FANFARE MAGAZINE (Jan/Feb 2010)
Feature Article by William Zagorski
Unearthing Buried Musical Treasures
In Fanfare 33:2, I favorably reviewed a Naxos release (8.570928) containing performances of Franco Alfano’s Cello Sonata and Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Piano. It was my first exposure to Alfano, a composer mostly remembered outside of Italy for his controversial completion of Puccini’s Turandot. I found those two chamber works exquisitely crafted and certainly worthy of inclusion in our universal chamber-music canon. They were graced with an Italianate sense of melody, underpinned by a subtle, French-like, harmonic structure. Most important, Alfano demonstrated a strong musical profile. His music cannot be mistaken for that of any other composer. The performances were technically superb, both gutsy and nuanced, and musically insightful, making this disc one to which I will return time and time again for the sheer pleasure of it.
I have long contended that our standard repertoire represents merely the proverbial tip of a vast and never-ending iceberg. Works are included or excluded from it, more often than not, for extra-musical reasons. Alfano’s career took a turn for the worse when Toscanini damned his completion of Turandot. The fact that Alfano enjoyed cordial relations with Mussolini, as did his compatriot, Gian Francesco Malipiero, also didn’t help matters much with the avowed anti-Fascist Toscanini, or with so many concert managers in the post-World War II world. Add to this that here in America, concert managers are generally loathe to include pieces on their programs that have little or no “name recognition.” They resort to statistical analyses proffered by consultants who define “the 100 works that America loves best” to the exclusion of a virtual, and ever growing, musical universe. As a result, contemporary composers suffer along with the composers of so many extraordinary musical works created in the past. In my radio work at WWFM, a station that allows its music hosts to program their own hours on the air, I and several of my colleagues are committed to exploring as much of this unbekannt territory as possible, and the audience response has been unabashedly positive. We now have a reputation, worldwide, thanks to Internet streaming, for being an outlet where one may encounter music heard nowhere else.
Enter Elmira Darvarova, a violinist who has served as concertmaster with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Grant Park Orchestra, among others, and is currently executive director of the New York Chamber Music Festival, and cellist Samuel Magill. From the evidence on that Naxos recording, they are indeed uncannily well matched as chamber players.
The game plan for this article was that I would attend their September 16th concert at Symphony Space in New York, attend a reception following it, and interview both Darvarova and Magill afterward. I arrived with my music-loving brother in tow. The program consisted of Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, (with the utterly simpatico violist Ronald Carbone, who played the rest of the program), Eugene Ysaÿe’s expressionistically knotty Trio “La Chimay,” Charles Marie Widor’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, (with pianist Linda Hall added to the ensemble), and Gernot Wolfgang’s jazzy Metamorphosis for violin, viola, cello, and piano.
Hearing Darvarova and Magill (along with pianist Scott Dunn) on that Naxos release was one thing. Watching Darvarova and Magill, et alia, perform is quite another. Having attended many chamber-music concerts in my lifetime, I found Darvarova enchantingly charismatic. Her focus and energy were mesmerizing. Across from her sat Samuel Magill, quietly and utterly poised as he matched her phrasing and articulation to perfection, and underpinned it with unerring intonation and, where called for, boldly ravishing tone. This was fine ensemble playing indeed. The performance of the Ysaÿe Trio was a particularly gala event, in that Darvarova had invited the descendants of the Ysaÿe clan to attend, and they did, from both Belgium and Canada. I found the performance of Widor’s Piano Quartet revelatory. Having known this composer only from his organ symphonies, I was unprepared for what I heard. In harmonic language, it was quite post-Romantic in the manner of Fauré—full of ravishing harmonies and beautiful unisons in the strings. Near the end of its slow movement, Darvarova et alia actually executed perfectly realized portamentos, and the result was stunning. (As a defunct violinist, I must admit that I miss that now largely discredited device these days, and maybe that’s why I so often return to so many of my ancient pre-stereo recordings of standard orchestral repertoire.) Everything about that concert was executed on a very high level. Some of the insightfully cogent program notes were authored by Gernot Wolfgang (b. 1957), whose Metamorphosis provided a bracing finale to the festivities.
