Camilla Wicks
                                                                            Legendary violinist of the Golden Age
Articles


Walton Concerto - 2nd movement
live in Norway, 1985

Below, you can find much more information on Camilla Wicks, in articles published by the Strad Magazine, Music and Arts CD liner notes, and Biddulph CD liner notes, as well as Wicks's own reminiscences. 

 

Article in "The Strad" (November 2004)
 

Camilla Wicks was hailed from the earliest age as the rising star of her generation and led a glittering career in the 1940s and 1950s. One the world’s foremost soloists at the peak of what was arguably the violin’s golden era, she retired in her early thirties to devote herself to her family, altogether ceasing to play for some years. She later resumed her career, in the face of intermittent disruptions owing nothing to music and much to her gender. While circumstances prevented her from enjoying the limelight to a full extent, she remained an outstanding performer for many more decades and has been a profound influence on generations of students. Her vinyl records have long been the stuff of legends among collectors; the forthcoming CD releases of some extraordinary studio and live recordings should restore this captivating artist to the place she deserves at the heart of the violin firmament. Wicks still teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory, but with her definitive retirement in sight, I visited her in California to reflect on an extraordinary life.

 

 

Born in California in 1928, Wicks pays proud tribute to her musical family. Her mother had left her small Iowa community, aged just 17, to travel alone to Germany and study the piano with Scharwenka, while as a child destined for a “serious” vocation, her father would steal into the woods of his native Norway to practise on his home-made fiddle. The atmosphere in her house was intensely musical: Camilla’s elder sister Virginia was a precocious songwriter and went on to become a jazz manager to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Camilla’s father, a fine violinist, was her first teacher: “My mother told me that he would be deeply moved after giving me a lesson - I was three or four - because I’d be doing something instinctively musical. Their devotion to nurturing my talent was fed by a sense of conviction, which I felt I should fulfil. Although I struggled for motivation at one stage in my mid-teens, there were no screaming fits. I was very loved and enjoyed in many respects a normal life. While my schooling was limited, I made up for that through my own avid reading.” Her performances in California from the age of seven invoked memories of Menuhin’s and Ricci’s meteoric rises, and aged ten she followed in those shining footsteps to study with the inspirational Persinger in New York.

Having left a comfortable lifestyle behind, the family endured material hardships and Wicks’s adjustment to a new, fiercely competitive environment was not entirely smooth. About her Town Hall recital debut in 1942, she recalls: “I was aware that this was a more demanding stage I was appearing on than previously, and even had nightmares before the concert. After all I was only 13! But dear Persinger accompanied me, which was a great support, and it was a success.”

Zino Francescatti’s enthusiastic recommendation led to her 1946 debut with the New York Philharmonic, at which she played the Sibelius Concerto, the work she would become most strongly associated with. Her interpretation was greatly admired by the composer, and her electrifying 1952 Stockholm recording for Capitol with her close friend Sixten Ehrling has justly achieved mythical status.

By the mid-1950s, Wicks had been on six major European tours. She points out that these were not as glamorous as might seem. Schedule and travel were exhausting, fees barely covered the many expenses, and rehearsal time for recitals, with a widely varying standard of accompanist, was limited. But rapturous praise was abundant for this artist whose playing, already noted in her earliest reviews for its poise and dignity, now burned with staggering virtuoso boldness and incandescent expression still shorn of all sentimentality. In her mid-twenties, artistically thriving on both sides of the Atlantic, blessed to boot with film-star looks, her career was at its apogee.

 

 

By then Wicks was a wife and mother. She married in 1951 and would have five children, but the tensions between career and family would eventually come to a head. In a sign of the times, her husband was offered a good position in Texas on the understanding that his wife would be expected to play an active domestic role. Wicks decided to retire not yet aged 30, and believing she would not perform again even sold her 1725 ‘Duke of Cambridge’ Stradivarius. “It was not a decision taken lightly, and the memory of the efforts my parents had made also weighed upon me. But my attitude was that there’s a time for everything in life: I had enjoyed this fulfilling period of concertizing and now the time had come to devote myself to my family.”

Among her trailblazing women peers, Wicks has juggled more than any other great violinist the rigorous demands of her art with those traditional fundamentals of womanhood- marriage, raising children and home-making. The cost of taking on this colossal challenge has been a roller coaster ride of joys and bruises; it is a measure of Wicks’s strength of character and intense commitment to her ideals that she has emerged indomitably through all obstacles. When her marriage ended unhappily after 14 years, Wicks was left with the children and a career to re-ignite. With typical generosity, her old friend Ricci virtually gave her an excellent instrument by the Australian luthier Arthur Smith. But professional opportunities and the search for an environment most conducive to her family’s wellbeing have not always gone hand in hand. Striving for equilibrium on the horns of this fundamental dilemma has led to a roving existence across the United States and, for a brief period, in Norway. Thus, she has taught extensively in various faculties and elected to return to the concert stage in spurts, remarkably showing no decline in her powers despite the many interruptions.

