April 2010

Violin Community News 2010, Op. 16

April 29, 2010 12:40

Dallas Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Emanuel Borok announced he will retire in August. Borok, who has been concertmaster of the orchestra since 1985, told the Dallas Morning News that "I have more students than I can actually admit because of my symphony schedule. This is what I would end up doing anyway, so why not start building up a class now rather than at a later point?"

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Dayna Anderson , 22, was recently named concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra in Wilmington – she's the youngest concertmaster they've ever had, says the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois, where she grew up.  Anderson is a former student of Desiree Ruhstrat, and she will graduate this spring from the Curtis Institute.

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Here's a neat article from the Reading Eagle about Noah Reider, 12, who is apprenticing with his father, Jeff Reiding, to become a luthier. His first project involved 150-year-old French violin, which he bought with his allowance and spent 40 hours restoring.  His father is third-generation luthier who owns Scrolls and Strings Violin House in West Reading, Pa.

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Volcanic ash over Europe from Eyjafjallajokull messed with the schedules with a lot of touring musicians last week. A few examples include violinist Sergey Khachatryan, who had to cancel his April 21 recital in Alice Tully Hall, and violinist Nicola Benedetti, who had to cancel two concerts and part of a residency in Calgary, as she waited in London for a flight.

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A 1741 Guarnerius del Gesu played by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, 33,  was seized by Swiss border guards when they say she failed to declare it upon flying into Zurich airport on Saturday, according to AFP . The article said she may face a fine up to 700,000 Swiss francs. The violin is on loan to her from the Austrian central bank.

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The Aspen Music Festival appears to be under some turmoil: today a group including faculty, directors and other supporters of the festival were scheduled to hold a special meeting today at Harris Hall for a "no-confidence vote" on president and CEO Alan Fletcher, according to the Aspen Times.  Earlier this month, longtime music director David Zinman asked to be released from his contract. Last week the Denver Post ran an article about possible replacements for Zinman, including James Conlon and others.

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More on investment violins: "At Christie's Fine Musical Instruments sale on Wednesday, collectors expect the smallest instrument in the string family—the violin—to outsell its larger cousins, the viola and the cello," said a Wall Street Journal article yesterday, which also analyzed the auction house's string sales from last year.

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Earlier this month, The New York Times ran this excellent profile on violinist Augustin Hadelich, who played a recital at Town Hall in New York April 18 and will play a recital at 3 p.m. Sunday in Vancouver, at the Kay Meek Centre. (Here is more information on that.)

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A lot of you wonder what Twitter is about and why anyone would ever do it. I wonder this myself. But this project is hilarious: people are "tweeting" opera plots. Have you ever tried to figure out an opera plot, or explain one to someone? If you "tweet" it, you have to do it in 140 characters or less! For example: "Don't cry for me my Adina. The truth is I never left you all thru your sarge phase. I'm a persister; even enlisted to buy elixir " It goes on and on...

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'Can't Say Enough about the Violin': Laurie Niles' annotated Internet recital

April 28, 2010 14:18

Many of you who couldn't make it to my recital last Friday in Pasadena, California, expressed an interest in being there, so here it is, via the Internet!

This recital was given as a benefit for McKinley School, the largest public elementary school in Pasadena with nearly 1,200 kids – and also my children's school. We took donations at the door, and we still welcome them! (We didn't quite make the $25,000 that Josh Bell did for the Bloomington, Indiana schools – he remains our inspiration!) Here is where to donate to McKinley.

So welcome to my recital, and I've written down the introductions that I gave to each of the six pieces I played, which were all designed to help people understand the various kinds of things that this wonderful instrument – the violin – can do.

Laurie Niles in recital

This first piece, Blackberry Mull, was actually written before people had Blackberry cellphones. But that reminds me: turn off your cell phones!

