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Francis Akos

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family notes with sorrow the passing of Francis Akos, a member of the violin section from 1955 until 2003. He died earlier today in Minneapolis following a brief illness at the age of 93.

Akos was hired by Fritz Reiner in 1955 as assistant principal second violin and moved to principal second in 1956. In 1959, he became assistant concertmaster and remained in that chair until 1997, when he was named assistant concertmaster emeritus, a title he retained until his retirement in 2003.

A native of Budapest, Hungary, Akos, studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music with Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Leó Weiner, Imre Waldbauer, and Ede Zathureczky. He received his artist’s diploma in performance as well as a teacher’s diploma. As best of his class, Akos won both the Jenő Hubay prize and the Reményi Prize (a violin made especially for the winner of the competition) in the same year. Just before World War II, he formed a trio with cellist János Starker and pianist György Sebök (forty years later in December 1980, the three performed a reunion concert in Chicago).

After surviving the Holocaust (a brief interview from 1990 in which he describes his immediate postwar months is available here), Akos served as concertmaster of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and later of the Hungarian Royal Opera and Philharmonic orchestras, the youngest person ever to hold these posts. After leaving Hungary, he was concertmaster of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Sweden and then of the Städtishce Oper (now the Deutsche Oper Berlin).

In 1954, Akos immigrated to the United States, where he performed at the Aspen Music Festival and with the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra) under Antal Doráti before joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1955. He appeared as soloist with the Orchestra on numerous occasions, under music directors Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim, as well as with Carlo Maria Giulini, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, and János Ferencsik, among others.

Francis Akos in 2003 (Gregory Morton photo)

Francis Akos in 2003 (Gregory Morton photo)

Akos founded and led the Chicago Strings, a chamber ensemble comprised of CSO musicians; was leader of the Old Town Chamber Music Series; served as music director of the Fox River Valley Symphony in Aurora; and was conductor of the Chicago Heights Symphony Orchestra. As founding music director of the Highland Park Strings, he led that ensemble for twenty-eight years.

Akos is survived by two daughters, Kate Akos (Harry Jacobs) of San Francisco, California, and Judy Akos Berkowitz (Dennis Berkowitz) of Edina, Minnesota, and beloved grandchildren Justin and Melissa. Services will be private and plans for a public memorial will be announced at a later date. The family asks that any gifts of remembrance be made to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Highland Park Strings, or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

At the time of his retirement in 2003, Akos reflected on his years with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: “For more than half my life, I have lived in Chicago as a member of the world’s greatest orchestra. The music, the composers, the conductors, and the soloists have inspired me. I am especially grateful to have been blessed with the inspiration I have received from my CSO colleagues during my professional life.”

An obituary was posted by the Chicago Tribune on January 29, 2016.

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János Starker

Legendary cellist and teacher János Starker, principal cello (1953–1958) and frequent soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, died on April 28, 2013, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was 88.

János Starker was born in Budapest, Hungary to Russian émigré parents. He began cello studies at age six, taught his first lesson at age eight, and gave his first public performance at age ten. He studied at the Franz Liszt Royal Academy, where faculty included Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Leo Weiner. It was also at the Liszt Academy where he met his lifelong friend and future CSO concertmaster, Victor Aitay.

After imprisonment in a internment camp (on Csepel Island, in the Danube next to Budapest) during World War II, Starker became principal cello of the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic orchestras. With Aitay, he left Hungary in 1946 for Vienna, performing as soloist and in Aitay’s string quartet. Starker immigrated to the United States in 1948 and joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as principal cello at the invitation of Antal Doráti. The next year, he occupied the same position in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera under the direction of fellow Hungarian Fritz Reiner. With Reiner, Starker came to Chicago and became principal cello of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953. He became an American citizen in 1954.

The maestro joined the newest members of the Orchestra for an informal photo in 1953. The new musicians are (left to right): Nathan Snader, violin; Juan Cuneo, violin; Joseph Golan, violin; Alan Fuchs, horn; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; Ray Still, oboe; and János Starker, cello.

Fritz Reiner and the newest members of the Orchestra in 1953: Nathan Snader, violin; Juan Cuneo, violin; Joseph Golan, violin; Alan Fuchs, horn; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; Ray Still, oboe; and Starker.

In 1958, Starker left Chicago and resumed his career as an international soloist and for the next five decades, he appeared in recitals and as soloist with the world’s leading orchestras. In addition to performing all the major works from the cello repertoire, he performed concertos written for him by David Baker, Doráti, Bernhard Heiden, Jean Martinon, Miklós Rózsa, Robert Starer, and Chou Wen-chung. Starker was the subject of countless news articles, magazine profiles, and television documentaries, and his performances have been broadcast on radio and television around the world.

