Years as violinist mold conductor's work on podium

March 24, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When conductor Joseph Silverstein rehearsed the Baltimore Symphony and soloist Herbert Greenberg in Bartok's First Concerto for violin, he had a special franchise.

"I can say to an orchestra, 'That's too loud, and I know, because I've been there,' " says Silverstein, who conducts the piece tonight at Meyerhoff Hall.

That's because Silverstein, music director of the Utah Symphony in Salt Lake, is not only one of this country's most prominent conductors, he's also one of our most distinguished violinists.

Silverstein's finely chiseled playing, beautiful tone and expressive musicianship, particularly in 18th- and early 19th-century works, came to international attention long ago. He took a top prize in 1959's Brussels Competition and won the prestigious Naumburg Award the following year.

He's walked in Greenberg's shoes -- and not just because he's a violinist. Greenberg is the BSO's concertmaster. And Silverstein is generally regarded as one of the two best concertmasters of the second half of this century.

For 22 years, from 1962 to 1984, he was concertmaster of the real BSO, the orchestra that has a patent on those initials, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And here's another connection between the two fiddle players -- they're both students of the beloved Josef Gingold. As the field captain of the Cleveland Orchestra in its glory days under George Szell in the '50s and early '60s, Gingold was this country's other great concertmaster.

"In my first year in the orchestra, he [Silverstein] conducted my first subscription concert -- a performance of the Bruch Concerto -- and we've done lots of stuff [together] since," Greenberg says. "Joey is extremely sensitive to what another musician needs, and he knows everything that's going on in an orchestra. He's the most wonderful friend and colleague imaginable."

Silverstein studied with Gingold as a child growing up in Detroit when the latter was concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony. At 13, the young prodigy was shipped off to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia to work with the legendary Efrem Zimbalist. The move from Gingold to Zimbalist was not easy, Silverstein says.

"Joe is such a warm man -- he was my surrogate father," Silverstein says. "Zimbalist was distant and imperious. But Joe wanted me to study with him. In his almost infinite wisdom, he knew I need a teacher who would force me to be on my own."

When Silverstein joined the Boston Symphony in 1955 at the age of 23, he was its youngest member. He started out in the last row of the second violins and moved up a few years later to the third row of the first.

When he won the 1962 audition to succeed Richard Burgin's 42-year reign as concertmaster, he was only 29 -- the youngest concertmaster in the United States. Occupying the concertmaster's chair of that orchestra, the most patrician and tradition-minded of all of America's orchestras, was something he had dreamed about since he first picked up a fiddle.

"When I was a little boy and wouldn't practice, my mother would say to me, 'How are you going to be concertmaster of the Boston Symphony when you grow up if you don't practice?' "

As second-in-command in Boston -- to Erich Leinsdorf, then William Steinberg and, finally, Seiji Ozawa -- Silverstein was in an ideal position to learn the craft of conducting. At the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, he became chairman of the faculty and frequently conducted the center's talented students.

In 1971, he was named the Boston Symphony's assistant conductor, and his precise, efficient and serious style created a demand for him on other podiums. He was the Baltimore Symphony's principal guest conductor between 1981 and 1983 and in the last of those years was named music director of the Utah Symphony. After commuting for 12 months between Salt Lake City and Boston, he resigned the concertmaster's chair in 1984.

Even though he's been a full-time conductor for a decade, Silverstein says he will never forget what it means to be a player, and that's why he takes special care in accompanying soloists in concertos.

"Building a nice performance around one of my colleagues is something I will always love," he says. "You have to think of yourself as a tailor. You want the soloist to feel when he's playing with you that he's put on a custom-made suit -- he shouldn't even be aware that he's wearing it."

BSO IN CONCERT

What: Joseph Silverstein conducts the Baltimore Symphony in Haydn, Schubert and Bartok at Meyerhoff Hall

When: 8:15 tonight and March 25; 11 a.m. March 26

Tickets: $9-$45

Call: (410) 783-8000

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