The piece is by the fiddler extraordinaire Mark O'Connor, an American composer who is very much alive today, performing all over the world. Every year he holds string camps, camps for grown-ups in which people who play in all different musical styles – fiddle, classical, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass – get together and learn to play in ways that are new to them. Mark is working on getting kids involved as well, and he's writing a series of string method books for kids. This piece was inspired by a jam session he had at his Fiddle Camp in Tennessee, and I will read straight from his words about the piece:

"One jam took place in which Appalachian fiddler Bruce Molsky and Natalie Haas played an old tune he called Blackberry Blossom. Bruce got it from a 1930's recording by an old fiddler...When I first heard the tune, my mind was not just carried away to Appalachia but places beyond. During a trip to the Isle of Mull of the west coast of Scotland in the summer of '03, I felt inspired to play around with the old Appalachian tune I heard back at the Camp...The word 'mull' can also mean mixing a variety of ingredients together. This piece is an example of how I sometimes perceive fiddle music to be: a mixture of musical ingredients to document one's travels."

As I sat down to play, the violist, Carrie, turned to me and said, "'Travels,' or 'travails'?"

I laughed. "Travels, AND travails!"

"Blackberry Mull" by Mark O'Connor. Featuring guests Carrie Little, viola, and Dane Little, cello.

The composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in Europe, of African descent. He made it part of his life's mission to preserve the music of African-Americans, and he came to the United States a little more than 100 years ago to do so. This piece, a spiritual called "Deep River," was part of a set of piano arrangements he made called "Twenty-Four Negro Melodies."

Another musician of that time period, a female violinist named Maud Powell, heard him play these arrangements. She fell in love with "Deep River" so much that she transcribed it for violin and piano, so she could play it herself. Maud Powell was an amazing woman; just imagine, she was a traveling soloist – a woman soloist! – 100 years ago. She would take her violin and her trunk of costumes on a train, and she would play in tiny towns all over the American frontier. She played this piece everywhere she went.

I found "Deep River" in a collection of Maud Powell music that was just published this spring, edited by a wonderful violinist named Rachel Barton Pine. (We will feature an interview with Rachel, about this collection, next week on Violinist.com.) The notes about this piece say that "it was the first time a white solo concert artist trained in the the European classical music tradition had performed an African-American spiritual in concert." Maud Powell was doing something very important in bringing this music to a wider public.

You will notice that this arrangement has a little thunderstorm in the middle. I see it as being a lot like the nature of faith: it begins as a beautiful, peaceful haven, but then it is shaken with doubt. In the end, that beautiful music prevails and the peace returns. Here are the words:

Deep river, my home is over Jordon,
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.
Oh, children, Oh don't you want to go, to that gospel feast,
That promised land, that land, where all is peace?
Walk into heaven, and take my seat,
And cast my crown at Jesus' feet
Lord, I want to cross over into camp-ground.

"Deep River" by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Laurie Niles with pianist Ben Salisbury

Maurice Ravel was a French impressionist composer, and we might not think of him as someone who would write something called "Blues," but he did, in the 1920s, near the end of his life. It took him four years, so long by the time he finished it, that the violinist he wrote it for had arthritis and couldn't premiere it!

We know what "Impressionism" means for the visual arts: just picture those beautiful Monet paintings, where, if you look very closely, the painting appears to be nothing more than dots of color, but when you back up, it creates an image and makes sense. Impressionist music is very similar: it doesn't make sense if you examine it with too much detail, but if you can let it wash over you, you can get the feeling of it.

As for the "Blues" movement we're about to play, I have a story that I always think about when I play it; I don't know if I read it somewhere or I made it up, but here it is: Imagine that you are in a busy city, a place like New York. It's evening, and everyone is relaxing in their apartments, which are all very close together and stacked on top of each other. It's a warm evening, so all the windows are open, and someone is sitting in a window, strumming a banjo. The neighbor below hears the strumming, so he goes over to his piano, and he starts playing along. He doesn't know exactly what key the banjo guy is playing in, so they are actually playing in different keys. Pretty soon a neighbor who plays the saxophone hears the music and decides to join in.

Now, when Ravel wrote his sonata for violin and piano, he stated that his aim was to show just how fundamentally incompatible these two instrument are! So sometimes the violin and the piano are at odds, but please enjoy: we are going to make a lot of beautiful racket together.

