Remembering Joseph Silverstein

Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)
Joseph Silverstein (1932-2015)

 

Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.

Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.

In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”

In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,

Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.

Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.

Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:

Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake

Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:

Barber Violin Concerto

Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:

Stravinsky Violin Concerto

Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:

J.S. Bach Partita No. 3

Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:

Debussy Sonata

Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.

  • Find Joseph Silverstein’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon.
  • Excerpts from a violin masterclass with Silverstein
  • Frank Almond’s tribute

The "Lipinski" Strad Has Been Recovered

This morning some great news came out of Milwaukee. The “Lipinski” Stradivarius, which was stolen from violinist Frank Almond following a concert on January 27, has been recovered and is in good condition. The three alleged thieves are in custody. Learn more details here.

It’s important that great violins are played, not just displayed behind glass. In fact, a violin needs to be played regularly to sound its best. Let’s hope audiences have the chance to hear the “Lipinski” Strad for many years to come.

Take a few moments and listen to the sound of this extraordinary violin:

The Violin: A Cross Between Art and Technology

violinist Frank Almond
violinist Frank Almond

Last week the music world was shocked by news of a well coordinated theft of the priceless 1715 “Lipinski” Stradivarius. The violin was on loan to Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Following a concert, the thieves used a stun gun to incapacitate Almond, who was not seriously injured. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the safe return of the instrument. You can read a statement from the violin’s owner at Almond’s website.

Last May I profiled A Violin’s Life, Frank Almond’s excellent recording featuring the “Lipinski” Strad. A Violin’s Life was an honorable project because it allowed the public to celebrate the sound and distinguished history of this extraordinary instrument. On some level, a work of art of this caliber belongs to all of us.

As musicians we develop deep emotional bonds with our instruments. We spend many hours together. We put in our energy and the violin gives back. The greatest violins offer up a seemingly endless array of tonal colors. Over time, the violinist has the joy of discovering what the instrument can do and how to draw the best sounds out.

As this open letter to the thieves states, it will be impossible for the violin to be sold for many years. This means, if not returned, it will probably sit in a vault unplayed. Besides its value as an investment, what good is an unplayed violin? We can only hope for a happy ending to this story.

Update: The “Lipinski” Strad Has Been Recovered

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Art Meets Technology[/typography]

A great violin is both a technological tool and a work of art. The PBS documentary, Violin Masters: Two Gentleman of Cremona showcases history’s two most respected violin makers, Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) and Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù (1698-1744). The film highlights some of the aspects which make these violins so extraordinary as well as the differences between them (Strads are generally sweet while the Guarneri is known for a deep, rich chocolaty sound). Joshua Bell talks about his Strad in this clip.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Modern Violin Making[/typography]

Modern violin makers, known as luthiers, still copy the Strad and Guarneri models. No one has improved on this combination of dimensions, wood, varnish and craftsmanship. The “secret” regarding what makes these instruments so great also remains a mystery. This short film features a behind the scenes look at the work of Oregon luthier David Gusset:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Red Violin[/typography]

The 1998 film The Red Violin offered a romantic view of the long life of a great violin. The movie’s score was written by American composer John Corigliano. Here is violinist Philippe Quint playing music from the film:

[quote]Every time I open my violin case and find this treasure inside, my heart jumps just a little bit. This 300-year-old artifact is the perfect unity of art and science, one of the most remarkable constructions made by a human being.[/quote]

-Joshua Bell (See this Strad Magazine interview).

"A Violin’s Life" by Frank Almond

A Violin's LifeViolinist Frank Almond has come out with an exciting new recording which I highly recommend. A Violin’s Life: Music for the ‘Lipinski’ Stradivari was released on April 19, debuting on Billboard’s Top Ten Classical list. Almond is the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at Northwestern University. He is accompanied by pianist William Wolfram.

Here is the interesting story of how the “Lipinski” Stradivari, one of the world’s finest violins, came into Frank Almond’s hands in 2008. A Violin’s Life celebrates this instrument by featuring music from its impressive history. The disk opens with the “Devil’s Trill” Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), the violin’s first owner. Here is an excerpt:

Also included on A Violin’s Life is the rarely heard Violin Sonata No. 2 in F sharp, Op. 20 by Julius Rontgen (1855-1932), Caprice Op .29, No. 3 by the influential but largely forgotten violinist, Karol Lipinski (1790-1861) and Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No.2 in D minor, Op.121. I found the Rontgen reminiscent of the Brahms Sonatas. The Lipinski Caprice is a daredevil virtuoso adventure in double stops.

A Violin’s Life can be found on iTunes and at Amazon. For listeners who are interested in delving deeper into to the history of this music and the “Lipinski” Strad, Frank Almond provides a website, aviolinslife.org. He introduces the CD and provides further samples here:

It’s widely believed that the sound of a violin can be influenced and shaped by the performers who use it. The rich lineage of the “Lipinski” Strad is on full display in this recording as the past meets the future. A Violin’s Life will be a fascinating and enjoyable recording for all who love the violin.