And the Permission to Perform the Original Version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto Goes To…

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It’s official: Maxim Vengerov has been given permission by the Sibelius family to perform the original version of the Sibelius violin concerto next year with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra!

Some of you might brush this off as trivial news. A highly respected virtuoso playing a relatively obscure version of an oft-performed concerto… no big deal, right? I wouldn’t be so dismissive – after all, he’s only like the 3rd person in history to have ever been accorded this privilege.

The landmark work is a staple in many a concert violinist’s repertoire and is hugely popular among audiences, but unknown to most is the fact that the concerto we’ve all come to know and love is actually a revision of an earlier work. Another barely known fact is that somewhere out there exists the piece in its original form – a diamond in the rough that rarely gets to see the light of day.

Historical perspective: The spurned masterpiece

The violin concerto was premiered in Helsinki on February 8, 1904 with Hungarian violin pedagogue Victor Novácek as soloist. Unfortunately, the premiere was a disaster. Sibelius had just finished writing the concerto in time for the performance and Novácek – who was arguably less-than-equipped with the virtuosic chops required by the piece – reportedly failed to pull it off. 

It was probably the resulting fiasco that prompted Sibelius to withdraw the publication of the concerto. He proceeded to make significant revisions, removing all parts which he thought didn’t work out, tightening the musical material and providing it more focus. The second version received its premiere in 1905, to critical acclaim. The revised version eventually rose to prominence, becoming one of the most beloved violin concertos in the entire literature, while the original version sank into oblivion, only to be unearthed in 1990 by virtue of a world premiere recording by then 24-year-old violinist Leonidas Kavakos with Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

James Leonard of AllMusic describes the original version of the Sibelius violin concerto as “more expansive, more discursive, more overtly romantic, and more overtly virtuosic.” Upon hearing, fans of the original concerto might be surprised to find that the revisions are more notable than mere re-orchestrations. For those whose ears have yet to touch base with the original version, it’s about time you listened to it:

Maxim Vengerov is set to breathe life to this closeted masterpiece with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (under the direction of Nicholas Carter) on November 28, 2015 in Brisbane.

The manuscript to the original version is heavily secured by the Sibelius estate and one has to ask permission from the family before performing it (be it for a live concert or a recording). Richard Wenn, the artistic director of the Queensland Symphony who also happened to be responsible for BIS’s 1991 marketing initiatives , managed to pull a few strings to sort special permissions from Sibelius’s grandson for this special performance, which incidentally coincides with Sibelius’ 150th birth anniversary.




Concert Violinist Required to Play Instrument During Brain Surgery (Video)

At what lengths will you go to save your career? For concert violinist Roger Fischer, he was willing to do anything… including undergoing a risky open brain surgery that required to him to play DURING the procedure.

Like he had any choice. And although the experimental surgery was under the helm of a brilliant neurosurgeon in the person of Dr. Kendall Lee, there was really no guarantee that it will succeed. Luckily for Fischer, it was a tremendous success, setting an important precedent for similar cases looking forward.

The Man Behind the Tremors: Violinist Extraordinaire

Roger Fischer has spent most years of his life building his music career – to great success. With a bachelor’s degree from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and a master’s degree from Indiana University, Frisch went on to create a name for himself in the world stage. He has received prizes from the Hermann Violin Competition and the Coleman International Chamber Music Competition and has enjoyed many years of active performance as a soloist, chamber musician, pedagogue, and orchestral musician. Today, he remains the Associate Concertmaster of the renowned Minnesota Orchestra, taking the lead among a group of highly talented musicians.

But all that was in peril when he was diagnosed with essential tremors back in 2009. If he were in any other profession, the tremors would have been a non-issue. Unfortunately, for someone who’s expected to bow smoothly 100% of the time, even the slightest loss of motor control could spell a permanent end to his career.

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Here’s Frisch holding a private concert inside the operating room. Image credit:

The Procedure

The surgical procedure performed on Fischer is called “Deep brain stimulation” and involves implanting electrodes within certain areas of your brain. Essential tremors are caused by abnormal electrical impulses being fired from the brain; the aim of implanting these electrodes, thus, is to regulate these abnormal impulses, thereby controlling the vexing symptoms of this debilitating disease.

It is common for this surgery to be done while the patient is awake. As a matter of fact, this method is preferred by many neurosurgeons so that they could talk to the patients during the surgery to make sure they’re hitting the right part of the brain.

In Roger Frisch’s case, however, the tremors are mild – so much so the the surgeon was worried that he might not be able to stimulate the right part of the brain. But after a lightbulb moment, he instructed engineers at Mayo Clinic to construct a specially designed bow – one with an accelerometer at the end – to translate his tremors into graphs which can help the surgical team identify the parts specific areas of the brain involved in his music making. Frisch was then asked to play while doctors were deep inside his brain.

Such insanity! Or as some internet commenters would have it – violinsanity!