Maurice Ravel "Blues" from Sonate for Violin and Piano

Sergei Prokofiev actually wrote the sonata we are about to play for flute and piano, but we violinists are greedy and have stolen it for our instrument. Actually, the person who decided to steal it was a famous Russian violinist named David Oistrakh, who personally asked Prokofiev to write a violin version. Prokofiev obliged, and the result is one of my favorite pieces, which works beautifully on either instrument. I decided to play it because I was so inspired when I heard violinist Augustin Hadelich play it a few months ago.

Sergei Prokofiev Sonata, Op. 95, I. Moderato

We hear a lot about Mozart being a child prodigy, but for some reason we don't hear so much about Camille Saint-Saëns, who was every bit the prodigy and musical genius that Mozart was. Saint-Saens' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" was my favorite violin piece, long before I was ever able to play it. It is a piece that inspires me, that I enjoy immensely. It's just FUN. I hope you enjoy it, too!

Camille Saint-Saëns, "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso"

For an encore, I'd like to play you one of the most beautiful pieces ever written for the violin, "Meditation from 'Thaïs.'" I love to play it on this violin, which I've had now for four years, a Gagliano that I bought here in Pasadena at Marquis Violins from Barry Hou. I hope you enjoy it.

Jules Massenet, "Meditation from 'Thaïs'"

Thank you for joining me for my recital!

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This recital was given as a benefit to McKinley School in Pasadena, California, and here is where you can donate to McKinley, which is raising money to save its arts programs and core teachers for the coming year.

A big public thank you to:

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Violin Community News 2010, Op. 15

April 21, 2010 14:26

The Menuhin Competition started last Friday in Oslo and runs through Sunday, April 25. So far, the jury has selected eight junior competitors to proceed to the Junior Finals on Friday, April 23 (starting 14.00 CET): Kerson Q Xun Leong, Guro Kleven Hagen, Alice Ivy-Pemberton, Callum Smart, Seung Hee Lee, Ji Eun Anna Lee, Taiga Tojo and Stephen Waarts. Much of the competition is being liveeamed on the Internet; here is the link: http://www.nmh.no/menuhincompetition2010

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This month, Adaptistration.com is doing its annual Take a Friend to the Orchestra (TAFTO) promotion, and today WNYC Radio producer Brian Wise writes about taking a date to the New York Philharmonic to see violinist Josh Bell. He admits, “a relationship expert might deduct points here for providing a better-looking, wealthier, and more talented guy for my date to gaze upon, but that’s for another column.” He also offers advice for making the symphony more date-friendly. Here is his blog on the subject.  BTW it's a good idea: take a friend to the orchestra!

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Having taught violin for a long time, I've noticed that those who seem to have wonderful innate talent are not always those who wind up playing best over the long haul. Those who work and practice end up playing best, period, whether it looked like they had “talent” on the first day or not! This led me to the conclusion that, though “talent” may not be a function of our genes, something more like “motivation” or “proclivity” just may be. One student will wilt and sink to the floor when given a drill to improve  his or her violin playing. Another will be excited by the improvement and want to do the drill again and again. Guess who winds up playing better? Was one born with the disposition to do the work and enjoy it, and the other not? That is the kind of question posed by this recent New York Times story, which talks with various experts on “talent.”

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The London Symphony Orchestra has a few string positions open in its viola and violin sections.  If you are interested in applying, look here for more information and application forms. The deadline to apply is May 17.

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British violinist Charlie Siem will play a benefit concert for Music Unites Youth Choir at 8 p.m. April 29 at SpiN, 48 East 23rd Street  in New York. All proceeds will go to Music Unites, a 501(c)3 non-profit, is dedicated to bringing music education to underprivileged children in underfunded inner city school systems. Tickets are $40; rsvp by April 23 to rsvp@musicunites.org.