Starker’s discography includes more than 270 recordings of over 180 pieces, many of which have become landmark records of cello literature. He made an unprecedented five recordings of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello; the final album received the 1997 Grammy Award for best instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra). Starker’s first recording of Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello received France’s Grand prix du disque in 1948.

Starker was equally renowned as a teacher. He joined the faculty of Indiana University in 1958 and was named a distinguished professor in 1962. He taught at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada for seventeen years and at the Hochschule für Musik in Essen, Germany for five years, and many of his students (including the CSO’s own Brant Taylor) have won prestigious awards and occupy prominent positions in chamber ensembles and major orchestras. Starker published and recorded a series of studies entitled An Organized Method of String Playing which remains an important piece of cello instruction. He published or edited numerous musical scores and articles, and developed the Starker Bridge designed to enhance the acoustics of stringed instruments. His autobiography, The World of Music According to Starker, was published by Indiana University Press in 2004.

Starker received five honorary degrees and numerous awards including the Kodály Commemorative Medallion from the Government of Hungary in 1983 and the Chevalier de l’Order des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic in 1997. He played the Lord Aylesford Stradivarius cello between 1950 and 1964, and he also played a 1705 Matteo Goffriller cello throughout his career.

For the United States premiere of Martinon’s Cello Concerto on July 31, 1965, former principal cello János Starker returned as soloist at the Ravinia Festival. Shown here during a rehearsal are the composer, soloist, and conductor, Ravinia music director Seiji Ozawa.

Starker was soloist in the United States premiere of Martinon’s Cello Concerto at the Ravinia Festival on July 31, 1965. Seiji Ozawa, the Festival’s music director, conducted.

A complete list of János Starker’s solo appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are below (subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

November 19 and 20, 1953
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Fritz Reiner, conductor

November 24, 1953
SCHUBERT/Cassadó Cello Concerto in A Minor
Fritz Reiner, conductor

February 4 and 5, 1954
BEETHOVEN Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56
Bruno Walter, conductor
George Schick, piano
John Weicher, violin

January 6 and 7, 1955
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Bruno Walter, conductor
John Weicher, violin

April 14 and 15, 1955
PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 58
Fritz Reiner, conductor

October 6, 7, and 11, 1955
STRAUSS Don Quixote, Op. 35
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin
Milton Preves, viola

January 5 and 6, 1956
SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129
Fritz Reiner, conductor

February 28, March 1, and 12, 1957
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin

March 14 and 15, 1957
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
Fritz Reiner, conductor

June 28, 1957 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Igor Markevitch, conductor

December 5 and 6, 1957
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Fritz Reiner, conductor

March 20, 21, and 25, 1958
STRAUSS Don Quixote, Op. 35
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin
Milton Preves, viola

October 19 and 20, 1961
PROKOFIEV Symphony-Concerto for Cello, Op. 125
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

July 23, 1963 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor

July 30, 1963 (Ravinia Festival)
WALTON Cello Concerto
Sir William Walton, conductor

December 3 and 4, 1964
HAYDN Cello Concerto in C Major
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 31, 1965 (Ravinia Festival)
MARTINON Cello Concerto, Op. 52
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

July 29, 1967 (Ravinia Festival)
LALO Cello Concerto in D Minor
Jean Martinon, conductor

May 9 and 10, 1968
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 18, 1970 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
István Kertész, conductor

November 4 and 5, 1971
RÓZSA Cello Concerto, Op. 32
Georg Solti, conductor

July 15, 1972 (Ravinia Festival)
HAYDN Cello Concerto in C Major
István Kertész, conductor

July 21, 1973 (Ravinia Festival)
BEETHOVEN Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Sergiu Comissiona, conductor
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano
Franco Gulli, violin

July 27, 1974 (Ravinia Festival)
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Kazimierz Kord, conductor

August 2, 1975 (Ravinia Festival)
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107
Lawrence Foster, conductor

October 7, 8, and 9, 1976
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

November 22, 24, and 25, 1978
BOCCHERINI Cello Concerto B-flat Major
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

November 25, 27, and 28, 1987
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

____________________________________________________

“After two years at the Fodor School, I passed the entrance examinations [at the age of 12] for the Liszt Academy, where, for six years, I received the most significant part of my formal music education. The Liszt Academy is housed in a magnificent building, and its beautiful Art Nouveau concert hall has marvelous acoustics for solo recitals and chamber music performances. The training I received there was difficult and at times harsh, but those who survived the experience emerged as real musicians. The academy gave me a grounding in discipline and hard work that has sustained me throughout my life, and the lessons I learned there I now try to impress on young people. . . .

