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Luigi Silva's Legacy

by John W. Lambert

UNCG's Cello Celebration Orchestra - from left to right, Maestro Jonathan Kramer and cellists Vanderborgh, Thron, Holley, Ko, Matthews, Alexander Kramer, Chenoweth, Raimi, Shaughnessy, Zilper, Sellitti, Wissick, Forbes, Black, & Leyland. The artists' full names and current affiliations are included in the article. (Photo by Brooks Whitehouse.)

There is, in Volume 17 of New Grove , between José de Santa Rita Marques e Silva and Manuel Numes da Silva, a gap where one would expect to find at least a line or two about the Italian born American cellist Luigi Silva (1903-61). According to the 6th edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians , the last prepared by Nicholas Slonimsky, Silva came from a musical family and studied cello with Arturo [Adolfo] Bonucci (1894-1964), in Bologna, and composition with Respighi, in Rome. He was a cellist in the Rome Opera Orchestra, won the Boccherini Prize at a national contest for young musicians, and was a member of the Quartetto di Roma. In 1939, he came to America, teaching at Eastman and then at Juilliard, Mannes, Yale, and Peabody, and playing in a celebrated trio whose pianist, the son of the founder of Mannes and himself its president, and whose Polish-born violinist was for a time Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Silva was a great teacher and clearly a great cellist, and he produced some highly regarded transcriptions and numerous critical editions of music, including Bach's cello suites, but he made very few recordings, and he died young, so his name is hardly known among music lovers today. Cellists know his name, however, many remember him, and many more claim artistic links to him through their teachers or their teachers' teachers. A cellist we admire keenly told us during UNCG's Silva Centennial Celebration, which drew approximately 130 registered participants, that Silva, with whom she had studied, was without doubt the finest teacher of the cello she had known, but even without that endorsement, the presence in Greensboro over the weekend of March 5-7 of 20 of his former students, some of whom were among the 27 professional cellists who performed, plus 28 cello students who also played, said volumes about Silva's significance. As it happens, UNCG now possesses - thanks in part to Elizabeth Cowling and Jim Thompson and the Friends of the Library - Silva's papers (c.1,775 scores and thirteen boxes of archival material), along with the papers of Fritz Magg, Rudolf Matz, Maurice Eisenberg, Janos Scholz, and Cowling, too. It is also acquiring the papers of the great Bernard Greenhouse, whose long-term affiliation with the Beaux Arts Trio gave him name recognition beyond the cello community, and already the university can claim that it has the largest collection of cello literature in the world. Greenhouse turned out to be the Grand Old Man of the recent UNCG weekend, but he was hardly the only world-class artist in attendance; other stars included Timothy Eddy, of the Orion String Quartet, Joel Krosnick, of the Juilliard String Quartet, and a host of other outstanding players and teachers and students, ranging in age from, well, really old to, well, really young. It says something that half of the pros and half of the performing students, too, hailed from NC, representing UNCG, UNC Chapel Hill, NC Central, NCSU, the NCSA, and Duke. The participants came from 22 states and one Canadian province and represented Juilliard, Mannes, a host of universities including Iowa, Northern Iowa, Cal State Fullerton, Northwestern, Georgia State, South Florida, and the College of Charleston (SC). In addition, two generations of Silvas were on hand, including the cellist's son and his grandson, who has made a name for himself as a guitarist. UNCG cellist Brooks Whitehouse, Director of the Celebration, deserves high praise for coordinating and hosting the event, which was, all things considered, a tremendous success. Next year, the honoree will be Greenhouse (at UNCG, March 4-6, 2005), and after that there will surely be many more such events. To put all this into perspective for our readers, suffice it to say that the Silva Centennial Celebration was every bit as important - and as stimulating - as UNCG's long-running series of piano festivals, generally held in early June and given under the rubric of "Focus on Piano Literature." It was that good, and that rewarding. (See our calendar for preliminary information on UNCG's upcoming "Focus on... Bach.")

