Violinist Elmar Oliveira met Benjamin Lees around five years ago. He's not sure where it was or even what he was playing that night ("I think it was the Mendelssohn Concerto"). But he does remember liking the Lees piece that was also on the program, and from there a friendship was struck up.
"It was only later that Ben mentioned he had a concerto that had not been played very much since (Henryk) Szeryng premiered it in Boston in 1963. He sent me the piece, I looked at it and I said to myself, `This is really worth playing.' The problem was I was already committed about three years ahead to perform other new pieces, some written for me by other contemporary composers."The result is that this week Utah Symphony patrons will be the first to hear Oliveira, one of the leading violinists of the day, perform the Lees Violin Concerto. And he believes they will like it.
"It's a very accessible piece," he says. "First the thematic material is very tonal and there's this wonderful romantic element about it. If I were making comparisons, it would probably be to the Prokofiev G minor in that there are very strong rhythmic elements contrasted with a beautiful long, singing line. And, interestingly enough, it's very well written for the fiddle. I don't know that Ben ever studied the violin, but it seems to me he has quite an exceptional concept of fingering patterns. It also holds together very well."
Oliveira should know. From the first, the Portuguese-American violinist has never shied away from new repertoire, mixing the music of Karel Husa, Ezra Laderman, Hugh Aitken and Pamela Lyman into his concert programs alongside the expected helpings of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky.
At present he estimates maybe 20 percent of his repertoire, up to around 40 or 50 concertos, is 20th-century music. Last season he presented the New York premiere of the Panufnik Violin Concerto, with the composer conducting, and later this year the Louisville Orchestra will be releasing his recording with them of the Laderman Concerto.
"I've always tried to give ample time to the music of living composers," Oliveira says. "The problem is every time you play a new work, and play it successfully, 100 other composers come up and say, `Hey, I've got this great piece and it would be wonderful if you played it because you obviously understand this music.' But if you get 120 scores sent to you each season, logically you can pick only two or three to learn and perform the next two seasons and everybody else feels slighted. It doesn't mean you're disregarding them, but there's only so much you can do."
As far as local audiences are concerned, Oliveira's repertoire is becoming more and more modern. Following a recital at Brigham Young University in 1977, the year before he won the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, he made his Utah Symphony debut in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, after which he returned in the Wieniawski Second and the Barber Concerto, in that order. He is scheduled to come back again, possibly next season, to premiere a concerto Joan Tower is writing for him and the orchestra.
"She's supposed to finish it up this season," he says of the Tower, "but she's been quite busy with different pieces. And so have I."
These days Oliveira fills around 100 engagements per season. Of those maybe eight or nine are recitals, up a bit from last year, he acknowledges, but significantly down from the number he and his colleagues used to play.
"There are not only fewer recital series now but fewer concerts on them," he says. "A lot of it is simply a question of financial support. Say you've got several artists with specific fees, sometimes you can only come up with the money to engage one or two of the higher-fee-structure artists, eliminating maybe another 15 or 20. Also, if you play on a recital series one season, they generally like to have different people, so instead of being re-engaged every two or three years as with most orchestral engagements, it's more like every five or six."
That still doesn't leave time for much else. Nonetheless this fall Oliveira has signed on at the Manhattan School of Music, where he and his brother John, a former member of the Houston Symphony, will instruct a limited number of students.
As it happens, John was also his own first teacher, when Oliveira took up the fiddle at age 9. Two years later he was at the Hartt College of Music, where he studied first with Adriana Bronne, then her father, Raphael Bronstein, one of the last of the great Leopold Auer's pupils. In 1964 he won his first competition and, at age 14, made his debut with the Hartford Symphony. Then in 1966 he was selected by Leonard Bernstein to solo on a New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert.
"With all the playing and traveling, it's a limited number of students I can teach," Oliveira says, "five maximum. But I love to teach. Also one feels an obligation to recycle one's knowledge and help the younger generation of violinists develop."
This week's concerts will be presented Thursday, Nov. 15, at 7:30 p.m. in BYU's de Jong Concert Hall and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, at 8 p.m. in Symphony Hall. Joseph Silverstein will conduct the program, which besides the Lees Concerto will feature the orchestra in Haydn's Symphony No. 91 and Brahms' Symphony No. 2.
The same pieces will also be heard on the orchestra's open dress rehearsal Thursday at 11 a.m. in Symphony Hall. Admission to this is $5, with refreshments available in the lobby at 10:15 a.m.
Tickets to the Friday and Saturday concerts range in price from $10 to $25 ($5 students), available at the Symphony Hall box office, 533-NOTE. Tickets to the BYU concert, in Provo, are $10 ($8 with BYU identification); for information call 378-7444.
In addition, BYU will present a seminar with Lees, "The Composer as Surrealist," from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday in Room E-400 of the Harris Fine Arts Center. Admission to the session is free and open to the public.