Sunday, December 25, 2016

Higinio Ruvalcaba

Higinio Ruvalcaba (Rodolfo Higinio Ruvalcaba Romero) was a Mexican violinist, conductor, and composer born (in Yahualica, Jalisco) on January 11, 1905.  He is probably the best-known Mexican violinist of all time, although not the best-known Mexican classical musician.  His first lessons began at age 4 with his father, an upholsterer and cellist and member of the local band.  He began playing violin left-handed because one of his first teachers played left handed (with the bow held by the left hand) and simply had the young child imitate him.  Later on, while still very young, Ruvalcaba studied with Federico Alatorre, Ignacio Camarena, and Felix Peredo (Director of the String Academy in Guadalajara), three violinists from Guadalajara.  With these teachers, he was obligated to switch from left-handed playing to right-handed playing.  (In the history of violin playing, there are extremely few left-handed players, although there are a few left-handed players who play right-handed – concert violinist Caroline Goulding is one.)  He gave his first public performance at age 5 at the Degollado Theatre in Guadalajara.  Several sources state that his father took him around taverns and dance halls to earn money to help support the family.  He was also a street musician for some time.  There are many other classical musicians who did the same as kids – Johannes Brahms, Theodore Thomas, Carl Nielsen, and Marie Hall come to mind.  According to one source, Ruvalcaba made his formal debut with the Guadalajara Symphony playing the first Bruch concerto (the one in g minor) at age 11 – another source says age 10 and still another says age 12.  In 1916, he became a member of the string orchestra directed by Peredo and also joined Peredo’s string quartet as first violinist – Peredo (who had been playing first violin) switched himself to second violin.  In 1918, Ruvalcaba joined the Guadalajara Symphony where he played cello and viola in addition to violin.  He was 13 years old.  In 1920 (some sources say 1922) he relocated to Mexico City.  He entered the National Music Conservatory in 1922.  He was 17 years old.  There, he studied with Mario Mateo, a Spanish violinist, until 1925.  It has been said that he joined the YMCA and took up boxing and physical fitness at that time.  It has also been said that he fractured the middle finger of his left hand and lost visual acuity in his right eye as a result of boxing.  For a while – probably while still a student and shortly thereafter – he played in a local band (conducted by Miguel Lerdo De Tejada) where he was obligated to wear a police uniform and also (sometimes) play guitar.  He had also founded, back in 1921, a string quartet which took his name – Cuarteto Clasico Ruvalcaba.  As far as I know, it remained active until 1942 but it only gave concerts in Mexico.  Ruvalcaba joined the second violin section of the National Symphony in Mexico City in 1928.  He was 23 years old.  In 1931, he soloed with this orchestra playing Wieniawski’s second concerto.  In 1935, he became concertmaster of the National Symphony.  He was 30 years old.  Five years later, he was fired by conductor Carlos Chavez for insubordination.  A similar thing happened to concertmasters Scipione Guidi (in 1942 in St Louis) and Max Bendix (in 1896 in Chicago) under conductors Vladimir Golschmann and Theodore Thomas, respectively.  One source states Ruvalcaba was also concertmaster and conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Mexico City – presumably after his stint with the National Symphony - although I could not verify that information.  Several sources state that for 25 years (1942 to 1967), Ruvalcaba played first violin with the famous Lener Quartet (Joseph Smilovitz on second, Sandor Roth but later Herbert Froelich on viola, and Imre Hartmann on cello) but some sources say he joined the quartet in 1959.  Still others say he joined the quartet in 1948, after the first violinist (Jeno Lener) died.  The actual documented date Ruvalcaba joined the quartet is (October) 1942 – it gave its first concert on December 4, 1942, at the Palace of Fine Arts.  (The Lener Quartet, which was founded in 1918 and very famous in its time, was the first to record all of Beethoven’s string quartets.)  Many sources state that Ruvalcaba loved to play chamber music, a fairly common sentiment among concert violinists.  Ruvalcaba ultimately concertized in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., playing under famous conductors such as Erich Kleiber, George Solti, Sergiu Celibidache, and Antal Dorati.  He gave world premieres of many works by Mexican composers (some of which were dedicated to him), including the violin concerto by Hermilio Hernandez in 1968.  He also formed a duo, in 1946, with pianist Carmen Castillo Betancourt who also became his third wife in that year.  He briefly held the post of Principal conductor of the Puebla Symphony Orchestra; although I was not able to determine which years he held the post.  Ruvalcaba was also a studio musician for many years, participating in well over 200 film soundtrack recordings.  As a composer, Ruvalcaba began early in his career, writing about 14 string quartets by age 15.  He wrote eight more after that.  Of that total (22), numbers 2, 4, and 6 survived.  The others were either destroyed or lost.  Quartet number 6 was composed in 1919 but not premiered until November 17, 1955 (by the Lener Quartet in Mexico City.)  Here is one movement from the work.  He also wrote three (or four) violin concertos, a bass concerto (Concierto Miramon), a piano quintet, two string sextets, many works for violin and piano, many salon pieces for piano (some including voice), a transcription of 22 of Paganini’s 24 Caprices for violin and piano (I don’t know which two he left out), and a symphonic poem.  You can listen to his gypsy dance for violin and piano here.  I do not know whether Ruvalcaba ever owned or played a modern violin or an old, Italian violin such as a Guadagnini, Guarnerius, or Stradivarius.  Here is an audio file of Ruvalcaba playing Manuel Ponce’s violin concerto – it appears to be a studio recording.  In 1970, Ruvalcaba suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed while playing Bach’s E major concerto.  As far as I know, he never played in public again.  He was 65 years old.  Ruvalcaba died (in Mexico City) on January 15, 1976, at age 71.  

