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Laurie Niles interview with Misha Keylin: Vieuxtemps Violin Works

March 9, 2011 at 10:47 PM

I have to confess: when I had the rare chance to play on the 'Vieuxtemps' Guarneri del Gesu – the one with a price tag of $18 million at Bein and Fushi – I wished very much that I had a piece by Henry Vieuxtemps in my fingers to play on that fiddle.

Come to think of it, beyond his name, how much did I know about nineteenth-century Belgian violinist Henry Vieuxtemps, beyond the fact that he wrote that cute showpiece, "Souvenir d'Amerique"? Not much!

So I was happy to be able to talk with violinist Misha Keylin, who has spent half his life researching and recording the works of Vieuxtemps. Many of us have heard of Vieuxtemps' Violin Concertos No. 4 and 5, but did you know that Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos? Misha Keylin has recorded all of them, and last fall he released a recording of showpieces, including Op. 56; Fantasia appassionata, Op. 35, Ballade et Polonaise, Op. 38 and Fantaisie Caprice, Op. 11. The "Greeting to America" (a different piece from "Souvenir d'Amerique") is probably the most humorous piece, a fantasy based on the U.S. national anthem, Yankee Doodle and other national tunes, written by the composer to wow Americans on his tour of the United States in 1857.

Misha Keylin

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Keylin was born in the Soviet Union and started playing the violin at the age of 6 in what was then Leningrad – now St. Petersburg. He was following in the steps of his brother, Leonid, who is 12 years his senior and was studying violin at the Leningrad Conservatory. (Leonid is currently a first violinist in the Seattle Symphony. )

Misha actually tried starting the violin at age four, but having witnessed his brother's playing for so long, he didn't see the point of beginning-violin-type activities. "You first start with plucking the strings, well I wouldn't have any of that," he said. "I just wanted to grab that bow and get violent with the violin! (He laughs) So basically they had to take me off of this drug we now call the violin until I was a little bit more mature."

He began his studies with his mother, also a violinist, and she remained his primary teacher until the family immigrated to the United States in 1979, when Misha was nine.

"She was incredibly wonderful," Misha said. "The older I get, the more I appreciate how she worked with me. She was never one of those parents to say, 'Go back to the room and don't come out until you practice six hours.' I was allowed to choose if I wanted to pursue this – I didn't have to. I think in some ways, that saved my longevity on the violin. Of course, I was kind of forced into trying it! But I really, really liked it, and now I love it."

When they reached New York, both Misha and Leonid became students of Dorothy DeLay at The Juilliard School, Leonid as a college student and Misha in the pre-college. He was just 10 at the time.

"Even at that age, Miss DeLay saw me at least once a month. She highly respected my mother as a teacher and always would say 'Listen to your mother!'" Misha said. "Then the older I got -- around age 14 or 15 -- she started to limit the amount of times my mom would go to the lesson. She understood that it's very important to develop your own mind. So I was able to to brainstorm a bit myself. I appreciate that; it's a great way of stepping out on your own. There are many people who have a great teacher and then one day, God forbid, the teacher passes away, or the teacher moves away, as it happened after the Soviet Union fell apart...suddenly you're left without a teacher. Unless you had good guidance before and you used some of your own mind, you may not really continue to develop."

That said, DeLay proved to be a long-term mentor for Misha.

"Basically I was with her all the way through pre-college and then the first four years of college, which would put us until 1992, believe it or not, I continued to go play for her at least once a month until the last year before she passed away (in 2002)," he said. "She was extremely instrumental about this whole Vieuxtemps project."

"I had this idea of recording the first three violin concertos of Vieuxtemps because I really felt that nobody was performing them or recording them, and Miss DeLay said to me, 'That's interesting, because one of my other students tried to do this, about 10 years before, but he couldn't find the scores for them.'" Misha said. "I believe she was talking about Joseph Swenson, if I'm not mistaken. So I did a little bit of digging."

Of course, Misha was digging during the pre-Internet era. "You couldn't just start going to websites," he said. "I made a lot of phone calls, and I found out that the Free Library of Philadelphia actually had all of the orchestral parts.

"I was very curious, what do Concertos 1-2-3 sound like?" Misha said. "For example, everyone plays Saint-Saens Concerto No. 3, and you wonder, what about Saint-Saens No. 1 and 2? Then you find out that No. 1 is a 10-minute concerto, and sort of there's an excuse (for people not playing it). But No. 1 of Vieuxtemps? It's a 45-minute piece!"

That wasn't the only surprise. "I also found out that there's a sixth and seventh violin concerto!" Misha said. "I had thought the fifth was the last one; I was amazed."

Misha's first Vieuxtemps recording with Naxos in 1997 featured the Violin Concertos No. 2 and 3.

The recording "became very much noticed both in the press and by my colleagues -- it was the first recording that featured the second and third violin concertos," Misha said. "When they saw the response, Naxos said, 'Let's just do all seven concertos.'"

That first recording was followed with a recording in 2000 of Vieuxtemps Violin Concertos 1 and 4, and then Violin Concertos 5, 6 and 7 in 2003.

"It was something that I'm very proud of being able to do," Misha said. "I'm very happy to be able to put this wonderful composer -- and a most important historical figure for the violin -- back in people's living rooms. As much as we all love Paganini, as much as we all love Wieniawski and composers from that time, I feel that Vieuxtemps has been overlooked too much. He's a very beautiful composer. "

"I always felt that his music has a little bit more substance," Misha said. "In Paganini's music, Paganini's approach was: I'm the soloist, and then there's background accompaniment, behind me. I think Vieuxtemps started to do much more orchestral writing. Ysaye said that Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 4 is not a concerto for violin, it's a symphonic poem. Vieuxtemps started to use the orchestral tuttis not just as introductions for the soloist."

