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A Century of Patience

Symphony Hall concert to honor Roman Totenberg at 100


The BU College of Fine Arts celebrates the 100th birthday of Emeritus Professor Roman Totenberg (above) with a concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall this Sunday, November 21, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket information is available here. Photo by BU Photography

By Patrick Kennedy

Roman Totenberg started teaching violin when he was 11. “I had a student who was 10,” he recalls. “I always had the interest in teaching.”

On New Year’s Day, Totenberg turns 100. The Polish child prodigy whose playing helped feed his family in war-torn Russia grew up to perform with most of the world’s top orchestras, record now-standard renditions of Bach and Brahms concertos, and collaborate with composers such as Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. Totenberg started teaching violin at Boston University in 1961, later chairing the string department. And he’s still teaching. “There’s a great satisfaction in teaching,” the soon-to-be centenarian says. “You learn a lot more than the students do.”

This Sunday, November 21, the College of Fine Arts will celebrate Totenberg’s 100th birthday at Boston Symphony Hall. The concert will feature the Boston University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Hoose, a CFA professor of music and director of orchestral activities, performing Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A-flat, and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with soloist Peter Zazofsky, a CFA professor of music. National political commentator Cokie Roberts will host a special tribute to Totenberg. Roberts is a longtime colleague of Totenberg’s daughter, National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Retirement is not in his vocabulary, says Totenberg, who is officially a professor emeritus and now gives lessons to CFA students at his home in Newton. “I never stopped, that’s all. I probably will drop dead one of these days. Somebody will play so many wrong notes that I won’t be able to stand it anymore,” he jokes.

In reality, Totenberg is a calm instructor. “I am comparatively even-tempered,” he acknowledges. “I don’t get upset too easily. In teaching, a great deal of patience is required. There are many musicians who don’t have patience. They lose it when they hear a wrong note.”

“There’s a reason all the students say, we love Mr. Totenberg,” says acclaimed soloist Mira Wang (CFA’89,’92), a former pupil. “It’s the generosity, the extra time, the extra attention, never putting himself first. Without Mr. Totenberg, I wouldn’t be what I am today.”

Current student Lisa Park (CFA’11) seconds that. “He may be the most important mentor and teacher and supporter I’ve ever had.” When she had moments of doubt as to whether music was the right profession for her, Totenberg “never gave up on me,” she says. Park has since traveled to Europe and won competitions for her violin playing. “He really instilled me with courage. Those are his trademarks: patience and courage.”

He is an exacting teacher as well. Park says she used to get away with keeping her right wrist stiff, but Totenberg insisted she correct her bow technique. Once she did, “it freed my level of expression immeasurably,” she says. “He didn’t give me just one chance—he nurtured and supported me in every way a teacher can so that I would develop and grow. Maybe it’s because he’s from an older generation, and his teachers provided him with support so he was able to have a career, and he’s passing that on.”

“I was certainly inspired by Carl Flesch, the most famous violin teacher of his generation,” Totenberg says. Flesch tutored Totenberg in Paris in the 1930s.

Totenberg has a store of recollections from the past 100 years, including a concert he gave for the king of Italy in the 1930s. “Everything was very formal. In fact, I had to wear a cape and a top hat, which I borrowed from the Polish ambassador,” he says, laughing. “And then, when the affair was finished, I didn’t know which one was mine, because it didn’t fit me. I had to wait ’til everybody left, then the last one was my ambassador’s.”

“Two weeks later I was invited to play for President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, and it was just the opposite,” he says. He remembers the vice president taking off his shoes, and the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, sitting on the floor. For the performance, Totenberg borrowed a violin that had once belonged to former Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth (R-Ohio), President Theodore Roosevelt’s son-in-law. “I hope this fellow plays it better than Nick did,” Franklin Roosevelt cracked. Totenberg says he loved the informal American atmosphere. “That was the time I said, ‘Well, I have to stay in this land and become a citizen!’”

Conductor Hoose promises “an exceptional emotional journey” for Sunday’s audience. “These works, from three cultures and three musical eras, seem perfect companions—on any occasion. But they also suggest a few of the personal qualities that make our evening’s honoree, Roman Totenberg, such an endearing presence in our musical and educational community—mischievously twinkling, irrepressibly generous, and brilliantly noble.”

A Centennial Celebration of Roman Totenberg is on Sunday, November 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. Tickets are $25 for general admission; $10 student rush tickets are available at the box office on the day of the performance, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. More ticket information is available here, or by calling 617-266-1200.

Patrick Kennedy can be reached at plk@bu.edu.


One Comment on A Century of Patience

  • Sue Kwong on 11.19.2010 at 12:32 pm

    Happy birthday!

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