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Katariina Maria Kits

Katariina Maria Kits (Katariina Kits) is an Estonian violinist born (in Tallinn, Estonia) on May 2, 1995.  She is known for having more than 815,000 views on a YouTube post when she was only 15 years old.  Here is that post.  Unless I am seriously mistaken, she is still a student at one of five music conservatories (I don’t know which one) in Trossingen, Germany, although she has been concertizing since she was a teenager.  She is also known to love violin competitions.  I do not know at what age she first began her violin studies but in 2002 she entered the Tallinn Music School.  She was 7 years old.  Her first teacher there was Marge Lille.  She has studied (in masterclasses) with Pavel Vernikov* in Italy and Alf Kraggerud in Norway.  Kits won second prize in the Estonian National String Competition when she was barely 11 years old.  A year later she won second prize in the Enescu Violin Competition in Romania.  She has already toured Europe and Australia as soloist with different orchestras.  Here is an outstanding video of hers playing the 5th Mozart concerto in a competition.  It is a mesmerizing and memorable performance (second to none) and it is not yet on YouTube.  It is quite possible (although I don't know for sure) that Kits has a twin brother who is a cellist with whom she sometimes performs.  Kits speaks three languages fluently - German, French, and English. As do other young prominent violinists, she plays a modern violin made in Cremona, Italy, in 2007. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mari Samuelsen

Mari Samuelsen (Mari Silje Samuelsen) is a Norwegian violinist born (in Hamar, Norway) on December 21, 1984.  She is well-known for having the most views for one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos on YouTube – more than 13,890,000.  That is probably a record for a classical musician on YouTube.  It is a really superb performance.  However, although she is a supremely gifted artist and technically brilliant, her discography is truly tiny – the reasons for that, as far as I know, are a mystery.  She began violin lessons at age 3 then began studying with Norwegian violinist and teacher Arve Tellefsen from age four.  After about ten years, she began studying with Stephan Barratt Due in Oslo.  She also later studied with well-known pedagogue Zakhar Bron in Switzerland.  In addition, she attended masterclasses with Ivry Gitlis, Ana Chumachenco, Midori, Donald Weilerstein, Pamela Frank, and Robert Mann.  Samuelsen’s career is well-established in Europe although she has performed in several venues in the US as well.  She has also played with several major orchestras led by high profile conductors in some of the world’s great concert halls.  As far as I know, she has never entered any violin competitions.  On August 25, 2016, Samuelsen and her cellist brother (with whom she frequently performs as a duo) gave the American premiere (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) of a work for violin and cello by the late film composer James Horner.  Samuelsen plays a 1773 Guadagnini violin on loan from a Norwegian foundation.  Here is one YouTube video of hers (Vivaldi) and here is another (variations on the theme God Save the King by Adrien Servais and Joseph Ghys.) 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sergei Stadler

