What better event to feature the first-ever live video streaming of a concert from Boston’s venerable Symphony Hall than a tribute to a long-time, venerable violinist Roman Totenberg on his 100th birthday. He will be honored in the Hall where he appeared as a soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in January, 1955, for the premiere of Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (Pierre Monteux conducting). Totenberg was also honored in April, 2007, in Symphony Hall’s Hatch Room at a special post-concert reception by New England String Orchestra (then, “Ensemble”).
Equally fitting is the fact that the Boston University Symphony Orchestra will perform at the tribute on Sunday, November 21, at 7:30. Totenberg taught violin at Boston University’s Music Department for close to fifty years, mentoring such future musicians as Peter Zazofsky, leader of BU’s esteemed Muir Quartet. Zazofsky will be soloist in the Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2. Also on the program are Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture and Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat.
“Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto is Bartók at his most elevated and impassioned, compositionally virtuosic for the performers as well, especially the violinist, whose musical and technical sophistication is challenged to the limit,” said David Hoose, conductor of the BU Orchestra. “Elgar’s Symphony in A-flat, the first of the two great symphonies he composed, came at a great crossroad, 1907, after nearly 300 years of England waiting for its own musical voice to reemerge, and just as the British empire and the world were about to be turned upside down. The day’s optimism and anxiety drive this amazingly beautiful, powerful symphony, music that can speak to us today as powerfully as it did 100 years ago. “These two grand compositions (along with Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus) from three cultures and three musical eras, have the nobility, wit and grandeur to make them appropriate musical statements for this moment … they suggest a few of the personal qualities that make our evening’s honoree such an endearing presence in our musical and educational community—mischievously twinkling, irrepressibly generous, and brilliantly noble.”
“I am a little self-conscious about it,” Totenberg told the Intelligencer. But he is delighted at those who are planning to come, including one of his former violin students in Krakow, composer and violinist Marcin Marckowicz, now with the Krakow Symphony and Krakow String Quartet.
Born in Poland in 1911, Totenberg was a child prodigy, appearing as soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic when he was eleven. He spent his early years in Russia, Poland, and France, emigrating to New York City just before the start of World War II. “Musical life there was very active there,” he said. Most memorable were chamber concerts with the New Friends of Music. He toured South America with Arthur Rubinstein and gave joint recitals with Szymanowski. Acclaimed for interpretations of both classical and contemporary music, he has introduced audiences to the Darius Milhaud Violin Concerto No. 2, the William Schuman Violin Concerto, and the Penderecki Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra. Totenberg also premiered the Hindemith Violin Sonata in E, the Barber Violin Concerto (new version), and a Martinu Sonata, as well as giving the American premiere of the Honegger Sonata for Solo Violin.
Among his awards are the Wieniawski and Ysaÿe Medals of Poland and Belgium, the Mendelssohn Prize (Berlin Academy), BU’s prestigious Metcalf Cup and Prize in 1996; and in 1981 he was named Artist Teacher of the Year by the American String Teachers Association.
Robert K. Dodson, recently named Director of the BU School of Music, recounted that soon after he arrived, a young man stopped by his office. He had been a student at Lawrence University when Dean Dodson was there.“He was so excited,” Dodson recalled, “because he had just had a lesson with Mr. Totenberg.” And Totenberg was ninety-eight.
A video of Totenberg’s life, which will be shown at the celebration, has been produced by Susan Dangel, who produced the BSO tribute to the Kennedy brothers last spring and one for the opening of the new Rockport Music Center. “Susan did a remarkable job of telling the story of Roman’s 100 years in about twelve minutes,” said Scott Schillin, Coordinating Producer of the event. Totenberg will be joined at the celebratory concert by family—including daughters Nina, Jill, and Amy Totenberg, friends, and former students, many of whom are today’s leading concert artists.