During the reception I had the honor of sitting next to Samuel Magill’s father and his wife, both from North Carolina, and could probe him as to how his son came to the cello and had ascended to such heights. It was, we concluded, all about empowerment. Our children merely come through us, and if we can see their highly individual talents and foster them, there is no limit to what they can achieve. I got to meet with a few of Ysaÿe’s descendents, among them a high-school-aged girl who was an enthusiastic violinist in her school orchestra (what a pedigree!). In the best sense of the phrase, the beat goes on. I also got to meet with composer Gernot Wolfgang and with David Burnett, the lead violin instructor of The Harlem School of the Arts. He and I both agreed that classical music is not something that was, but something that is. I wholeheartedly thanked him for his efforts toward insuring its immortality. At the close of the reception, which ran far past midnight, both Darvarova and Magill were too exhausted to do the interview. They still had tomorrow’s demanding concert to rehearse, so I resorted to e-mailing my questions to both of them a few days later. Here are the results of that virtual interview.
W. Z.: Having heard you on your Naxos Alfano release and at the Symphony Space concert a few days ago, your wondrous feeling for ensemble give and take, I would like to know if you can tell me how you came to know each other. More to the point, how did you find that you were, musically speaking, such kindred spirits? You play together as if you are one.
E. D.: I have loved Sam Magill’s playing since the day I first met him, which was at his audition for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I was on the audition committee for associate principal cello, and we had no idea who the candidates were, since the auditions were behind a screen. Sam’s great tone and fine musicianship had immediately impressed me. Later that day, when Sam was announced as the audition winner and we all got to shake hands with him as our new associate principal cellist, I noticed immediately his pleasant and kind personality, and knew from this moment that we would be friends. His particular sound has forever appealed to me. To phrase the music in a way that matches his (including shifts and slides) is very fulfilling. The abundant unisons that we encountered in the Alfano Concerto not only gave us an opportunity to match our timing, but also presented us with a forum to express how unanimous we are on sound production, vibrato speed, and amplitude of phrasing. I believe that the two of us inspire each other all the time, so to play as together as possible is not really any effort; it is a joy. Needless to say, we are also very close friends, getting along beautifully, and very attuned to each other. I believe that we are “kindred spirits” not just musically, but in many other ways.
S. M.: Elmira and I first met in 1991 in my first season at the Met. We worked closely because she was concertmaster and I was associate principal cellist, just three seats away. I loved her playing right from the start, and realized we played our instruments in a similar style. We draw the bow deeply into the string and utilize a romantic, somewhat operatic style. Our training is deeply rooted in the glorious past, my teachers all having studied with either Emanuel Feuermann or Gregor Piatigorsky. Some years after she left the Met, I was programming the Korngold Suite and right away thought of Elmira, because I knew she would be ideal. When I started working on the Alfano project, I again asked Elmira to collaborate with Scott Dunn and me on the Concerto, because no one else could do it justice as could she.
W. Z.: As a champion of neglected and totally worthy repertoire myself, I’m eager to know what drove you two to take up the cause?
S. M.: My passion for neglected Romantic music was inspired by the series of recordings and festivals organized by the pianist Raymond Lewenthal in the late 1960s. I bought his recording of the Rubinstein D-Minor Piano Concerto while still in high school and I began a lifelong pursuit of detective work to unearth many such scores. The way I discovered the Alfano Sonata and Concerto is that, while playing Turandot so often at the Met, I had always admired his masterful ending of the opera. I wondered if this composer wrote any cello or chamber music. Then I found the Sonata in the Library of Congress and immediately fell in love with it. After reading through it for the first time, I realized the Sonata’s profundity and otherworldly vision. It was like no other sonata I had ever heard, though it has many influences, from Ravel and Puccini to more modern composers, as well. Then, what to pair it with for a CD? I found the Piano Quintet to be cut from the same cloth, so when I bought the music for the Concerto, I found that its neo-Classicism seemed a delightful contrast. Perhaps later we can pair the Quintet with the Violin Sonata. And his three string quartets need to be recorded, too.
