This will be the first of four blog entries about a typical month in my life as a traveling violinist. Over these four weeks I’ll play performances in Boston, New York, Eindhoven, London, and Cleveland!
Last week, I traveled through Southern New England from New York City to Boston, where the tips of the trees are just beginning to change colors and some cool fall breezes are breaking up the residual summer heat. The Beethoven Violin Concerto is a masterpiece I can never really get enough of—no matter how many times I hear or play it. I was thrilled to perform it four times with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons.
Walking onstage in Boston’s beautiful Symphony Hall is quite an experience, especially when the room is packed with people. Its resonant acoustics are ideal for the Beethoven. Sixteen white marble statues in the Roman style watch over the concert hall, while the name “Beethoven” is placed most prominently in gold on top of the proscenium!
I had arrived Wednesday afternoon, and Thursday evening was already the opening concert, with additional performances on Friday, Saturday and the following Tuesday. This timescale is quite typical—usually, I only have one or two rehearsals with an orchestra, so it takes a lot of concentration and preparation to use the time well. I’ve been playing the Beethoven Concerto since I was 8 years old, but I am very aware of how much I have grown into playing it. It is a perfect and transparent work; the listener is instantly aware of any impurities or performative gestures that don’t belong. While many parts of the concerto are exciting, it is never flashy or vulgar.
When I was growing up, the work was often played very romantically, with large orchestra and extremely slow tempi. Violinists are often tempted to choose a slow tempo and take additional time everywhere, in order to play out the passagework, even though the 16ths and triplets in the violin part are mostly ornamentation around the melodies in the orchestra. During the 20th century, the tradition of vibrating on as many notes as possible slowed performances even further. If this was a piano concerto, average performances would probably be played 30 percent faster!
[The Beethoven Concerto] is a perfect and transparent work; the listener is instantly aware of any impurities or performative gestures that don’t belong.
Over the years, I’ve played some slower performances, which sometimes felt almost spiritual because of the sense of patience and calm (a performance with Herbert Blomstedt in 2013 was a highlight of this approach), and it’s also played very differently with chamber orchestras, where the pacing is quicker and the texture and articulations lighter. (I particularly remember a performance with Bernard Labadie, whose approach to phrasing made the piece feel totally new.)
It may be impossible to find the “right” tempo for the first movement, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the first movement should be full of vitality and energy and joy—so that its slower, more introverted sections (like the poignant “minore” moment in the development, or the coda after the cadenza) will be even more special.
The orchestra and I were energized by Andris Nelsons, who is a spontaneous conductor who will make every phrase feel alive. It is an approach where the shape of every phrase is a direct result of what we did before, a result of how we feel in the present, as opposed to aiming for an ideal that we imagined and prepared for beforehand. During the last movement, the theme is punctuated by fermatas, like question marks. With wit and energy, he varied the timing of every one so that it was never predictable how long the question would hang in the air before the theme resumed.
The slow movement is a simple set of variations in which the violin never actually plays the full theme, but rather comments and reflects on it. What is so special is that Beethoven achieves a feeling of “timelessness,” of time standing still. It feels as though the music has always gone on and we wish it to go on forever. This movement moves me every time I play it.
I performed Fritz Kreisler’s cadenzas this week. After I recently wrote my own cadenza for the Brahms Concerto, I have been considering doing the same for Beethoven. I hope to embark on this challenge soon. It is a daunting task to write something to fit into such a perfectly constructed piece, and I think that Kreisler’s cadenzas (which create a climax where the main themes of the first movement converge) are magnificent, so the bar is set very high.
As an encore, I played Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Francisco Tarrega, arranged by Ruggiero Ricci. It is virtuosic (with ricochet patterns imitating the original’s guitar sounds) in a very quiet way. Choosing the right encore depends on the performance and the mood of the audience!