Although one may argue that Wicks fell victim to the social conventions of her era, in the full bloom of her career she was keenly aware of her vanguard role as a female soloist. “There was discrimination then, and I encountered scepticism towards ‘this pretty young blonde’. I get irritated to often still find myself and my female peers qualified as “women violinists”, but the situation has very much improved for women nowadays. Still, I don’t believe a woman can simultaneously conduct a full-blown career, sustain a successful marriage and raise a family well. She must learn to prioritise accordingly at different times of her life. My children have always been most important to me. They could not be five appendages to my career. Taking part in and contributing to their development, helping them through the struggles of life and witnessing the individuality of each one take shape, has been a blessing I am continuously amazed by.” 

 

The scope of Wicks’s musical experiences has been immense. A soloist from early childhood, she took more active part in chamber music in the 1980s and for a time even played in a local amateur orchestra during one of her retirement stints. Uncommonly adventurous already as an emergent star, her recitals combined the full breadth of the standard repertoire with lesser-known works by, amongst others, Dohnanyi, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos and Honegger, and manifold short pieces. Speaking with emotion of the close bond she forged with Ernest Bloch after attending one of his “awe-inspiring” lectures in the early 1950s, she fondly recalls exploring his music with him and his long letters filled with philosophical wisdom. “I was fascinated by his blend of earthy communion to nature and spirituality, which transcended the attachment to his own Jewish heritage.” A similar mystical connection, seen through the prism of their shared Norwegian heritage, drew Wicks and the composer Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978) together. He dedicated a number of solo violin works to her, steeped in folklore, harking back to the spirit of the Middle Ages and portraying the connection between living nature and the supernatural through dissonant harmonies. This has informed some interesting ideas she has regarding intonation, which she recommends honing through double-stopped scales in seconds and sevenths.

Wicks invested much in advocating contemporary Scandinavian composers: she performed concertos by Fartein Valen and Hilding Rosenberg, and gave the world premiere of those by Harald Saeverud and Klaus Egge. The latter took place at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic, in 1957, at Wicks’s insistence. “No doubt I would have had a more resounding success with the Tchaikovsky Concerto, but I saw myself as something of a crusader. You have got to feel passionately about your ideals, about the value of the music you play, and go beyond treating it merely as a vehicle for a virtuoso career.”

 

Wicks subscribes to notions of a Golden Age of the violin and laments a certain decline over the past few decades, but surprisingly for a player so intensely communicative, puts this down to technique rather than expression. “In my time as a young violinist, you weren’t considered much of a player if you didn’t fully master every facet of the instrument. Expression emanated from something instinctual, or maybe from the culture of the time, the forces of history we were caught up in - but I wasn’t aiming for expression. My whole practise was geared to making every note sound marvellous, to achieve perfection from a technical standpoint.” Delving deeper into the topic soon reveals a distinction between technique and pyrotechnics. “Many players nowadays do certain things very well, but don’t know how to, or neglect to, lavish care on every note. The current emphasis on long lines has become overdone, when it leads to players not hearing the minutiae. For instance, enabling the vibrato to speak through every note in the double-stops of the first movement of Prokofiev’s F minor Sonata: that is a great technical challenge in itself.”

 

For a high-octane romantic soloist of her era, Wicks reveals an unexpected approach to the baroque and classical styles. “Over the years, encounters with various people and studying manuscripts influenced me, and I had the opportunity to rethink my attitude to this music. That’s the advantage of living so long! It drives me crazy when Bach is taught in the old way, with indiscriminate use of vibrato and little thought for the pulse or shape of the line. It’s not a matter of being for or against vibrato, but of understanding what its purpose is, how its use should relate to the music’s pulse and harmonic shifts. There is this tendency of starting the note with a cold tone and then warm it up, which is jazz style, when in this music the vibrato should be applied to underline the pivotal harmony, and then trail away. Such crucial matters as the timing of cadences, extending tied notes so as to reflect the composer’s desire to stretch the beat and then the consequent release, are often overlooked. ”

 

Always eager to experiment, Wicks is nevertheless driven by an inexorable quest for certain principles to be adhered to. The smallest detail, in which technique, rhythm and musicianship are inextricably linked, takes on a spiritual dimension. “Rhythm is divine, pulse is divine. They are connected to the natural laws, to the music’s sense of gravity. You can move the pulse, but you cannot ignore it: you need to find the momentum that flows from it, to be in touch with and reveal this sense of gravity. To achieve this, detailed knowledge of the orchestral or piano part is vital. As a soloist you have to be ready to guide and also adjust - to hear the music vertically and fit your timing around the overall pulse structure. Playing with less experienced orchestras and conductors, or weak accompanists, provides excellent training! But it’s also the quality of your sound, of your dynamics that’s going to direct the music, and here bow distribution is a key. I also believe strongly in playing everything by memory, for which I encourage digital practise away from the violin: it heightens one’s sense of the work’s topography- its skylines, its mountains and valleys, the shapes and colours that form it.”

