Feature Article by Robert Maxham - Fanfare Magazine
Violinist Michael Antonello Emerges from the Shadows of the Road Less Taken
For 23 years, violinist Michael Antonello has pursued a career in financial management that has left him time to play the violin (which he studied decades ago at the Curtis Institute and Indiana University) when, and where, and how he wants to (within, of course, the limits of his abilities and at the pleasure of concert managers and audiences). Such independence comes at a price, as it must have for Charles Ives; but it has also brought unexpected rewards. Among them has been the 1720 Rochester Stradivari violin, which Antonello's vocation and avocation have enabled him to purchase, to cherish, and to play according to his own passion or desire. Though such a situation may be enviable, there's been substantial uncertainty: his path, as he describes it, has seldom appeared before him with the inevitability of a geometric proof.
“When I was 16 years old, I won a scholarship to the Congress of Strings (rewarding recipients with a summer of study at the University of Southern California). I was hell-bent on becoming a major-league baseball player. But I'm the oldest of seven children, and my mother forced all of us to choose an instrument. I chose the violin, because the best baseball player in the neighborhood played it (his mother forced him to practice). I was eight years old, and I resented the fact that the violin came so easily and baseball was so difficult. My brother and five sisters have, all of them, been very gifted. My sister is the principal second violin of the St. Louis Symphony; my brother Stephen is a psychologist now, but he studied with Janos Starker at Indiana University; and my sister Michelle is principal flutist of the St. Paul Opera Company. But at 16 years old, after winning that scholarship, I battled my mother and father. I said, 'I'm not going out there. I'll miss the entire baseball season.' My parents prevailed, though. And that was the beginning of the transformation. I found myself in the middle of all this music and all these kids. And I said, 'Well, I'm here. I may as well do this.' And I started practicing about six hours a day. At the end of the summer, I called my mother and said, 'Mom, I've decided to become a violinist. ' Of course, nothing could have made her happier. I said, T want to go to Interlochen Arts Academy.' School started in a week, and my folks got on the horn and talked Interlochen into taking me and giving me some scholarship money. Two years later, I was accepted by the Curtis Institute of Music. My father, although he was a great baseball player, had lost the sight of an eye and supported seven kids as a pipe fitter. We didn't have much money—we were broke all the time, so the scholarship (the full scholarship that Curtis traditionally offers) came in very handy. I studied with Jascha Brodsky there; and by the time I was 18 or 19 years old, I had decided that I wanted to become a concert violinist. One of the disadvantages of classical music training is that people like me had been big fish in small ponds. But I had a great teacher, Mary West (she's still teaching today at 95; my sister studied with Dorothy Delay, and she often said that Mary was just as great a pedagogue—she had an ability to inspire her students to greatness, even though she didn't have the same pool of talent that Dorothy Delay had to draw from). Anyway, I ended up at Indiana University, where I studied with Franco Gulli. I learned lots of repertoire; and over the 10 years of my twenties, I performed a lot, although not nationally. I finally became concertmaster of the Grand Rapids Symphony and played a lot of concertos there. Then, in 1980,1 returned to Minnesota and held a temporary position with the Minnesota Orchestra.
“We get to 1982, and I'm sitting in that temporary position. I'm about to turn 30 years old; and the career isn't happening. I have two children and another one on the way—it's sort of the end. I decided not.to move and not to take auditions. Did I really want to play in an orchestra for the rest of my life? People always ask, 'How could you give up the violin?' But there's only one artist in an orchestra. An artist is the person who gets to make all the decisions—how fast, how slow, how loud, how soft—and that's the conductor. One artist and a hundred craftsmen, and the craftsmen have become part of the instrument. That's why orchestras are such hotbeds of bad attitudes and cynicism. All these people have been trained and given adulation—particularly the string-players—and suddenly they find themselves simply part of the instrument with somebody else telling them what to do and when to do it. And I said, 'No, I'm not going to do this. I'm going to go make some money.' Many of my colleagues in the orchestra admired my ability to escape. At that time, I was making $28,000 a year, and that was a very livable wage and certainly difficult to replace. Many orchestra-players can't escape that. I started selling life insurance with Northwestern Mutual Life.
“I put the violin down for three years—I was so busy building this new career that I didn't touch it. But I took off like a child prodigy in the insurance business. By my third year at Northwestern Mutual, at age 33,1 was the number five volume producer in the entire company. Then, shortly after that, I committed treason and left to start my own firm; I discovered that, contrary to popular myth, there was life after the Northwestern Mutual Life. From that point on, from 1986, my insurance business has remained small, in that I've been an independent personal producer. I now have a business partner; we've had a couple of staff people at most: a small boutique, high-volume life insurance shop. But since 1986, I've become quite rich and nationally known in the insurance business. And I've been very satisfied in it, because you can do it completely around your lifestyle, even though it's fraught with risk. (It's a treacherous business, in a sense—you get close to people and their money.) But the transition from the orchestra to becoming a great life insurance salesman has brought me much closer to having achieved my goal as a concert artist than I ever did back then on the violin. I'm the boss. It's an interesting kind of sideways way of fulfilling the emotional need in me; and the byproducts were that I stayed in Minnesota for my family—it would have been a very bad thing for me to be traveling (my children were abandoned enough when I was building my business)—and that I got the money. My wife and I are devout believers (I don't want to leave this part out)—it changed our life. You know, I was so determined to be a concert violinist that I had begged God for it. But at age 30, that dream, that desire, completely died. It was like a seed that fell to the ground and got trampled on and covered up. Then three years later, it began to germinate.
“Pinchas Zukerman called me—he knew I was a fine violinist—because one of the first fiddlers in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra got sick; I played the whole season with them in 1985 and went on all the tours. It was the beginning of my coming back. And I started practicing while working my business. When I was 40 years old, I bought a late Strad. It was from 1736, the year before Stradivari died. It was a great violin, and you can hear it in some of my early recordings. However, it had some problems. Charles Beare thought it was a composite. I never could get complete authentication after Dario d'Attili had authenticated it twice. So it was a controversial violin, even though it sounded magnificent. It had inspired me to start practicing to make these CDs. In fact, Peter Arnstein and I made three CDs, and we gave some concerts in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ijust started playing more and more. But my main business was always insurance. This most recent recording (“Mostly Sonatas“) is the fork in the road for me.
“My wife and I are avid—and I mean avid—collectors of American paintings. We've been willing to part with our money to acquire great paintings. And about two years ago, my wife said to me, 'If you'd stop buying paintings, you could trade in this violin and buy one of the great violins in the world. You've always said that although you can't necessarily improve as a violinist, for a couple of million bucks you could buy some technique.' It's true. It can take your technique another 10 or 15 percent. That's huge, and all it takes is money. And I said, 'Well, I like the violin I have. It's good enough for me.' And she said, 'No.' And I submitted to her in that. I told Jim Warren, who I think is one of the finest violin dealers in the country—I've purchased about 35 bows and a couple of violins from him—I told him what I wanted to do. He knew that we had to sell or trade this somewhat controversial violin—we weren't hiding any of the controversy. Anyway, two years ago, I was in Edinburgh with my pianist, Peter Arnstein, and a cellist playing piano trios, when I got a call on my cell phone from Jim telling me about this magnificent, pristine violin, the Rochester Strad. The man who owned it was a Japanese artist in his seventies and wasn't really playing the violin. He needed the money and he needed something to play on, so he was willing to take mine in trade. It was really a great deal—probably $700,000 under current market. I bought the violin sight-unseen over a cell phone from Scotland. And Jim congratulated me. I was out from my violin, and I could always sell this new one. The violin got here at the end of September. Mrs. Warren called me when it arrived, and her voice was trembling. She'd been around violins her whole life; she claims not even to like violins very much, but she opened the case and looked at this violin and said that it was the most beautiful she'd seen in her entire life. My wife and I flew to Chicago—it was like adopting a child— I was nervous. Jim brought the violin into the room, and the first thing I noticed was that the strings were about twice as high off the fingerboard as they should be. It was almost unplayable.
