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Constantin Silvestri: Avant-gardist, Master improviser, Homme passionné

by Anda Anastasescu Gritten

I am delighted that my recent series of seven mini-films CONSTANTIN SILVESTRI AVANT-GARDIST, MASTER IMPROVISER, HOMME PASSIONNÉ – will be shown for the first time in Britain by King’s College Archives and Research Collections, as the latest addition to the Gritten Archive’s Silvestri collection, and in Bucharest by the Hyperion University. This simultaneous launch of the new films with Hyperion University in Bucharest marks a double premiere of this celebration of the achievements of Constantin Silvestri and a landmark cultural duet between King's Archives and Hyperion. 

This is the second event in Silvestri’s memory I share with King’s and am grateful to Geoff Browell for his commitment to help keep alive the memory of the outstanding Romanian musician who came to England from behind the Iron Curtain and who - during his tenure as Principal Conductor 1961-1969 - transformed the Bournemouth Symphony into an orchestra of international repute. 

Films about composers are rare. Silvestri ‘the conductor’ is now a legend but Silvestri ‘the composer’ is still awaiting recognition in the wings. As an exile in Britain myself, I made the fortuitous discovery of his composing journey when I was permitted to return to Romania after the 1989 Revolution. I fell in love with his music, started to perform it all over the world and gave the British Premières of his piano works in a series of recitals in the Wigmore Hall.

Together with my husband, journalist John Gritten and Silvestri’s biographer (A Musician Before His Time. Constantin Silvestri conductor, composer, pianist) we dedicated over 30 years to the Silvestri revival in Britain and Romania. I didn’t have the chance to see Silvestri conduct, but my husband was present in 1957 at his debut in the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic and didn’t forget his performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms nor the audience’s unusually long and rapturous ovation. 

The production of my films has an unusual story. The genesis was due to the Pandemic – for the void it created in live performances – and to my chance encounter with the distinguished British film editor Nicolas Gaster. When I told him about my wish to put on film the symbiosis between Silvestri’s life and his compositions, Nicolas said: Anda, I would be delighted to make these films with you in memory of my grandfather who was born in Romania!

With the starting point decided by fate, all that remained for me to do was to begin work, metamorphosing from concert pianist into a film producer, script writer and actor-presenter! However, I do use excerpts from my recent Silvestri recordings and public performances in the films.

Silvestri was born in Bucharest in 1913. At 24 he was awarded the prestigious George Enescu Prize for Composition and his sensational public improvisations on the piano (a novelty in Romania) became famous. People flocked to these performances and would hand him themes, sometimes written on scraps torn from newspapers. Silvestri would improvise in the styles of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Wagner to name just a few. When the great Enescu went into exile in 1946, he declared: I am leaving Romania with my mind at piece because I am leaving behind a gifted composer who will bring fame to our country.

I was moved (and nervous!) when, as a soloist, I stepped onto the stage of Bournemouth Winter Gardens - the concert hall where Silvestri worked, performed and raised spectacularly the profile of the orchestra up until the end of his life. Very sad that the building was demolished in 2006 and replaced by nothing else but a large car park.

The news about Silvestri’s premature death of cancer at the age of 55 was received as a tragedy by the musical world. He is resting in St Peter’s churchyard in Bournemouth and the epitaph on the memorial stone is dedicated to: ‘THE MAESTRO’ of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra 1961-1969. An outstanding musician and a remarkable man.

So much wisdom, so much talent. And they’re forgotten as soon as they die. We must do everything possible to keep their memories alive…
                                                                                                                             Dmitri Shostakovich




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