 

 

 

Wicks has explored her Norwegian roots ever since her first visit in 1946, establishing lasting ties to her ancestral land. In 1974, she became a lifetime professor at Oslo’s Royal Academy of Music, and although family constraints shortened her tenure there, she has returned regularly to teach and perform. Talking of her class as extended family, she is proud to have taught many of the country’s successful players. Her contributions were rewarded in 1999 by a Knighthood of the Norwegian Royal Order of Merit; she quips that “I’m actually a rider for the King- I’m one of his horsemen”.

To commemorate these achievements the Simax label issued broadcast performances of the Walton and Brustad’s Fourth Concertos. Until just recently the only sample of Wicks’s art on CD, this important record deserves greater attention. The Walton emerges more than ever as a rich odyssey far transcending lush flamboyance, while Brustad’s deeply atmospheric work is endowed with a rare physical dynamism and communicative charge, the soulful intensity of Wicks’s sound an overwhelming fusion of sorrow and rapture.

Fortunately, the Sibelius Concerto will finally be made widely available on a Biddulph disc, along with 1950s HMV recordings, and a Music & Arts release of superb live performances is imminent. Including broadcasts from 1950 of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the Sibelius’s finale and Bloch’s Nigun, its jewel in the crown is a transfixing 1953 Carnegie Hall performance of the Beethoven Concerto with Bruno Walter. It remains one of Wicks’s most cherished memories. “I was seven months pregnant, had to wear a special dress and adopt a certain gait to disguise my condition. Yet I remember feeling as if lifted by Walter and soaring like an eagle!”


Nathaniel Vallois




Camilla Wicks on Louis Persinger and aspects of training:

“Louis Persinger was the most important musical influence in my life, instilling an almost palpable closeness to the various composers' styles in his own amazing way. He taught from the piano, playing both the written notes and improvising in the same style while verbally describing feelings, motions and sometimes even comical events to engage my participation in the "game": a lesson was always an experience of laughter or listening to his stories of description.
He had me, of course, play scales, arpeggios and double-stop scales every day but this was laready my habit from early childhood with my father. In fact, the present time students usually don't realize that learning the scales is only the beginning. They must be ised as vehicles for improvement, like meditation, or stations othe cross and rosaries for 2 hours, or chating the figure skater's circle on ice. That's the only way to attain yesterday's level at its best and then surmount it.”






“Camilla Wicks” Biddulph CD liner notes

 

 

 

 

Camilla Wicks has long enjoyed a cult status on the merits of her legendary recording of the Sibelius Concerto. The Finnish composer lavished praise on Wicks’s interpretation, regarded by those who know it as among the greatest versions of this work. One of the most sought-after vinyl records amongst collectors, amazingly it has never been widely issued on CD until now, making this release all the more valuable. Such has been the special connection between Wicks and Sibelius’s labour of love for his favoured instrument, it has over the years perhaps even tended to overshadow the full extent of her immense artistry. 

Emerging when still in her teens as one of the most dazzling violinists of the golden age that flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, Wicks enjoyed the limelight for a dozen years, before retiring at the height of her fame, in her early thirties, to devote herself to her growing family. Despite her subsequent, though intermittent, returns to the concert stage over the next three decades[1], the result of this interruption is that she recorded little in the studio. This CD gathers the large majority of the Scandinavian HMV 78’ sides she recorded in the early 1950s, with her close friend, the great Swedish conductor Sixten Ehrling, at the piano. The rare premiere recording of the Norwegian Fartein Valen’s miniature concerto and four previously unissued sides recorded for Columbia are also included, revealing the vast scope of Wicks’s art.

 

Wicks was born in Long Beach, California, on August 9 1928, to musician parents of Norwegian stock, her father himself a distinguished violinist, and her pianist mother once a student of Xavier Scharwenka. Wicks started the violin aged 3, under her father’s daily supervision, and a year later played a Vivaldi Concerto in public. Quickly blossoming into a quintessential wunderkind, she made her orchestral debut aged seven playing Mozart's D Major Concerto, at 8 performed Bruch's First Concerto and a year later Paganini’s First Concerto. A special fund enabled her, then aged 10, to move to New York with her family, to study at the Julliard School with Louis Persinger, a disciple of the legendary Ysaye, who had earlier taught Menuhin, Ricci and Guila Bustabo. In her later teens and on the verge of a full-blown career, Wicks would also study for some time with Henri Temianka, but Persinger was the major artistic catalyst and inspiration of her development.

