To finish the week, here are two pieces of violinistic ear candy, performed by Simone Porter, a 19-year-old rising star. Porter began taking violin lessons through the Suzuki method at the age of 3 and a half, eventually studying with Margaret Pressley in Seattle. She is currently a student of Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles. Porter, who plays a 1745 J.B. Guadagnini violin on loan, has appeared on NPR’s From the Top with Christopher O’Riley.
Simone Porter has appeared with many of the world’s finest orchestras. This week she is playing the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
Here is her performance of Fritz Kreisler’s Caprice viennois, a piece which Kreisler seems to have written as a nostalgic look back at elegant pre-war Vienna. Porter’s playing emphasizes fire and sparkle over sentimentality:
Here is a 2012 Salt Lake City performance of nineteenth century Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado:
If you’ve never heard Dylana Jenson’s 1981 recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, take a moment and listen. This soulful and blazing performance is widely regarded to be one of the finest recordings of the Sibelius ever made. It’s a rare gem which deserves more attention.
A child prodigy and student of Josef Gingold and Nathan Milstein, Jenson was awarded the silver medal at the 1978 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when she was seventeen years old. Shortly after recording the Sibelius, her career suffered a devastating setback when she was forced to return a 1743 Guarnerius del Gesu violin which had been given to her as a long-term loan. The wealthy collector who owned the instrument had discovered that Jenson was planning to get married and concluded that she was not sufficiently serious about her career.
Dylana Jenson now plays a modern instrument made for her by Samuel Zygmuntowicz. You can hear that violin on Jenson’s excellent 2009 recording of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 and Barber Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. A passionate teacher, Dylana Jenson lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Here is a live performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Dylana Jenson and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy:
Here are a few more links:
A short documentary showing Jenson’s studies with Josef Gingold at Indiana University. This clip offers a fascinating snapshot of twentieth century violin history.
Tomorrow all eyes will be on Scotland. A referendum will determine whether the ancient and mysterious land of rugged mountains, long, picturesque Lochs and remote castles will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country. Throughout its tumultuous history (which included the arrival of the Romans around 71 AD, and later, Catholic-Protestant religious wars in which the Scots sometimes fought alongside the French), Scotland has maintained a separate identity. The Treaty of Union brought Scotland into the United Kingdom in 1706. Today, independence could have significant and possibly devastating implications for Scotland’s orchestras.
The landscapes and legends of Scotland have served as an inspiration for many composers. Here is a sample:
Mendelssohn Travels to Scotland
Felix Mendelssohn toured Scotland in 1829 when he was twenty years old. During a stormy voyage to the Hebrides Islands, he visited Fingal’s Cave, a miraculous sea cavern on the desolate, rocky coast of the uninhabited island of Staffa. Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26 was finished a year later on December 16, the one day of the year that the cave is fully illuminated by sunlight.
Mendelssohn’s letters suggest that he was deeply affected by his experience at Fingal’s Cave. It was here that the opening motive of the overture came into his mind.
Listen to the way the music evokes an atmosphere of mystery, even suggesting the supernatural. You can almost feel the motion of the waves in the opening, but also listen to the long, sustained tones which emerge in the brass and woodwinds (0:21). At 3:52 we hear a “surround sound” effect as the distinct voices of a variety of instruments add their statements. Mendelssohn’s music covers wide emotional territory, but at the end we’re left with the same sense of wonder and mystery we felt in the opening.
This recording features Claudio Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra:
Mendelssohn’s visit to the the ruined abby at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh inspired the opening seed for the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56. He wrote:
In the evening twilight we went today to the palace where Queen Mary lived and loved; a little room is shown there with a winding staircase leading up to the door… The chapel close to it is now roofless, grass and ivy grow there, and at that broken altar Mary was crowned Queen of Scotland. Everything round is broken and mouldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I today found in that old chapel the beginning of my ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
You might hear a faint echo of Scottish folk music in the theme of the second movement. Beyond that, the symphony qualifies as “pure music,” with no overt references to Scotland. The movements flow into one another with little break, creating a sense of continuity. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the surprising way it ends. The majestic, joyous theme of the coda seems to leave behind everything which has come before.
This is Herbert Blomstedt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in concert in 2008:
Introduction. Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato – Assai animato – Andante come I (0:00)
Scherzo. Vivace non troppo (15:06)
Adagio cantabile (19:21)
Finale guerriero. Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai (27:59)
Completed in 1880 and dedicated to Pablo de Sarasate, Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 offers another German view of Scotland. The four movements are based on Scottish folk songs, “Auld Rob Morris”, “The Dusty Miller”, I’m A’ Doun for Lack O’ Johnnie”and “Hey Tuttie Tatie.” Fragments of “Auld Rob Morris” return throughout the piece. Listen for its quiet final statement at the end.
