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

James Ehnes’ New Vivaldi Recording

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Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may be the most recorded piece ever written, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another great new addition to the catalogue. The newest contribution comes from Canadian-born violinist James Ehnes who has just released a Four Seasons disc with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on the Onyx Classics label. It’s always fun to hear different approaches to these famous Vivaldi concertos, some using baroque instruments and performance practice. Here, you’ll hear a full-toned, modern approach to the music. The recording also features Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata, as well as Leclair’s “Tambourin” Sonata, accompanied by pianist Andrew Armstrong.

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) was the greatest French violinist of the eighteenth century, “the Corelli of France.” Listen to the rich array of tonal colors and the intimate conversation which takes place between the violin and piano in the third movement of the Leclair, Sarabanda: Largo:

Leclair’s Op. 9, No. 3 violin sonata gets its nickname from this fun, folk dance-inspired final movement:

Finally, just in time for winter, here is the icy chill of the first movement of “Winter” from The Four Seasons:

Hugh Sung Launches “A Musical Life” Podcasts

Hugh Sung: pianist, teacher and musical Renaissance man
Hugh Sung: pianist, teacher and musical Renaissance man

 

Korean-American pianist Hugh Sung can be described as a musical Renaissance man. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Sung has performed throughout the world, collaborating with soloists such as Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, and Julius Baker, longtime principal flutist with the New York Philharmonic. As a techie and entrepreneur, Hugh Sung was one of the first professional musicians to imagine performances utilizing digital music scores (beginning with Microsoft’s Tablet PC in 2001). In 2008, he co-founded AirTurn, a company that develops a host of cutting-edge tech gadgets for musicians, including wireless page turning pedals. He is the author of From Paper to Pixels: Your Guide to the Digital Sheet Music Revolution. As a teacher, Sung, who served for 19 years on the Curtis faculty, has reached out to long distance students through Video Exchange Learning technology from ArtistWorks.

Now Hugh Sung is engaging with classical music enthusiasts in yet a new way. On Monday, he launched A Musical Life with Hugh Sung, a collection of weekly podcasts featuring fascinating interviews with renowned musiciansHe describes it as, “sharing stories about making music and the things that move our souls.”

A Musical Life has hit the ground running with an eclectic collection of offerings already in place. Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim opens up about his journey through the competitive world of classical music, from early disappointments and insecurities to finding ultimate joy and satisfaction in serving music. Sung does a two-part interview with legendary violinist Aaron Rosand, whom Sung first met as a student at Curtis and later joined as a collaborator. Rosand talks about the distinctive individuality of “golden age” violinists such as Jascha Heifetz, the role of the bow in tone production, the sound of his ex-Kochanski Guarneri del Gesù, his love of old jazz, and more. Other interviews include pianist Gary Graffman, Gaelic singers Isobel Ann and Calum Martin, and Jordan Rudess, a member of the progressive rock band, Dream Theater. In the first episode, A Lonely Song, Sung shares thoughts about the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.

A Musical Life is extraordinary, not only because of Hugh Sung’s musical background, but because of his talent as an interviewer. He is sincere and down to earth, asking all the right questions and allowing the discussion to unfold naturally. As a listener, you feel as if you’re sitting in a comfortable room with friends. As musical examples are discussed, we get to hear excerpts from the artists’ recordings. Enjoyable now, these interviews will live on as fascinating historical documents. It will be exciting to follow the podcasts at A Musical Life in the weeks ahead.

Hugh Sung and Aaron Rosand

Hugh Sung first met violinist Aaron Rosand as a student at the Curtis Institute. Later, Rosand and Sung collaborated on a series of recordings.

Here is excerpt from their 2007 recording of the three Brahms Violin Sonatas. (Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and Joachim’s Romance in B-flat are also included on the disc). This is the first movement of Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in G:

Here is a beautiful and rarely-heard piece from Rosand and Sung’s 2011 recording featuring Romances for violin: Sibelius’ Romance, Op. 78, No. 2.

Classical Music Has Long Been at Home on Sesame Street

Isaac Stern with Elmo
Isaac Stern plays a duet with Elmo

In August came the surprise announcement that the popular children’s television program Sesame Street will be moving to HBO. (Reruns will still appear on PBS). The show’s nonprofit producers reached a five-year agreement with HBO. For 45 years Sesame Street has been freely available to the community on Public Broadcasting.

Sesame Street‘s controversial move has raised broader questions about the commodification and privatization of the arts and education at the expense of the public realm. The effect on future programming remains to be seen. But a quick glance back shows that classical music has long been at home on Sesame Street, perhaps giving some children their only exposure to the art form.