 

Wicks made her New York debut with a Town Hall recital in February 1942, aged 13. In 1943, having earned an award from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society, she made her debut with that orchestra performing Saint-Saens’s B minor Concerto, and at 15, Wicks received the second prize at the prestigious Leventritt Competition, for which Zino Francescatti was one of the jurors. His warm recommendation led to her official Carnegie Hall debut, in April 1946, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski. For this important occasion, Wicks chose to play the Sibelius Concerto and her star rose quickly. Engagements followed with the leading American orchestras under such conductors as Stokowski, Reiner and Walter. 1946 saw the first of her European tours, when one initial engagement in Oslo turned into a total of 88 over four months. Over the next decade, Wicks went on six such tours throughout Western Europe (her 1951 tour of 100 concerts in ten countries lasted eight months!), and she became a particular favourite in Scandinavia and Finland, where she met Sibelius. One critic hailed her as the “Madonna of the Violin”, and local babies were named after her. Wicks maintained a close connection to the Nordic countries throughout her life, and espoused her Norwegian heritage enthusiastically.

It was during some of these tours that Wicks made her first recordings, for HMV and Capitol. The Sibelius Concerto was recorded in 1952 in Stockholm for Capitol.

Having played on a 1698 Tononi in the early years of her career, by now Wicks’s violin was the famed 1725 “Duke of Cambridge” Stradivarius. 

Already admired as an exciting virtuoso, Wicks soon began to distinguish herself by the adventurousness and immense range of her programming. While she shone in her interpretations of the core repertoire, her concerts already early on covered a vast spectrum of style and idiom, and she boldly espoused modern works. She performed rarely heard sonatas by Bloch – with whom she formed a close bond -, Milhaud, Dohnanyi, Villa-Lobos, Ravel, Honnegger, amongst many others, and was a passionate advocate of new Scandinavian music. Besides Valen’s Concerto, she also performed concertos by Hilding Rosenberg, Bjarne Brustad, Harald Saeverud and Klaus Egge. Of the latter two, she gave respectively the world and American premieres, performing the Egge at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic in 1957, and later recording this fine large-scale work for Philips. She collaborated closely with Brustad, who dedicated a number of works to her. (A stunningly atmospheric live performance of his Fourth Concerto from 1968 has been released on CD by Simax, coupled with a later, also magnificent, account of the Walton.).

 

As much a devoted family woman as a natural performer, and a prime example of the difficulties to reconcile the two, Wicks chose to retire in her early thirties to devote herself to her growing family - she has five children. She ceased to play entirely for some time and even gave up her “Duke of Cambridge” Stradivarius. When she returned to the concert stage in 1966, Ruggiero Ricci passed on to her an excellent violin by the modern Australian luthier Arthur Smith. Although thereafter she chose to perform only intermittently, she showed no decline in her powers in subsequent years.

 

During her first retirement stint in the late 1950s, Wicks developed an interest in teaching and became over the subsequent decades a revered professor on many faculties: among others, the San Francisco Conservatory, the universities of Washington, Southern California, Michigan and Rice.

In the early 1970s, Wicks spontaneously chose to settle with her family near Lake Chelan, in the state of Washington, in search of rural remoteness and tranquillity. There she taught privately and even joined the small community’s non-professional orchestra. She credits these years of quiet reflection and communion with nature as a major turning point in her life.

 In 1974, she was invited to take up a professorship at the Royal Academy of Oslo, and although family constraints shortened her tenure, returned to teach there regularly. Her contributions to Norwegian musical life were rewarded in 1999 with a Knighthood of the Norwegian Royal Order of Merit.

The 1980s saw Wicks more involved in chamber music. While a professor at the University of Michigan, she gave the premiere of the youthful Debussy’s Piano Trio. She was also a member of the Chamber Soloists of San Francisco. Wicks was appointed to the Isaac Stern Distinguished Chair at the San Francisco Conservatory, until her definitive retirement in the summer of 2005.

 

 

There have been a number of distinguished female exponents of the Sibelius Concerto, (the composer also praised Guila Bustabo, Anja Ignatius, Ginette Neveu), but Wicks’s version remains a unique accomplishment. Shaped with inexorable cohesiveness, combining high-octane virtuosity, rich expressiveness and atmospheric depth, it achieves that elusive fusion of compelling individuality and adherence to the detail and spirit of the work. Her sound is intensely evocative of a pure and remote Nordic light, of wild and vast expanses. In the cadenza, the liberties she takes are ever intelligent, in keeping with the essence of the music and mainly allow the discourse to breathe. The climax of the slow movement has perhaps never been so heart-wrenchingly magnificent and the finale, no mere display of power and virtuosity, is full of rhythmic tautness and awareness of the music’s still mysterious and lyrical aspects.