“It was clear from the moment I drew the first note that there was unquestionable inherent quality in it. I was curious about the seventyish Japanese violinist who had had the violin; and it dawned on me that he couldn't have been playing it—it must have been part of a collection. We can trace its origin back to 1820, when it entered Rochester, England. The first 100 years are lost; but after that, we can identify every owner—the provenance—of the violin right to me. Machold, a dealer who had this violin for a time, mentions in his description that this has been a violin of wealthy amateurs. I thought that was so interesting, because I was really continuing in that tradition. In fact, I didn't have a violin career: I, too, was a wealthy amateur—maybe the best that ever owned the violin. That's why there's so much varnish on the violin and why it's in such great condition. It has traveled in collections, ending with this Japanese artist who purchased it from Herbert Axelrod. Anyway, I took the violin home. Of course, I was inspired to practice and work. Two days after I got it, I played chamber music at my house with this new violin; and I utterly and thoroughly embarrassed myself. I couldn't play in tune—I didn't know what was going to happen. It was like having an unmedicat-ed manic-depressive in the room—you're never sure exactly what's going to come next.
“I flew to Chicago a couple of months later and had Greg Sapp, who's one of the great setup artists in the country, set the violin up exactly the way it should be. Still, six months into this expensive purchase, as I was playing and playing, it continued to be frustrating. The violin sounded great, but intonation was difficult. My entire physical approach to the violin had to change subtly. It took a full year, even practicing many hours, stealing a lot of time from my business. But things were improving. I was certainly learning lots of repertoire; some things were coming back and certain other things were easier than ever before. Jim Warren kept telling me, 'Mike, relax. Enjoy it. Just keep playing. Be patient.' My wife said the same thing. And then it happened. It was as if this poor fiddle had sat for 50 years and needed to have all of the brain—the synapses—retrained into it, tuned to me. What's amazing about a great violin, when it's really in its best form, is that you just have to get close to the note and then the violin itself will pull you to the middle of the trough. It will bridge a technical gap for you, by pulling you to the center of the pitch. Prior to the time the violin was broken in, instead of it being a trough, it was more like a hump. I'd get on top of the hump, and it would push me off. The biggest adjustment, though—and it took me a year and a half—was what a lot of golfers never achieve. A slow swing—letting the club head do the work. Less is more. The problem with lesser violins is that you always feel as though you have to push and coax the sound, you have to be more involved with controlling the mechanism of getting it to do what you want it to do. On a great instrument like this, the opposite is true. You have to lie back. You often have to use less pressure, maybe more bow speed. Again, the entire physical approach to getting the notes out has to change. I suddenly realized why artists can play with such huge techniques and play so many extremely difficult things that I could never get out of another violin. You can get them out of a violin like this, but you do it in a completely paradoxical way. You don't get them out by pushing them through, but by lying back and dancing them through—almost believing them through. It's the opposite of contriving.
“Ultimately my wife was right; and the violin has changed my life. In fact, it so profoundly changed my life that I'm playing at a level that I've never played at before. I'm learning repertoire quickly. I'm playing the Brahms Concerto on October 16th with an orchestra here; and I'm starting to get requests to play recitals in other places. This recording [“Mostly Sonatas“] was difficult because I made it before the violin and I were fully compatible. But the violin's so great, and we worked so hard at it, that the difficulty's not really evident in the recording. The beauty and ease that came out was not my experience in making the recording. But isn't that often what great art comes from? Art comes out of a great struggle. The humidity controls in Studio M in Minnesota are terrible. Last fall, when I made the recording, the air conditioning was blowing on me every time it came on and the humidity was too high—I was really fighting the elements. But we took many takes and recorded over three or four sessions. That's how we were able to achieve what we did. I was pleased that it sounded easy. Particularly at the opening of the Brahms Sonata, the pure simple violin sound, without using too much vibrato to make it shimmer—just the pure, soprano-like sound, very oily, very silky—-just sounds easy. Anyway, in the next recording (including Brahms's Sonata in A Major), which we're making now, the violin and I are compatible; and there's a new level achieved.
“Coming full circle, what the violin has done for my inspiration and my technique and my confidence has made the annotations I made in my Bible when I was 21 years old and begging God for a career meaningful. It is happening. We're going to be playing concerts in Edinburgh, and I'm growing less and less interested in the insurance business. My boys are coming in, and I'm going to train them over the next two years. I'm 53, and by age 55, I'd like to have most of my time available to pursue the violin. The wonderful thing about having money is that there's absolutely no pressure to sell these CDs. I can actually use my money to help market what I want to do with the violin. I can play concerts, and not charge anything when arts organizations can't pay. They can hire me because I'm the cheapest guy they'll get. It's interesting to talk about careers and what people have to do to get them, but my path has been unique. I have the luxury of being able to approach it that way. I'm even thinking about going to a New York manager and telling him he can keep all the money for a year. You mentioned Elmar [Oliveira] and Gil Shaham losing recording contracts— classical music is underappreciated in this country as compared with Europe. I'm in the enviable position of being able to drive economically what I want to do. Charles Ives (another musical insurance man) used his wealth to pursue a completely different direction. He knew that direction might not be widely accepted. I'm pursuing my artistic dreams using my money, but to do much more traditional things—the same things everybody else has recorded. But I'm learning that the Brahms Sonata, for example, will accommodate every great artist, and yet will still be something new and great as long as they really bring their own individuality to it.
“Take Nigel Kennedy and Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. They bring their own life to what they play. In the end, you have to be completely, wholly committed to your way of doing it—even to say, T think this is best.' Perlman plays the second movement of the Brahms Sonata in D Minor beautifully, but I'm really committed to my second movement, and I'll take it over everything that I've heard. Although that may sound arrogant, I think it's crucial if it's going to have any power. So many great players, who can play better than, say, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg—players who have fingers to burn—end up with careers that just die. I don't think it's only that classical music's underappreciated. People who really make an impact in art have personas and those personas come from their being really interesting human beings. Something outside the lines; something that may not always be pretty or clean, but is bold and big. I think a large part of being an artist is just mastering the terror and finding a way to get comfortable enough to walk out on stage and play difficult things in front of people. I'm beginning this process in my fifties when other people are retiring. You know, Stradivari made my violin at the age of 78.1 heard Milstein play at about age 80, with as much facility as a 21-year old. At this point in life, because of maturity and not needing to be a 21-year old Wunderkind, I can put nonessentials aside. I can focus on things that can turn you into a great artist. Limitations no longer have to trip me up.
“What's most important? Playing beautifully, with a beautiful sound; but also giving something through an instrument to the audience: loving people through the music. I don't have to start on the stage of Carnegie Hall. People are the same everywhere. Every time you stand up and do it, it's just as valid as if you were on the stage at Carnegie Hall. The profundity and power of the experience, and the commitment required of me is exactly the same. Maybe it will carry me to a career—even the career I had originally dreamed of. And maybe it will carry me to a career very different from the one that I'd originally dreamed of, but nonetheless one that's extremely gratifying and satisfying—which it is already.“
Would Mr. Antonello have appreciated these insights, or even understood them, if someone had imparted them to him when he was studying at Curtis? “No. Because young instrumentalists are taught a narcissism that's very, very difficult to overcome. There are two aspects to it. The young artist is front and center stage: 'It's all about me,' rather than 'It's all about them.' Then too, the violin is so difficult that it's really hard to forget about all your training and simply rely on the practicing and dedication and focus on the people. A young player might play a perfect Tchaikovsky Concerto and the audience might give a standing ovation—and it can still mean absolutely nothing. There has to be something more: the audience has to feel loved. And correspondingly, on the spiritual side, this career that's happening seems to be part of something bigger. Many of the greatest things that I have in my life are not things I went after, but things that sideswiped me when I wasn't pursuing them. I'm very grateful and accept these as gifts, and I think that whatever is going to come of the violin now is going to be much the same.“
Feature Article by Maria Nockin - Fanfare Magazine
A Chat with Michael Antonello
Michael Antonello is a fascinating character. He is not only a fine violinist but also a monumentally successful insurance salesman as well as an art connoisseur and collector. He has been associated with Fanfare for some 20 years, ever since he began making recordings. Now, at age 61, he says he will soon be retiring as a violinist. Having enjoyed his playing, I wondered why. I spoke with him on a cold Minnesota morning at the end of February 2013.
