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The Houston Symphony Central and Bay Area Leagues have given the orchestra a literal “gift of music” in the form of a brand new Steinway concert grand piano. Houston Symphony League, Vice President of Fundraising, Betty Tutor led the campaign that collected almost $130,000 in donations to fund the purchase of the new instrument. In recognition of the League’s 75th Anniversary in 2012, they wanted to do something special for the Symphony’s Centennial Season, as well as honor Symphony founder and the very first League President, Miss Ima Hogg, who was an accomplished pianist.
The arrival of this melodious gift couldn’t have been more timely. Some of the greatest pianists in the world will be performing during the Symphony’s Centennial Season. Superstars like Kirill Gerstein, Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, Ingrid Fliter and Daniil Trifonov will each have the opportunity to dance their fingertips across the new Steinway.
The piano is a long-awaited and welcome gift to the organization. In 2001, the Symphony had the misfortune of losing two Steinways when Jones Hall was flooded from Tropical Storm Allison. The Symphony was only able to replace one of the Steinways thanks to a generous donation from Helen Rosenbaum in 2001. Currently, guest pianists can choose between that piano and another Steinway that is borrowed from Jones Hall’s Houston First. The addition of the League’s Steinway will give the orchestra great versatility, as guest pianists will now be able to choose which instrument best suits the repertoire that they are performing.
Selecting the new Steinway was an extraordinarily rare treat for a few lucky League and Symphony staff members. The final selection was made on Thurs, March 28, 2013 at the Steinway Factory in New York City. Kirill Gerstein narrowed the pool of pianos down to 4 or 5 and performed different works on the finalists for the Houston guests, including Mark Hanson and Steve Brosvik from the Houston Symphony staff and Vickie West, Lily Andress, Jo Dee Wright, Sybil Roos and Besty Garlinger from the Houston Symphony League. Gerstein then made his choice of one that he felt was the perfect fit for the acoustics in Jones Hall. According to Gerstein, this new instrument “has a larger sound than the current concert pianos and will be a great fit for all types of repertoire. If it sounds good now ‘at birth’ then it will only get better as it matures.”
Audiences can hear the debut of this new instrument when Kirill Gerstein performs Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Houston Symphony, led by Peter Oundjian, on September 12, 14 and 15. Kirill Gerstein and Houston Symphony Education and Community Programs Director Roger Daily will discuss the new Houston Symphony piano, how it was made, and how it was selected during the free Prelude pre-concert discussions that will take place at 7:15 p.m. before each of the concerts.
Check out this video of Kirill Gerstein working with a piano tuner to prepare our new piano for this weekend’s concerts:
Video by CultureMap. Read their full story here!
The Huberman Violin
By: Joshua Bell
This year my violin celebrates its 300th birthday.
Known as the Gibson ex Huberman, the revered instrument came into my life one fateful day during the summer of 2001, I was in London, getting ready to play a ‘Proms’ concert at the Royal Albert Hall and decided to stop by the famous violin shop J & A Beare to pick up some strings. As I entered the shop, Charles Beare was just coming out of the back room with a stunning violin in hand. He told me that it was the famous Huberman Strad, and of course I was instantly intrigued.
I soon learned all of the known details of the violin’s remarkable history, which is complete with twists and turns to rival the film that I had only recently finished working on -The Red Violin. Believed to be one of only five or six instruments made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari in Cremona, Italy, the violin has belonged to many, including the English violinist George Alfred Gibson. But it was its connection to Bronislaw Huberman that I found particularly fascinating and somewhat personal.
Huberman was a Jewish Polish violinist who lived from 1882-1947. He was a child prodigy who was revered for his remarkable virtuosity and daring interpretations. Huberman studied under Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and by the age of 11 he was already touring Europe as a virtuoso. It was during one of those early tours that he met the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who was only six at the time, and had not yet achieved the legendary status that he came to hold. The two musicians remained lifelong friends.