It takes very different skills to do justice to the miniature genre, but Wicks’s myriad subtleties of phrasing and exceptional grasp of varied idioms makes a gem out of each one. Her rhythm can be sensuously alluring, in Sarasate and Aguirre, or tautly irrepressible in Prokofiev and Shostakovich. In the latter’s Preludes, she is in turn whimsical, humorous and poignant, and she conveys at once dignity and something of despair in Bloch’s Nigun and Kabalevsky’s Improvisation.


Nathaniel Vallois 

 

 



[1] Live and largely unreleased recordings attest to the long span and consistently superlative quality of Wicks’s performing career.



Camilla Wicks on the Sibelius Concerto and Sixten Ehrling:

“I first performed the Sibelius Concerto when I was fifteen, at the Leventritt Competition, where I was given second prize. Francescatti heard me there and was instrumental in arranging for me to perform it with the New York Philharmonic, for my Carnegie Hall debut. I then played it many times in Scandinavia, in Finland. On one occasion, Sibelius heard a broadcast performance of mine on the radio and invited me to meet him at his villa. When I asked him to comment on my interpretation, he said: “Just play it the same way.” Although the language barrier meant communication was limited, it was still an inspiring experience.

To make the recording with Ehrling [on February 18th 1952], I arrived in Stockholm in the midst of a strenuous tour playing every night and travelling every day. I recall that the night before I had attended a post-concert reception, in Göteborg or Malmö, after which I had to use a back bedroom to practise the Sibelius, which I hadn’t been able to practise for 2 weeks. I caught a sleeper train still in my concert dress. The next morning I had to be early at the Stockholm Royal Academy of Music, where the recording took place, and I had little time to warm up. With just the one session for the recording and no splicing to be done then, there was great tension particularly to get the last movement done. By that point I was exhausted and right at the end I did something wrong, so we had to do it all over…Afterwards we listened to see if anything was too bad – we didn’t have time to do much in those days. With the passing of time, I have changed my approach to certain passages. For instance, the complicated rhythms of the double-stops in the slow movement can be played exactly as written, but I played them more freely then.

“Ehrling and I had toured together, including recitals, so it was a matter of friends making this recording. He was a wonderful pianist – indeed, I heard him perform spectacularly as soloist. There was a real chemistry between us, and he was such a marvellous musician, always understanding, innately and intuitively musical. He had a wonderful sense of tempi, and of where and how to place a ritardando. I played many concertos with him and every time I was thinking: “Yes! This is the way it must be…” He once totally surprised and overwhelmed me with an acceleration in the middle of the Brahms Concerto’s slow movement that was much more pronounced than usual and just marvellous. It worked in a way that a soloist can never accomplish alone, no matter what the pre-rehearsal talks and plans. It’s something coming from the core of the conductor’s vision straight into the soloist’s like a meeting of souls. I can still feel it today.”




 
Music and Arts "The Art of Camilla Wicks" CD liner notes

Born in Long Beach, California, on August 9 1928, Camilla Wicks led a stellar career  in the dozen years after World War Two, one of a select group whose achievements helped to establish women violinists’ prominence on the concert stage [1]. It is worth considering that around that golden time, the likes of Heifetz, Milstein, Menuhin, Francescatti reigned supreme; the veterans Szigeti, Elman and Thibaud were still active and beloved; Stern was a firm favourite, Rabin a prodigious sensation, and Oistrakh and Kogan were just resoundingly breaking through the Iron Curtain. In this illustrious company, Wicks was considered one of the great soloists on both sides of the Atlantic, upheld by many as a queen among violinists even before the tragic death of Ginette Neveu. At the peak of her fame and subsequently, she retired more than once to devote herself to her family, but remained an outstanding if intermittent performer for many more decades. While her vinyl records have long been revered by collectors, this CD release of early live performances offers a vital opportunity for a more widespread audience to discover this astonishing artist.

 

 

    Wicks’s Norwegian father Ingvald was no doubt inspired by the legendary violinist Ole Bull when as a child he would steal into the woods to practise on a home-made fiddle. He developed into an excellent violinist, who later trained in Paris with Nadaud and performed at the famous Salle Gaveau. Having emigrated to America, he volunteered for military service during World War One, where an injury from carrying heavy ammunition put paid to his aspirations of a major career. Wicks’s mother Ruby, American-born but also of Norwegian stock, journeyed alone from Iowa to Germany, aged just 17, to study the piano with Xavier Scharwenka. Upon her return to America, she became a successful pianist in Minneapolis, where a chance joint (and at first acrimonious!) performance led to her meeting Ingvald. After their marriage, mother and father moved to the West Coast and established themselves as prominent local teachers and musicians. Their home became an unofficial music school and little Camilla spent her earliest years listening to her father teaching.

