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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Oliveira Branching

From the Classical Vault Dept.: He was a first prize winner at the Naumburg International Competition and the first violinist to receive the Avery Fisher Prize; more surprisingly, Elmar Oliveira won the gold medal at the 1978 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, and unheard-of victory for an American, which was rumored to have required special intervention by violinist Leonid Kogan on his behalf. Oliveira has maintained a steady career ever since, devoting much of his time to teaching even while performing regular in solo, chamber, and orchestral settings. Here’s my 1987 interview with him, in advance of a SPAC appearance my review of which also is below.


DURING THE THREE WEEKS of Philadelphia Orchestra performances at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center there always is an array of world-class instrumental soloists on hand to take on the responsibility of concerto performance.

Elmar Oliveira (c. 1987)
Elmar Oliveira is a violinist who carved out an international reputation for himself in just a few years; he'll return to SPAC on Aug. 5 to play the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, a work he’s been championing lately.

“It’s a work that hasn’t been played very much until recently,” he explains, “but it’s been getting some renewed interest in the last year or two. It’s very romantic work – Barber really uses the instrument as a vehicle for a kind of vocal expression, but it also departs from that at moments, especially in the last movement, a moto perpetuo, which introduces for the first time in the piece – I wouldn’t say dissonance, because there’s nothing in there that’s unpleasant-sounding, but something a little less solidly romantic.”

Oliveira spoke from his hotel in Minneapolis, where he was preparing for a concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, playing the fiery Concerto in D Minor by Henryk Wieniawski. “I try to vary my repertoire as much as possible. The Wieniawski hasn’t been played much recently, but it used to be played all the time. Performers just lost interest in it, but it’s a concerto I’ve played since I was 14.”

Linking the Wieniawski and the Barber concertos, he explains, is a renewed interest in the romantic repertory, “perhaps even the lighter romantic repertory, like the Kreisler pieces. The pendulum always swings to the extreme sides, and there always seems to be a drastic change in the choice of repertoire – works that were very popular disappear and other things take over the interest of the performers.”

His performance is part of an all-American program, including the little-heard ballet Within the Quota by Cole Porter and Dvořák’s New World symphony. But the Barber concerto was Oliveira’s own suggestion. “The Barber is an extremely wonderful piece I try to promote as much as possible.  Most violinists, when asked to choose a 20th century work, will come up with pieces like the Bartok violin concerto or Stravinsky or the Prokofievs – and the Barber is put on the back burner. I feel the Barber is at least as important a work as those other pieces.”

Oliveira’s interest in music – and the violin – began when he was an infant. “From the day I was born I heard music in my home, constantly, all day, every day, and it was mostly violin music. My father loved the violin, and my brother was a professional violinist. He’s eleven years older than I am and was my first teacher. I just naturally was attracted to the instrument.”

But the mystique about the life of a soloist dissipated under the weight of the responsibilities of performance and travel. “I think there’s a lot more competition now, and because of the incredible speeded-up kind of lifestyle, a soloist’s life is really a more vigorous experience. You have to have a tremendous amount of stamina. I see myself more as a worker, a laborer, than anything else. Maintaining an international career requires tremendous effort and hard work all the time.”

Although he suspects that people in the hall don’t understand that, he sees no wish to burden them with such an un-romantic image. “It’s a great, great experience to get up and play in front of an audience.   

“When you walk out there the commitment is to be communicative with your audience, to communicate something they’re expecting to be different from their everyday lives. It’s a break from that existence. This is the responsibility that the performer has.”

– Metroland Magazine, 11 June 1987

COLE PORTER AND SAMUEL BARBER shared the Philadelphia Orchestra’s bill Wednesday evening at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center – an unusual combination, perhaps, but with music every bit as accessible as Dvořák’s New World symphony (third on the program) and as American in essence as the Dvořák is in fancy.

Antonin Dvořák rendered his impressions of this country with a most Bohemian accent, and his Symphony No. 9, conducted last Wednesday by Dennis Russell Davies, was another of those remarkable jobs that are so easy to take for granted at SPAC.

Porter’s only non-musical-theater piece was a ballet that lay unperformed for decades, the original orchestration (by Charles Koechlin) unobtainable. William Bolcom, SPAC’s composer-in-residence for the summer, provided a new orchestration for an American Ballet Theatre revival a few years ago, and it was this version that we heard in its first Philadelphia Orchestra rendition.

Comprising a series of short, continuous sections, Within the Quota has the antique selfconsciousness of a pop-oriented composer trying to be taken seriously by the classical crowd. And, fortunately, lapsing into long stretches of good, fun jazz. This is a piece that should have made it into the standard orchestral repertory years ago – like Rhapsody in Blue, it sounds dated, but Rhapsody endures in part because we all grew up with it.

And, like any good ballet score,it has personality enough to take on a life independent of dance, although it would be a treat to see the original scenario (ABT abandoned it) danced some day.

Elmar Oliveira was the soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto,a work Oliveira has been championing of late. And with good reason – it’s another piece with basic rep characteristics: accessible, a nice showpiece for the soloist, some pyrotechnics to conclude it.

It begins with a sultry melody reminiscent of late Richard Strauss, and soon moves into a very Barberian contrast between lushness and drama.

The second movement has all the gorgeousness of, say, a Bruch slow movement, but with an introspective quality that doesn’t rely on melody alone for its effect. Barber is always harmonically fascinating, and never more so than when he pares his lines as much as is evident in this piece.

Oliveira has weathered the storms of an early success to grow into a first-rate interpreter and technician. His performance of the Barber concerto was exemplary, displaying the kind of control often missing even from some of the top-name fiddlers working the circuit.

There are a couple of dozen violin concertos that need to be put to pasture for a while, and the Barber would be my first choice of a replacement for any one of them – preferably with Oliveira as soloist.

Congratulations to both Oliveira and Davies for presenting this work, and further congrats for the whole of the fascinating program. The concert shared a date with opening day at the track, but that didn’t prevent a good-sized, appreciative turnout.

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Elmar Oliveira, violinist; conducted by Dennis Russell Davies
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 5

Metroland Magazine, 13 August 1987

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