Sergei Stadler is a Russian violinist, teacher, and conductor born (in Saint Petersburg) on May 20, 1962.  Although he took first prize (alongside Victoria Mullova) in the famous Tchaikovsky Competition (in 1982) and the Grand Prize in the Jacques Thibaud Competition (in 1980 – one source has it as 1979), he is not as well-known as one might expect.  However, he has developed a very successful career in Russia and Europe, having played in most of the important concert venues.  He is also an opera conductor.  Stadler actually began his music studies in piano, taking lessons from his parents, although his father was a professional violinist.  He entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at age 12.  He studied violin with Boris Sergeyev in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg.)  He also later studied with Mikhail Vaiman, Victor Tretyakov, Leonid Kogan, and David Oistrakh.  From 1984 to 1989 he taught at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.  In his career as a teacher, he has conducted master classes in Europe and the far east.  He has also founded several performing organizations - the Hermitage Music Academy, and the New Saint Petersburg Symphony are among them.  He has about 30 CDs to his credit – one source says 50 – including one with all Beethoven Sonatas, accompanied by his sister Julia.  Here is one video of his on YouTube.  

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Vaclav Hudecek

Vaclav Hudecek is a Czech violinist, conductor, and teacher born on June 7, 1952.  He is known for his effortless, natural artistry and having been one of David Oistrakh’s last students.  His recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (with the Virtuosi di Praga - 1992) is the most successful classical recording in the Czech Republic’s history.  He has recorded standard concertos under the direction of famous violinists, namely, Igor Oistrakh, Pavel Kogan, and Dmitry Sitkovetsky, who are themselves sons of famous Russian violinists.  I do not know who his first teacher was but I do know he later studied and graduated from the Prague Conservatory.  His studies with David Oistrakh took place between 1970 (or 1971) and 1974.  One of his early successes took place on November 11, 1967 when he appeared as soloist with the Royal Philharmonic in London.  He was 15 years old.  He has concertized throughout the world and played in the most prestigious venues as well as participated or led renowned music festivals in Europe, Japan, and Australia.  Hudecek has also presented master classes in Canada, Germany, and Japan, as well as other countries.  He plays a 1729 violin constructed by well-known violin maker Antonio Stradivari.  There are several YouTube videos of his performances, including this one.  His recordings are easy to find on the internet.  