Q: What is your background?
A: My grandfather came to New York from Italy. My father loved baseball as well as Italian musical traditions and he became a major league ball player. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and later for the St. Paul Saints. Although he was an athlete, music was in his Italian soul. My parents had a mutual love for music and they passed that value on to their children. I am the oldest of seven. Because of our Italian heritage, we had opera on the radio every Saturday, and each of us studied an instrument. Saturday was also “lesson day.” My parents put a violin in my hands when I was eight or nine years old. I took to it immediately, but I never expected it to become a major part of my life. I wanted to be a ball player like my dad. I truly loved baseball and in that era it really was the American pastime. Baseball played a role in holding this country together.
In 1967, I won a scholarship from the Congress of Strings that enabled me to spend six weeks of summer studying and playing at the University of Southern California. I begged my parents not to send me there because I would miss playing baseball, but they forced me to go anyway. Sometime during that summer I fell in love with the violin. Perhaps it was when we played the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis with the late Josef Krips conducting. Because all I had to do in California was play the violin, I began to practice five or six hours a day. At the end of the summer I told my parents I wanted to become a violinist. I also said that I wanted to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy, even though I knew that my family had very little money. In those days baseball did not pay anywhere near the money it pays today, and by that time my father was no longer playing. He was working as a pipefitter. They got me into Interlochen on a full scholarship and I continued to practice six hours a day. After that I went to Curtis Institute, which is an all-scholarship school. I auditioned and was one of seven or eight violinists that they accepted that year. They only take enough students to fill one orchestra. Since I was lucky enough to fill an opening, I studied there for a couple of years. I practiced like crazy and moved on to Indiana University where I took the Artist Diploma Course and studied with Franco Gulli.
My sisters Cara Mia and Michele are both professional musicians. Cara Mia, who studied with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard, is a violinist and Michele a flutist. At the age of 19, Cara Mia became principal second violin of the Den Haag Orchestra of the Netherlands and later she held the same post with Leonard Slatkin at the St. Louis Symphony. He offered to promote her to concertmaster but she turned it down. Unfortunately, she has since been struck by a rare form of arthritis and has had to stop playing with the orchestra. She has a great musical mind and she edits many of the recordings that I make. I’m really lucky to have her in my musical life. Michele studied at Indiana University and is currently the principal flutist with the St. Paul Opera Company. She and harpist Kathy Kienzle have made a few recordings as a duo. Michele is married to Minnesota Orchestra Associate Concertmaster Roger Frisch. My brother Stephen Antonello, Ph.D., is a brilliant psychologist. He has a great reputation as a scholar and practitioner in his field. He was a fine cellist who studied at Indiana with János Starker, but he stopped playing after college.
I was fortunate to have taken lessons from one of this country’s great violin teachers, Mary West. She lived and worked in Minneapolis and passed away at the age of 97 in 2007, teaching almost to the end. She never had the luxury of teaching the level of students that Ivan Galamian and his colleagues at Juilliard enjoyed. My sister studied with Dorothy DeLay and always said that Mary West was a better diagnostician and teacher of violin mechanics than the renowned DeLay. Even when studying with DeLay, Cara Mia continued to consult Mary West on technical issues. Mary West was a truly gifted, inspirational teacher who could enable her students to believe that they could play far better than they had originally thought. Even though we were in Minneapolis and not on the East Coast, we had great teachers.
Q: How did you make the switch to business?
A: Jean and I got married 39 years ago when I was 21. We have three children ranging in age from 29 to 37. After my time at Indiana University, Josef Gingold helped me find a concertmaster position with the Grand Rapids Symphony in Michigan, which was conducted by Theo Alcantara. Although I had studied with Gulli, Gingold had juried some of my recitals and he liked my playing. Then in 1980, I came back to Minneapolis and played in the violin section of the Minnesota Orchestra. At the age of 30, I found myself becoming an orchestra player. I did not have the connections to become a soloist. The moon and stars have to be in perfect alignment for a solo career. I do think I could have worked my way up to the position of concertmaster in a major orchestra, but the solo career I had dreamed of was unrealistic. So, there I was, 30 years old, married for nine years with three children. I asked myself if I wanted to sit in an orchestra for the rest of my life, realizing that it is the conductor who makes most of the artistic decisions. To my mind, a player in a section is a well-paid craftsman. At 30, I was still young enough to make a career change and I made my escape.
I wanted to make enough money to support my family well, so I went into the insurance business. Then, I found that although I am a good violinist, I am an even better salesman. During my third month in the business in 1982, I made over $7,000. I really had a natural gift for sales. I put my violin down and did not touch it for three years! Thank goodness for Pinchas Zuckerman, who asked me to play the 1985 season with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. That year I practiced, I played the whole season, and I continued to sell insurance. At the end of it, my wife said that I would have to pick two of the following three: orchestra, insurance, or marriage. She was sort of kidding, of course, but I gave up the orchestra and only practiced when I could fit it into my life without causing too much of a disturbance. I ended up becoming very successful in business. It enabled me to buy one of the great Stradivarius violins and also a Guarneri del Gesù. My wife Jean and I became avid art collectors. For a period of 15 years or so, I loved art almost as much as music. Unfortunately, the economic collapse has changed our ability to collect art, but it has in no way diminished our love for it. Five years ago Jean and I donated the money to build a fine intimate hall for chamber music in the Twin Cities. It’s part of the MacPhail Center for Music. Antonello Hall honors my parents who were true musical pioneers in the ’60s and ’70s when we were growing up. Since they were part of that local community, we dedicated the hall to them. It seats about 300 and it’s an acoustical gem. The Minnesota Orchestra holds its chamber music concerts there. We feel very lucky to have been able to do that.
Now at age 61 I am retiring from music, so I recently sold the Strad. I’ve made quite a number of recordings over the last five years. Since the economic collapse I’ve been able to devote four or five hours a day to practicing the violin and my playing has improved markedly. Now, I need to go back to business. It’s an economic reality, and if you really want to know the truth, I’m a bit relieved. The violin is a strict taskmaster. Standards are the same for me as they are for the great soloists. We have to play in tune, in rhythm, and with a beautiful tone. Although I love it, it’s a great deal of pressure. So this recording and the three more I have in the pipeline will be my last. My wife has been wonderfully supportive, but I am relieved that it is over. Now I can go back to merely being a hobbyist who loves and supports music as a listener and promoter. I don’t mind mentioning that I lost plenty of money in the economic collapse, as did many others. We’re all in the same boat. Every now and then you meet someone who was immune to it, but rich, middle class, or poor, we are all worse off than before. In a way I’m grateful for the economic crash because I had become rather unrealistic about money, and am glad to have been brought back to reality. I’m fortunate that my wife and I are still very much in love through it all. Although our children grew up in fairly privileged circumstances, they do not have a sense of entitlement. They respect the most important things in life and I could not be more proud of them. While living through some of the greatest economic times in world history, many of us became somewhat jaded with a little too much greed masquerading as ambition. Now we are back to reality and that is a good thing.
