The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Another Stradivarius violin is rescued – and teaches us a valuable lesson about loss and perspective.

August 9, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Stradivarius violins may be rare, but they have sure come in for their share of adventure in the past year and a half.

First, there was the theft of the “Lipinski” violin owned and played by Frank Almond, the Paganini Competition-winning concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

That story made national headlines.

Now comes word of a second Strad (below) that has been rescued 35 years after it was stolen.

Ames Totenberg Stradivarius

This violin belonged to Roman Totenberg. He was the concertizing violinist and violin teacher at Boston University who was the father of the well-known and prize-winning legal affairs reporter for NPR, or National Public Radio, Nina Totenberg (below center with her two sisters). She is probably best known for her stories on the U.S. Supreme Court. When her father died in 2012 at 101, she also did a memorable obituary.

(At the bottom in a YouTube video, you can hear Roman Totenberg playing the Violin Concerto No. 1 by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, with the Boston University Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of his 90th birthday.)

Stradivarius Totenberg sisters

Roman Totenberg bought the so-called Ames Stradivarius for $15,000 in 1943. It is now said to be worth tens of millions of dollars after restoration. But his daughters promise it will be sold to a great violinist who will play it and perform with it as their father did — and not go into some museum or investment collection.

The story was all over the media -– maybe because it was good news amid so much bad news, a happy ending amid so many unhappy endings.

And what do you say when Nina Totenberg explains that her heart-broken father, who suspected who the thief was, moved on after the theft and bought another violin – a Guarneri del Jesu -– because he had personally suffered much bigger losses such as the deaths of his family in Nazi death camps during World War II.

That is perspective at a time when we sorely need perspective, especially about the worth of material objects versus humanist values.

Here is a story from NPR in which Nina Totenberg takes part and in which you can hear excerpts of her father playing a violin and piano sonata by Johannes Brahms and solo violin music by Johann Sebastian Bach:

http://www.npr.org/2015/08/06/427718240/a-rarity-reclaimed-stolen-stradivarius-recovered-after-35-years

And here is the big story it got in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/07/arts/music/roman-totenbergs-stolen-stradivarius-is-found-after-35-years.html


Classical music: NPR explores the music soundtracks for movies that nominated for Academy Awards and could receive an Oscar at tonight’s ceremonies airing on ABC-TV.

March 2, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

Oscar would no doubt say that movie soundtracks deserve special attention and serious consideration as art music.

YL Oscar foods statue

Of course purists will probably argue that movie soundtracks are not really classical music – except in certain cases like Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” “Shine,” “Amadeus” and such obvious fare.

And it would be hard to disagree with them.

Perhaps some would say that movies are the real operas of our day, except that the music plays a secondary or tertiary role.

Besides, more and more symphony orchestras are turning to concert programs that feature movie soundtracks, perhaps to attract new and younger audiences.

And radio stations seem to be mixing in and playing more and more movie music on their classical programs.

And more and more composers who aspired to be classical composers but who were forced earn a living in Hollywood –- Erich Wolfgang Korngold (below) comes immediately to mind –- are being increasingly programmed for their classical fare as well as their commercial Hollywood work.

erich wolfgang korngold at piano

Besides, “crossover” and “fusion” are the key words of the day in the classical music scene, as you can see with the success of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (below top) and the “new tangos” by Astor Piazzolla (below bottom), to name but two examples.

Silk Road Ensemble

astor piazzolla

So perhaps it is only natural that, in the run-up to the Academy Awards tonight, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence’ have featured several posts about the music that is featured in nominated movies, especially the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the late 110-year-old pianist (below, in photo by Yuri Dojc) who survived Auschwitz by playing music, especially the etudes of Frederic Chopin -– and who just died last week. (You can hear her speak and play the piano at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that has almost a million hits.) 

The Ear suspects her story, “The Lady in Number 6,” will win the Oscar for short documentary because she was the oldest survivor of the Holocaust and was a testament to the power of music, and therefore of all art and beauty, over evil and adversity. She embodied hope — a cherished value.

Here is a link to her fascinating and detailed obituary in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/28/world/europe/alice-herz-sommer-pianist-who-survived-holocaust-dies-at-110.html

Alice Herz Sommer CR Yuri Dojc

So as you prepare to watch the live broadcast on ABC-TV tonight starting at 6 p.m. CST (it will also be streamed live), here are links to consider when you think about music and films.

Here is the link to a story about music and documentaries:

http://www.npr.org/2014/02/28/283072030/music-takes-center-stage-in-oscar-nominated-documentaries

Here is an overview of several nominees, including William Butler (below) of Arcade Fire, for Best Score:

http://www.npr.org/2014/02/26/283026146/and-the-oscar-goes-to-mr-star-wars-or-arcade-fire

william butler of arcade fire

And here is a link to another story about quiet music — specifically, composer Alexandre Desplat and his score for “Philomena” starring Judi Dench (below) — and how hard it is to compose and perform:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/02/08/273151282/philomena-and-the-power-of-a-quiet-film-score

Judi Dench in %22Philomena%22

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