A Symphony Hall tribute to violinist Totenberg’s century

Roman Totenberg (left) listens as Mira Wang (center) and Na Sun perform a version of Dukov’s ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ during a tribute to the violinist, who will turn 100 on Jan. 1. Roman Totenberg (left) listens as Mira Wang (center) and Na Sun perform a version of Dukov’s ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ during a tribute to the violinist, who will turn 100 on Jan. 1. (MICHAEL J. LUTCH)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / November 24, 2010

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The classical music world thrives on anniversary tributes but very few musicians are around to enjoy their own centenaries. The Polish-born violinist Roman Totenberg, a central figure in Boston’s musical community for five decades, is one of the lucky ones. He will turn 100 on Jan. 1, 2011, and, to honor the occasion on Sunday night, Boston University convened a birthday celebration in Symphony Hall for what must have been nearly 2,000 friends, former students, and admirers.

The evening, hosted by Cokie Roberts, included a tribute from violinists Mira Wang and Na Sun, both of whom studied with Totenberg. As their teacher sat on stage looking duly pleased, they laid into Bruce Dukov’s highly virtuosic Paganini-esque variations on “Happy Birthday.’’ A film made for the occasion featured warm reminiscences from Totenberg’s three daughters — Nina, Jill, and Amy — as well as a look back at his remarkable life in music, which began at age 6 when he began taking lessons in Moscow.

During the famine that followed the Russian Revolution, Totenberg helped support his family by performing literally for bread and butter. As a teenager in the 1920s, he studied in Berlin with the famed pedagogue Carl Flesch before moving to Paris as the political situation worsened. By the 1930s he was already touring in the US and playing for the Roosevelts at the White House. He performed internationally through the 1940s and 1950s, including a tour through South America with Arthur Rubinstein, before settling in Boston and taking up a teaching position at BU in 1961. He also directed the Longy School in Cambridge in the early 1980s.

As his recordings clearly document, Totenberg in his prime was a player of great strength, imagination, and eloquence. It is however not as easy as it should be to track down his performances on disc. BU is now working with Arbiter Records to bring out a new Totenberg CD release this spring, which should at least begin to address that gap.

On Sunday before the official Symphony Hall program got underway, Totenberg was feted at a pre-concert reception, where the octogenarian violinist Ida Haendel held court with a feisty tribute. Exhibits around Higginson Hall displayed press coverage through the decades as well as correspondence with Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, who wrote solicitously to Totenberg “your reaction to some of my 15 Mozart Sonatas would interest me very much.’’

Much of the evening was given over to a performance by the BU Symphony Orchestra under the direction of David Hoose. That the program didn’t spotlight composers with whom Totenberg had a significant personal connection — and there were many — seemed a missed opportunity, but the chosen repertoire was well-executed and with a sense of occasion. After Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus’’ Overture, Peter Zazofsky gave a fiery account of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto and Hoose made an impassioned case for Elgar’s First Symphony. And in a nice twist, the concert honoring one of Boston’s oldest musical citizens was also the very first performance to be webcast from Symphony Hall.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at

ROMAN TOTENBERG: A Centennial Celebration At: Symphony Hall, Sunday night