From the WW1 Trenches: Stories Etched on a Violin Diary

Now here’s one oddity story that we just recently got wind of: a certain Ernest Johnson took self-expression with his violin to the next level, using it as a diary to detail his WW1 exploits. What used to be the stuff of family legends is already capturing mass interest… for an entirely understandable reason.

Yes, it’s not as detailed (or as significant) as Anne Frank’s, but this wartime diary is certainly worth the look.

The Man

Meet Ernest Johnson, a sapper who fought for Great Britain during the first world war. He was only 32 when he got drafted for the army and left behind his his wife and two children as he went out to serve the army.

Johnson, an amateur musician, brought along his violin with him. During his time at the trenches, he would play on his violin to entertain his comrades. Wartime favorites such as Roses of Picardy and Keep the Home Fires Burning flowed from his violin, providing a much-needed respite amidst all the warfare going on.

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The Violin

But Johnson’s violin served more than a music-making device. It was to become his “wartime diary”, keeping note of dates and milestones in his journey as a soldier – from the places they went to the battles he fought. Entries came in the form of etchings on the violin’s back, from the time he “Left Buxton for France, 8/8/1915” until four years later, when he would declare that he was already “Finished with army 18-2-19“.

The violin is of unknown provenance (although sticklers found themselves wishing it is not a Strad to begin with).

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In today’s world: A priceless heirloom and wartime relic

The violin was dredged up only recently by Ernest Johnson’s granddaughter who after years researching about the legendary violin diary, found it in an aunt’s loft, wrapped in a plastic bag.

She then had the historically significant violin professionally restored, making sure to keep the etchings intact for posterity to cherish.



This Old Stager Thinks Your Violin Recital Program is a Yawn Fest (VIDEO)

So you think you’ve already mastered the art of programming for a violin recital, eh? Please take the time to listen to this old stager – you might want to think again.

In this video masterclass he conducted for The Violin Channel, great American violin virtuoso Aaron Rosand tackled “The Lost Art of Violin Recital.” Watch, and learn:

Ah, this video reeks of nostalgia. True, he practically reminisces the golden age of violin recitals throughout, but before you dismiss his claims as baseless lambasting of modern trends, let’s get level headed with things: he actually does make legitimate arguments in some of the critical issues he tried to address.

  • “I feel a recital is not complete until you show what the music written for the violin can do for the instrument.” Because you know, the violin’s supposed to be the star of the show. Case in point: programming too many Beethoven and Brahms sonatas in one recital can leave one wondering if the applause at the end is really intended for the violinist. And am I the only one who thinks the Franck sonata is more appropriate in a piano recital?
  • “And, the thing that actually offends me, is that most of these recitals are being played with the music stand and reading the sonatas from music.” In other words, he doesn’t care if you have poor memory – if you can’t play your sonata by memory, then you’re not ready to give a recital.
  • “Pianist don’t neglect their great composers, Liszt and Chopin in recitals – but the violinists have somehow pushed the best repertoire for the instrument onto the back burner.” And the back burner’s not a great place to be. I understand that some people find Sarasate lacking in substance, but his works more than anything highlight the violinist’s virtuosity. Hence, they should form an integral part of the program and not just relegated to the encore area – a place where most works by the great violin composers go to die.
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So what should a good recital program be like? In his blog for The Strad, The great American virtuoso compared a good recital program to a “well-balanced meal” and went on to discuss what comprised a violin recital back in his  heyday:

 I often refer to the recital being like a well balanced meal. Begin with an appetiser to whet the appetite, follow up with the main course and top it off with dessert to please the palette. The format would usually begin with an 18th-century work to set the pace and to establish tone and classic style. This was followed by a major sonata, contemporary or solo works, and then virtuoso pieces, including transcriptions, in many encores. On rare occasions a concerto such as the Vieuxtemps Concerto no.5 or Paganini could even be found in a recital.

And a footnote on violin transcriptions:

Transcriptions seem to be forbidden in this era. And yet this was the very thing that made icons of artists such as Kreisler and Heifetz, who never omitted them in their recitals. There is a current trend in competitions to include a transcription by the above mentioned in audition tapes. The reason: to see if one has a sense of style. To play these works requires sophistication and taste. So why don’t we programme them anymore?  Are we becoming such musical snobs?

Hear, hear!

In a time where classical music can be accessed in a jiffy (and I may mean that in the literal sense, once I get to know how short a jiffy really is), going to recitals for the mere reason of hearing a musical performance can be such a drag. But a recital can be once again exciting, as it should be, if we bring back the magic that was lost with evolved programming.


Farewell, Maestro Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

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The whole world of classical music grieves the passing of one of the greatest modern masters of conducting, Maestro Lorin Maazel, who died at the ripe age of 84 due to complications following pneumonia. He passed away on July 13, 2014, at his home in Northern Virginia.

