Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Meet Peter Sirotin, Concertmaster - and This Month, Concert Soloist

Peter Sirotin (photo by Jeff Lynch)
This weekend, concertmaster Peter Sirotin will step out in front of his colleagues to perform the Glazunov Violin Concerto on a program that also includes Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and Elgar's "Enigma Variations." The concerts, conducted by Stuart Malina, are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. Associate Conductor Gregory Woodbridge offers the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

You can read more about the concert with David Dunkle's interview with Peter Sirotin and Stuart Malina here in the Carlisle Sentinel. 
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When Peter Sirotin was 6, his mother, a violin teacher, handed him a violin ("essentially," he said, "this was what she knew and what she could give me") but he didn't take to it that seriously until he was 11 and learning the Mendelssohn Concerto when he heard Heifetz's recording that changed his mind. (This, he points out, is a caution he tells most beginners' parents not to let the new student give up too soon before they've had a chance to develop a little.)

You'd think someone named Pyotr Ilich Sirotin would be automatically drawn to the great concerto by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, but he told me in a phone conversation he prefers the Glazunov Concerto he'll be performing this weekend to the Tchaikovsky. I had assumed it's probably because the whole Glazunov Concerto is as long as the Tchaikovsky's first movement, but he said “for one thing, the orchestration is more interesting,” and he thought it was "tighter in form." For all Tchaikovsky's brilliance and his knack for writing a great melody, "sometimes he goes too far with the repetitions:" the form is overall “too sprawling” and the last movement, too long (Tchaikovsky did make cuts but most performers today don't take them).

There's also a curious connection between the two concertos: while neither composer worked with a specific violinist to turn to with technical questions (Brahms at least had Joseph Joachim to check things, even if he did ignore them), but both of them dedicated their concertos to Leopold Auer who was probably the greatest violinist in Russia at the time (Tchaikovsky's was written in 1877; Glazunov's, not until 1904). Yet Auer refused to play Tchaikovsky's concerto, saying it was unplayable (which had nothing to do with critics at its premiere who thought it was unlistenable – Hanslick thought this was “music that stinks in the ear”); Auer had no such reservations when, over 25 years later, he was handed Glazunov's work (and at least Glazunov didn't have to deal with criticism like that).

But when Glazunov started teaching in St. Petersburg in 1899, this, Peter explained, was during something of a Golden Age of violin playing and teaching in Russia. Incidentally, two of Auer's students were Nathan Milstein and Jascha Heifetz – and both students would later play Glazunov's concerto under the composer's baton.

While Heifetz' Mendelssohn recording inspired an 11-year-old violinist, today Peter says he prefers Milstein's recording, so I've decided to include that one as a video courtesy of YouTube, as well as another, more modern, live concert performance with Hilary Hahn (see the next post) for those of you who'd prefer “better sound” with something to watch :-)

This Angel/EMI recording of the Glazunov Violin Concerto was made in 1957 with Nathan Milstein and William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony. “The Glazounov is close to me,” Milstein explained at the time, “because I performed it in my first public orchestra appearance as a child, under the direction of the composer. It was also the concerto which I played for my debut in the United States under Stokowski in Philadelphia in 1929.”
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“Oh, and another thing,” Peter mentioned as we were about to hang up, “Glazunov was very helpful to the Jews” studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, petitioning for scholarships and for those “special permits” that were needed because, by Imperial decree dating back to the 18th Century, Jews were not allowed to live in the capital city of St. Petersburg. (“Well,” I thought, “that's something to think about, also, given today's often over-heated rhetoric...”)

By the way, you can read more about the Glazunov in the next post, but also about the other two works on the program, Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" and the Symphony No. 38, the "Prague" Symphony by Mozart in earlier posts.

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Peter Sirotin was born in Kharkiv (a.k.a. Kharkov), now in Ukraine, where he made his debut with the Kharkiv Philharmonic playing Paganini's 1st Violin Concerto when he was 14, and later studied at Moscow's Central Music School. As part of the famed “Moscow Soloists” (becoming their youngest member at the time), he got to play in some of the great halls of Europe, from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam to the Beethoven Hall in Bonn, the Pleyel Hall in Paris to the Royal Albert Hall in London.

He then attended the Peabody School of Music in Baltimore, earning a graduate degree in violin performance and a Graduate Performance Diploma in Chamber Music. There, he met his wife, pianist Ya-Ting Chang.

In 1996, Peter joined the Harrisburg Symphony as Assistant Concertmaster and became Concertmaster with the 2013-2014 Season.

The following year, he and his wife formed the Mendelssohn Piano Trio along with Harrisburg Symphony principal cellist Fiona Thompson. They've played over 500 concerts and recorded 15 CDs including the Complete Piano Trios of Franz Josef Haydn for the Centaur label. In residence at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, the trio maintains a busy teaching and performing schedule, organizing a summer chamber music camp for performers and composers.

Together, he and Ya-Ting are currently co-directors of Market Square Concerts, an organization independent of the Symphony but with which they've combined efforts for the occasional joint project like the appearance of Ann Schein who gave a recital with Market Square Concerts, performed the Chopin F Minor Piano Concerto with the Harrisburg Symphony and offered a jointly sponsored master class at Messiah College. (We will also be telling you about another such venture in the very near future!)

Incidentally, Peter is not the first concertmaster of the Harrisburg Symphony from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Many of our long-time concert-goers and local musicians will remember Irene Palashewskij who was concertmaster or co-concertmaster during the 1970s and '80s who was also born in Kharkiv. (Small world.)

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I know some concert-goers have wondered why people applaud when the last person in the orchestra comes out on stage and sits down in the first chair of the violin section, the only remaining empty seat: after all, he's always late. He tells the oboist to play an “A” so the orchestra can tune and then sits down.

Actually, in addition to playing whatever violin solos there are in a symphonic work (whether it's that lovely bit at the end of Brahms' 1st Symphony's 2nd movement, or the mini-concerto that is part of Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben), the concertmaster relays the conductor's interpretation to the rest of the violins and is also responsible for the uniformity of the section's bowings, coordinating these and other important details with the other principal players in the 2nd Violin, Viola, 'Cello and Bass sections. There are other details, more administrative, concerning auditions and committees within the orchestra, that are also part of the responsibility.

But wait, there's more...

If you attended the November concert which featured the first performance locally of the Double Concerto of Jonathan Leshnoff and stayed for the “talk-back session” following the concert, you heard both soloists – including Alexander Kerr, himself a concertmaster when he played with the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – praise our orchestra's concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, for his skill and help during the rehearsals in coordinating between the two soloists (who were playing the piece for the first time) with the rest of the strings and, by extension, to the whole orchestra in terms of balance or bowing or other more technical details of phrasing and articulation of certain passages to assist the conductor (Stuart Malina, in this case, not being a string player).

For some concertmasters, there's also a bit of diplomacy in being the go-between with the Maestro and the orchestra. Kerr also told the story how, in the first rehearsal with a guest conductor that was not going well (whether the result of the Maestro's jet lag or just his bad mood) and which was putting the other players “on edge,” he decided to sit there and, throughout, continue to smile. Nothing more, just smile. Eventually, everybody else saw that the concertmaster was smiling and they began to relax. And when the Maestro felt everybody relax, he began to feel better so, by the end of the rehearsal, everything was going much better.

So it's not just a gig where you get to show up late...

- Dick Strawser

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