IN: Reviews

Zazofsky Honors Totenberg


Peter Zazofsky and BU Symphony conductor David Hoose (Michael Lutch photo)

A concert to honor one of Boston’s most prominent and long-standing violin teachers should concentrate on the violin, and so it did, at Symphony Hall this evening (Nov. 21) for Roman Totenberg as he approaches his 100th birthday (Jan. 1). A near-capacity crowd was treated to a true virtuosic performance without a score of the Bartok Violin concerto by Peter Zazofsky, with the Boston University Orchestra. Zazofsky, professor of violin and chamber music at Boston University and leader of the prominent Muir Quartet, played this in 1977 at the Wieniaski Competiton in Poznan, Poland. Totenberg, who was on the panel of judges, encouraged the young Zazofsky to tour with it. So began a long friendship culminating in collaboration at Boston University.

The joy shone in Zazofsky’s face when he entered, as he looked up and around at that famous hall, where exactly thirty years earlier (Nov. 20, 21, 22, 1980), he soloed with the BSO under Seiji Ozawa in the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 in d minor.  And in the few times during this performance when he had brief respites from playing, he turned and smiled gently at the young players in the orchestra, some of whom I assume are, or were, his students. In one especially moving moment as he finished a passage in the andante tranquillo, Zazofsky slowly swept his bow downward and pivoted towards the players, almost like a sword salute.

With beautiful tone and perfect intonation throughout, his playing was ravishing, sonorous, especially in the melancholy melody with winds in the middle of the first movement and towards the end of the movement, when the violin soloed with the trombones in their Hollywood-sounding melody.

The andante tranquillo, the high point of this concerto for me, starts with a major triad followed by a soft and languid passage with the solo violin and muted winds. Zazofsky’s frenetic trills, piano, were haunting, then exploded abruptly in a sudden forte allegretto, then back to the tremolo, piano, then back to the haunting elegiac passage with the winds.

What a treat it would be to have Zazofsky play this with a mature, professional orchestra of the caliber of the BSO that could deliver the tension and electricity of the score.

What a credit his performance was to Roman Totenberg, that wonderful centenarian, on hand for all the kudos. So were his three daughters, Amy, Jill, and Nina, along with Cokie Roberts, who acted as Mistress of Ceremonies. The video by Susan Dangel, an account of Totenberg’s rich life, was beautifully done, without the frenetic moments in the ones she did for the BSO’s Kennedy testimonial and Rockport Music’s opening last spring.

The concert ground slowly to a close with the 50-minute Elgar Symphony No. 1—  “pomp and circumstance,” bombast, occasional Prokofiev-like militaristic satire, and final screams. Concertmaster Heather Braun had a very nice solo interlude, all too fleeting.

Note: While I was in attendance at the concert, BMInt Publisher Lee Eiseman was at home watching online. He had this to say:

I had very high expectations for what BU billed as the first streaming video of a concert in Symphony Hall. BMInt even added a banner promoting this ‘first.’ BU further raised expectations by referring to ‘high quality sound and video.’ The result was far below my expectations. The image quality was nothing short of atrocious for the 179 viewers.

In this era when one can see a high def movie streaming live from Netflix (in my case on a 10-ft screen) without a glitch or artifact, there was no excuse for what I observed. The video was shot at a low frame rate which made movement very jerky. Peter Zazofsky’s Mick Jagger-esque prancing appeared in jumps of ten feet or more. Whenever either the camera or subject moved, the image was degraded into out-of-focus macro-blocks. At first the sound quality was no better. Indeed, there was a pronounced echo as though the audio was coming from two separate streams, one delayed by a second.

Then the stream went down altogether for 10 minutes. When it resumed, the sound improved — to OK — but the image was still well below par.

Bettina A. Norton is a retired museum professional who has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle before being persuaded to edit this journal.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I also watched the webcast of this concert, but I thought the quality was good. It did cut out for a few minutes, but besides that I had no problems. Overall, it was an excellent concert and I was happy that BU provided a live webcast!

    Comment by Dee — November 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

  2. This review is atrocious. It reads more like a concert report from a failing Music 101 student who was too disinterested to stay for the second half. Was that a thinly veiled complaint about the 50-minute length of the Elgar Symphony I read? If you can’t handle sitting in a concert hall for two and a half hours you shouldn’t be a classical music critic. Perhaps you should join your editor for a screening of a “Harry Potter” film on his case a “ten-foot screen.”

    And furthermore, publishing Eiseman’s complaints about the quality of the stream are simply irresponsible. Did anyone go through the trouble of checking with the other 179 viewers to see if their stream was similarly defective? Could Eiseman’s cache have been overloaded with streamed netflix movies? Probably.

    And why would you compare the resources of the School of Music at a university to that of a multibillion dollar corporation. Certainly for netflix to have streaming issues there would be no good excuse, after-all you’ve paid for it. But for BU and Symphony Hall to provide this service for free it’s unfair unwise and improper to compare it to netflix, and without fact-checking to see how the stream was for others just plain dumb.

    But that seems to be the culture of BMint. The first half of the review read to me as if you were saying “well, that was great, but it would have been better if the BSO did it.” What’s the point of spelling that out. This was an orchestra of students, not professionals, who donated their time or in a very real way paid lots of money in college tuition for the privilege to be there. Why even hint at a comparison to the orchestra of folks who make more than $100,000 a year to play on that stage. It is not and should not be the goal of any student orchestra to strive to sound like or perform like the Boston Symphony, even if they are performing in Symphony Hall, and it’s just ignorant to hint that they ought to.

    Comment by Andy — November 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm

  3. I watched this concert live on the internet webcast on my Macbook and my experience was that the audio and video quality were excellent and I appreciated the fact that I was able to see this great concert and tribute to a great teacher free of charge from my home.

    Comment by John — November 25, 2010 at 2:22 am

  4. Like many others, I was puzzled by the comments of publisher Eiseman:

    …”what BU billed as the first streaming video…”
    Is there any doubt about this fact, or did BU misrepresent it? Using quotes for “first”, in the next sentence, reinforces the snide put down.

    Mr. Eiseman seems to think that BMInt’s banner, promoting the stream, should have guaranteed NetFlix quality. Skewering BU for failing, in this “first” effort, to meet that standard seems churlish, at best.
    (We are, however, envious of his 10-ft screen)

    This was an historic event, celebrating a remarkable man, and BU is to be commended for enabling the web community to experience it.

    Thanks to BMInt – especially Eiseman, for providing a lively forum!

    Comment by peter — November 25, 2010 at 10:51 am

  5. Peter-

    I assure Peter and our readers that there was nothing snide about my use of quotation marks, after all, I was quoting BU’s press release rather than making my own statement of fact. And there was evidence that BU’s streaming from Symphony Hall was not a first. From a BSO press release I offer the following: ” … on Friday, November 19, at 11 a.m., Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison will participate in a live, streaming interview on the stage at Symphony Hall, available at This event marks the first time the Boston Symphony has streamed an event live over the internet.” That event pre-dated BU’s by two days, though it was not a concert. Neither was the BU event anything like the first streaming of a concert other than from Symphony Hall. I hope this takes care of the semantics.

    “Skewering BU” is too strong a reaction to my expressed disappointment in what I viewed on BU’s stream.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm

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