Béla Bartók

“My first piano teacher there was Arnold Székely . . . When I was fifteen or sixteen, Professor Székely caught pneumonia, and we pupils were told that during his absence his lessons would be given by Professor Bartók. Although Béla Bartók was a fine pianist and needed to teach in order to earn a living, the obvious question remains: Why was he teaching piano instead of composition? The answer is he believed that composition cannot be taught. He was absolutely right. One does have to learn the elements of composition, such as harmony, counterpoint, and form, but one can’t be taught how to compose anything worth hearing; one either does or does not have a talent for composing music.

“Bartók presented an austere, forbidding front to the world even in those years, when he was still in his mid-forties, his reputation was daunting. . . . We were fully aware that there was an authentic genius teaching at our academy.

“When I learned that I would have to play for him, I felt terribly fearful. Bartók kept our class separate from his own; we spent several hours with him twice a week . . . Seventy years have elapsed since then and I do not remember much about those sessions, but I do recall that at every lesson each pupil played parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier for Bartók. I also played some Debussy preludes for him. During one of the first lessons, I made a terrible faux pas: I sat down to play his Allegro barbaro for piano solo. When he saw me set the music on the stand, he became quite upset. ‘No, no, not that!’ he said. ‘I don’t want to hear that!’ It was stupid of me to have thought that he might have enjoyed hearing an immature pupil play one of his compositions, but my intentions had been good: I had wanted to show my love and respect for him.”

_______________________

Zoltán Kodály

“I don’t remember the name of my first teacher at the Liszt Academy, but when, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I won a prize in a piano competition promoted by a Budapest politician, one of the pieces I played was my own. My mother, convinced that I was a second Mozart, persuaded the politician to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf to the academy’s best-known composition teacher, Zoltán Kodály. . . .

“I don’t know how my mother had the courage to take me to a man of such prestige as Kodály, but there we were one day in his studio at the academy. Such was her naïveté in political matters that she didn’t realize that the politician who had written the letter she handed him was right-wing; Kodály was left-wing. ‘My son composes and has brought along some little pieces that he has written,’ she said. ‘Would you like to listen to them?’

“I am sure that the pieces were terrible, but Kodály listened patiently. ‘The boy certainly has talent,’ he told my mother, ‘but he must finish his education. Bring him back to me when he is eighteen, and we’ll discuss the matter again.’ This was a fair remark, but my mother was deeply offended: How had Kodály dared to turn down her little Mozart? Instead of following his advice, she took me immediately to Albert Siklós, the other principal composition professor at the academy; he listened to my pieces and accepted me as a pupil. . . .

“Composition exams were held twice a year; we were given blank music paper early in the morning and had to produce a certain type of composition by noon. Together, Siklós and Kodály looked at each student’s work and graded it . . . Kodály never gave the slightest indication that he recognized me. He always graded my work fairly, but he never said a word to me. I finished the course successfully and wrote a string quartet as a graduation piece, thereby ending my career as a composer. Kodály handed me my diploma, but not even then did he say a word to me.”

Solti later encountered Kodály on a few occasions, several years after Solti left the Academy. Their final encounter was in 1965 “when he attended some rehearsals and one of my performances of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at Covent Garden. Afterward, he said the nicest things to me—what a marvelous musician I had become, and so on. I was as pleased as could be, because he was a shy man and not normally generous with compliments.”

_______________________

Ernö (Ernst von) Dohnányi

“During my last two years at the academy, I studied composition with Ernö Dohnányi . . . the internationally celebrated pianist, conductor, and composer, who became the academy’s director a few years after I graduated. He was a brilliant man but not a good teacher.

“At first, I had a composition lesson with him once every two weeks. He would look at my work, play it through at the piano, mark it up, and discuss it with me; he was a phenomenal sight reader, and he could whip through whatever I had set down on paper, no matter how messy the scrawl. After a few months, however, he told me ‘Phone me whenever you’ve written something.’ This was a fatal pedagogical error: I worked less and less, and during the second year I didn’t have more than three lessons with him. His attitude toward teaching piano was the same: ‘Call me when you’ve prepared something,’ he would tell his disciples. And when he did give lessons, his method consisted of pushing the pupil away from the keyboard and playing the piece himself. . . .