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On a purely personal note, I am giving a recital at 7 p.m. Friday at McKinley School in Pasadena, California, to raise money for my children's school. McKinley School is the largest public elementary school in Pasadena, and as with schools all across the United States, it is losing a tremendous amount of funding in the coming year. The Pasadena Unified School District will lose $23 million next year because of budget cuts at the state level, and wonderful teachers all over the place – people who do the very difficult work of educating all who come to their classroom – are receiving notice that they will have no jobs next year.  My recital is a little drop in the bucket, but I hope it helps. (Some very kind people have offered to donate, even though they can't attend. Here is that website, for those who have asked. Or, consider a donation to your local school's PTA.)

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Mark O'Connor's Violin Method for Teaching American Music

April 19, 2010 11:26

Why is American violin music "supplemental" in teaching American violin students?

This was one of the questions posed by Mark O'Connor and by longtime Suzuki teacher Pam deWall during a teacher training session at UCLA for the new O'Connor Violin Method. So far, Mark has created two violin books, with plans for eight more. He also plans to create cello, viola and orchestra versions and is offering teacher training sessions all over the United States, assembling a national registry of those who have taken the course.

In fact, the very creation of the O'Connor method – which uses all American music as a basis to teach violin skills – is a challenge to the above question. Being a violinist who is classically trained, that is to say –  trained in European classical music – I'd like to take a stab at answering that question. Then I'll tell you all about the teacher training session that I attended in February with Mark and Pam.

First, why are American violin students routinely trained with classical European violin music? A few reasons: because the European-based pedagogy has been the best and most consistent path to a high level of musicality and technique on the violin; because European classical music has reached such a high level of art; because so much of the evolution of the violin, its music and its pedagogy, occurred in Europe.

That said, the violin has had a remarkable journey in the Americas, and Mark's stated goal goes beyond providing some nice fiddle tunes to add to traditional European methods and Suzuki studies (which are European-based). He wishes to illuminate an entire tradition of American violin music: its history, its heroes, its music, its ways.

This ambitious goal was one reason for the delay in publishing the O'Connor method; it was originally to have been published by Alfred, and in fact I reviewed a rough draft of that edition, which was more along the lines of a traditional method book, with diagrams, in black and white. Mark's vision was for a more immersive experience, and so he wound up self-publishing, the result being full-color books with photographs, written histories of each piece, personal notes about the pieces he composed, and even a little Mark avatar ("Fiddle Boy") who makes little comments throughout. This is not to mention the pieces, which include fiddle music, Mexican music, Canadian music, Native American music, Dvorak New World, blues, rock 'n' roll, African American spiritual music and more. He has published two violin books and has plans for eight more. He has shared that one of the pieces for his last book might be the final movement of the Barber concerto, as well as his own Caprices. He also plans to create methods for viola and cello, as well as orchestra versions. He casts a wide net, but it's all about America.

Basically, I don't want to curl up at my window chair and read most method books, but the O'Connor method is different. It's had a similar effect on the parents of my students, who have sat on my couch, as I've taught their kids, thoroughly immersed in reading Mark's method books. I was teaching the Vivaldi a minor concerto to one student while her dad was reading Mark's books, and he kept interrupting:

"Is it really true that Davy Crockett played his fiddle during the Alamo?"

It is indeed. Okay, about that C natural....

"There were Native American fiddlers?"


"'Amazing Grace' was written by a slave ship captain? Who later repented?"

Truly amazing, yes, now back to the violin lesson...

But wait, that IS the violin lesson, isn't it?  The part that captures your imagination is the part that makes you practice. 

"These are the things that movies are made of – but movies aren't made of it. It isn't taught," Mark said at the seminar. Thus the color and the story-telling in the books. "My hope is these histories will help teachers and parents understand why this music is so important."

"Benny Thomasson was my mentor, he wasn't just my teacher," Mark explained to the 20-some teachers at his UCLA teacher training course in February. "Our lives are too busy for that today. We have to get our mentoring from several different places at once."

"If children like the music they're playing, they'll practice more," O'Connor said. "I hope this material doubles their practice time. Finding the meaning in what you're doing is important for kids."

But the O'Connor method does involve more than talking about the meaning American music and teaching its history, there is pedagogy, technique, and musical style, and this is what the bulk of the teacher training seminar at UCLA addressed.