In the music of Vieuxtemps, "there's more challenge, there's more musical writing," Misha said. "I feel that Vieuxtemps' music has that special bel canto quality, but yet it also has dramatic intensity." In addition to that, Vieuxtemps also uses many of the same virtuosic tricks as Paganini did. In fact, Vieuxtemps admired Paganini intensely.

"Of course Paganini is the father of all the virtuosic tricks and showing off ," Misha said.

Vieuxtemp's first violin concerto was patterned after the first violin concerto of Paganini. "Concerto No. 1 is sort of a homage to Paganini. It's similar in terms length and the way it's formulated: the big cadenza, the flashy third movement," Misha said. "He was influenced by Paganini, no question, at first. But then he started to study music. He basically took it to another level, in my opinion.

"In Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 3, you have some influences of Beethoven or maybe early Mendelssohn," Misha said. "No. 4 really becomes symphonic, and there is a big progression into Four and Five. To me, Concertos No. 4 and 5 are still his greatest works; these should be a staple for every performing violinist."

"After those, he didn't really write anything until two years before he passed away. By that time, he had had a stroke, and he could not really play," Misha said. "The 6th Concerto is melodic, and the 7th concerto is dedicated to (Jeno) Hubay. I could see him playing the other concertos, but (the last concertos were) kind of written for others to play. For the seventh, he had Hubay come up to Algiers and play for him, just so he could hear how it sounded.

"It's interesting that he wrote the two main concertos when he was in Russia, in St. Petersburg – No. 4 and 5. That's the other side of Vieuxtemps that a lot of people are not familiar with," Misha said. "Vieuxtemps was the first court violinist in the Imperial Theatre. He came live in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1846 until 1852, and he was there, under the Tsar. After he left his position, who took over? It was (Henryk) Wieniawski! And after Wieniawski, it was Leopold Auer. So in some way, you can also credit Vieuxtemps to starting the St. Petersburg violin school: Auer, Heifetz , etc. And there's another interesting little fork in the road: He also started (Eugène) Ysaÿe, who continued the Franco-Belgian school of playing. So here's Vieuxtemps – Belgian violinist who came to old Russia, was the violinist of the Tsar, and somehow planted the seed that grew to the great turn-of-the-century school, with Heifetz and everybody down the line.

"That's why I feel that historically, he's been overlooked. He should be given credit for the paths he opened up," Misha said.

Besides the concertos by Vieuxtemps, many violin pieces remain.

"I've now recorded pretty much everything that goes with orchestra," Misha said. His CD that came out last fall includes four showpieces. But of course there is more, such as opera transcriptions. "There are probably six or seven more CDs worth of material!"

The "Greeting to America" from the latest recording is a favorite, though.

"Vieuxtemps knew that he was coming for a big tour of the United States, and look what he did!" Misha said. "He decided to take a local tune which was familiar to people here, and he incorporated it in his own composition."

"Everybody knows the Yankee Doodle transcription for violin and piano, but when I started to look at the original version, which is about 14 minutes long, there is theme and variations on the national anthem of the United States, the Star-Spangled Banner," Misha said. "It's really nicely written – literally fun! I love the fact that right when the theme of the National Anthem first comes up, I'm the accompaniment. The theme happens in the first violin section. Then I take it over and it's ripped out of my hands by trombones! You can sort of see the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey – you can sort of see that kind of circus feeling in it."

"Vieuxtemps toured extensively in the United States, and I think he was savvy businessman," Misha said. "He understood that shouldn't go to the United States and play local Belgian songs. He got it."

Has Misha ever played that famous Guarneri del Gesù, the one once owned by Vieuxtemps?

"I've actually had the pleasure of playing on it for a couple of hours -- I had a chance to play on it way before it was for sale," Misha said. In fact, many years ago he and the current owner had talked about him recording with it, but there were security concerns about transporting it to Eastern Europe for the recording session.

"Let me tell you, it's an amazing instrument," he said. "I've been privileged to have access to the David Fulton Collection and on some of the recordings I used his Baron Knoop Stradivarius from 1715. But this definitely is right up on the level of any great violin I've ever touched. Besides its being Vieuxtemps' violin, it's like an organ. I always said to some people, if Paganini's violin is known as the "Cannon," this should be the "Organ" because when you play on it, the whole building shakes! Whoever ends up buying it is going to be a lucky person, and I hope it will be lent out to good musicians to play. It's a great instrument."

 You can follow Misha on Twitter at:!/mishakeylin

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on March 10, 2011 at 6:32 PM

"I've now recorded pretty much everything that goes with orchestra," Misha said. His CD that came out last fall includes four showpieces. But of course there is more, such as opera transcriptions. "There are probably six or seven more CDs worth of material!"


Nooooo, I have at least two more orchestra albums for you :-p

From Jonathan Frohnen
Posted on March 10, 2011 at 10:50 PM

"It's interesting that he wrote the two main concertos when he was in Russia, in St. Petersburg – No. 4 and 5. That's the other side of Vieuxtemps that a lot of people are not familiar with,"

Pretty sure he wrote #5 back in Brussels and didn't even start sketching it until he got back there...will double check with my references tonight. 

I'm glad Vieuxtemps is back in the spotlight where he belongs, I call most of his music "tastefully virtuosic" :-)

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