Things got underway on Friday, March 5, with registration and ample opportunity for early birds to examine the Silva collection itself, portions of which were on display throughout the weekend. The inaugural event, the first of four public concerts, was given in the West Market Street United Methodist Church, in downtown Greensboro, and began with Eckhart Richter, Emeritus Professor of Georgia State, who may be the oldest surviving Silva student who is still active as a performer, playing two ricercare by Domenico Gabrielli (1651-90) and, with Silva's grandson Benjamin, a four movement Sonata in G (1689). These relatively brief pieces served as windows on the history and tradition that clearly meant much to Silva. Things picked up considerably when Whitehouse soloed in Haydn's D Major Cello Concerto, grandly played, featuring Silva's cadenza, and accompanied by the Gate City Camerata (whose members include UNCG and Greensboro Symphony artists); that this earned a standing ovation must have been as gratifying to the artists as their performance was for the distinguished audience. Silva student Barbara Stein Mallow (currently at Mannes, she is the daughter of Lillian Fuchs and niece of Joseph Fuchs), accompanied by Inara Zandmane (UNCG) on a piano that needed a shot of WD-40 on its pedals, gave a radiant performance of a Fauré sonata that surely pleased everyone but violinists; it was the First Violin Sonata, arranged by Mallow, rather than one of the two much later sonatas for cello and piano, and it was listed in the comprehensive but poorly annotated program booklet as "Sonata for Cello and Piano in A Major, Op. 13." Benjamin Silva returned for a fandango from one of Boccherini's guitar quintets, with the string parts played by John Fadial, Janet Orenstein, Scott Rawls and Whitehouse (who also took care of the spoons, used in lieu of castanets), and an attractive "Tango en Skai" by Roland Dyens (b.1955). The guitarist seemed much more at home in these pieces than in the opening Gabrieli sonata, and it was a treat to hear a bit of one of the wildly popular Boccherini pieces done live in such a flattering venue. The long program (which might have benefited by being one number shorter than it was, but what to cut?) ended with the evening's "heavies," cellist Eddy and pianist Gilbert Kalish (who was unquestionably the Grand Old Man of the Keyboard Division during the weekend) playing a simple little tune from Rossini's Mosè in Egitto (the Prayer, "Dal tuo stellato soglio," from Act IV, s.3) as done up by Paganini - who tacked the words "Variazioni di Bravura" ahead of the opera's name - and further enhanced by Silva. When it ended, the cellists in attendance came as close to going wild as they dared, given that the venue was a church. The buzz continued all the way around the block to the place where the post-concert reception was held.

As it happens, the Paganini Variations were recorded by Silva (according to the 1948 edition of the Gramophone Shop Encyclopedia of Recorded Music ), and the music was discussed at some length during a revealing masterclass on the morning of March 6, when Dusan Vukajlovic played them for Eddy(!). It was curious that the source of the theme received short shrift, since the Preghiera is important to Italians, at least - it was included in the grand concert that reopened La Scala, conducted by Toscanini, in 1946. The original isn't "over the top," like the variations, but it is clear that those who can play them can play just about anything. The other participants in this first masterclass included Gina Pezzoli, who played Beethoven, Anna Wittstruck (Dvorák), at 16 the youngest contracted member of the Asheville Symphony, Jonathan Lewis (Dvorák), and Gal Nyska (Kodály), some of whose work has been chronicled in CVNC . (I list the names - and others, later on - primarily because some of these folks will surely go on to enrich our musical lives in greater ways, downstream.) It may be worth noting that only one of the pieces played at this session can be termed, loosely, a transcription. It was fascinating to observe Eddy in action; it's one thing to hear master artists play in concerts and recitals and quite another to witness the level of effort it takes to get them to those points. Masterclasses (and open rehearsals, too) provide wonderful educational opportunities for the participants, of course, and also for plain old music lovers, critics, and other mortals, and it is heartwarming to report that the Organ Hall at UNCG was SRO for this one. (The pianist was Juan Pablo Andrade, of UNCG.)

The Saturday afternoon concert was in large measure the child of NCSU's Jonathan Kramer, who spoke briefly about a famous old Lp of Villa-Lobos' Fantasia Concertante for Fifteen Cellos that happens to have been one of this writer's earliest record purchases as well. Silva played on that Everest recording, and Greenhouse was the principal. In Greensboro, the artists, directed by Kramer, included many known to CVNC ers - Bonnie Thron, Lisa Shaughnessy, and Leonid Zilper (of the NCS), Alan Black (Charlotte Symphony), Anne Sellitti (Winston-Salem Symphony), Beth Vanderborgh and Michael Matthews (Greensboro SO), Kramer's nephew Alexander (formerly of the Charlotte Symphony), and Fred Raimi of the Ciompi Quartet, Brent Wissick of UNC-CH, Timothy Holley of NCCU, and Nathan Leyland of Ravenscroft - along with Bongshin Ko (Cal State Fullerton), Charles Forbes (former American SO principal), and Jonathan Chenoweth (University of Northern Iowa). The sonority of this piece, played by fifteen cellos, is something else, and it was a rare treat to experience it live on this occasion.

Eight younger artists played Villa-Lobos' Bachiana Brasiliera No. 1 earlier in the program. As music, it's probably more successful than the Fantasia, if only because its instrumentation is a bit more manageable. The performers were Lewis, Wei Yu, Michael Wiseman, Vukajlovic, Nyska, Alan Toda-Ambaras (apparently the youngest of the participants, he's currently attending Guy Phillips Middle School in Chapel Hill), Brian Hodges, and Wittstruck.

The short concert opened with Nicolay Nikolayevich Tcherepnin's Songs and Dances, played with keen insight by Whitehouse and pianist Andrew Harley (UNCG).