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Enric Casals

Enric Casals was a Spanish violinist, composer, teacher, and conductor born (in Barcelona) on July 26, 1892.  He is now completely forgotten, unlike his older brother, the cello player Pablo Casals.  His first studies were with his father.  Later on, he studied with a little-known teacher, Rafael Galvez.  He then traveled to Brussels where he again studied with little-known teachers: Mathieu Crickboom and Joseph Jongen.  I do not know if he ever settled in Brussels.  In Europe, travel distances from one large city to another are not great so commuting and setting up temporary residence in any one place for a few weeks just to study is no big deal.  From 1910 to 1912 he was solo violinist with the Barcelona Symphony.  Casals was now 18 years old.  Between 1912 and 1914, he played with the Kurot Symphony in Saint Petersburg.  I do not know where he was between 1914 and 1918 – the war years.  He moved to Prague in 1918, becoming a pupil of Frantisek Suchy, another little-known teacher.  He was 26 years old.  I do not know if Casals graduated from any conservatory after his many years of study.  By 1920, he was back in Spain.  Between 1920 and 1936 he was playing and (sometimes) conducting the Pablo Casals Orchestra.  Whether he was the concertmaster or just a section player is anyone’s guess.  I didn’t trouble myself with researching that detail of his career.  During almost the same time, he also played in the orchestra of the Gran Teatro del Liceo (1924-1935.)  It is common practice – even in modern times – for musicians to play in various ensembles simultaneously when scheduling allows it, giving the musician enough playing opportunities to make a living.   In 1921, Casals founded the Enric Casals String Quartet and did a lot of touring with the quartet.  I don’t know when the quartet was disbanded.  It’s possible that the quartet was active until 1940.  Casals later devoted a lot of his time to conducting and composing.  From 1940 to 1942 he was permanent conductor of the Orquesta Iberica de Concerts and also served as resident conductor of the Orquesta Profesional de Camara in Barcelona for several seasons.  Other orchestras which he guest conducted were the national orchestras of Portugal, Hungary, Greece, and Mexico, as well as the famous Lamoureux Orchestra of Paris.  He founded the Casals Music Institute and was a director of the Prades Festival (in France) from 1955 to 1983.  His compositions include a violin concerto, a cello concerto, and a suite for cello.  Casals died on July 31, 1986, at age 94. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Franz Vecsey

Franz von Vecsey (Ferenc Vecsey) was a Hungarian violinist, conductor, and composer born (in Budapest) on March 23, 1893.  He was a child prodigy in the early part of the last century but is for the most part now forgotten.  There are a few YouTube audio files which attest to his unbelievable artistry at a very young age.  Bela Bartok served as his piano accompanist for a time.  The Sibelius violin concerto was dedicated to him (in 1905) when he was only 12 years old.  Although he did not premiere the concerto, he first played the Sibelius concerto one year later.  His first teacher was his father, Lajos Vecsey.  He studied with Jeno Hubay from age 8.  It has been said that he became Hubay’s favorite pupil.  (Eugene Ormandy and Joseph Szigeti also studied with Hubay.)  His debut took place on May 17, 1903 in Berlin.  He was ten years old and on that occasion played the Beethoven concerto while Joseph Joachim conducted the orchestra.  Afterward, he studied with Leopold Auer in St Petersburg, Russia.  Jeno Hubay dedicated his third violin concerto (probably his best-known among the four he composed) to Vecsey.  Later, after concertizing for about ten years, Vecsey married into an aristocratic family, as did four or five other famous violinists (Teresina Tua, Johanna Martzy, Cesar Thomson, and Georges Enesco come to mind.)   He managed his career from a palace in Venice.  It has been suggested that he became psychologically scarred after serving in the Austrian army during World War One and that his career suffered as a result.  He was very interested in a conducting career in the mid-1930s but became seriously ill just about then and died after an unsuccessful operation in Rome.  Vecsey’s compositional output consisted mainly of miniature violin works, one of which is Le Vent (Caprice number 1), a rather difficult work which is still very popular today.  A 1716 Stradivarius instrument was among the violins he played.  It is now owned by an Italian philanthropic foundation, which also owns other great and valuable string instruments.  Here is a YouTube audio file where Vecsey plays a Paganini caprice.  Vecsey died on April 5, 1935, at age 42.  