Q: How much help do you get from the technical people who work on your recordings?
A: Recording Producer Alexander “Sasha” Hornostai is a genius in his own right. The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine is one of the world’s great unsung recording orchestras. Philip Greenberg and his players are so good that you can almost use the very first rehearsal take. Although the individual players may not all be as good as those who make up a major United States orchestra, collectively they are fabulous because they coalesce as a unit. I am very much indebted to them. They love playing the music and they are not cynical or jaded. Their pay is not great and some of the conditions in which they play are difficult, but they love the music. I am also grateful for the editing process because we can fix problems that could distract the listener from hearing what we have to express. If, like major soloists, I played over 100 concerts per year, I would need less editing, although absolutely everyone edits.
Q: Why is the Dvořák Violin Concerto less popular than his Cello Concerto?
A: It’s a very interesting piece, but much less popular. The Dvořák Cello Concerto is one big arch from beginning to end. It contains something that I love in both music and art, what the Germans call “Sehnsucht.” This term describes that longing quality of the human heart, which teeters between the unresolved tensions of this life and the hope that these tensions will be resolved in eternity. In Christian nomenclature, it means reaching Heavenward to touch the hem of His garment. There is much of that in the cello concerto. The problem in the violin concerto is that the longing aspect of the piece is often interrupted. The second movement has a number of sudden interruptions. You are traveling along smoothly and then suddenly the mood and key change. The change is almost startling. That is why it is challenging to keep this work off the ground at all times. I’m more intuitive than intellectual, and my intuition has led me to slightly slow down the first and third movements. This makes them more lyrical and less percussive. I actually speed up the second movement making it more Andante than Adagio. By speeding up the second movement, which is very long, I am doing the opposite of what most violinists do. This helps the movement retain a sense of motion and makes the harmonic interruptions less noticeable. The goal is to make a lesser masterpiece by a great composer the very best that it can be by meeting its musical challenges. Josef Suk was famous for playing this concerto because he shared Dvořák’s blood and culture. Suk came by his interpretation naturally but still he struggled with these musical problems. He played the second movement very slowly in an attempt to make it more meaningful. The second movement is extremely beautiful and the climax occurs where the violin echoes the orchestra, reaching a glorious high C♯. In addition to its musical difficulties, this concerto is awkward for the player. The double-stops in the third movement are particularly difficult to play while keeping the tone from becoming raspy. You really have to lighten up and not overplay the chords.
Q: What do you find most interesting about the Bruch Scottish Fantasy?
A: There isn’t a pair of movements anywhere in the violin repertoire that contains any more “Sehnsucht” than the first and third movements of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. They embody Scottish cultural pain. There is a Celtic longing in that music just as there is in Danny Boy. The third movement is Bruch’s Danny Boy. I really get caught up in music like that.
Q: What can you tell us about playing the Vieuxtemps Violin Concerto No. 5?
A: That concerto, like the Mendelssohn, is almost perfectly written. Vieuxtemps was a violinist and although his concerto is not an easy piece, it sounds more difficult than it actually is. He knew how to write music that lies well for the fingers. It’s much easier to play than the Dvořák. I love the Vieuxtemps because of its reaching melodies and lush, longing harmonies. It’s a very lyrical piece and its technical passages are well integrated. He alternates his lyricism with the technical lines and he blends them magnificently. I performed it with considerable success when I was concertmaster in Grand Rapids. It was one of Cara Mia’s best pieces, too. Both she and I have a natural affinity for it. Vieuxtemps’s melodies are easily accessible. They have much more natural form and drive than the ones in the Dvořák concerto.
Q: To which composer do you feel closest?
A: You might think I would prefer the most passionately romantic composers. I do not understand it, but I have a great affinity for Mozart and Bach even though they write in classical styles that require the containment of emotion. I love the soaring lines of the great romantic concertos, but perceptive critics, Robert Maxham among them, thought I did my best work playing Mozart. Jerry Dubins, who did not care for my Tchaikovsky, praised my Bach. Bach is another composer whose music makes you reign in your emotion. It’s really interesting, but Jean and I have discovered in collecting art, that the artist often does not recognize his own best work. The connoisseur, who can be objective, may understand the work of art better than its creator or performer. Naturally, every artist is subjective about his or her own work. This is also true of me and I probably do my best work when I contain the flow of my emotion.
Finally, since I am not likely to continue recording I would like to express a deep debt of gratitude to Philip Greenberg. We had known each other very well in the late ’70s when I was concertmaster of the Grand Rapids Symphony and we reconnected six or seven years ago. It was he who not only inspired me but offered his help in organizing my connection with the National Orchestra of the Ukraine. He would not have had to do this since he knew that I wasn’t completely ready at the time. He is an inspiring musician, deeply committed to music with impeccable instincts and taste. It is a collaboration that resulted in an almost manic output of creative accomplishments. It was he who introduced me to producer Alexander ‘Sasha’ Hornostai, to whom I also owe a deep debt of gratitude. Thanks guys.
Feature Article by Christopher Brodersen - Fanfare Magazine
A Conversation with Michael Antonello and Peter Arnstein
CB: Looking through the Fanfare Archive in preparation for today’s talk, I discovered that there are 22 separate entries for you, including four interviews. You may hold the record for the most interviews in Fanfare!
MA: Well, you know my relationship with Fanfare spans 20 years’ time. I’ve made a lot of recordings over the years, including seven with Peter. Peter, have you been interviewed in Fanfare before?
PA: Nope, this is my first time.
CB: I haven’t looked through all the reviews, but the ones I’ve seen so far have been pretty glowing.
MA: In all fairness, not all have been glowing. You know, the problem with the review process is that there’s so much subjectivity involved. Each reviewer has his or her own taste, his or her own style. Sometimes a detail that is quite innocuous to one person might be poison for another and completely prejudice the review. For instance, whether a violinist uses portamento or not—which is, of course, less fashionable now than it was in the 1940s or 50s.
I’m 62 years old, and I started seriously studying the violin at age 12. At that time, Mischa Ellman was active and still highly regarded. My teacher Mary West, who died in 2007 at age 97, was in her 50s when I began with her. From her I learned the Russian school of violin playing, which is a physical way of approaching the violin. Then along came Ivan Galamian, who changed the hand position on the bow. Basically instead of having the middle knuckle over the bow, which is very much how Heifetz played, he moved the index finger to the other side.
Styles of violin playing have changed greatly. I adapted quite easily to the newer, purer, what you might call “non-sliding” style. But remnants of the older style, the style that I was taught, persisted. And later on there was another stylistic influence, because of the popularity of ancient music played on period instruments. That approach got mixed in the modern style—reduced vibrato, and so on—even when modern instruments and tuning were used. And so you’re sort of caught in the middle; your muscle memory, your “lizard man” gets mixed in with the newer styles of playing.
Peter’s performance style is less Romantic than mine, both from a rhythmic and interpretative standpoint. He’s great at finding the expression in the music, but very much within the context of the rhythm. Peter was unrelenting in his quiet, humble way. He didn’t really adjust his style to mine, other than when the “rubber hit the road” and we were faced with a recording or performance. He asserted his style of playing, and that was very, very helpful to me.
My wife, who is a connoisseur not only of music but of art, has told me that the best work I’ve done over the 20 year span has been with Peter, the sonatas for violin and piano.
CB: But now, the big news is that you’re retiring from the music business, that you’re actually going to put the violin down. Is that right?
