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Posts Tagged ‘obituaries’

Claudio Abbado
Claudio Abbado (

Born on 26 June 1933, Claudio Abbado never actively sought a music director position. He didn’t need to; orchestras recruited him. He was associated with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Berlin Philharmonic. Opera, too: La Scala, the Vienna State Opera. Here in the States, he was noted for his work with the Chicago Symphony.

Claudio Abbado died today at his Bologna home following an extended illness. He was 80.

The Guardian has a thoughtful and detailed remembrance.

[H]e raised a superband of players all gathered together for his sake, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, to heights that many listeners have never experienced in other orchestral concerts.

A recording producer defined his special gift as a sense of "absolute pulse" – more precisely, an unerring sense of the right and natural tempo relations in a piece that could give shape and meaning even to the most seemingly amorphous of works, and within that a supple life to the individual musical phrases that no contemporary has equaled.

Janos Starker coaches a young cellist
Janos Starker coaches a young cellist (Altomedia)

In the years when I was discovering classical music, one of the first recordings of the Bach cello suites I heard was Janos Starker’s for Mercury Records.

Starker was famed for his Bach; in fact he recorded the suites several times. His reserved, focused style suited Bach.

Still, it wouldn’t be right to call Starker a "Bach cellist." He was equally at home in Romantic and contemporary literature, warmly expressive when the music called for it – but he was always tasteful, never indulging in excess. Starker played with complete respect for the composer’s notes and a clean, spare vibrato. He spurned – even ridiculed – the extravagant body language of many a modern cellist as “self-aggrandizement.”

Janos Starker was born in Budapest on 8 July 1924. His talent emerged early; at age seven he met Pablo Casals and shortly thereafter found himself studying at the Franz Liszt Academy.

Starker’s family was Jewish. During the war they were sent to a prison camp near Budapest. He and his parents survived, but 2 brothers were never accounted for. He believed they were shot by Nazi guards.

In 1948 conductor Antal Dorati, who had emigrated from Hungary to the US seven years earlier, encouraged Starker to follow his example. Indiana University wrote to US immigration officials, indicating that they were willing to hire him.

Starker promptly took a gig playing first chair for Dorati’s Dallas Symphony. From there he moved on to the Met Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. When Riener went to Chicago, so did Starker. They later had an infamous tiff, Reiner throwing his baton at Starker when he missed a cue.

Despite their letter, Starker didn’t actually join Indiana University’s faculty until 1958. But working with students had always been important to Starker. "I was born to be a teacher," he said in a 2011 interview. In fact, Starker took on his first student when he was 8 years old (the student was 6).

Though he could be hair-raising in the studio*, passing on his prodigious technique and spot-on intonation to young cellists was just part of what he did. "I cannot perform without teaching," he said, "and I cannot teach without performing." The act of explaining his technique to students gave Starker deeper insight into it.

Starker remained on the Indiana faculty until shortly before his death, attracting multiple generations of young cellists to Bloomington.

Janos Starker
Janos Starker catches a quick drag

Janos Starker was an inveterate smoker – 3 packs a day for much of his life. A cigarette was his last companion before he strode on stage, and the first he greeted after the concert. Starker once bailed on a performance of the Elgar concerto when the concert hall’s management refused to let him smoke backstage.

In fact, he preferred to take his smokes on stage with him when possible. Starker liked to give shirtsleeve recitals, dividing his stage time between playing and opinionated musical commentary (often about other musicians), punctuated by drags on his ever-present cigarette and sips from a glass of scotch.

Janos Starker died Sunday at a hospice in Bloomington. He is survived by his second wife, Rae; a daughter from his first marriage, Gabriella Starker-Saxe; daughter Gwen Starker Preucil (wife of the Cleveland Orchestra’s concertmaster); and 3 grandchildren – Cleveland Orchestra violinist Alexandra Preucil, Nicole Preucil, and J. P. Saxe.

*A joke circulated for years among cellists – reportedly told by Starker himself on occasion – goes like this: Three cellists die and ascend to the pearly gates, where they are greeted by St Peter. The first cellist requests entry into Heaven. "With whom did you study?" St Peter asks. "Leonard Rose," he responds. "Sorry," says St Peter. "I’m afraid you’ll have to go to Hell." The second cellist now steps forward. St Peter again asks the question. "Mstislav Rostropovich," comes the reply. "You too," says St Peter. " To Hell with you." By now the last cellist is really rattled. At St Peter’s inquiry he cringes and whispers, "Janos Starker?" St Peter smiles broadly. "Come on in, and welcome to Heaven! You’ve already been through Hell!"