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen (Carl August Nielsen) was a Danish violinist, composer, conductor, writer, and teacher born (in Norre Lyndelse, on the island of Funen) on June 9, 1865.  Although now remembered almost exclusively as a composer – in fact, Denmark’s greatest composer - he spent many years earning his livelihood as a violinist as well as an Army bugler.  His parents were most likely his very first teachers, although it was not their intention that he become a professional musician.  In late 1879, he became a bugler and trombonist for the army.  He was 14 years old.  Nevertheless, he continued to study the violin, sometimes performing at barn dances.  In 1881, he began studying privately with Carl Larsen, a custodian at the Odense Cathedral.  After receiving a release from his army job, he entered the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen in 1884 - one source calls this the Copenhagen Conservatory.  His violin teacher there was Valdemar Tofte, a very obscure violinist and teacher.  He left (or graduated) from the conservatory in late 1886.  He was 22 years old.  In 1887, he joined the second violin section of the Royal Danish Orchestra and remained there for about 16 years – one source says this happened in 1889.  Later on, he was also hired to conduct the orchestra every once in a while.  In 1910, he was officially appointed assistant conductor.  However, he had to give up this post in May of 1914.  All the while, he had been giving private violin and piano lessons simply to improve his income.  His opus 1 was premiered when he was 23 years old – September of 1888.  In 1916, he took a teaching post at the Royal Danish Academy of Music.  He was 50 years old.  He continued to teach there until he died.  Outside of Denmark, among the works that continue to be very popular are his symphony number 4, the violin concerto, the Aladdin Suite, the Helios overture, and his string quartet number 4.  He produced well over 100 works during his lifetime.  He also wrote - aside from voluminous correspondence - a set of short essays in 1925 and a memoir of his youth in 1927, both available in English translations.  Nielsen died on October 3, 1931, at age 66.  

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Johan Halvorsen

Johan Halvorsen was a Norwegian violinist, conductor, teacher, and composer born (in Drammen, Norway) on March 15, 1864.  He was the kind of violinist we do not encounter anymore.  We have lots of violinists who are also conductors and teachers – Joshua Bell, Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Jaime Laredo, Maxim Vengerov, and Leonidas Kavakos quickly come to mind – but no violinist-composers.  Although he composed many other works, Halvorsen will probably remain immortal due to his having composed one of the staples of the cello-violin (or viola-violin) repertoire – the famous variations on a theme by Handel.  After having studied in Oslo and Stockholm, he began his career as a concertmaster in Norway (1885) and Scotland (1888.)  He began his studies at age seven.  Later on, his teachers were Jakob Lindberg (in Stockholm), Adolph Brodsky (in Russia), Adolf Becker (in Berlin), and Cesar Thomson (in Switzerland.)  In 1889, he was appointed professor of violin at the Helsinki Music Institute.  In 1893, he was appointed conductor of the Bergen (Norway) Philharmonic.  He was 29 year old.  In 1899, he was appointed conductor of the National Theater in Oslo.  By this time, he had established himself as one of the top musicians in Norway.  He remained at the National Theater until 1929, the year he retired.  During this period, he composed a lot of incidental music for plays as well as concert music.  The famous Passacaglia was composed in 1897 although he later revised it several times.  In 1909, he wrote a violin concerto (Opus 28) which he dedicated to Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow.  After she premiered it (in the Netherlands) and played it a couple of times in Norway, the concerto was lost.  After that, it was believed to have been destroyed by Halvorsen although that was not the case.  In January of 2016, it was announced that the score had been discovered (by James Mason) among sheet music which had been donated to the University of Toronto many years before.  It had been misfiled.  The concerto will receive its 21st century premiere in July of this year – in Norway.  The soloist will be Henning Kraggerud.  Johan Halvorsen died on December 4, 1935, at age 71. Here is a video of the Passacaglia.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Uto Ughi

Uto Ughi is an Italian violinist, teacher, writer, and conductor born (in Busto Arsizio) on January 21, 1944.  His name has been closely associated with the National Academy of Saint Cecilia (in Rome) for many years.  He is a high-profile promoter of musical culture all over the world, but especially in Italy, as is Vladimir Spivakov in Russia.  Ughi has founded several music festivals along the way.  His discography covers most of the standard violin repertoire.  Because he came of age in the 1960s, he has had a chance to work with some of the legendary names in the conducting world (who are for the most part now dead) as well as the most current luminaries of the baton.  He began his lessons at age 4.  His father was an amateur violinist but his first formal teacher was a nameless violinist from the opera orchestra of La Scala.  At age 7, Ughi gave his first recital in Milan.  Though it’s hard to believe, according to one source, he played some Paganini Caprices as well as the ubiquitous Bach Chaconne at that recital.  Ughi studied for ten years at the Chigiana Music Academy in Siena (Tuscany.)  He also took lessons from George Enesco for a time.  He began his uninterrupted concertizing career in 1959 – he was 15 years old.  Among his pupils are Augustin Hadelich and Sayaka Shoji.  Ughi’s recording of Paganini’s fourth concerto is my favorite recording of that particular concerto.  Here is a YouTube video of one of his performances.  He has also recorded a seldom-played work – the Schumann concerto.  Here is the first movement from that recording - the second and third movements are here.  Between 1987 and 1992, he was the principal conductor of the Orchestra of the St Cecilia Academy.  Ughi has owned or played the Kreutzer Stradivarius (the one from 1701 – there are 4 Strads named Kreutzer), the General Kyd, the Ole Bull, and a Guarneri from 1744.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Russian Violin Makers