MA: Let me put it this way. When I was 30 years old, I decided to leave the music business—for the first time. Up until then, I had been practicing five, six hours a day, playing in various orchestras. I reached a point at age 30 where I really didn’t want to be in an orchestra the rest of my life. I was living in this wonderful city, Minneapolis, with a wife and a couple of kids, and I was pretty certain that the orchestral life was not for me. Like many music students, I had developed a rather narcissistic attitude—music pedagogy promotes that to a certain extent. Everyone thinks they’re going to have a concert career, and most orchestral players eventually adapt to the reality that that’s not going to happen. I never adjusted to the idea that I couldn’t be my own boss.
You know, the only musician who gets to express himself fully in an orchestra is the conductor. I’ve said this before—as an orchestral musician, you go from being an “artist,” whatever that might mean, to being a “craftsman.” The conductor tells you how fast, how loud, how slow. That may be a beautiful thing for many people, but I never really adapted to it very well. So I made the brave decision to go out and make a bunch of money so that I could support my family in the style that I wanted to. I transferred my desire of being my own boss to the insurance industry.
When I left the music business at age 30, I actually put the violin down; I didn’t touch it for three years. But I was still young and adaptable. After three years the opportunity came along to sub for a season with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. One of the violinists had gotten sick, and Pinchas Zuckerman, who had heard me and liked my playing, called and talked me into playing the season. I started playing regularly after that. For about 20 years, I was fitting my violin practicing around the insurance business. Since I was working about 10 hours a day on average, it got to be a pretty manic lifestyle.
At age 40, I bought a Strad, a rather late model, and that’s when Peter and I began our collaboration. I wanted to do some recordings, so I called Peter. Well, it was great. We played a lot of concerts; we started making recordings. It was all very gratifying, and I was able to fit it in with the insurance business. Then at age 52, I bought this great, 1720 ex-Rochester, Golden Period Stradivari, and it just absolutely ignited me. When the economic crisis hit—I was 55—I semi-retired from the insurance business. I was practicing five, six hours a day; it was around this time that I started hiring the Kiev Philharmonic and orchestras in Italy and making recordings with them. It was all very consuming.
Here’s the difference, though. In my 50s, I could not have gotten my playing back to an acceptable level, combined with everything else that goes along with making a recording—and don’t forget, I didn’t have the luxury of 150 concerts a year—if I had still been working. So the electronic medium was perfect for me. My playing is at an okay level; Peter, on the other hand, is great. This is a straight-out admission: If we did 10 takes of any given piece, we could use nine-and-a-half of Peter’s, and five of mine. That’s the plain truth.
By the time I reached 60 years of age and the economic downturn was in full swing, I was forced into a situation—and understand that I had multiple business interests with many people dependent on me—that might not have been a problem when I was younger. Just like when your arteries harden, well your brain hardens when you’re older. You no longer have a limitless amount of energy. So I had to make a choice: Do I keep playing the violin, even though I wasn’t improving no matter how much practice time I put in, or do I put it down? Do I instead take care of all these other people who depend on me by focusing on getting my financial life back on track? When you have a lot of money for a long time, and then suddenly you don’t have it any more—well, you begin to see what an impact the collapse has had on people. So I had to make a choice, and economics are behind this decision as much as anything.
My father was a major-league baseball player. When he quit baseball at age 33, he never looked back. Frankly, he didn’t even watch baseball on television. I couldn’t understand how he could completely divorce himself from a career that had brought him to such heights—the Brooklyn Dodgers. But I understand it now. People say to me, “How can you just put it down?” There’s a romantic notion about playing the violin, but you know what? It’s not really all that romantic. You have to play in tune, you have to produce a beautiful sound, and you usually don’t have enough time to devote to perfecting your playing. So you’re straddling two worlds: music and business. Music is like baseball: You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball, and I found I just couldn’t divide myself between music and business anymore.
So it’s simply easier to put the instrument down. You know, my wife and I feel less badly about this than anybody else. It’s a funny thing: I don’t feel a terrible sense of loss or anything like that. I’m so grateful for what I’ve been able to do. Again, Peter has played a huge role in that. So that’s the story, and I think I needed to tell you the whole story just to put it all in perspective.
At age 62, you need more space between the activities of your life. You need more emotional space, more physical space, more recovery time. Frankly, I’ve worked so hard in my life that this is also the time when I’d like to have a little enjoyment. I’m a cigar smoker, and each time I light one up it’s an hour-and-fifteen minute vacation. That’s more important to me, believe it or not, than practicing. That’s the time when I contemplate things.
CB: Fair enough. But as you told me earlier, your future plans involve promoting Peter—assisting him in making recordings—is that right?
MA: Very much so. Peter and I have discussed this, and it is high on my priority list. Peter is not as pushy or aggressive as I am, and so I’m thinking that I’ll have to be the one to push him!
PA: We’re working on that, gradually.
MA: Peter is a great artist—probably greater than he realizes. Actually, since I’ve quit playing, I think Peter’s been doing a lot more playing, more recitals and such. I’d like to do a series of recordings with him: mostly solo recordings, less of the collaborative type involving orchestras and so on. The piano repertoire is almost limitless; if we focus on that we can bang out five or six recordings at a reasonable cost. So that’s what I’d like to do.
CB: With all these recordings under your belt, you must have a pretty good proficiency at producing CDs. So maybe that’s going to be your future occupation—record producer.
MA: Well, not my future occupation, but you bring up an interesting point. Take Neville Marriner, for example, who has never been regarded as one of the world’s great conductors, at least not on the level of somebody like von Karajan or Bernstein. However, he is considered as perhaps the greatest recording conductor who ever lived. We had him here in Minneapolis for a short period. My brother-in-law is the assistant concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra—in fact, I played under Sir Neville for a brief period in the orchestra. Coming from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Marriner made some egregious mistakes with the big orchestra. Even though he was well-known, he sort of rose to his level of incompetence while he was here. But he made some recordings with the Minnesota Orchestra, and my brother-in-law, who has a lot of recording experience, said he has never seen anything like it. The guy is positively transformed in the studio; he knows exactly how to get what he wants and get it down on tape better than anyone else.
Peter and I have played so many times to the microphone that I just intuitively know how to put down the material needed for a recording. The beauty of this with Peter is that we don’t need as much material, compared with when I was playing! As a matter of fact, Peter is really game for the “new style” of recording that’s becoming popular. There’s this growing market for live recordings, the kind that are made with little or no splicing. We may need nothing more than an engineer and some really good equipment at a few live venues. It will be a much less laborious process.
Peter is much more comfortable with the microphone than I initially was. At first I saw the microphone as a very stern judge with a yardstick. I got over that and realized that it was actually my friend. Peter has never been afraid of the microphone, so we should be able to create some really great recordings with him.
PA: The “new style” will also include videos. Many of my students, when they go on YouTube, are disappointed that there’s no video. They won’t listen to anything unless there’s something to look at.
CB: Presumably the “new style” means making it available for download via the Internet, as opposed to a hard-copy CD.
PA: Well, I try to sell CDs at my concerts, but the market is shrinking. I certainly use YouTube to get people interested, and I notice that many eventually go to my web site, where they can find out more about me.
CB: The problem with YouTube, of course, is that there’s no revenue.
PA: No, but there’s publicity, and it’s the right kind of publicity.
MA: Since there are fewer live recordings these days, there’s an opportunity with certain recording companies who will promote and represent you in live recordings. I’m not that familiar with the details, so why don’t you talk about that, Peter?
PA: There are programs on National Public Radio, for example, that only want live recordings. I have a feeling that market will eventually grow. I go to concerts of the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and both groups can put on a concert without missing a single note. With precision like that, why bother with spliced recordings anymore? I think single-take, live recordings are certainly much more exciting.
CB: Of course, the big labels have been doing that for many years, especially in Europe: one uninterrupted take of a live concert, with one or two inserts to correct mistakes.
