B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Eric McHenry
This is a big year for Roman Totenberg, containing both his 90th birthday and the 40th anniversary of his employment at the School for the Arts. But in 2002 he'll pass a pair of even more impressive milestones: it will be 80 years since he made his debut as a concert violinist, and 80 years since he began teaching.
Totenberg, an SFA professor emeritus who will join the Boston University Symphony Orchestra for a February 5 concert celebrating his birthday, first performed as a soloist with the Warsaw Philharmonic in 1922. He was 11 years old, and was already giving lessons to a boy of 10.
In the eight decades since, Totenberg has built careers of equal distinction in his two fields. He has long been regarded as both a peerless violinist -- playing with virtually every major orchestra-- and one of the world's premier violin instructors. In 1983, the American String Teachers Association awarded him the distinction Artist Teacher of the Year. BU presented him with its highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize, in 1996.
"He's incredible," says Daniel Han (SFA'98,'00), an Artist Diploma candidate in music performance, who has studied with Totenberg for the past six years. "He's been a wonderful teacher of music, and he's such a loving person as well. He really goes out of his way to take care of his students."
Teaching, Totenberg confirms, is a pursuit to which he is steadfastly dedicated, and his mentoring tends to continue long after a student's formal training has ended. He estimates that at any given time, along with 10 or so active students, he has another 4 who have returned for advice or refresher lessons. It's an ongoing education, he says, for both parties.
"Teachers learn a lot by teaching. It clarifies things -- what you want to do with a composition," says Totenberg. "By teaching a piece, you really learn what makes it tick."
The talent that took Totenberg to the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 11 soon sent him farther afield. He studied with the master teacher Carl Flesch in Berlin, where at age 18 he won the Mendelssohn prize for his performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto. In 1932 he moved to Paris, which was in an artistic ferment at the time. Totenberg performed at the famous Parisian salons and interacted with such pillars of the creative community as Picasso, Chagall, George Balanchine, and Gertrude Stein. He also befriended composers Georges Enesco, Darius Milhaud, former Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Pierre Monteux, and fellow Pole Karol Szymanowski -- acquaintances that accelerated his development as a musician.
Totenberg's remarkable résumé includes performances in such venues as the White House, Carnegie Hall, London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the Library of Congress, and appearances with the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw, and the Boston, Cleveland, and Los Angeles symphonies. This playing experience -- unmatched in both quantity and quality -- helps make Totenberg an inestimable teacher. He has held distinguished faculty positions at numerous schools and conservatories, including SFA, whose string department he headed from 1961 to 1978 and has cochaired since 1994. No issue can arise, Han says, that the 79-year veteran hasn't confronted before.
"I think he's seen everything," says Han. "No matter how difficult a passage is, technically speaking, or how much trouble I'm having with it, he shows me with complete ease how it should sound. No problem. It's incredible how he can get around the violin. It's a good thing, but it makes me want to cry."
Han says he hopes to take Totenberg's cue and pursue a dual career, playing and teaching.
"Of course I want to perform," he says, "although I'm not really expecting the kind of enormous career that Mr. Totenberg has had. But I really want to teach, too. Mr. Totenberg's teachers are some of the most famous ever: Carl Flesch, Georges Enesco. Legends. I feel as though something very special has been passed down to me, and I want to pass on everything that I've been fortunate enough to learn."
The concert will feature David Hoose conducting the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, with Totenberg as a soloist. Selections include Borodin's Symphony No. 2 in B Minor and Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture, as well as Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1, which Totenberg premiered for Boston audiences 45 years ago in a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Monday, February 5, in the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. Admission is free and open to the public, with tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, call 353-3335.