Our teacher trainer, Pam deWall, a 40-year veteran of the Suzuki method who is based in South Carolina, spoke to how to teach this music in real life. She first met Mark when she attended his string camps, and when he learned about her experience teaching, he tapped her to help in the development of his method.

With so many years of experience teaching small children, Pam very obviously sees how this music can fit in with a Suzuki-like approach, but at the same time, she has already come up with ideas for teaching its unique requirements, adding methods for introducing children and beginners to new techniques like chopping, improvising, reading chord symbols and more. She showed a video of a group lesson in which children of various ages took turns improvising to "Boil Them Cabbage Down" while fellow students chopped out the beat on two open strings. A very do-able exercise, yet it leads down a road with new possibilities, if it is carried further.

"I always incorporated American tunes in my own Suzuki teaching," Pam told the teachers at the seminar. "I never questioned doing that. But they were always used as alternatives or supplemental pieces. Mark had no idea how hungry the country was for this method. This is a solid, core method for teaching violin technique. Why should American music be alternative in America? Because we haven't honored it, dignified it, organized it and taught it to the kids."

And for those who are new to teaching beginners, Pam recommended using many Suzuki-based ideas. "Nobody does the beginning better than Suzuki," she said. In introducing the first two books, she provided exercises to address the basics: balancing the bow, placing the fingers, shaping the left hand, holding the violin, introducing the concepts of half- and whole-steps, ear training, string crossing, retaking the bow and more.

"The songs were chosen very, very carefully," Pam said. Mark wanted them to be timeless, pedagogically relevant and culturally relevant.

"I picked out a lot of music that just doesn't go away. This music is in our DNA," Mark said. "I learned violin so late in life, I remember every minute of my first lesson. That helped me in assembling the materials."

With so many years' experience arranging music for shows and composing music, "I can outfit these things to feel great at any level on the violin."

"They're learning real music they will play later on," Mark said, starting with a simple version that they can later embellish, make their own, use as a basis for improvisation.

American music has its own language, and "the language becomes the most significant contribution we've come up with and the violin and stringed instruments were there at every turn." Mark has dissected his. For example, the train. "The sound of the train is a key signature of American music," he said. And the lonesome whistle blow – it developed in to the blues and conjures feelings of freedom, travel, getting out of town, even images of freedom.

For many of the pieces in Mark's books, one can find professional and performance recordings of the same piece, at a far more advanced level. For example, you can compare the student version of Gypsy Fantastic to this version of Mark performing the piece last December. Mark's popular Appalachia Waltz appears in his Book 1, in a much simpler arrangement. Also, in a CD entitled Liberty, Mark has versions of songs that appear in his Book 1: Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier; Soldier's Joy and The World Turned Upside Down. The student version of "Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier" might be more fun to play if you've heard the .

"Teachers don't really need to know how to improvise that well to teach their students to improvise," Mark said. Mostly, they need to introduce the language and provide the opportunities. Here is another suggestion for how to run an American studio: "After the recital is over," Mark said, "then the jam session begins."


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Violin Community News 2010, Op. 14

April 14, 2010 09:41

Jennifer HigdonCongratulations to composer Jennifer Higdon, who was awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize in music for her Violin Concerto. The work was commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Baltimore Symphony and the Curtis Institute of Music and written for violinist Hilary Hahn, who spoke with us about the piece right before performing its premiere in February 2009 with the Indianapolis Symphony. Higdon will be awarded $10,000 for the concerto, which the Pulitzer committee called “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.” Other pieces nominated for the 2010 award were "String Quartet No. 3," by Fred Lerdahl and "Steel Hammer," by Julia Wolfe. Here is an interview with Higdon in the The Philadelphia Inquirer this week about winning the Pulitzer, and here is a video interview that Hilary did with Jennifer right after the first performance.

