Violinist Oliveira's checkered career

Music: He's the consummate professional, but the violin world's `steady Eddie' honed his skills by free-lancing early on, at least once for a film he might not want us to see.

January 07, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

You don't normally expect someone who once recorded the soundtrack for a porno flick to turn up playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

But that's the situation when Elmar Oliveira performs the most spiritually lofty of all violin concertos tonight, tomorrow and Saturday with the Baltimore Symphony and guest conductor George Pehlivanian.

"I never actually saw the picture," Oliveira says about his experience recording that particular X-rated soundtrack. "But I and the other guys playing began to suspect the truth because the music was so monotonous."

That was back in the 1970s, when Oliveira supported himself primarily as a free-lancer -- playing in Broadway shows and recording jingles and commercials for radio and TV, as well as film soundtracks.

Performing classical concerts was something of a luxury.

Even though Oliveira had won the prestigious Naumburg Prize in 1974, he never received the important dates that usually accompany such a triumph. His career really didn't take off until four years later in 1978 -- when Russian audiences immediately recognized what American audiences had been missing. Oliveira is the only American who has ever won first prize in Moscow's Tchaikovsky International Competition.

"No doubt about it, that was my entree," Oliveira says. "With the Tchaikovsky came the much wider notice that gave me the opportunity to play all over the world."

He's been a fixture on international concert platforms ever since, with re-engagement after re-engagement rolling in, because Oliveira is the steady Eddie of the violin world: He always shows up, he always plays well.

In fact, Oliveira, 48, could perhaps be called the most distinguished American violinist of his generation.

A few of his contemporaries -- such as Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman -- may be more famous, but none of them is currently playing as consistently well as Oliveira. While he's hardly an unknown quantity, it's a little peculiar that he isn't better known and that he hasn't made more recordings for major labels. Why on earth did the winner of the Naumburg Competition need to play for a porno film?

"I was a bit of an outsider in the violin world," Oliveira says. "Things were not always easy in the early years. Whatever I success I had, I had to earn."

Oliveira studied at the Hart School in Hartford, Conn., with Raphael Bronstein.

Hartford was not New York, and Bronstein, while a great teacher, had neither the name nor the connections possessed by the likes of Dorothy Delay at the Juilliard School in New York. Unlike Perlman, Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and others, Oliveira was not mentored by Isaac Stern.

"Actually, the free-lancing I did was great training," Oliveira says. "Without any time to prepare, you have to sight-read what is often very difficult stuff. And it really forces you to listen to what your colleagues are doing.

"That is very helpful when you get up in front of an orchestra before an audience. The way concert life is today, you hop from one orchestra to another, usually with a rehearsal the morning of the day you're supposed to play. Free-lancing taught me to be prepared for anything."

Oliveira believes that there's room for lots of improvement in today's concert world. It bothers him that record companies no longer give sustained support to the artists they record.

"The companies now choose to record all the young prodigies -- and the younger they are, the better," he says. "They do this for a while, and then they find someone else.

"You don't find the kind of relationships with artists that existed back in the days of people like Heifetz, Rubinstein and Piatigorsky. And you don't hear the kind of recordings that were made in those days, either."

That's why Oliveira has just formed his own record company. It's called Artec, and the first two recordings -- both by Oliveira -- are already on sale.

"This gives me the chance to leave a legacy of the repertory I'm interested in, with the kind of recorded sound I feel really represents the way I play," he says.

He also plans to record other important artists who have been somewhat neglected by the major companies.

One of Artec's forthcoming releases, for example, will be an all-Brahms recital by the superb Mexican pianist Jorge Osorio, whose playing, while much appreciated in Latin America and in Britain, is almost unknown in the United States.

"I feel incredibly lucky about the life I've led," Oliveira says. "I have lots of concerts, and now I'm able to record the repertory I find interesting. I don't feel like such an outsider any more."

Elmar Oliveira

What: Oliveira performs Beethoven Violin Concerto with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor George Pehlivanian

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: Today, tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $21-$55

Call: 410-783-8000 Pub Date: 1/07/99

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