C1940. CHRISTOPHER KEENE Cond. Syracuse S.O.: Music for the Royal Fireworks (Handel), Live Performance, 17 Nov., 1980; w.ELMAR OLIVEIRA: Violin Concerto in D (Brahms), Live Performance, 26 & 28 March,1981 (both Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse, NY). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-1149. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“These two performances come from the latter part of Christopher Keene’s decade with the Syracuse Symphony, and they reflect the enthusiastic praise given to 13 previous releases in St. Laurent Studio’s historic Keene series. Even though he had risen quickly as a young conductor and eventually became music director at New York City Opera, Keene’s name was forgotten after his tragic premature death in 1995 during the AIDs epidemic; he was 48. I began listening to these recordings, transferred from excellent broadcast tapes, out of a mixture of curiosity and duty. Keene wasn’t always at his best, and the only time I heard him, conducting the Denver Symphony, the concert wasn’t a success.
That experience led to the unalloyed delight of discovering how fine a conductor he actually was, and his best period apparently came in Syracuse. Keene was fortunate to arrive after a fully professional orchestra had been trained by its founding music director since 1960, Karl Kritz. Born in Vienna in 1906, Kritz sang in the Vienna Boys� Choir and later studied under Franz Schmidt before graduating from the Vienna University of Music and Arts. His immigration to the U.S. in 1937 was part of the cultural influx that overnight gave this country a profound musical foundation. By no means was Kritz to become a star in America, but he conducted with the Pittsburgh Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and the Met. One feels, listening to the polish and musicality of the Syracuse Symphony, which Kritz led until his death in 1969, that he was an unsung hero and undoubtedly far more talented than his faded reputation indicates.
The same holds true for Keene, and anyone who anticipates an underwhelming or routine reading of the Brahms Violin Concerto will be surprised. Keene takes the orchestral introduction with quick, intense energy, and the orchestra delivers a true Brahmsian sonority. Soloist Elmar Oliveira is sympathetic to this approach and enters with passionate conviction. Oliveira was born in 1950 of Portuguese parents and made his big break at 16 in a televised Young Person’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein; the theme of the program was child prodigies. He was later co-winner of the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
With such credentials, which led to a successful career that slipped a little under the spotlight, it naturally follows that Oliveira should be impressive in the Brahms concerto. The first movement reveals some roughness in double stops, however, and the Joachim cadenza feels roughshod. Everything settles down in a superb reading of the slow movement where the orchestra’s oboe and horn soloists perform with real intensity and Oliveira exhibits a flair for Romantic ardor. The finale proceeds exuberantly, its Hungarian flavor underscored by Keene’s strong accents and the violinist’s feeling of abandon.
One wouldn’t expect a traditional reading of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks to be equally enthralling, but by 1981 the mustiness of grandly robust British performances had been challenged. Keene leads a reading that is truly celebratory. The large battery of woodwinds is bright and exciting. We are nowhere close to Handel’s original instrumentation of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons and contrabassoon, nine natural trumpets, nine natural horns, three pairs of kettledrums, and side drums, but he went on to rescore the music for an indoor performance at the Foundling Hospital that added strings to replace a mob of wind instruments. St. Laurent Studio provides no program notes, so I can’t offer details about the instrumentation here. What really matters is the buoyant, high-spirited music-making.
So, Vol. 14 in a series that has brought much joy and, hopefully, raised Christopher Keene’s reputation as high as it really deserves to be. There were not many American conductors of his ability back then, and even fewer who could afford to be openly gay, which Keene wasn’t. Whatever the personal costs to him, which must have been severe at times, we now realize how well he fulfilled his amazing potential.�
- Huntley Dent, FANFARE
“The son of Portuguese immigrants, American violinist Elmar Oliveira was nine when he began studying the violin with his brother John, and he later continued his studies with Ariana Bronne and Raphael Bronstein at the Hartt College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. The only American violinist to win the gold medal at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition, he was the first violinist to receive the coveted Avery Fisher Prize, and he also won first prizes at the Naumburg and Dealey competitions.
He appears throughout the world and has premiered works by such composers as Charles Wuorinen, Joan Tower, Andrzej Panufnik, Benjamin Lees, Leonard Rosenman, Hugh Aitken, and Richard Yardumian, and has performed infrequently heard concertos by Alberto Ginastera, Einoujuhani Rautavaara, and Joseph Joachim. Among his many recordings is the Grammy-nominated performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. Of special significance are a CD featuring Oliveira performing on some of the world’s greatest violins (fifteen by Stradivari and fifteen by Guarneri ‘del Gesu�) and his recording of short pieces spotlighting rare violins from the Library of Congress collection.�
- Milken Archive of Jewish Music