Now this is downright heroic: Joshua Bell raised $24,500 to keep music alive in the public schools in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times. Proceeds from his sold-out concert Tuesday night at Indiana University's Musical Arts Center will go to Monroe County Community School Corp., which said it needed $20,000 to keep its music program going next year. Here is a review of the concert from the Indiana Daily Student (check out the great picture by Sevil Mahfoozi in that article).

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Violin Community News 2010, Op. 13

April 7, 2010 11:08

A six-hour string quartet – Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 –  will be broadcast live over the web from  Brooklyn on Sunday, beginning at 11:30 a.m. EST. The heroic musicians attempting this feat are a group called Ne(x)tworks and the stream will be available at Q2 Music, broadcast from 110 Livingston Street, home of  Issue Project Room. The director of the group is violinist Cornelius Dufallo, who played in this piece's premiere in 1999.

"The focus at the time seemed to be on how we were going to play for six hours without stopping," said Dufallo. "As we immersed ourselves in the music, however, this began to change: we found that duration is by no means the most interesting aspect of this work. In this work, duration acts as a canvas, on which Feldman paints a stunningly beautiful encomium to the eternal marriage of sound and time. The piece must exist on a large scale in order to portray this relationship."

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The Omaha Symphony's 10-year concertmaster, Amy Sims, announced last week that she will not return for the 2010-2011 season, according to the Omaha World-Herald. She said she plans to pursue early music performance. The orchestra will hold auditions in the near future and select three finalists, who will each perform in two concerts next season to determine the next concertmaster.

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Violinist David Perry, reports that his violin, labelled "Laurentius Storioni fecit Cremonae 17..", in its brown oblong case with 3 bows, was stolen on a train in Belgium on March 27, 2010. Here are descriptions of the bows: first bow – C.N. Bazin, no brand; second bow – branded "L. Panormo"; third bow – an unbranded German bow (ca. 1920, Markneukirchen, gold-mounted, ebony frog).  A picture of the violin can be found on this page.  If you have any information, please contact David at davidperry_2@hotmail.com.

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I always enjoy investors talking about the wisdom of buying an old fiddle, so this article from thisismoney.co.uk fascinated me. In it, dealer Florian Leonhard talks about "investors putting in a minimum of £5,000 each for a share of a top musical instrument." The article goes on to explain: "'With violins worth at least £100,000 we calculate that investors have made average returns of 10.8% a year over the past three decades,' (Leonhard) says. 'If the syndicate gets an up-and-coming musician who goes on to become famous, the value of the instrument may rise even further because a violin played by a well-known musician tends to become worth far more.' If a violin has been owned by a famous virtuoso performer such as Yehudi Menuhin or Niccolo Paganini, the value instantly more than doubles. Florian believes although making profits is a vital consideration, most people in the syndicate get a bigger thrill from being able to help out a musician."
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Health setbacks have kept Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine from the podium in the past, and an upcoming back surgery is throwing uncertainty on plans for him to conduct at Tanglewood this summer. Add this fact to the mix: Levine has no signed contract with the orchestra. Is it time to search for another director?  "Our hope is that he has a successful surgery, and everyone is wishing him the best,’’ BSO’s managing director  Mark Volpe told the Boston Globe . "But he’s got to get through the surgery and then we’ll see. This is not tenable, the uncertainty. We have to protect ourselves.’’

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Keith Cerny, 47,  was named new general director of the Dallas Opera. Cerny, who is the CEO of Sheet Music Plus, replaces George Steel, who left in January after only four months as director in Dallas to head the New York City Opera. Cerny will officially begin in May as seventh general director of the 53-year-old company. Check the Dallas Morning News for more.

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Where does the future lie for the classical recording industry? "The two main trends for orchestras these days are to sell their own CDs and to deliver their performances to personal computers, where the developments are livelier. The New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic offer two of the most ambitious programs, although their approaches differ," said Daniel J. Wakin last week in a New York Times story.

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Getting up to speed

April 6, 2010 21:52

So in practicing for the recital I'm giving in a few weeks, I began to wonder exactly how many times Arthur Grumiaux played the last page of Saint-Saëns' "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" before he could clock this beauty somewhere around dotted quarter=144+? I'm guessing he put in his 10,000.

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