Here is a sampling of some of the prominent musicians who have appeared on Sesame Street over the years. Many of these skits involve wacky and unsophisticated comedy. (When Isaac Stern asked for “an A” as a tuning note, he was presented with the letter A). The muppets seem to be asking the questions children might ask if they were there.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

The Kronos Quartet

Renée Fleming

Gustavo Dudamel

Wynton Marsalis

Lang Lang

Yo-Yo Ma

Seiji Ozawa

Itzhak Perlman

Giora Schmidt’s New Violin

violinist Giora Schmidt
violinist Giora Schmidt

American-Israeli violinist Giora Schmidt challenges the assumption that old Italian violins are superior to modern instruments. In 2011, Schmidt purchased a violin, made in 2000, by Philadelphia-based luthier Hiroshi Iizuka. For about eight years before, he had played fine Italian instruments on loan: a 1753 Milan Guadagnini and a 1743 Guarneri del Gésu. Million dollar-plus price tags often make these violins inaccessible to performers, who rely on generous donors. Schmidt was one of ten violinists who participated in the much-publicized 2012 “blind test” study in which modern violins often beat their older counterparts.

In this fascinating violinist.com interview with Laurie Niles, Giora Schmidt talks about the reasons he was drawn to a modern violin. In this clip, he plays the instrument and talks about the optimal setup of a violin (for non-violinists, type of strings, position of the sound post and bridge, and bow can alter the sound of the instrument greatly). He also talks about the ways the violin has changed and developed as it’s been played.

You can hear Giora Schmidt’s violin in action in this 2013 live performance of Robert Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor at New York’s Merkin Concert Hall. Do you hear anything “fresh” and “new” in the sound that suggests when this violin was made? (We discussed this stormy and Romantic piece briefly in a past Listeners’ Club post).

Dmitry Sinkovsky’s Hardcore Vivaldi

Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky
Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky

 

There’s an old joke that Antonio Vivaldi didn’t write 500 concertos, he wrote the same concerto 500 times. Vivaldi’s own performances were undoubtedly infused with a virtuosic freedom and sense of spontaneity that grew out of improvisation and ornamentation. Robbed of these elements, modern performances of Vivaldi can sometimes sound formulaic, like bland elevator music.

But if you want to hear just how exciting and adventurous Vivaldi’s music can be, listen to the edge-of-your-seat period playing of Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. A few weeks ago, Sinkovsky appeared with Belgian baroque ensemble B’Rock (Baroque Orchestra Ghent) at the BBC Proms (Listen to that concert here). Notice the stunning virtuosity in the cadenza of the Violin Concerto in D major, RV 208 ‘Grosso Mogul,’ towards the end of the concert. In moments like this, Sinkovsky perfectly captures the fun-loving abandon of this music.

Below is Dmitry Sinkovsky’s 2012 recording, Concerti per Violino “Per Pisendel” with Il Pomo d’Oro. He talks about the recording here. Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) was a German violinist and composer who led the Court Orchestra of Dresden. Pisendel studied with Vivaldi around 1716 and received the dedication of several of Vivaldi’s scores.

Concerto for Violin, Strings and B.C. in C major RV 177, which opens the recording, explodes with an almost Stravinsky-like punch and some jarring dissonances (0:40). At moments, Sinkovsky’s tone takes on a strikingly vocal quality, interspersed with percussive effects (3:50). The D major concerto which follows (RV 212a) features an extended cadenza, which daringly cycles through a series of keys (beginning at 17:22).

Perlman Turns 70

violinist Itzhak Perlman
violinist Itzhak Perlman

 

A belated happy birthday to Itzhak Perlman who turned 70 on Monday.

Perlman rose to prominence during the second half of the twentieth century, displaying musical warmth, technical panache, and an unusually thick, singing tone, rich in overtones. He is one of only a handful of front rank musicians who have also achieved celebrity status. In 1964, at the age of 18, he captured public attention with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He went on to perform on Sesame Street, on the soundtrack of the movie Schindler’s List, and at President Obama’s first inauguration. Here is a clip from a 1980s performance at the White House, and here is another from 2012. Warm, fun-loving and unpretentious, he is the perfect ambassador for classical music. In recent years, he has focused more on teaching (watch masterclass clips here and here) and conducting.

Here is Perlman playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Perlman’s recording of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas with Daniel Barenboim is still one of my favorites:

Here is Pablo Sarasate’s Zapateado with pianist Samuel Sanders:

The Lydian String Quartet, Up Close and Personal

The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)
The Lydian String Quartet (photo by by Susan Wilson)

 

Here are two clips which provide an intimate, virtual front row seat to the excellent, Boston-based Lydian String Quartet. You’ll get a sense of the subtle communication that takes place between members of a fine chamber music group. Hours of rehearsing together allow for spontaneous musical conversations to unfold as one voice reacts to the timing and phrasing of another.

Formed in 1980, the Lydian String Quartet won the 1984 Walter W. Naumburg Award for chamber music. The group’s varied repertoire includes numerous works by living composers. The members of the quartet are faculty members at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many years ago, as a student, I was lucky to spend a few weeks one summer studying with “the Lyds.”

Here is the first movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130. Completed in November, 1825, this music takes us into the strange world of Beethoven’s late string quartets. First violinist Daniel Stepner talks about the music here.

…and here is the first movement of Ravel’s string quartet. Second violinist Judith Eissenberg offers a few thoughts about the music here.

  • the Lydian String Quartet’s website
  • Find the Lydian String Quartet’s recordings at iTunes, Amazon