I have, over the course of my career, performed the works of Pierné, Ropartz, d’Indy, Jongen, Pierre de Breville, Florent Schmitt, Godard, Widor, Charles Cadman, Cyril Scott, Stanford, Ireland, Rubinstein, Laszlo Lajtha, and many others. I also recorded the world premiere CD of Vernon Duke’s Cello Concerto, paired with his Piano Concerto, both played and orchestrated by Scott Dunn. The Cello Concerto was written for Gregor Piatigorsky in 1945 and premiered by him with the Boston S.O., but he never recorded it, though there exists a live performance with Piatigorsky and Koussevitsky. However, the last three minutes are sadly missing.
E. D.: Recently someone said to me, after looking at the programs for the New York Chamber Music Festival: “Apparently you don’t mind programming neglected works by forgotten composers. There are so many, and all of them are waiting for someone like you to give them another chance.” I am actually horrified that there isn’t enough time and opportunities to present more of the “neglected but totally worthy” works. A lifetime of discovering and presenting neglected but worthy compositions will never be enough for such a cause. Even 300 lifetimes will never be enough. There is so much beautiful music out there waiting to be discovered and performed.
On another note, I feel that programming the Trio “Le Chimay” by Ysaÿe was, in a way, my duty—having studied with one of Ysaÿe’s most prominent students, Josef Gingold, who, all those decades ago, had presented in Brussels the world premiere of Ysaÿe’s Solo Sonata No. 3, “Ballade.” Last year, while presenting—together with Ronald Carbone and Samuel Magill—the American premiere of Ysaÿe’s Trio, “Le Chimay,” I thought of Mr. Gingold and was imagining, in front of me, his great approving smile. Neither Ysaÿe, nor Gingold ever heard a performance of the Trio, “Le Chimay,” yet it lives—in this century—and it is now being discovered by more and more musicians, generating more and more performances. I felt privileged to present it at the festival, and honored to perform it in the presence of several Ysaÿe family members, who had traveled to New York just for this occasion.
W. Z.: (to Elmira): How does your role as artistic director of the New York Chamber Music Festival fit into your future plans? Currently in America, chamber music is a hard sell. I’ve been a fan of it for over 30 years, but America is, truly, in a disadvantaged state. Music education in the public school system has been eviscerated for years. We have no Leonard Bernstein who, in my lifetime, took the great unwashed and informed it as to the glories of music. So, where do you feel that you fit into this continuum?
E. D.: The New York Chamber Music Festival, which I recently founded, is already respected and followed with interest by a number of musicians and reviewers. One of the participants called it “historic,” and we all devoted tons of rehearsal and preparation time. It seemed like the festival events were unstoppable, and no casualties could stand in the way. Rachel Barton Pine had endured serious surgery just days before her concert. Sam Magill had barely recovered from an incapacitating hand injury. Pascal Rogé had traveled from Japan only hours before his festival appearance. Yet no one cancelled, no one complained, and no one seemed affected by the myriads of hardships. Everyone was concerned mainly with how to perform in the most passionate and convincing way. Passion, in my opinion, is the common denominator, running like a stormy river through our festival, pulsating wildly within its core. Performing with passion and abandon the works that we believe in is our mission and our striving. My vision for this festival is to have extremely varied programs, where beautiful “audience favorites” are presented alongside rarely performed gems, by a variety of instrumentalists and chamber groups. In our inaugural first season of just six concerts, we have already presented one world premiere and three New York premieres, as well as diverse groups, including a brass quintet and a jazz string quartet. Chamber music wears many hats, whether created by John Coltrane or by Beethoven. In just these six concerts we presented a tremendously great variety of composers, from Albinoni, Bach, Handel, and Pisendel, to Leonard Bernstein, Vernon Duke, Osvaldo Golijov, and Lalo Schifrin. And that’s how I envision the future editions of this festival—as a kaleidoscope of beauty, brilliance, and passion, as an eclectic and energetic fireworks display, celebrating the give and take, the collaboration, the collegiality that chamber music is all about. Our passion for the music will, I hope, strike a match in the hearts of the listeners. To present, educate, and mesmerize is what we live for.