    When she begged for a violin, aged 3 ½, he gave her daily lessons and she quickly blossomed into a quintessential wunderkind. At her fourth birthday party she played various pieces, including a trio in which she took the first violin part, her father the second, with her mother at the piano. Later that year, she performed Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto. She was soon playing regularly at local music and business clubs, attracting considerable interest in the local press and prophecies of a career in the footsteps of Menuhin and Ricci. Early full-length recitals included Mendelssohn’s Concerto, the Adagio and Fugue from Bach’s G minor Solo Sonata, the first movement of Paganini’s First Concerto, Vitali’s Chaconne and short pieces. She made her debut with orchestra aged 7 with Mozart’s D Major Concerto K.218, at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. At the age of eight she performed the Bruch Concerto no.1 with the Los Angeles WAP Orchestra and Paganini’s First Concerto the following year. A 1937 review in the Hollywood Citizen News commented on her “tone of amazing depth and appealing quality, her palpable quality of understanding, her poise and dignity…the child is already a fine artist, her possibilities are unlimited.”

    A foundation fund was set up to enable the ten-year-old Camilla to study in New York’s Julliard School with the great Louis Persinger, who had earlier taught Menuhin, Ricci and Bustabo. Until then, her father had been her main teacher, aided by Carlton Wood, a former student of Sevcik’s, who instilled in her the solid technical foundations of the famed Bohemian pedagogue. Wicks herself equally credits her mother’s abilities on the piano and eagerness to accompany her as having been crucial in her development, learning from the start how to think of the music beyond her own part, vertically and harmonically. 
    
The contact with Persinger proved invaluable. “Persinger was the most important musical influence in my life, instilling an almost palpable closeness to the various composers’ styles. He was an excellent pianist, and while keeping his violin close at hand for the purpose of demonstrating details, he taught from the piano. He played both the written notes and improvised in the same style while verbally describing feelings, emotions and sometimes even comical events to engage my participation in the ‘game’. A lesson was always an experience of laughter or listening to his stories of description, and he communicated emotion not merely in a theoretical way. He sought to develop a sense of humanity and spirituality in his pupils. He had me, of course, play scales, arpeggios and double-stop scales every day, although this was already my habit from early childhood with my father, as well as all manner of studies. But even in the technical material, he constantly emphasised beauty of sound, colour and expression. I went through the entire repertoire with him and he was instrumental in establishing me in New York. Even after I had started performing regularly, I would often go back to Persinger for coaching.”

    In her later teens and on the verge of a full-blown career, Wicks would also study for about a year with Henri Temianka, whose rigorous intellectual approach contrasted Persinger’s teaching in a complimentary way and honed her analytical skills.

 

    Wicks made her New York debut with a Town Hall recital in February 1942, aged 13. Accompanied by Persinger, her programme included Brahms’s A Major Sonata, Ysaye’s Ballade, Paganini’s First Concerto in Wilhelmj’s arrangement and an unusual selection of short pieces by Samazeuilh, Monasterio, Albeniz, Scott and Kompaneyetz. In 1943, having earned an award from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society, she made her debut with that orchestra performing Saint-Saens’s B minor Concerto. A reviewer commented: “There is a straightforwardness about her playing that spurns sentimentality and indicates a good basis for an eventual greater profundity.” This spurning of sentimentality combined yet with incandescent expressiveness is a hallmark of Wicks’s playing, already evident in the earliest existing recording of her playing, a broadcast of the Glazunov Concerto from a 1943 New York recital.

    At 15, Wicks earned second prize in the prestigious Leventritt Competition, for which Zino Francescatti was one of the jurors. His warm recommendation led to her official Carnegie Hall debut, in April 1946, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski. (She had appeared in Carnegie Hall, in 1943, sharing the stage with the singers Lauritz Melchior and Kirstin Thorborg, at a concert marking the third anniversary of Norway’s invasion by the Nazis.) For this important occasion, Wicks chose the Sibelius Concerto, a work she would become strongly associated with. An exceptionally exciting and also beautiful performer, her star quickly rose to great heights. Engagements followed with many of the leading American orchestras under such conductors as Stokowski, Reiner and Walter. 1946 saw the first of her European tours, when one initial engagement in Oslo turned into a total of 88 over four months. Over the next decade, Wicks went on six such tours throughout Western Europe (her 1951 tour of 100 concerts in ten countries lasted eight months!), and she became a particular favourite in Scandinavia and Finland. Sibelius was a great admirer of her interpretation of his concerto. One critic hailed her as the “Madonna of the Violin”, and local babies were named after her. Wicks maintained a close connection to the Nordic countries throughout her life, and espoused her Norwegian heritage enthusiastically.