PA: Right. I remember Horowitz did that with one of his recordings, and he got severely criticized for it. It was the Schumann Fantasy, and he called it a “live” recording, even though they had patched in three or four measures to fix a mistake. Eventually, 10 years or so after he died, they issued the unedited version, and there was hardly any difference! The one, tiny little fix didn’t have to happen; it was just the Zeitgeist. The record labels felt that people expected note-perfect recordings. Nowadays people generally don’t listen to recordings for fun, and certainly not to hear a note-perfect performance; they listen in the car or while exercising, or they listen to parts of a recording, but seldom the whole thing.
In retrospect it seems silly that there was all this controversy, since the mistake, if that’s what it was, was barely noticeable and didn’t detract from the performance.
MA: I have to agree with you, and going one step further, I have to point out you’ve always been an advocate of the minimally edited performance. You feel, as I do, that small mistakes, unless they are really a distraction, are part of the humanity and struggle of the performance. It’s the struggle, the risk-taking, that draws us in and creates the greatness. The problem with the editing process is that you can get so myopic that you really do lose sight of the forest for the trees. You stop listening to the music and hear only the notes instead.
I’ll go even further and state that I can hear minute differences in tuning between takes. It may be only a few vibrations, but when your ear is really fine-tuned, not only can you hear differences in tuning, there will be minute changes in tempo as well. And yet, the producers are forced to use that particular take because none other is available.
Peter has always been incredibly consistent; he’s always focused on the real goal of music. The irony is that my best talent lies in spontaneous performance, on communicating—not in perfect violin-playing.
Peter and I have given many really fine live performances, but I don’t know how many of them could stand up to the scrutiny of a digital recording, the way a Perlman or Joshua Bell live performance can. That’s just the reality of it. Peter, on the other hand, has always had that level of consistency, and so I’m excited to see what we can produce in the next five years or so. Also, he’s in his prime, so now’s the time to do it.
CB: It sounds promising. My only concern is this: Will this “new style” of recording and marketing really provide the kind of financial support that’s needed, especially with young people and their radically different outlook on classical music? In many cases, they’re totally ignorant of the works being played, even stuff from the standard repertoire. Audiences are dwindling, because old fogies like us are dying off in droves. What happens to the music biz when we’re gone and the audience consists of nothing but 20-somethings?
PA: To that point, I can tell you that there will always be an older audience for classical music, and it will probably grow, because young people are ruining their hearing. Anyone who goes to a classical concert for the first time when they’re 35 or 40 is struck by how soft it is. There might be a few loud moments, but it’s mostly soft. If you’ve ruined your hearing through repeated attendance at rock concerts, or by listening to loud music with earphones for the first 20 years of your life, you find that you can’t stand the loud music anymore. It may have already caused hearing loss and tinnitus in the ears. Many pop musicians suffer from this: Barbra Streisand has had tinnitus since the sixth grade. I know of several rock musicians who only listen to classical music because of hearing loss. So there will be that market, at any rate.
CB: That’s an interesting theory: loud music paves the way later in life to classical music. I hope it’s true!
MA: That’s an interesting point of view, Peter. On a more practical level, I’ll never forget when we were doing the Nutcracker Suite. The conductor was trying, without much success, to get us to play softer. He stopped us and said—and this was in Northrup Auditorium, a 5,000-seat hall with bad acoustics—“I want you to play even softer. Good music always travels.” What he meant, I think, is that if you make it great, people will strain to listen. The music will reach the back of the hall in sufficient volume for everyone to hear.
As for the popularity of classical music, I suppose it’s like the difference between a Leroy Nieman painting and a John Singer Sargent. It’s the difference between two entirely opposite worlds. There will always be a place for the John Singer Sargents in this world. And to your question about how musicians are going to extract a living, I have to say that although financial support in America has been reduced, I’m struck by the amount of interest in classical music. There is as much interest right now in classical music education as I have ever seen. You can find a parallel in museum attendance; every year, museums attract more visitors than all sporting events combined. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum. People are clamoring to see Monet, Renoir and Picasso in the same way they’re drawn to live classical music. In spite of the economics, Americans really do value the arts.
CB: I share your optimism to a certain extent. You can see it, for example, in the number of terrific instrumentalists who graduate every year from the major conservatories. To take one example, the University of Michigan, near me. Every year they might turn out dozens of top-notch string players, oboists, bassoonists, flutists, horn players—kids who are qualified, right now, to sit in any of the major orchestras in the country. And yet the orchestra jobs are simply not there for them, while orchestras are going out of business at an alarming rate.
PA: I think that problem has been with us for a long time; there have always been more applicants than jobs.
CB: But it’s worse than it’s ever been. That’s an interesting contrast with your situation 30 years ago, Mike, when you were fed up with orchestral life and decided to go solo. Most violinists nowadays who land a job in an orchestra like the Minnesota Orchestra will try to hang on to it for dear life.
MA: I had to support myself, and besides, in order to do what I wanted to do—owning the instruments, hiring orchestras, hiring engineers—it all cost a fortune. Unless I was a tent-maker like the apostle Paul, I would have never been able to do it. There are many musicians, I believe, who would love to do what I did, but without the money, it’s impossible for them.
CB: How can the average orchestral musician, say a violinist in the Detroit Symphony, afford a Stradivari? He can’t, can he? Even a lesser violin like an Amati.
MA: He can’t even borrow one. Being at a certain level in society and having the money is the prerequisite for getting things done. It’s just the reality. Sort of like Occupy Wall Street: This just isn’t fair! [laughs]
CB: That naturally leads me to the question: What are you going to do with those precious violins?
MA: Well, I’m going to divest. That’s another interesting philosophical consideration. It reminds me of the children’s story The Little Prince, which is directed as much at the parents as it is at the child. It’s a story on two levels, and the message to the adults is to be useful, to use the possessions in your life for the benefit of others.
At one point, I had a collection of 50 of the world’s finest French violin bows. It was one of the most extensive collections in the world. I asked myself, “What’s the point of having all these bows sitting around in glass cases, mostly to look at?” I realized that in death, we part with everything in our lives, every object, whether precious or not. That’s when you’re forced to let go.
I’m very grateful for the things that have come into my life, but I’m also very comfortable with letting them go. In fact, the economic collapse forced me to dismantle the bulk of an extensive collection of American Impressionist paintings, but I’m still grateful for having had them. The act of acquiring is an act of connoisseurship, a way of gaining knowledge. It’s also a way of building relationships with other really interesting people. So you reach a point in your life when you simply open your hand and let it go, so that the object can go to another collector who will derive as much pleasure from it as you did.
CB: We should talk about your “swan song,” your final three CDs, including your recording of the Brahms sonatas. It’s a lovely disc—I’d put it right up there with any of my favorites, including Stern and Perlman.
MA: I think the Brahms G-Major, which Peter and I did several years ago, is one of the best recordings we ever made. Isaac Stern was the guy who more or less owned that sonata, and my style is very similar to his. I think it’s a terrific recording, and I’m very proud of it. What do you think, Peter?
PA: Absolutely. I wrote the program notes this year, and I wish I had known back then what I know about it now! [laughs]
MA: That’s a great comment, Peter. I think our playing styles were particularly amenable to that piece, and my wife has always said that the sonata repertoire is best suited for me. Our recordings of the Franck and Debussy sonatas are pretty nice, too. I’d put them up with just about any other recording.
You hinted that the Brahms sonatas are a fitting way to end. I started with Peter, made about six or seven CDs with him, and now I end with him. For the CD cover, I selected a photo of us when we played in Reid Hall in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival many years ago. It was a great moment in our lives.
