He started in the last row of the violins…

The veteran critic and broadcaster Martin Bookspan has written for Slipped Disc a beautiful memoir of his friend, concertmaster Joseph Silverstein, who died at the weekend.

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“Extraordinaire!” That’s the word Charles Munch used when he told me about his newest hire for the violin section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And Munch knew a thing or two about playing the violin: he served as Concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Furtwangler from 1926 until 1933. As is customary, the new violinist was assigned the last seat in the last row of the violins. I quickly learned the name of the new member of the orchestra: Joseph Silverstein.

Weeks after the start of the season Mr. Silverstein did what some thought was sheer chutzpah on his part: in a small auditorium in Boston he played a concert of unaccompanied violin works, some Bach as well as the Bartok Sonata. Those of us who were privileged to have attended went back to Munch’s word, “extraordinaire”.

When the orchestra’s venerable Concertmaster, Richard Burgin, announced that he would retire at the end of the 1961-62 season, the floodgates opened for aspirants to succeed him. Among those applying was the young Mr. Silverstein. Another act of chutzpah?

In the meantime I had become friends with Erich Leinsdorf, whose home in Larchmont was a ten-minute drive from mine in Eastchester. When Leinsdorf became the chosen successor to Munch, it fell to him to chose the successor to Burgin. After the auditions were concluded, I received a phone call from Leinsdorf. “It’s Silverstein!” were his first words, before he went on to rave about his chosen second-in-command. By then Silverstein was known to everyone as “Joey”.

In the Fall of 1983 we bought a summer cottage in Stockbridge, minutes away from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We formed a little kibbutz: the cottage up the road just before ours was the summer home of the family of Victor Alpert, the beloved librarian of the BSO. And just behind ours was the summer home of Joey and his family. We were a raucous but supremely happy group whenever we got together—which was often!

When I think of him, I remember all those wonderful times we spent together. Rest in Peace, Joey……….
(c) Martin Bookspan/Slipped Disc

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  • Beautiful sentiments and wonderful memories, Martin. Joey’s RCA recording of Stravinsky Concerto and Bartok Concerto No. 2 with Leinsdorf and the BSO remains a favorite of mine. It is a very great recording of these two masterpieces!

  • What a terrible loss, there will never be another like him. He was a link to the distant past, the recent past, the present and undoubtebly to the future. Oh, and nobody will ever create such a beautiful sound…
    He told a great story. In the mid 1950’s, before he joined Boston, he played for a year with Ormandys Philadephians. They were recording Pagannini Motto Perpetuo and things weren’t going well. Frustration reigned and Joey got courage up (21 years old?) and from the last stand addressed Ormandy – Maestro, all of us practice this piece and we do it standing up not sitting down, why don’t we stand? They did. One take and into the can.
    There are undoubted thousands of similar memories of this great man, great soloist, perfect chamber musician, ne plus ultra concertmaster and beloved teacher.
    No day will be sadder for us, we can’t imagine a world without Joey, but, we will go on stronger than ever because of him…

  • My recent great memory of the wonderful Master, Joseph Silverstein, was when he gave violin Master Classes at the Jascha Heifetz Symposium (Institute for the Development of Personal Style) a summer music camp founded by Sherry Kloss, former Heifetz protegé-Master Class assistant and Silverstein student. In addition to having the pleasure of participating as a fellow faculty member in the Symposium, a few years ago, and witnessing Mr. Silverstein’s generous advice and wisdom that he offered to the young violin students, my particular vivid remembrance was the challenging opportunity to perform with Mr. Silverstein and my old friend, magnificent cellist, Nathaniel Rosen, (also a Symposium faculty guest) in an impromptu performance of the Schubert Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat. Speaking of chutzpah relating to the legendary Mr. Silverstein, it had been suddenly decided to perform the Schubert Trio for the students on that very same day. We had only two hours to rehearse for the impromptu concert, in only one rehearsal, as I said above – two hours before the hastily scheduled noon concert. Somehow, with our combined talents, chutzpah, and sheer will to succeed, helmed by Mr. Silverstein’s warm, optimistic determination and confidence, we managed to bring off the performance surprisingly well with a refreshing aplomb, lyricism and drama, fueled by an interpretatively fresh creative imagination spearheaded by his incredible sense of derring-do, and mainly fueled by his infectious love for music especially for Schubert, that afternoon. It was an unforgettable experience and a cherished memory for all of us taking part as performers and/or listeners.

  • joey silverstein was one of the great ‘lights’ in our music profession…anyone who had contact with him was very fortunate…in addition to his enormous talents and achievements, he was a true master teacher, and took time and great care to encourage us to make the most of our own specific talents….and was great fun, and as nice a guy as you could know…thank you , joey, you will live on in many ways in many hearts !

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