever before.
Laurie: And why is that?
Leonidas: That's because the world is looking more and more at people as numbers, as financial figures that serve or don't serve certain financial functions, economies and so on. We are getting away from the respect of human life, from seeing human life as the greatest gift that one can receive. Folk music never forgets that, because it just comes from that. I would say it's human life distilled through music.
Laurie: Another thing about Brahms is the composer's link to the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which premiered so many of his works. Is that something you felt, when playing Brahms with this orchestra?
Leonidas: On the day of the first performance with the Gewandhaus, a colleague from the orchestra brought me a photocopy, from the orchestra's archives, of the original program of the very first performance of the Brahms Concerto. It is written in the program, 'New Manuscript, conducted by Johannes Brahms, violin concerto, played by Joseph Joachim.' Imagine!
Of course it does have special value, of course it does. How could it not?
Laurie: Musically, do you feel they carry a unique tradition forward?
Leonidas: Yes, absolutely. This is an orchestra, together with Dresden, that until very recently was isolated in the former East Germany. It was very closed, very limited -- not accessible at all. Today, most of the great orchestras are very international, in terms of where the members come from. This was a situation where the members were almost exclusively coming from that area of Germany. Before they played in the orchestra, they were trained in the Academy of the orchestra, by the previous members. You couldn't just enter because you played well, you had to be trained to play in the way the orchestra was playing. That helped these orchestras preserve, even up until today, a very personal sound and a very personal way and approach to the music. The overall sound of the orchestra and the overall approach to music, the overall concept, identity of sound, is there, and it's a fantastic contribution to start with.
Laurie: And you also toured with them, doing the Brahms Double, as well?
Leonidas: I just did. Last week we finished the tour, it was a tour where all the Brahms symphonies and concertos were performed, and I did the Double Concerto and the Violin Concerto.
Laurie: This has been a lot of Brahms, then.
Leonidas: Tell me about it, and do you know what's coming up? The Brahms Sonatas, with Yuja Wang, which we are starting next week!
Laurie: What is this doing for your brain, to be on this much Brahms?
Leonidas: It doesn't disturb, let me put it this way! It's just inspiring. It's like being together with a great person: there are only things you can gain. These scores are such sources of wisdom and fantastic energy. The longer one works with them, the deeper one digs into the spirit that lies behind the notes, the better one becomes.
Laurie: Do you have a favorite, of the Sonatas, or is that like asking if you have a favorite child?
Leonidas: Yes, it is. I can't answer that question, sorry.
Laurie: I think a lot of violinists would be hard-pressed to answer that one!
I wanted to ask you about something else; I understand you studied with Josef Gingold, at Indiana University, which is actually also where I went to school. What is the most important thing you learned from him?
Leonidas: At that time when Gingold was there, (Indiana University) was certainly an inspiring place to be, as you know, and Gingold was great in many different ways. First of all, the most important element which I received from him was his absolute passion and love for the violin and for the music. Even at that late age, he was totally committed, devoted, and always fresh about everything. That is not only because of him, but that is the great thing about music and the arts.
Still, when one has this as a profession, it's totally different. Many times we fall into a kind of wrong cycle of routine. But there was nothing like that with Gingold. I was 19 when I went to Gingold, and I think there is nothing more inspiring for a young person, than to see somebody who is quite old, who is still so inspired, and still somehow fresh and young in his spirit for the music.
Of course, the man knew exactly what he was talking about; he knew violin so well. He was a student of Ysaÿe -- studying with Gingold, one felt like a practically a grandson of Ysaÿe. If you look at it from a certain angle, you can really argue that this could be the case! And the delicacy of the Franco-Belgian school of playing the violin was very apparent in his approach to music. The way I arrived in Bloomington was quite unexpected for me (through an Onassis Foundation grant), but once I was there, it was just so great. It was great, also, to see the other people teaching there: Franco Gulli, Janos Starker…all these legendary guys who really taught music, and the ethics of music, in a very different way than we see these things taught today.
Laurie: The ethics of music?
Leonidas: The thing is, today, people are taught to become musicians in order to make a big career. But this was never the case, I felt, with people like Gingold or Starker. They just loved what they were doing. They loved the music, and they were happy and blessed to be part of that kind of work. Now, if one could also be successful and have a wonderful career, so much for the better, that's great. But this was not the aim. In other schools, I don't want to mention which ones, this kind of career (obsession) was part of their definition, it was in the blood veins, going all over the body and the brain and driving people crazy. Today we still have this. You see these younger and younger musicians who just cannot wait. They want to have these big careers, as if music is some kind of sport that, after you turn 30 years old, you cannot run any more. It's not like this, and the approach is wrong.
Laurie: It was a very human approach at IU, I thought.
Leonidas: Exactly. That's the most important thing that one could learn from these kind of personalities. They had experience, and they had lived through many decades at the top level of this job, yet still they were not going to make this kind of level 'The Priority' for somebody who was studying.
In a Music School with a high level, the ambition throughout the school and the competition will be very obvious and very present. So then, how does one actually handle all this? How does one prioritize the right things for somebody, in order that they not become a desperate and sad personality after a certain amount of years, when things maybe did not work out the way they were dreaming? Then even if things work out in the best possible way, they still need to remain with their feet on Earth and be able to admire and feel the greatness of the arts -- not just the greatness of their skills.
Laurie: Do you teach?
Leonidas: I do master classes. I don't teach regularly because I cannot do it seriously, I have to travel so much. For me, teaching is a sacred mission for anybody who can do it. Therefore I've started a little workshop that I do in Greece every year, which I hope to grow into something that would be a little Academy. It is every year, about three days, seven hours each day, quite intense. Last year, in fact, we had people from all over the world coming; we had an amazing amount of applications to take part in this. And then it was a wonderful level. Many people came from many parts of the world, even from Japan. I was not expecting that.. But I want to really create that…I think it's time to also inspire other people. And me it is important to project this kind of mentality, as I described before, that it is not all about career.
Laurie: Does this mean you want to teach more?
Leonidas: Eventually, at some point, yes. Conducting and teaching both demand interaction with many other people, and I'm fascinating by that.
Laurie: You have been doing more and more conducting; what led you to the podium?
Leonidas: First of all, the fact that the violin repertoire is rather limited, even though it is quite varied, and the orchestral repertoire is unlimited. Also, there's a certain kind of psychological mystery in the uniting of a conductor and an orchestra, in order to produce a fantastic result. I cannot really explain how it is possible that all these people breathe together, it's something that is magic, I find.
As an instrumentalist, a soloist, you are always on your own. You obsess over your own playing, your own problems, your own worries and your own whatever. When one works with many other people, there is so much more to gain as a human being and as an artist.
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Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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