PA: I like the fact that, when you put the three Brahms violin sonatas together, it represents the complete breadth of what Brahms could do. Between the three sonatas and the scherzo is everything he ever put into his music. That’s not true of other composers: definitely not true of Beethoven in the violin sonatas. You don’t get an idea of everything Beethoven could do just from this genre.
MA: Or Mozart.
PA: Definitely not Mozart. In the Beethoven piano sonatas, you certainly get his complete range of expression. It’s unusual for a composer to put every bit of himself into a series of works, the way Brahms did in his sonatas for violin and piano. The three sonatas are so different from one another, even the individual movements, yet they show Brahms in his totality. It really stretches you as a performer when you play music like this.
MA: There are some extremely awkward moments in all of those sonatas where the connection between phrases is very complex. The density of what’s happening at the end of the preceding phrase, coupled with what happens in the following phrase, makes it very hard at times to achieve a natural and seamless transition. This happens in Brahms quite a bit, and it’s one of the major challenges in playing his music. When you get it right, it feels sublime, and when you don’t—well, you’re struggling.
Brahms’s music has a basic thickness of texture, but when you overlay your own thick texture, things can get muddy and laborious. I’ve always felt that the music of Brahms needs to be approached like that of Mozart; if you back off and lighten up, if you keep things rhythmic and let the violin sing, than it will come out right. I’m reminded of the Brahms German Requiem, which is an extremely complex piece, and yet it is a magic carpet that, from the first note to the last, will transport you. If you don’t adopt a sort of Mozartian or even Bach-like consistency, then you ruin it. It’ the same thing with the sonatas. I’m not quite sure how to express it.
CB: I think you’ve said it quite well. You know, you could easily build a case for a stylistic and structural similarity between Mozart and Brahms. After all, Brahms was in many ways the last of the Viennese Classicists.
MA: Perhaps that’s what I’m thinking.
CB: Well, we’re about out of time. I want to thank you for this opportunity to chat. I’m looking forward to seeing what you and Peter will be releasing in the coming months and years.
MA: Thank you as well.
BACH Violin Concertos: No. 1 in a; No. 2 in E. Double Concerto. Orchestral Suite No. 3: Air (arr. Arnstein) • Michael Antonello, Ruggero Allifranchini (vn); Richard Haglund, cond; Erato CO • MJA no catalog number (52:44)
VIVALDI The Four Seasons. PUCCINI (arr. Arnstein) Opera Medley. BACH Partita No. 2 for Unaccompanied Violin: Chaconne • Michael Antonello (vn); Peter Arnstein (pn); Richard Haglund, cond: Erato CO • MJA no catalog number (69: 43)
BRAHMS Violin Sonatas Nos. 1–3. Sonatensatz • Michael Antonello (vn); Peter Arnstein (pn) • MJA no catalog number (71:13)
Feature Article by Robert Maxham - Fanfare Magazine
Michael Antonello and Philip Greenberg: A Love Affair with the Violin
Since his last interview in Fanfare several years ago (29:2), Michael Antonello has developed a deeper relationship with his then newly acquired 1720 Rochester Stradivari. “Yes, I talked to you about how difficult the violin was to play when I first acquired it,” he said recently. “I’d acquired it, you know, sight unseen while I was in Scotland playing concerts. My wife had urged me to stop collecting American paintings long enough to acquire a great violin, and I kept telling her that while I was a very good amateur violinist, I was more of a businessman, and anyway, I had a fine violin. At that time I’d been playing on a 1736 late Stradivari. Dario D’Attili, a highly respected authenticator, was adamant that it was a Stradivari; but Charles Beare, who became the world’s expert, thought it was a Gofriller. I had this controversial violin that sounded fantastic. It wasn’t nearly so good as the violin I have now, but for a recording violin (some violins are better at recording than in the concert hall) it was terrific. When I bought my current Stradivari, the owners took the other violin in trade knowing full well the controversy behind it, so I was able to get a fair price for it. And I’d originally purchased it at a low price, so I came out fine on it. It wasn’t as it had been for some others, who unwittingly bought violins and now are stuck with them. There’s a famous American concertmaster who paid quite a good price for his violin 40 years ago. But its value should be 8- to 10 million now, and it’s nowhere near that because it’s been determined that its attribution isn’t right. Scholarship has improved a great deal, and scholarship, not fraud, did that to him.
“At any rate, the violin I have now is very well known. I bought it from Jim Warren of Kenneth Warren and Sons. As I mentioned, when he found it, I was out of town, but the price was very good—and, as I mentioned, I bought it sight-unseen on his recommendation. Six weeks later, when my wife and I flew to Chicago to get the violin, the strings were so high off the fingerboard that I had trouble playing it. That was a clear indication that the violin hadn’t been played. The owner in Japan was in his 70s and probably an amateur. In fact, the violin has a reputation as the violin of wealthy amateurs. On Wikipedia you can see that I’m the current owner and from 1820 (when it entered a collection in Rochester, England—the first hundred years of the violin’s life is an unknown, which adds to the mystery and mystique of Stradivari and the romance of it all) it never had been in the hands of a violinist who played it in numerous concerts; maybe for that reason, it’s in pristine condition. But the negative side of that (again getting back to our first interview) is that it took me three years to get it vibrating again. At first, it was like one of those miniature golf holes placed on top of a mound. If you don’t hit the ball at exactly the right speed, right to the center, the mound pushes the ball to the right or left and you miss the cup. That’s what it was like trying to play in tune on this fiddle. Certain notes, like the first octave E above the E-string, kept pushing me off the note, try as I might; it was almost like a wolf tone. But now the violin does just the opposite, as great violins should: Instead of pushing me off the note, it pulls me into the note; it wants to be in tune, to vibrate correctly.
“You know, I also own the 1742 Benno Rabinoff Guarneri del Gesù, which will be included in the late Bob Bein’s comprehensive book, which will document every Guarneri del Gesù. It’s an important violin because it comes from 1742, arguably his best year; Heifetz’s violin was also made in that year. In fact, in the last four years of his life, he made only 25 violins, so this is one of a select few. (I believe he made 144 violins in his entire career, as compared with Stradivari’s roughly 700.) I was able to acquire it because it doesn’t have its original head and has a well-repaired back crack from 100 years ago (not on the sound post); as a result, I was able to obtain the violin at an affordable price about three years ago. It’s also a magnificent instrument.
“Owning a del Gesù and a Stradivari, I’d say that although Guarneris are often chosen by concert artists because of their power, I think, all things being equal, a great Stradivari will always beat a great Guarneri in beauty of sound—it’s simply a matter of sophistication. So I’ve settled on playing this Rochester Stradivari, although the del Gesù responds a bit more quickly. The Stradivari may be slightly more difficult to play, but the results are worth it.”
Antonello had owned the Stradivari at the time of the last interview (when he’d been experiencing difficulties in intonation on the violin) just one year; it took him three to become comfortable with it. “You know, as an art collector, I’ve noticed that living painters are so wrapped up in painting that they don’t always recognize their best work. The collectors and connoisseurs are the ones who recognize the best work of a painter. Unfortunately, as a performer on the violin, the same thing is true for me. My subjectivity gets me in a lot of trouble. It’s very difficult making recordings because on one day, I’ll listen and it sounds perfectly in tune, while the very next day, it sounds out of tune—but it’s the very same recording, nothing has changed, except me. So I’ll have to let these recordings stand the test of time before I can figure out whether they’re any good or not. I’m only now realizing how good my first three recordings are, one of which was made 20 years ago.”
