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
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
. 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
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
. They embody Scottish cultural pain. There is a Celtic longing in that music just as there is in
. The third movement is Bruch’s
. 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.
Violin Concerto No. 5
Michael Antonello (vn); Philip Greenberg, cond; National SO of Ukraine
MJA PRODUCTIONS (2CDs: 81:02)
Antonín Dvořák loved the indigenous music of his Czech homeland and liked to use it in his compositions. His use of folk tunes is what makes his compositions distinctive. He did not play the violin professionally, however, and for that reason his concerto is difficult to play smoothly. He originally wrote it for the famous Joseph Joachim, who never performed it. Joachim was diplomatic and said he was editing the solo part, but it was finally premiered in Prague in 1883 by František Ondříček (1857-1922) who also played it in Vienna and London. Michael Antonello solves some of the concerto’s problems by slowing down the first and third movements while playing the second movement slightly faster. It works too, although it makes the first section sound somewhat less percussive. There is a sweetness to Antonello’s playing and he gives a very lyrical reading of this score. The composer’s great-grandson, Josef Suk III (1929-2011) made one of the most interesting recordings of the work. His well-crafted, workman-like rendition of the Dvořák concerto with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Václav Neumann was recorded some years ago. Since it was not released when it was made, it was remastered for its 2011 release on Supraphon. Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, and the London Philharmonic play it with more fireworks on EMI, but some of the playing in the third movement lacks clarity.
Max Bruch, who was the conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic, wrote his
in E♭-Major on the continent during the winter of 1879-1880. He dedicated it to Pablo Sarasate, but Joseph Joachim played the 1881 premiere, and Bruch was not pleased with his interpretation. The piece’s four movements are based on tunes that embody the essence of Scottish culture. Rachel Barton Pine made a two-disc set of Scottish fantasies by various composers that includes her rather cool take on the Bruch. From it one can learn a great deal about Scotland and its music. It paints the central European Bruch in a different light.
Belgian violinist Henri Vieuxtemps composed his Violin Concerto No. 5 in 1861. It’s called
because its second movement is based on “Oú peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de sa famille?” (Where can we feel better than in our family?) from Gretry’s opera
. Of Vieuxtemps’s seven concertos, the fifth is by far the most popular and it is played frequently. Jascha Heifetz recorded both the
and the Vieuxtemps Fifth Violin Concerto and both show his impeccable technique. His interpretations, however, were not known for their warmth. The Vieuxtemps, in particular, calls for warmth and lyricism, which Antonello brings us in huge measure. Here I am willing to give up some spectacular virtuosity for sincerity and emotional input. Most of the recordings compared with the new Antonello release are older and have less than state-of-the-art sound. The Pine recording, however, has sound that competes with the Antonello.