In terms of fame, and very likely in terms of expertise, Italian, French, and German violin makers have the Russians beat by a long shot. At least that’s the general opinion. Whether that is so because the violin was actually invented in Italy (around 1530) and the most prolific makers worked from there and were the first to become famous is anyone’s guess.  The names of da Salo, Amati, Stradivari, Tononi, Guarneri, Maggini, Carcassi, Storioni, Gagliano, Guadagnini, Ventapane, Rogeri, Ruggieri, Pressenda, Albani, Gobetti, and Montagnana, are certainly very well known.  Their violins are prized above all others.  On the other hand, Russian makers are not known at all.  This peculiarity is striking since the whole world knows that most of the world’s celebrated violinists are Russian.  To filter them further, most among these superlative Russian players are Jewish – Oistrakh, Goldstein, Kogan, Heifetz, Elman, Zimbalist, Seidel, Milstein, and Gitlis, to name a few.  So, why aren’t there any great Russian violin makers – makers whose names are household words – Jewish or otherwise?  Perhaps it has to do with tradition – like the tradition of exceptional French wine making or fine watch making by the Swiss.  After Amati (and his relatives) and other early makers started violin making enterprises, the violin construction economic engine took off; soon, imitators sprang up elsewhere in Italy - some of them really good.  Entire families (such as the Guarneris and the Stradivaris) got involved in the trade and the tradition of fine Italian violin making was thus established.  By the time the ideas and patterns for violin making spread to other parts of Europe, the Italians had been at it for more than fifty years.  Then the Italian violin virtuosos got going as well.  Up until 1750, they were dominant in the violin playing sphere.  Italian violinists like Corelli, Somis, Pugnani, Tartini, Geminiani, Vivaldi, Tommasini, and Locatelli had few (if any) corresponding contemporaries in the other European countries or Russia. There was a time when Spain ruled the seas.  There was also a time when the Roman Empire ruled the world.  Nothing lasts forever.  Who knows whether the Russian violin makers will not someday soon take over the business?  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Olga Bloom

Olga Bloom (Olga Bayrack Bloom) was a Russian violinist and violist born (in Boston, USA) on April 2, 1919.  She is best known as the founder of Bargemusic, a very successful venue for chamber music concerts which she founded in 1977, located in Brooklyn, New York, close to the famous Brooklyn Bridge.  Bloom began her violin studies at age four.  I do not know who her first teacher was although it could have been her father – he was an amateur violinist.  Later, she studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and at Boston University.  One of her teachers was Jacques Hoffman, associate concertmaster of the Boston Symphony.  None of the sources I visited stated whether Bloom graduated from the schools she attended and I didn’t bother to check any further.  In any case, Bloom moved to New York where she worked in pit orchestras and recording studios for many years.  At about age 57, she retired from regular playing and looked for other ways to make a living.  (Unless you are a star musician, as you get older, playing opportunities begin drying up – it happens all the time.  Then, if you don’t hustle a teaching post, you have to find other ways to make a living.)  She purchased a used barge for ten thousand dollars at about that time (with her own money) and the rest is history.  Bloom ran the Bargemusic operation for almost 30 years, until 2005.  She was 85 years old.  She was very devoted to chamber music and she famously said: "One gets the greatest gratification and fulfillment in working in concerted effort with one's peers."  Olga Bloom died on November 24, 2011, at age 92.