Many current recordings have become patchworks of short takes (I’ve heard from a recording executive about a studio concerto performance that included 100 splices in the first movement alone—that’s four or five per minute.) Does Antonello have a philosophy about live and studio recordings? “I do. I’ll be totally honest with you. I think that much about today’s recording is untruthful. You’ll find that many artists don’t post a video on YouTube; instead, they post a picture of themselves and allow you to hear an edited recording. Why? Because it’s always better. Unfortunately, absolute perfection has now become the standard. But you have to play by the rules of each genre. Even with my being able to make multiple takes, I’m not totally happy with the results I’ve gotten on the orchestral recordings. I’m happier with the piano recordings because they’re easier. But I’m working to become a better recording artist. It’s a skill in itself, but being able to play things in public at an extremely high level is the ultimate goal, I think, of every serious violinist. And I’m also vigorously pursuing that. About six years ago, when I acquired the Stradivari, I recommitted myself to attempting to reclaim as much I could get back from my youth. You know, I went into business at age 30 (I’m 58 years old now); I’d essentially left the violin after having received the best training and had the beginnings of a good career (having been concertmaster in Grand Rapids, and of the Aspen Music Festival for a bit). I had a lot of experience and youth and energy. And my talent had got me to a certain level. Now I’ve slowly transitioned out of my business. The economy has helped me a great deal, because it’s hardly worth doing any more. It can be painful at this age when I subject myself to public performances, in many of which I feel that I’ve embarrassed myself. But I’ve found recordings to be the best way to learn pieces for public performance. In a sense, you’re playing a live concert in front of the most critical audience, an orchestra, over many, many sessions. You get keyed up in the same way you do in a live performance because, although the first take isn’t do or die, you’re still playing for the microphone and for the conductor and for the orchestra. That’s been a fabulous training ground. I’m thankful that I have a great violin and the money to indulge myself in this way. You know, there’s no higher motive; in my case, there’s no business motive, there’s no motive of fame—or even of making money. It’s a completely artistic attempt to become the best violinist with the talents and instrument I have. It’s enviable not to be dominated in any way by the money or the politics. I’m still burdened with my business, but it’s not the same thing as having the poor violin saddled with house payments, car payments, and the task of making one’s mark. I’ve made my mark in business, so this can be a labor of love. I don’t delude myself one bit about the standard. I can hear recordings by Heifetz and Stern and Perlman. I know what the standard is. And it’s been painful starting 20 yards back from the goal line. But it’s gratifying to be able to walk out in front of an audience, as I did Saturday night to play Mozart’s Concerto No. 4. I was in control the whole way; there were only a few things that I would even have had to edit. It was a really great performance, and it was gratifying not to have my nerves affect the intonation or the tempos. The only way to get there is to subject yourself to a certain number of concerts per year. You know, no matter how good you are in the practice room, unless you actually do it, you can’t get there. I’m very pleased that I have the opportunity and connections.”
How do the recordings compare with live performances he’s given? “Recording and live performances demand two different techniques. Having recorded (I’ve made seven or eight discs now), I’ve thought about Neville Marriner and how brilliant he was in the recording process. It was because he knew going into it what to expect, how it’s done. He could anticipate the results. I’ve done enough of it now that I’m comfortable in front of the microphone, choosing what I want to do over and what I don’t. It’s a very different experience from a live performance, and you have to become good at both of them. There’s a pedantic feel to recording, so you have to work at getting off the page and getting inspired. In the live performance, you have to soar like an eagle right from the beginning; it’s a different mind-set, demanding more of a Zen-like approach in that you can’t let what goes wrong (and particularly your sense of your body and the struggle that your body’s having because of nerves) overwhelm you. In a recording session, of course, you don’t really have to worry about that because you know there will always be another take; whereas in a live performance, you’ve got one shot, so you have to be extremely well prepared—there’s no substitute for over-preparation, because that’s what carries you through the nerves. And in public performance, you have to be a personality, to be yourself and give yourself to the audience. That’s a different experience than the one in front of the microphone. I think one of the reasons why a lot of recordings can sound boring is that the need for perfection is so high that artists just get academic about it and divorce themselves from their real emotions to get “into their heads.” Because everything in today’s musical world is expensive, most artists don’t have the luxury of enough recording time. And with Philip Greenberg and the Kiev Philharmonic (a good buy), I make sure I have plenty of recording time. But don’t kid yourself; many of the greatest artists have 100 edits. That’s the norm, Robert!”
Philip Greenberg, Antonello’s “house conductor,” himself a former violinist (he studied with Josef Gingold at Indiana) and a connoisseur of fine violins, was influential in Antonello’s reemergence as a violinist. Antonello suggested that Greenberg might be uniquely able to shed light on their relationship and on the way in which the violinist revived his career. “Let me briefly give you the Michael Antonello story,” Greenberg began. “Many years ago—in the late 1960s—I was concertmaster of the Grand Rapids, Michigan, Orchestra. When I left the position to become assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, Michael Antonello was one of the next concertmasters. I kept hearing that they had a wonderful concertmaster, so I invited him to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with me and the Western Shore Symphony, which was my first music directorship, one I held in conjunction with being assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony. He was young at the time, and I think that was one of his first jobs after Curtis. He was just fantastic—absolutely wonderful. Soon after that, I heard that he was leaving the position in Grand Rapids—and leaving music. I lost track of him, except that I had heard somewhere a few years later that he was doing very well in insurance. I assumed that he was out of music, then about two and a half years ago, my daughter had to be treated at the Mayo Clinic at Rochester. I went with her there for six weeks and just happened to be walking down the street one day when I saw that Michael was playing a solo with the Rochester, Minnesota, orchestra. I tracked him down, through the orchestra, in Minneapolis, where he was living. He was thrilled to hear from me after almost 35 years, and he sent a car and driver to pick me up to bring me from Rochester to Minneapolis. He asked if I could listen to his Beethoven Concerto. He played for me, we worked for a little while, colleague to colleague, and I was bowled over. I’d had no idea he’d kept up his playing. He told me he’d really never stopped practicing. But he was frustrated that he was only playing once in a while, as there in Rochester. I suggested that he should record the repertoire while he was still young enough to be able to do it. Having given up the violin myself entirely (to conduct), I was in great admiration of him: Without the pressure and incentive of having regular concerts, he had kept practicing anyway. I told him that I was music director of the Kiev Philharmonic and doing quite a bit of recording and that I would be honored to record with him any time. So we started off with the Mendelssohn and Beethoven concertos. If they weren’t note-perfect, they were musically valid. And in everything we’ve done together since then, he’s just kept getting better and better. We have plans to record most of the repertoire. We’re going [in May 2010] to record Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, and probably Sibelius after that. Aside from my personal admiration for his story and his commitment to music, I’ve found that in many ways his music is purer than that of many of the far more famous violinists with whom I’ve played this repertoire. He has no ego, he’s not trying to make a career, he’s not trying to out-Heifetz Zukerman or Perlman; it’s strictly a love affair with the music, a love affair with one of the great violins in the world that has become his voice. I think in more ways than almost anybody else out there, he lets the music and the violin speak for themselves, especially in the slow movements. There’s a purity and profundity of music-making that inspires me. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve performed with virtually everybody in the profession, and I just can’t say enough about what he’s trying to do, because it’s a real challenge for him. It’s not second nature, as it would be for the virtuosos who are playing this repertoire hundreds of times a year.”
The first thing I told Antonello when I renewed contact for this interview was that I could sense in his recording of the Mendelssohn and Beethoven concertos a joy in playing that I don’t often hear. After only five minutes, I not only was eager to review the recording but to interview him a second time. So there’s something deeply affecting to which you can respond in that recording. “Yes, Michael connects with audiences and orchestras,” Greenberg said. “The first time I brought him to Kiev, the executive director was a bit skeptical. But Michael completely won them over. Of course, it’s true, I’ve worked there with far more renowned, more facile soloists, but after each section, members of the orchestra came up to him with great admiration—some with tears in their eyes. He’s really touching people.”