    In Paris, a review in Le Spectateur from 1948 praised the “sensational presentation of this extraordinary young violinist who comes to us from America: an absolutely exceptional nature, an accomplished virtuoso of international class, with a poetic sonority, magnificently moving, warm and of variegated colours. Her quite masculine playing reminds one of Enesco. Her bowing is of incomparable ease. Hers is a violin that sings and stirs one, and constantly makes music. Let us intensely hope that one of out symphonic associations will invite for next season this artist, who was given a long standing ovation at the end of her recital.” Indeed, she played the Mendelssohn Concerto in Paris in 1949, Le Monde’s reviewer noting: “She possesses a magnificent temperament: sensitivity and lyricism are wedded with a dash, a fire, a dynamism that are irresistible. As an accomplished virtuoso she imposes herself imperiously…this young, delicate woman, is consumed by the demon of music…”

It was during some of these tours that Wicks made her first recordings, for HMV and Capitol. In 1952, she recorded the Sibelius Concerto with her close friend Sixten Ehrling and the Stockholm Radio Symphony Orchestra, for Capitol, a version invariably regarded by those who know it as one of the very greatest of the work.

    Having played on a 1698 Tononi in the early years of her career, it was also while on tour that Wicks was able to acquire the famed 1725 “Duke of Cambridge” Stradivarius2. Although it resided in Los Angeles and she was performing in Norway, her father was able to have the precious instrument shipped under careful escort on its transatlantic journey.

 

    Already admired as an exciting virtuoso, Wicks soon began to distinguish herself by the adventurousness of her programming. By the mid-1950s her recitals covered a vast spectrum of style and idiom, boldly delving into obscure realms of the repertory. At her annual New York Town Hall concerts, such sonatas as Mozart’s in B-flat K. 454, Brahms’s no.1 in G op.78, Beethoven’s “Spring” and Franck’s were contrasted with Bloch’s Sonata no.1, Milhaud’s Sonata no.2, Dohnanyi’s Ruralia Hungarica and Villa-Lobos’s Sonate-Fantaisie. Unaccompanied works by Bach and Ysaye shared centre stage with Honegger’s Solo Sonata and suites by the Norwegian composer Bjarne Brustad. Myriad short pieces ranged from Kreisler favourites and Paganini, Sarasate and Wieniawski showpieces to Debussy, Camargo Guarnieri, Khachaturian and Shostakovich, and many others. 

    The New York Times reviewer observed about her 1955 recital: “One of the notable characteristics was the way she had the individual feel of each composer…In all these works [she] seemed to lose herself, which is always the sense of intense communication.”

    Wicks forged an especially strong bond with Ernest Bloch, whom she met after attending one of his famed lectures at the University of California. She vividly remembers walks with him by his home on Agate Beach, in Oregon, where he would talk in detail about his works and the philosophical, universally spiritual and nature-bound ideals that informed them. Bloch’s First Sonata as played by Wicks in a 1954 Town Hall performance inspired the New York Times reviewer to write: “This overwhelmingly rich and varied work, by turns introspective, hectic, and almost barbarically splendid, found the artist able to project all its shifting moods and tonal colours.” 

    Wicks’s interest in pushing the boundaries of the repertoire and the strong attachment she formed to the Nordic countries also made her a natural and determined advocate of new Scandinavian music. She collaborated closely with Brustad, who dedicated a number of works to her. (A stunningly atmospheric live performance of his Fourth Concerto from 1968 has been released on CD by Simax, coupled with a later, also magnificent, account of the Walton.) For her 1957 Carnegie Hall performance with the New York Philharmonic, Wicks insisted upon giving the premiere of Klaus Egge’s Concerto, later recording it for Philips. She also premiered Harald Saeverud’s Concerto and played those by Hilding Rosenberg and Fartein Valen.

 

 

    As much a family woman as a natural performer, and a prime example of the difficulties to reconcile the two, Wicks chose to retire in 1958 to devote herself to her growing family- she has five children. She ceased to play entirely for some time and even gave up her Stradivarius. When she returned to the concert stage in 1966, her old friend Ruggiero Ricci passed on to her an excellent violin by the modern Australian luthier Arthur Smith. By a strange coincidence, as a small child she had played the very same half-size instrument by Klotz that had been Ricci’s a decade before. Although thereafter she chose to perform only intermittently, she showed no decline in her powers in subsequent years.

During that first period of retirement from performing, Wicks developed a reputation as a teacher, initially in Texas, where her family had moved. One of her early students, Jim Pettitt, recalls: “When we began working on a Paganini Caprice or two, [Wicks] brought her copy to make some fingering notes on mine. I could see by the writing that she must have been no more than six when she put her name on the cover. It was very discouraging to an 18-year-old!”