W. Z.: (to Sam): I had the honor of sitting next to your father and his wife during the reception. Your dad, having headed Monmouth College for years, well knew of Monmouth County where I currently live. He was a great raconteur. My question to you is: what inspired you to take up the cello in the first place? And what inspired you to bring your technique to its current world-class-level?
S. M.: At age 10, I had been studying piano for two years when my father took me to see the National Symphony on tour in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He tells me that I became very excited upon hearing then Principal Cellist John Martin play a solo. My father suggested I start lessons in the public school, and two years later I began private lessons with a teacher who traveled from Philadelphia once a week. In ninth grade, I was sent to begin high school at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where I studied with a really first-class teacher, Irving Klein of the Claremont Quartet. He had been a pupil of Feuermann, and right away put me on a strict classical method of developing technique. I credit him with giving me a very solid foundation. Later, at both the Peabody Institute and Rice University, I worked with Laurence Lesser and Shirley Trepel, both outstanding pedagogues, and some years later with the late Zara Nelsova, who was really inspirational. I did, indeed, work very hard on my technique, but as I was slow to develop on the cello, I became quite determined in my twenties and thirties to raise my level of playing by continuing to practice etudes and playing recitals throughout my orchestral career. Also, I took numerous orchestral auditions, which cannot fail to improve one, especially with the constant use of both a metronome and a tuner, a practice I continue to this day. I have never been one to coast while working full time in an orchestra, even at the Met, which has a daunting, exhausting schedule.
W. Z.: How did you link up with Naxos?
S. M.: The relationship with them came about because when, in 2003, I played the Vernon Duke Cello Concerto on a recital, Kay Duke Ingalls, his widow, chose me to record it. She also wanted Scott Dunn to record the Piano Concerto. Scott had already recently recorded the works of Lucas Foss for Naxos. In the meantime, I played a recital with the marvelous pianist Oxana Yablonskaya. When I told her of these plans, she at once suggested we do it in Moscow with her conductor and cellist son, Dmitri Yablonsky, and his Russian Philharmonic. So, in 2005, we traveled to Moscow and were lucky enough to partake of the extremely high artistic and technical standards of the Moscow Radio House’s famed Studio 5—a giant space where most of the famous Melodya records were made in the 1960s and 1970s.
W. Z.: For both of you, especially to the interest of Fanfare readers, what are your future recording plans?
S. M.: Together we would like to record a CD of double concertos, especially one by Ysaÿe which has never been recorded. I am a big fan of the music written by Cèsar Franck’s many brilliant pupils, and I hope to record the cello and piano music of Pierre de Bréville. Then there are a couple of marvelous never-before-recorded cello and orchestra works by Charles Wakefield Cadman and Arthur Foote. I also have a flute, cello, and harp trio that has some fascinating music, such as the Wallingford Riegger Divertissement. And yes, someday it would be nice to record some standard repertoire!
E. D.: Sam and I have serious projects for future recordings, together and separately. We would like to record together other works by Ysaÿe, Saint-Saëns, and Vieuxtemps, also more Alfano, and works by Boris Tchaikovsky (no relation to Pjotr). Separately, I am interested in the “lost” violin works by Vernon Duke, and am hoping to record works by the Greek composers Manolis Kalomiris and Christos Papageorgiou.
By all the evidence, the stars are in alignment. Elmira Darvarova’s New York Chamber Music Festival has provided a venue for an impressive array of world-class performers. Both her and Samuel Magill’s adventurousness in programming coupled with Naxos’s similarly adventurous mission have convincingly made the case that the musical universe, like the universe at large, is not static, but infinitely expanding.
This article originally appeared in Issue 33:3 (Jan/Feb 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.