At 13 Huberman had the honor of performing the violin concerto of Johannes Brahms in the presence of the composer himself, who was stunned by his interpretation. According to biographer Max Kalbeck, “As soon as Brahms heard the sound of the violin, he pricked up his ears, during the Andante he wiped his eyes, and after the Finale he went into the green room, embraced the young fellow, and stroked his cheeks. When Huberman complained that the public applauded after the cadenza, breaking into the lovely Cantilena, Brahms replied, ‘You should not have played the cadenza so beautifully.’”
Huberman became one of the most celebrated musicians of his time, but it was in 1929 that his contribution to humanity took on an added dimension. During that year he visited Palestine and came up with the idea to establish a classical music presence there. During Hitler’s rise to power, Huberman had the foresight to realize he could save many Jewish artists while fulfilling his desire to start a Palestinian Orchestra. Huberman auditioned musicians from all over Europe. Those selected for the orchestra would receive contracts and, most importantly, otherwise impossible-to-get exit visas from their homeland to Palestine. Huberman raised the money for the musicians and then their families, even partnering with Albert Einstein to set up an exhaustive U.S. fundraising trip in 1936. By the end of that tour, the money for the orchestra was secured and sixty top-rate players had been chosen from Germany and Central Europe.
All in all, it was a fantastically successful tour, barring one particular performance at Carnegie Hall on February 28th. That night Huberman chose to play the second half of his concert on his ‘other violin’, a Guarneri del Gesu. During the applause following his performance of the Franck Sonata, Huberman’s valet walked on stage to inform him that his Stradivarius had been stolen from his dressing room. The police were called while Huberman tried not to panic, continuing optimistically with his encores. The instrument had previously been stolen in 1919 from a hotel room in Vienna but was recovered days later when the thief tried to sell it. This time, Huberman was not so lucky.
There are several versions as to exactly how and why the violin was stolen, but what we know for sure is that the instrument ended up in the hands of a young freelance violinist by the name of Julian Altman. Some say Altman’s mother convinced him to steal it; others report that Altman bought if off the actual thief for $100. Regardless, Altman took great pains to conceal the violin’s true identity, covering its lovely varnish with shoe polish and performing on it throughout the rest of his career, which included a stint as first chair with the National Symphony Orchestra during World War II.
Heartbroken, Huberman never saw his Stradivarius again. However, his great dream was fulfilled when the new Palestine Orchestra made its debut in December of 1936 with the great Toscanini on the podium. I like to imagine that my own relatives might have been in the audience on that opening night, as my grandfather was born there and my great grandfather was part of the first “Aliyah” of Russian Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1882. As for his violin, it was played by its suspected thief for over fifty years, and in 1985, Julian Altman made a deathbed confession to his wife, Marcelle Hall, about the true identity of the instrument. She eventually returned the violin to Lloyd’s of London and received a finder’s fee; and the instrument underwent a nine month restoration by J & A Beare Ltd which noted it was like “taking dirt off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”
The instrument was then sold to the late British violinist Norbert Brainin of the Amadeus String Quartet. Previous to my fortuitous encounter with the violin at J & A Beare, Brainin had once let me play it after a rehearsal of the Mozart g minor string quintet which I had the pleasure of playing with him one evening in the 1990s. “One day you might be lucky enough to have such a violin,” he had said prophetically.
And so here I was in 2001, buying some strings at the violin shop and I was introduced to the 1713 Stradivarius again. As it was handed to me, I was told it was being sold to a wealthy German industrialist for his private collection. However, after playing only a few notes on it I vowed that this would not happen. This was an instrument meant to be played, not just admired. I fell in love with the instrument right away, and even performed that very night on it at the Royal Albert Hall. I simply did not want it to leave my hands.
This violin is special in so many ways. It is overwhelming to think of how many amazing people have held it and heard it. When I perform in Israel with the Israel Philharmonic, I am always touched to think how many of the orchestra and audience members are direct descendants of the musicians Huberman saved from the Holocaust – with funds raised by concerts performed on the very same instrument I play every day. Who knows what other adventures will come to my precious violin in the years to come? While it certainly will be enjoyed and admired long after I am not around anymore, for the time being I count myself incredibly lucky to be its caretaker on its 300th birthday.