Here is Jascha Heifetz’s legendary recording with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony of London:
The Orkney Islands are at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In 1985 English composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, a piece which captures the raucous atmosphere of a traditional wedding celebration on the islands. Listen for the entrance of a bagpiper at the end.
Here is the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies:
If you’re a Suzuki violin student, you know the charmingly quirky Gavotte from “Mignon” by the transcription in Book 2. You may be less familiar with the piece’s composer and origin.
Mignon was a wildly successful 1866 French comic opera by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), longtime director of the Paris Conservatory. The three-act opera is based on Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Its soap opera-like plot centers around a passionate romantic rivalry between two contrasting female characters: the seductive and unscrupulous Philine and the sweet, loving Mignon (who was kidnapped by Gypsies as a child and later discovers that she is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman).
The Rondo-Gavotte, Me voici dans son boudoir, is sung in Act 2 by Frédéric, a young nobleman who is infatuated with Philine. He stands in her empty dressing room, overcome with excitement and anticipation at the prospect of seeing her. Although originally written for a lyric tenor, the aria is now also commonly sung by sopranos. Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne:
By 1919, Mignon had enjoyed 1,500 performances at the Opéra-Comique in Paris where it opened. The opera’s popularity inspired this virtuoso showpiece, Romance et Gavotte de Mignon op.16, by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate. Here is a recording by Tianwa Yang. You’ll hear the familiar Gavotte melody around the 4:40 mark:
From a pedagogical perspective, Suzuki’s transcription is valuable for both bow arm and left hand violin technique. Staying mainly in the middle of the bow, the eighth notes allow the student to listen for short but “ringing” staccatos, feeling a sense of springy connection and release with the bow (toh, toh). Later, as the student becomes more advanced, the sixteenth notes can become a brushy spiccato. Eighth notes in measures 38 and 42 can lift with a feeling of the elbow pushing the bow towards the Frog. Frequent re-takes with the bow should be timed so as not to cheat the preceding quarter notes. In the four note trills in measure five, a small amount of bow should be used with quick, precise energy in the left hand.
In the middle section, finger placement of the low B-flats and Fs should be practiced slowly and carefully, maintaining relaxation and correct shape of the left hand. The B-flat major scale is helpful for intonation in this section. The student gets great practice alternating between F-sharps and Fs and Bs and B-flats in this piece.
Most importantly, Gavotte from “Mignon” is about capturing an immaculate French style. Precise (never rushing) rhythm and a feeling of flow and motion to the ends of phrases are essential to this sense of style.
Georges Bizet’s Carmen remains one of opera’s most popular hits, partly because of its rich and exotic melodies. These melodies were the inspiration for Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, written in 1883.
Franz Waxman offered another take on Carmen in his score for the 1946 filmHumoresque. Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie was originally written for Jascha Heifetz, but the score was recorded by a young Isaac Stern. Here is the film’s original trailer. The recordings by Heifetz and Stern are both worth hearing:
Pablo de Sarasate’s violin showpieces evoke the sunny, exotic warmth of Spain. A violinist and composer, Sarasate (1844-1908) contributed greatly to the development of the violin. Here are a few legendary performances of his short, technically dazzling pieces.
We’ll start with a performance of Zapateado from Midori’s 1990 Carnegie Hall debut recital. I featured another piece from this recital in a past post. Zapato is the Spanish word for “shoe.” Zapateado is a dance which originated with native Mexicans and was discovered by Spanish explorers who brought it back to Europe. You’ll hear violinistic effects such as left hand pizzicato, up bow staccato and harmonics:
Here is a 1952 recording of Ruggiero Ricci playing Playera. He is accompanied on the piano by the legendary violinist and teacher, Louis Persinger. Listen to the persistent underlying dance rhythm and the seductive vocal quality of the violin line:
Sarasate’s most famous piece may be Zigeunerweisen, or “Gypsy Airs.” Here is a 1959 recording of Michael Rabin with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Felix Slatkin. Rabin’s life was cut short tragically, but his recordings cement his legacy as one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists:
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Leave a comment in the thread below with your thoughts on these performances. Also, share your favorite Sarasate recordings. Which violinists do you particularly admire and why?