“Dohnányi was a remarkable pianist. His Beethoven was very free but showed a fine sense of phrasing and form. A performance he gave of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata remains in my memory, not because of the wonderful interpretation, but because he got lost in the first movement’s tricky development section. In an amazing display of sangfroid, he improvised his way out of the problem. Others would have stood up and left the stage, but he went on.”

_______________________

Leo Weiner

“Beginning at about the age of fourteen, and until graduation from the academy, [most of] the instrumentalists had to participate in the [chamber music] course. Presiding over it for many years was the composer Leo Weiner, who thus exercised an enormous influence on three generations of Hungarian musicians. . . .

“In his class, I played a vast amount of repertoire, from Mozart to Brahms. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to him. He was a marvelous, natural musician, but also a complete professional with a broad and profound knowledge of the art of making music. He never spoke about technique, but, rather, about musical structure, freedom of phrasing, and about probing beyond the notes. He taught us to listen to one another when we played in an ensemble, however large or small, and to develop a sense of when to lead and when to follow—and why, and how. Knowing how to listen, knowing how to assess what is going on within the ensemble, and knowing how to pinpoint and fix what is wrong—these are a chamber musician’s basic skills and they are a conductor’s basic skills. I am not exaggerating when I say that whatever I have achieved as a musician I owe more to Leo Weiner than to anyone else.”

_______________________

In November 1993 at Orchestra Hall, Music Director Laureate Sir Georg Solti paid tribute to the Liszt Academy and his teachers, performing and recording several works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The release—entitled Mephisto Magic—included the following works:

LISZT Mephisto Waltz No. 1
LISZT Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
BARTÓK Hungarian Sketches
WEINER Prince Csongor and the Goblins, Op. 10
BARTÓK Romanian Folk Dances
KODÁLY Háry János Suite, Op. 35a

For London Records, Michael Woolcock was the producer, Colin Moorfoot was the engineer, and Matthew Hutchinson was the tape editor.

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

We have lost a legend.

Victor Aitay, who served the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for fifty seasons as assistant concertmaster (1954–1965), associate concertmaster (1965–1967), concertmaster (1967–1986), and concertmaster emeritus (1986–2003), passed away earlier today. He was 91.

Victor Aitay was born in Budapest in 1921 and entered the Franz Liszt Royal Academy—where faculty included Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Leo Weiner—at the age of seven. After receiving an artist’s diploma there, he became concertmaster of the Hungarian Royal Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra and organized the Aitay String Quartet. He toured extensively throughout Europe with that ensemble and also performed in recital and as soloist with major orchestras.

During World War II, Aitay was among the tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust because of the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. He recounted the story to the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein in May 2001.

Aitay and Eva Vera Kellner were married just after the war on November 17, 1945. In 1946, they left Hungary along with their friend János Starker and other colleagues, and went to Vienna. They soon traveled to the United States, where Aitay auditioned for and was hired by Fritz Reiner, then music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. After two seasons (1946–1948) in Pittsburgh, he joined the orchestra of New York’s Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1948 and was rostered until 1955, serving as associate concertmaster from 1952 until 1955.

In 1954, again at the invitation of Fritz Reiner, he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as assistant concertmaster. In 1965, Aitay was appointed associate concertmaster by Jean Martinon; two years later, Martinon promoted Aitay to the position of concertmaster. He served the Orchestra in that capacity until 1986, when he relinquished the chair to serve as concertmaster emeritus until his retirement in 2003.

Aitay also served as professor of violin at DePaul University, music director and conductor of the Lake Forest Symphony, and leader of the Chicago Symphony String Quartet. He was awarded an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from Lake Forest College, and an article about the CSO that he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times was published in the book 20th Century Chicago.

Aitay’s beloved wife Eva preceded him in death in November 2008, and he is survived by his daughter Ava Aitay-Murray and granddaughter Ashley Murray. Services will be this Friday, July 27, 12:00 noon, at Piser Funeral Services, 9200 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. Interment immediately following at Memorial Park Cemetery, 9900 Gross Point Road, also in Skokie. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the DePaul University School of Music, or the Merit School of Music.

Just before his retirement in October 2003, Victor wrote: “As I begin my fiftieth season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I find myself looking back on what I consider the most gratifying years of my life. It has given me great pride to be the concertmaster of this incredible orchestra, to play with the finest musicians, and to tour around the world several times. Making music with the world’s greatest conductors, soloists, and composers over the past half century has been a real privilege. As I move forward into new passages of my life, I will always carry with me rich and wonderful memories. These fifty years have been a beautiful symphony for me. Thank you.”

Addition: Here is a clip from a taping Victor made for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, that includes a performance of the first movement Adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata no. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 (with thanks to Andrew Patner).

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