Joshua Bell performs on his legendary Huberman violin with the Houston Symphony September 20, 21, 22, 2013. Click here for more information!
The following is a portion of a blog post Kirill Gerstein wrote for The New York Review of Books:
Recently, the British pianist Stephen Hough reported on his blog that he had made “The most exciting musical discovery of [his] life: Tchaikovsky’s wrong note finally corrected.” The article questioned a note in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a large-scale, virtuosic piece that makes striking use of Russian folk themes. At the start of the concerto’s slow movement, the flute plays a phrase that consists of the notes A-flat, E-flat, F, A-flat.
In his article, Hough admits that the F has always bothered him, because when the piano restates the melody a moment later, the theme has a B-flat instead of an F (A-flat, E-flat, B-flat, A-flat).
The B-flat gives the melody phrase an entirely different shape and this shape persists in nearly every other appearance of the theme. What if the F at the start of the movement was a mistake, and B-flat had been intended?
As I read Hough’s piece I became anxious. I think this F is a charming anomaly, an instance of inexplicable compositional inspiration and lovely asymmetry that greatness often displays. I feel moved when I hear this alternation between the tender innocence of the F and the heightened expressivity of the following B-flat. Still, Hough had evidence to support his hunch: he had come across a manuscript of the work held in a library in Berlin. In that score, this potentially troublesome note is crossed out in blue pencil, and corrected, in script that seemed to resemble Tchaikovsky’s, to a B-flat.
Hear Kirill Gerstein perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto with the Houston Symphony, controversial note and all, September 12, 14, 15, 2013. Click here for tickets!
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto
September 12, 14, 15, 2013
Peter Oundjian, conductor
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Verdi: Overture to La Forza del Destino
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of
Respighi: Pines of Rome
To open the Centennial Classical Season, pianist Kirill Gerstein returns to Houston to captivate you with the delicate melodies and explosive fireworks of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.The evening will come to a raucous conclusion with blazing trumpets as the Consular Army marches along the Appian Way in Respighi’s Pines of Rome.
There are times in your life when you come upon something that defies any sort of logical explanation, a person with such a gift for music that it doesn’t even seem real. I met such a person this week in Houston. Seven year old Jonathan Okseniuk is his name. Jonathan, of YouTube Beethoven 5 fame, won a contest through KUHA, Classical 91.7. The contest was to “air-conduct” in a video. Submitting a new video for the contest, Jonathan entered. (After all, he IS now 7, so the one shot at age 3 is really quite out of date!) The prize…the opportunity to conduct the Houston Symphony.
We all know the stories of Mozart as a child. His father, Leopold, discovered quite early on that his violin/piano playing son was well above average. As a child, the young Wolfgang was able to memorize music on a single hearing, play very difficult music with relative ease and with very little study, and generally perform like a seasoned musician. These stories are amazing, and truthfully, seem almost unreal…until this week.
I received a call one day from the Houston Symphony office and was told that the winner of this competition would be conducting a piece on an upcoming concert of mine. Truthfully, this scenario happens to me quite often. Great people bid and win the chance to conduct a professional orchestra, or I pull a child up on stage at a concert to conduct something. I almost always choose a Sousa march. (Spoiler alert: Just in case the person conducting doesn’t really know how to conduct, it’s quite possible for a professional orchestra to play through the piece on their own). Usually I stand on stage with the guest conductor, start the orchestra and then leave the musicians and conductor to their own devices. Conducting an orchestra really is one of the most thrilling things that anyone can experience, and for me there is much joy in watching someone experience the power of a full symphony orchestra from the best seat in the house – the podium!
So, I chose John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and away we went. The day of the performance, I had a meeting with Jonathan to work through the logistics and make sure that he wouldn’t have a melt down on stage when he got to the podium. (Generally, I try to avoid melt downs at all costs!) You can only imagine how surprised I was when I sat down with him and began to talk through the upcoming experience and discovered that he was not only completely prepared, but he had the piece memorized…truly memorized. I asked him to conduct for me, and it was obvious that he could imitate the moves that he had seen, so sensing something special I started to challenge him. “What if you did this, or that?” I asked. He responded very well. Then I mentioned to him that there is a ritardando (gradual slowing down) the second time through the last section, but not the first in this particular march. He replied, “I know. Can I turn to the audience once the brass stand and ask them to clap along?” Sure!