Following this bracing program, there were more masterclasses, running concurrently and involving Mallow, Charles Wendt (Emeritus Professor of the University of Iowa), and Whitehouse, supported by pianist Elizabeth Lopartis, of UNCG; these sessions overlapped pedagogy presentations by Martha Gerschefski (Georgia State), Hans Jørgen Jensen (Northwestern), and Styra Avins (Drew University). To say that Whitehouse packed a lot into the available time is an understatement; the fact that attendees were obliged to pick and choose, rather than take in all of the events, was a bit of a problem - but not nearly as troubling as the lack of coffee in the mornings and during the breaks!

After dinner, Krosnick and Kalish delivered the goods in UNCG's attractive Recital Hall. The bill of fare encompassed Beethoven's Sonata in G Minor, Op. 5/2, iconoclast Ralph Shapey's "Krolish" Sonata, written for the guest artists, Goffredo Petrassi's Preludio, Aria e Finale, written for Silva, and Brahms' F Major Sonata, Op. 99. Listeners who knew Krosnick only in chamber settings, instead of recitals, had a field day, as did those whose experience with Kalish had been limited to his extensive work with singers. Both artists did a lot of "singing," however - and singers and fans of singing could have learned a great deal from the performances. The Beethoven was a model of clarity, flawless balance, precision, and - above all - true partnership.

After announcing a shift in the order of the program, Krosnick spoke eloquently of Shapey, whose piece is thick, complex, and demanding of the performers and the listeners alike. The duo moved the opening movement along smartly and drew in the audience. The generally subdued second movement suggests the haunting lines of Berg's Violin Concerto in many respects, and the pros made astonishing work of its sometimes almost inaudible passages. The finale brought everyone back to terra firma with a degree of elegance that those who were unfamiliar with Shapey's music may not have anticipated.

In the hands of Krosnick and Kalish, the central section of the Petrassi projected levels of intensity that brought to mind the passacaglia in Shostakovich's Violin Concerto; its bookends are less profound, and it concludes on a comparatively bright note, with a tune that resembles a folksong but may not be one. (Again, the absence of program notes was a bit of a liability.) It's a substantial work that cellists probably know a good deal better than civilian music lovers, but it would clearly repay repeated hearings. It and the Shapey were far and away the weekend's most compelling "new" pieces....

The Brahms was radiantly realized, too. Again, the magic of true partnership was constantly evident, and the dynamic shadings were often breathtaking.

Sunday morning brought Krosnick back for his masterclass, which was a bit different from Eddy's in that Krosnick spent a great deal of time talking about energy and the hand, bow arm, and supporting physical structures, and letting the cello ring . In some respects, masterclasses are all the same, of course: the student plays, the master speaks and makes some suggestions, the student plays again, and - surprise! - it's better. The difference on this occasion was that the participants were at fairly high performance levels before they got there. Victor Sotelo played Schuller's Fantasy, and anyone who's into that is pretty far along. Toda-Ambaras played Bach even better than on previous occasions - he's one of the Triangle region's most promising young artists - and clearly dazzled Krosnick, along with the rest of the crowd. Yu played Dvorák, Wiseman did part of the Schumann Concerto, and Philip von Maltzahn played the Haydn that Whitehouse had realized on opening night, bringing us almost full circle. All these artist know their way around the instrument already, but there's nothing like working with a master - and there's nothing like young players to keep masters on their toes, too! (The pianists were Betsy Hodges, of UNCG, and Misako Toda.)

Lunch on site - with the first daytime coffee on-site - was followed by the grand finale, a sort of who's who of the celebration's prime movers. Jonathan Kramer led off with Vitali's Ciaconna, and his musicianship was secure enough, although truth to tell he'd run himself ragged, preparing the previous day's cello ensemble pieces, commuting to and from his home base, and delivering the pre-concert lectures for the NC Symphony's Raleigh concerts on Friday and Saturday, too. Barbara Stein Mallow played a version of the Adagio from Bach's Goldberg Variations - it and other pieces were Silva 's transcriptions or editions. Charles Forbes, who worked with Eisenberg, Greenhouse, Silva, Casals, and other fine artists, played a Brahms Intermezzo, providing in the process yet another link to the musical past. Raimi realized a Boccherini Sonata, partnered by pianist Jane Hawkins; otherwise the keyboard duties in this program were shouldered by UNCG's indefatigable Harley. Benjamin Silva returned to play three Scarlatti sonatas on his guitar; he seemed completely at ease with these, and in addition they demonstrated that arranging skills in the Silva family didn't die with his grandfather. Charles Wendt made child's play of two Paganini caprices, and Krosnick cleaned up with a group of Bartók's Roumanian Folk Dances and Mendelssohn's "Spinning Song." The entire program was a tribute to Silva, of course, and to his legacy. The paper portion of that legacy resides in Greensboro now, but the legacy lives in his students and his students' students, and it will, with proper care and feeding, continue to enrich our musical lives for generations to come. And that is, let's say, quite a legacy, indeed!

 

   
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