Colin Davis (Charlie Bibby)
Colin Davis (©Charlie Bibby)

Conductor Colin Davis died last night (Sunday 14 April 2013) after a short illness. He was 85.

Colin Rex Davis was born in Weybridge, Surrey, on 25 September 1927. His family wasn’t particularly musical – his father was a bank clerk – but as a child he heard the Hans Pfitzner and Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Beethoven Eighth. Davis was captivated. He saved his coins and bought a copy of the score. "Music burst out of the pages. It was intoxicating," he later told an interviewer.

Davis came to the podium by way of the clarinet, a route that hampered his progress to some extent. Conductors were expected to be skilled at the keyboard, so the Royal College of Music refused to admit him to their conducting program. He taught himself by watching Fritz Busch, his conductor at Glyndebourne, and directing choral societies on the side.

Davis got a break in 1957 when (after 3 tries) he was accepted as assistant conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony. Another break came in 1959, when he replaced an indisposed Otto Klemperer, conducing Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Coincidentally he stepped in for Thomas Beecham not long after, leading The Magic Flute at Glyndebourne.

Davis’s rise as a conductor was also damped by his own personality. The young Davis was, regrettably, known for arrogance and a lack of tact. When he sought the post of principal conductor at the London Symphony in 1964, the musicians voted overwhelmingly to reject him.

Fortunately, Davis was a reader. In the midst of a midlife crisis partly precipitated by the collapse of his marriage to soprano April Cantelo, he embraced the classics, including Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil. There he found the insight to manage his temper and learn the art of diplomacy. Davis also relaxed by knitting, proudly wearing the thick, warm sweaters of his own creation. His second marriage, to a student from Iran, Ashraf Naini (Shamsi), lasted from 1964 until Shamsi’s death in 2010.

Davis came to be known for his thoughtful readings of Mozart and Sibelius. His 1970s recordings of the Sibelius symphonies with Boston (where he was principal guest conductor from 1972 to 1984) are still a benchmark today. Many music lovers remember his 1966 Philips recording of Handel’s Messiah, which won the Grand Prix du Disque. All in all, he made over 300 recordings.

Colin Davis was deeply involved in music education. He held an international chair at the Royal Academy of Music from 1988, and was president of Dresden’s "Carl Maria von Weber" Landesgymnasium fuer Musik.

Davis received many awards. He was named a Companion of the British Empire in 1965, knighted in 1980, welcomed as a Companion of Honor in 2001, and given the Queen’s Medal for Music in 2009. The British Pipesmokers’ Council even named him Pipe Smoker of the Year in 1996.

In 1995, he was awarded the London Symphony gig for which he’d been rejected three decades earlier. He remained in that post until 2006, the longest tenure of any LSO principal conductor. In 2006, he became the LSO’s president.

Davis continued to conduct in retirement. However, after his second wife’s death in 2010, Davis’s health began to decline. He fell from the podium in 2012, and from then drastically curtailed his appearances.

"Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s life," Sir Colin Davis once said. He is survived by two children from his first marriage, and five from his second, including conductor Joseph Wolfe.

Further reading:

Colin Davis at Wikipedia

Colin Davis Obituary at The Guardian

Marie-Claire Alain
Marie-Claire Alain
(Elizabeth Pardon)

When I was a hormone-addled adolescent, sheer volume was my intoxicant of choice. But while my mates were piping The Doors and Mott the Hoople into their glassy-eyed heads, I had my headphones wired to Beethoven and Bach.

Not just any Bach would do, though. My eyes glowed from within at the decibel deluge dispensed by Virgil Fox. Fox was the consummate showman of the organ, playing to brilliant light shows, gleefully inviting rowdy twenty-something rock fans into his "House of Music."

Years went by, the hormones settled down, and I came to appreciate other elements in music beyond the mind-numbing wash of sound. I learned to experience Bach from a more thoughtful perspective. I didn’t abandon VF altogether, but I discovered that other performers had different things – important things – to say about Bach.

From at least my early twenties, the Bach organist I kept returning to was Marie-Claire Alain. I write this today with an overwhelming sadness: I’ve just learned that she’s died at the age of 86. The church where she was organist for 40 years, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, announced last week that she had died in a retirement home near Paris. She had been in declining health since the death of her son BenoĂ®t in 2009, and had stopped playing in 2010.

Marie-Claire Alain came from a thoroughly musical family. She said in 1994, "We played Bach virtually every evening, playing on the organ, singing cantatas. Bach was almost a family illness!"

Her father Albert was an organist, composer, and amateur organ builder; her sister Odile, a singer, who tragically died young. Her older brother, Jehan Alain, was a gifted organist and the composer of such extraordinary works as Litanies. Jehan lost his life in the Second World War. Her younger brother, Olivier, became an organist and director of the conservatory in their home town; he died in 1994.