After this initial meeting it was quite clear to me that he had a mind for music that was extraordinary. He not only imitated what he saw and heard, but he internalized it and understood it.
At the concert the orchestra was informed that a young person would be conducting the Sousa, but that was all they knew. He entered, climbed up on some crates that were added to the podium, and got into position. He took a moment with his arms up to clear his head, and then with clarity and purpose, he gave an upbeat and the orchestra began to play. Within about two measures (2 seconds) the orchestra realized that he was completely aware of what was going on. Within about 6 seconds he was directing the Houston Symphony! He asked them to play softer in places, and louder in others, and they did. They responded to his musical gestures and thoughts. Finally, they arrived at the place in the last section with the traditional ritardando. This was the first time, so no ritardando was needed yet. As they entered the passage, the orchestra had a slight instinct to slow, and he just kept conducting. They adjusted, and followed him. The second time around, he created the most natural ritardando imaginable. Everyone followed and the orchestra gave him exactly what he asked for!
Now, Jonathan is still seven years old and as a violin and piano student he has many years of learning ahead of him. Over time, he will learn how to manage and use his gift to bring music to people. He will develop and mature into a world class musician, if that is the path he chooses. But today, right now, Jonathan has a gift that I have never seen up close and it is a gift I will not soon forget. Jonathan receives music like most of us receive air or water. His gift is natural, and pure. The best part? He is the most “normal” kid you can imagine. I introduced him to Star Wars. I think he was as excited about Star Wars as he was conducting the Houston Symphony. May the force be with you, young Jonathan!
From Robert Franz’s blog Building Bridges with Music. CLICK HERE to read more of his posts.
This summer, we have planned a very special event in honor of our 100th year: Day of Music on July 13, 2013! This FREE 12-hour festival will showcase Houston’s diverse musical landscape. Attendees will spend the day at Jones Hall listening to dozens of free performances, beginning with a family concert in the morning and ending with a concert of favorite symphonic works in the evening. In between, on several different stages jazz groups, rock and blues bands, ethnic ensembles, choral ensembles and classical music groups will fill the air with a diverse range of sounds. Plus, attendees will have the chance to sample some of Houston’s finest food truck fare next door at Jones Plaza at The Day of Music Food Truck Fair, sponsored by Houston First. Leading up to the event, we will post several stories by our participating artists so that you can have a chance to learn some background information on the music you’ll be hearing at the festival!
Featured Artists: The ROCO Brass QuintetCalled “an inspiration and one of the most successful entrepreneurial projects in classical music,” by American music critic and composer Greg Sandow, River Oaks Chamber Orchestra is a professional chamber orchestra founded in 2005 by principal oboist Alecia Lawyer. With a core of 40 local and national professional musicians, “ROCO” has made a name for itself in Houston and beyond as a chamber orchestra whose performances are “the most fun you can have with serious music.”
Our 2013-2014 season includes main concerts featuring internationally acclaimed guest artists, “family friendly” concerts that include childcare and a late-afternoon start time, chamber concerts with wine, art and music pairings, and of course, great music! ROCO regularly features chamber ensembles drawn from within the full 40-piece chamber orchestra.
The ROCO Brass Quintet is one such group that has established its own fan following and a full season of performances in addition to ROCO main concerts. We invite you to get to know some of the most talented musicians in the world and to share in the musical jole e vivre that flows between musicians and audience at every ROCO concert. Listen to ROCO concerts rebroadcast nationally on American Public Media’s Performance Today and locally on Classical 91.7 KUHA Radio. Better yet, come to a concert and see for yourself why ROCO is “the most fun you can have with serious music.”
To learn more about River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, visit www.rocohouston.org
The ROCO Brass Quintet will perform at 7:00 p.m. at the front lobby stages.