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Sarasate and the Virtuoso Violinist

The Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) was a great virtuoso performer and a prolific composer of the morceau de genre, or character piece. Born in Pamplona Spain, he began to study the violin with his bandmaster father at age 5 and made such progress that age 17 he won the Premier Prix at the Paris Conservatoire and began touring internationally. His violin playing featured an easy virtuosity with a pure sound quality, and he was likely at his best in the Spanish-flavored music that, perhaps largely thanks to him, came into vogue in the second half of the 19th century: among this is Bizet’s opera Carmen, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole and Saint-Saen’s Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,the latter two composed for him. He was among the first violinists to be recorded (around 1904); the playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw declared that though there were many composers of music for the violin, there were but few composers of violin music, and that Sarasate’s abilities “left criticism gasping miles behind him.” Although we might think of him as a Romantic, in reality Sarasate was a composer of world music by bringing the Spanish and Gypsy cultures into the classical violin literature and beyond.

I am preparing to perform, on January 4, 2015 with the San José Chamber Orchestra, three works by Pablo de Sarasate that I have arranged for solo violin and string orchestra: his Caprice Basque, Romanza Andaluza and Zigeunerweisen. It feels very fitting. San José was founded on November 29, 1777, as El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe, and was the first civilian town in the Spanish colony of Nueva California, serving to support Spanish military installations San Francisco and Monterey. It was also the first state capitol of California.

Sarasate’s music places great demands on both the left and right hand techniques of a violinist that include runs and arpeggios across four octaves at breakneck speed, double and triple stops, passages in harmonics, spiccato, staccato and the ability to make many composed passages sound improvised. He and I have been on pretty good terms for a long time – at least from my point of view. I first played these pieces before I was in my mid-teens and they continue to grow on me, along with a lot of other music either composed by or associated with him. Several years ago I proposed this trio of works as an arrangement for The American String Project, a conductorless string orchestra based in Seattle, and was gratified that not only did they play these in concert (later released on MSR Classics) but also had me lead. When given a choice of repertoire to propose for this upcoming concert celebrating the New Year, his music seemed like a no-brainer, even though I had to re-arrange the Caprice Basque and Romanza Andaluza (originally for violin and piano) and revise the Zigeunerweisen to remove and rewrite the winds and horn parts.

Caprice Basque was dedicated to the composer, conductor and pianist Otto Goldschmidt, a pupil of Mendelssohn, and is influenced by the typically dotted rhythm of the ‘zortzico’, a Basque dance in 5/8 meter. Extremely bravura in manner, its second section features a series of variations using different techniques that include playing a melody while plucking out the accompaniment and a variation entirely in harmonics. Romanza Andaluza (from his Spanish Dances, Opus 22) is at first easygoing, as the violin spins out a cantabile (singing) line over a Spanish rhythm; however, this gives way to an intensely emotional mood that is interspersed with a sentimental reflection, finally resolving in a gentle manner. Of the three works, this is the one I have altered the most in that I have created an rchestral countermelody in the middle section. Zigeunerweisen (“Gypsy Airs”) is – no doubt – the best known of these works, and perhaps of all the music that Sarasate composed. The violin part is fully written out but is meant to sound improvised in sections and to be played soulfully and freely, in the manner of the gypsy virtuoso.

Although an abbreviated version of Sarasate playing Zigeunerweisen is available on YouTube, I have – thanks to the marvels of the internet – discovered a recording of the amazing Hungarian violinist Béla Babai (1914-1997), who emigrated to the US and led a gypsy band in a Chicago restaurant, where my mother heard him (while she was a student at the American Conservatory) and was enthralled by his expressiveness and easy virtuosity. He moved to New York where, many years later, I heard him and was inspired by his astonishing playing – and I will be thinking of him also as I play in San José.

On January 4, 2015, Stephanie appeared as guest soloist with the San José Chamber Orchestra conducted by Barbara Day Turner.

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