Marie-Claire Alain was born on 10 August 1926 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. Initially, she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be an organist: "As everybody at home played the organ, I initially found it boring to become an organist. I wanted to do something else." But when the Allies liberated Paris in 1944, she entered the conservatory there and began studying with Marcel Dupre and Maurice Durufle. She won the Premier Prix four times.

Alain came to love the organ. Although she also played the harpsichord, I’ve only encountered one recording she made with that instrument. In the late 1980s she told an interviewer, "For no other instrument [than organ] do I have an affinity."

Her repertoire ranged from the Baroque to the 20th century. It included Couperin, Vivaldi, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Handel, CPE Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Franck, Liszt and Widor. She also performed Messiaen, Vierne, Poulenc, and the complete works of her brother Jehan Alain.

I expect, though, that it’s for Bach that she’ll be most remembered. Marie-Claire Alain had a sparkle in her life and in her playing that meshed ideally with his music. She was a particular fan of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G, the Great Prelude in E major, and the trio sonatas.

Alain launched her performance career in 1950, just about when organ builders were starting to develop instruments – notably trackers – better suited to the clear textures of Baroque music. Later, it was direct access to organs Bach had played that led her to record and re-record his works: "It’s an extraordinary feeling," she said, "to put your hands on the keyboard, knowing that he was there 250 years before you!"

Marie-Claire Alain never stopped studying Bach, searching history for clues to the informed performance of his music. Thus it is that she was one of only two organists to record the complete works of Bach three times. She told The Organ Magazine, "I learned a quite a bit when I was doing that [first] cycle [in the 1960s], and in the meantime an enormous amount of study into early music was being undertaken, so I recorded the second cycle in 1975-78. I never imagined I’d do a third complete Bach. What happened was that I was allowed access to the organ in Groningen [The Netherlands], which had been newly restored, and I made a recital disc, for pleasure. Then I made two other discs, and I thought I should continue."

Alain was the first musician that France’s Erato Records recorded when they opened for business in 1954. Their later recording of the Bach trio sonatas was her first major sales success. She became the world’s most widely recorded organist, with about 300 recordings to her credit.

Petite and polite, with grace and a gentle humor, Marie-Claire Alain could play not just with intellect and style, but – when necessary – with a ferocity that belied her modest physical stature. She also had unshakeable views about the importance of passing musical literacy on to later generations. She taught at the conservatory of Rueil-Malmaison and later at the Paris Conservatory, and had a long relationship with the St Albans International Organ Festival and the Haarlem Summer Academy in The Netherlands. Alain gave master classes worldwide, including North America. Until the last few years, she was a regular at McGill University’s Summer Organ Academy.

Marie-Claire Alain is survived by her daughter, Aurélie Gommier-Decourt, and six grandchildren. Her husband, Jacques Gommier, died in 1992.

Further Reading:

Marie-Claire Alain Obituary in Gramophone

Marie-Claire Alain on her third Bach cycle in The Organ magazine

Marie-Claire Alain plays Bach’s "Great" g-minor fugue, S542, Schwenkedel organ, CollĂ©giale de Saint Donat, France, 1970, via Youtube

Van Cliburn and Barack Obama, 2010
Van Cliburn and President Obama in 2010
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

News reports today (27 February 2013) say that pianist Van Cliburn has died at his Fort Worth home. He had been suffering from bone cancer.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, Harvey Lavan Cliburn Jr won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, his performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1 and the Rachmaninoff Third prompting an eight-minute standing ovation. The judges, fearful of reprisal, had to ask Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev for clearance to award First Prize to an American. Khrushchev reportedly responded, "Is he the best? Then give him the prize." On Cliburn’s return, New York greeted him with a ticker tape parade – an honor never since accorded any other classical musician.

Cliburn recorded the Tchaikovsky concerto for RCA that same year. The disc won the 1958 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance and became the first classical recording to sell more than one million copies. As far as I can tell, the recording has never been out of print.

In 1978, after the deaths of his father and his manager, Cliburn largely stopped performing in public and on recordings. His few appearances from that year included a White House performance in 1987 – in fact, Van Cliburn played for every US president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Cliburn returned to the concert stage in 1994 with a 16-stop tour. In August of last year, his publicist announced that he had been diagnosed with advanced bone cancer and was undergoing treatment.

Cliburn’s legacy will survive not only in his many recordings, but in the Van Cliburn Foundation and the competition which bears his name, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Further reading:

Van Cliburn at Wikipedia

Van Cliburn Discography at AllMusic

Van Cliburn Foundation

The Texan Who Conquered RussiaTime cover, 19 May 1958


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