From prodigy to doyen: A peerless musical journey

Maazel started learning violin and conducting at ages 5 and 7, respectively. A student of noted Russian-American violinist Vladimir Bakaleinikoff, Maazel made his podium debut at the age of 8. At the age of 11, he was able to share the podium with British conductor Leopold Stokowski. The great Arturo Toscanini was also greatly awed by the young Maazel’s talent, and was responsible for giving the promising conductor his first regular conducting stint at the age of 12. By the age of 15,he has already conducted most of the major orchestras in the US.

He went on to conduct at least 150 orchestras in his long-lasting career. For the past 75 years, he has led over 5,000 concert and opera performances and has collaborated with some of the leading artists that has sprung forth in each generation. He is also a prolific recording artist, having produced over 300 recordings – among them the complete cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and Schubert.

Of worthy note is his position as the artistic director of Castleton Festival – a festival that aims to bolster the budding careers of up-and-coming major talents – which he founded courtesy of the sale of his 1783 Guadagnini Violin.

While mostly known for being a magnificent conductor, Maestro Lorin Maazel is also an accomplished violinist of the highest order. We pay tribute to his inimitable musical genius with a throwback – a concert filmed in the early ’60s featuring the then young and dashing Maazel in a fiery performance of a Mozart violin concerto.

Rest well, Maestro. While you will be missed, your music will live on.



The Art Of Preparing For The Stage

Discovering how artists prepare for concerts is definitely an exciting pursuit. Artists vary so much in so many different ways that one expecting any sort of pattern or similitude would be devastated. Even some of our modern artists (not necessarily good ones) exhibit an entire gamut of pre-show rituals – case in point are two of today’s hottest stars: Rihanna has her group prayer huddle, while on the other end of the continuum is Miley Cyrus who has her 14-year-old  sister check if her p***y is showing.

Classical musicians, on the other hand, do not have to worry about their external genitalia popping out during a concert, so having someone police them on that regard is out of the question – but that doesn’t mean their pre-show rituals are any less interesting.

In a video for The Violin Channel, Ray Chen – one of my favorite young violinists today – talks about how he manages pre-performance jitters through a tri-step backstage routine:

Fly? Check. Violin tuning? Check. Air pistols? Check that (so long he doesn’t shoot).

Now we know how Ray Chen shoos away the evil spirit of stage fright, it’s probably best to learn how other classical stars do it. A special series from titled “A Musician’s Guide to the Pre-Concert Warm-Up” paints a revelatory portrait of some classical artists just before they take their first steps toward the stage.

Italian coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli reportedly likes things mellowed down just before she goes in a frenzy hitting all the high notes. A light meal, a light nap, and a momentary period of absolute silence are all that she needs to produce the very voice that has been enchanting us for decades.

Meanwhile, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is a fan of the “lip trill” and also confessed to doing siren-like sounds across his range just to wake the voice up. With his incredible open sound, one wouldn’t guess that its been sleeping all along.

Lang Lang, well, plays some octaves on the piano. Because he’s a remarkably good pianist who can command a flurry of octaves at will. No question about that.

My favorite on the list, however, is that of Yo-Yo Ma. I don’t know about his wife, but I wouldn’t get too jealous to learn that he’s nurturing another relationship… with his cello. In a snippet of his interview, he says “When I make the first sound, I always want it to be a friendly sound. You’re not gunning the motor; you’re trying to just ease it in and feel the lay of the land, because you’re about to enter into some kind of partnership.”

How about you? How do you prepare for the stage?



Two Stradivari Instruments Fail To Sell

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The Macdonald viola on exhibit. Image credit:

Stradivari instruments are some of the most valuable commodities in the world, so it is always a wonder how they even get sold at auctions. But I guess there are always some people willing to pay the price for premier quality instruments, no matter how high it is – well, almost always.

These past weeks, two Strad instruments were put up for auction in some major auction events. One is the “Kreutzer” violin of the Huguette Clark fame. It was dubbed by copper magnate William Clark as the “most fabulous violin in the world” and was valued at around $10 million, making it one of the more expensive Stradivarius violins. The other one is the famous “Macdonald” viola, one of the only 10 surviving Stradivarius violas today. With that rarity factor as leverage, you’d expect this baby to fetch a hefty sum, and true enough, it was expected to sell at $45 million, making it the most expensive instrument to go under the hammer had it been successfully sold.

Unfortunately, neither of these eight-figure instruments went to a happy buyer as offers received by the auction houses selling the instruments failed to reach the reserve price.

Is interest waning for these instruments? Apparently not, as the auction houses continue to anticipate higher offers from prospective buyers. Also, the all-Strad string quartet trend may not die down anytime in the near future, so those who still want to chime in are left with no other choice but to seek ownership of these two Strads.

But while the fates of the above instruments are still in limbo, it might be best to reassess the valuation process. $45 million for  might have been too steep a leap – and for a viola at that.