    Since the 1960s, Wicks has been a professor on many faculties: the California State College at Fullerton, the San Francisco Conservatory, the Banff Centre for the Performing Arts, the University of Washington, the University of Southern California, the University of Michigan and Rice University.

During of one of her retirement stints, in the early 1970s, Wicks spontaneously chose to settle with her family near Lake Chelan, in the state of Washington, in search of rural remoteness and tranquillity. There she taught at the Wenatchee Valley College and joined the small community’s non-professional orchestra. She credits these years of quiet reflection and communion with nature as a major turning point in her life.

 In 1974, she was invited to take up a professorship at the Royal Academy of Oslo, and although family constraints shortened her tenure, she has returned to teach there regularly. Her contributions to Norwegian musical life were rewarded in 1999 with a Knighthood of the Norwegian Royal Order of Merit.

    The 1980s saw Wicks more involved in chamber music. While a professor at the University of Michigan, she gave the premiere of the youthful Debussy’s Piano Trio. She was also a member of the Chamber Soloists of San Francisco. Always seeking to expand her repertoire and on the look-out for rarely played pieces, Wicks continued to present in her recitals such little-known gems as Germaine Tailleferre’s Sonata and Douglas Moore’s ‘Down East Suite’. She came, belatedly she feels, to perform the Berg Concerto, a work that is close to her heart. Now retired for good from the concert stage, she is once again a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory, where she holds the Isaac Stern Distinguished Chair.

 

    The San Francisco Chronicle’s review of a 1986 performance of the Schumann Piano Quintet captures much of the compelling quality of Wicks’s art: “Wicks seemed a source of intensity…[She has] a musically compelling way of keeping the tone alive and moving within a phrase, of directing the phrase forward consequentially. You can’t wait to see how it’s going to come out...Wicks’s tone itself is smooth, strong, interesting and vital…[She] made the line keep reaching forward, her bowing seamless, the phrases always aspiring. She has the gift of song.”

Indeed, Wicks’s enthralling sound, at once radiant, taut and soulful, her stirring lyrical powers and sweeping impetus of phrasing, make her one of the most identifiable of all violinists3. In her youth, her playing was impassioned and daredevil ardour personified; performances in later years reflect a gradually broader, more contemplative interpretative approach, yet of undiminished inner intensity.

 

 

 

The Sibelius and Tchaikovsky movements come from two separate 1950 Standard Hour broadcasts, the former boasting the heroic, stunningly rhythmic drive Wicks was famous for, the latter combining to a rare degree bravura intensity and grace.

By the time of her 1953 Carnegie Hall concert with Bruno Walter, Wicks was at the height of her career (and also heavily pregnant!). Her performance of the Beethoven Concerto, the piece de resistance of this disc, marks her out as a supreme artist - one whose sovereign eloquence and intellect match her natural expressive and instrumental gifts. Noted for her own propulsive instincts, Wicks recalls that on this occasion Walter himself instigated the swift tempos in a way she found inspirational, and the soloist-conductor-orchestra connection comes across vividly. Resplendently lyrical, dramatic, refined and profound, not to mention remarkable from a point of execution, it is an extraordinary account on every level.

In view of the close association between violinist and composer, it seems apt to conclude this program with Bloch’s best-known piece for violin. Wicks had actually worked on ‘Nigun’ with Persinger, prior to meeting Bloch. However, as Persinger and Bloch were eminent contemporaries in San Francisco, in the 1920s, and in all likelihood knew one another well, one may speculate that Wicks had absorbed something of Bloch’s influence indirectly. At any rate, Wicks projects the music’s yearning with a fusion of searing emotion and dignity that are typically hers.



Nathaniel Vallois

[1] The great successes of Maud Powell (1867-1920) at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Erica Morini (1904-1995) from after World War I, were relatively isolated. Only from shortly before World War II did the achievements of Guila Bustabo (1916-2002), Ginette Neveu (1919-1949), Gioconda de Vito (1907-1994), Ida Haendel (1923- ),  Johanna Martzy (1924-1979), and Wicks, to name the most famous, signal a more concerted representation of women among the leading players of the day.

 [2] This violin is also sometimes referred to as the Bott Strad, in honour of a one-time owner, who bought it after much effort in 1876 and died of heartbreak when it was stolen from him. It was found, too late, in 1894, and later belonged to the tenor John McCormack.

[3] Wicks’s distinctively sensitive intonation is a feature of her playing. Jim Pettitt describes it as  “freely tempered. She uses very subtle adjustments in pitch to clarify and emphasise key, mode, and ‘what’s next’ musically. We worked on this consciously in my lessons – my scores have little arrows up and down.”

 

 

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