By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
The first time I heard—really heard—Max Bruch’s Romantic Violin Concerto No. 1 was late at night, a long night, well past 2 am, sometime in 1982. I was driving my old 1972 Ford station wagon—nothing special, but it had a big boomy radio speaker smack dab in the center of the massive dashboard. The radio was tuned to KKHI, the now-defunct local classical station, as the late DJ Scott Beach, aka “The Voice,” introduced the classic 1967 recording of the Bruch concerto, featuring Isaac Stern and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. The station wagon veered northbound out of San Francisco as I drove home to Marin County along Doyle Drive, a short stretch of Highway 101 at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, a stretch so hazardous it had earned the nickname Blood Alley (it’s since been redesigned). I was entranced by the Bruch. So taken by the lush second movement, in fact, that I pulled over onto the narrow shoulder, as cars, trucks, and motorcycles whizzed by ominously. The music washed over me. And I wept. For this weary traveler, Stern’s performance packed an emotional wallop and pulled me in.
Of course, the Bruch is an iconic work and a rite of passage for any young violinist. Randall Goosby digs deep—and packs his own emotional wallop—on this new recording of the Bruch, supported, appropriately, by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It is, as the Guardian recently noted, an “unhackneyed performance… his playing full of old-school warmth and breadth, but never schmaltzy.”
On this sophomore album, Goosby—one of the youngest recipients ever to win the Sphinx Competition—has paired Bruch’s warhorse with two obscure violin concertos penned by the woefully ignored Black composer Florence Price (1887–1953): Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major and the single movement Adoration (arranged for violin and orchestra). These strikingly beautiful works were only discovered in 2009—56 years after the composer’s death—in a pile of old papers in a dilapidated Illinois house that had been scheduled for extensive renovation. Goosby had included three of Price’s works on his critically acclaimed 2021 debut, Roots, including a violin and piano arrangement of Adoration. He performed these Bruch and Price concertos on a 1735 Guarneri del Gesù.
Strings asked the gifted 27-year-old Jacksonville, Florida, native—who recently received his artist diploma from Juilliard as a student of Itzhak Perlman and Catherine Cho—about his new Decca Classics recording.
What led you to pair the Bruch and Price concertos?
The Bruch is such an iconic work. It’s an example of why I play the violin and why I love classical music, just in terms of its emotional scope and the expressive breadth of the piece. Bruch is one of those concertos that has been close to my heart for a long time. So it’s a very important part of who I am as a musician, and I thought it was important to include a concerto like Bruch on my first [concerto] album. And, of course, with the Price concertos, which are much lesser-known than the Bruch, I find that I relate to her legacy and her voice in music on a personal level, certainly as it relates to my cultural heritage and background, but also as it relates to the broader idea and theme of empathy and compassion and bringing ourselves closer to the experiences of others. Price’s experience is one that people could learn a lot from, so it was important for me to include music that was reflective of a very different part of myself than what the Bruch brings out.
Do those works share musical qualities?
They certainly do. All great music shares something in common in that it’s meant to communicate something, it’s meant to make the performer and, of course, the audience, feel something. With Bruch and Price, obviously they’re expressing quite different things and in different ways, musically and harmonically, but they certainly share this incredibly rich, lush sound potential, both for the soloist and my incredible collaborators, the Philadelphia Orchestra. There is thick and luxurious writing in both of these pieces and in a very romantic way that really tugs at the heartstrings of anyone that encounters this music. These works share an extreme conviction in this emotional intensity that pervades, really, all three of the works on the album.
Tell me how you prepared for the technical challenges of the Bruch.
It was so long ago that I was tackling purely technical challenges. [He laughs.] I don’t quite remember what my practice process was. I know that it involved some form of “practice slowly,” which has been a big mantra of mine, certainly since I started practicing with Mr. Perlman but even before that. I am grateful to all of my past teachers for instilling this very secure and not so stressful relationship with technique. It’s my first line of defense in terms of tackling something that is particularly challenging. And many of the technical challenges with the Bruch are in the details, as is the case with most great music. It’s not one of the most brutally challenging pieces in the repertoire, but I think in order to bring out the subtleties and the nuances and the excitement in a lot of the more athletic passages, there does have to be a great deal of attention to detail.
How did you prepare for the emotional sweep of the Bruch?
That is something I was able to tap into early on. I simply fell in love with the piece because of the emotional breadth and scope of what is being expressed in the music. The first movement is incredibly dark and dramatic, stormy at many moments, in both the solo and orchestral parts. The second movement provides an intimate sense of release and relaxation between the fireworks of the outer movements. The concerto has the very classical organization of fast, slow, fast, but more than that, it goes from dark, stormy, and intense to something much more internal and reflective only to come out into, I guess, a big party—the last movement really is all about those big fireworks. It has that expressive sweep to it, but the most impressive aspects are the strong, rhythmic character and the athletics of the solo part.
How did you first encounter the Price concertos?
I came across them on YouTube, funny enough. I guess that’s how most young people discover music these days. I had known of her symphonies. But I hadn’t heard of the violin concertos until three or four years ago, when I heard them on a recording that has not been released commercially, though it does exist on YouTube. I was fascinated by the music, and it made my decision to record them with the Philadelphia Orchestra a really easy one.
What is the defining quality of the Price concertos?
One quality is Price’s musical voice in general. The primary attraction for me is this unique combination of her musical influences, one of which was a quintessentially American sound and style coming out of the Negro spiritual tradition and a number of hymns and songs that she learned in church and that were passed down by word-of-mouth from her mother and her mother’s mother. That is a unique perspective and world of sound, especially in the context of classical music. Her education at the New England Conservatory in composition and studies in traditional Euro-centric, late-Romantic forms and styles and harmonies and her being able to pair that with this quintessentially American sound makes her one of the more unique composers that we have access to. Price, like any other underrepresented composer, represents a significant part of society and the human experience that is meant to be represented in classical music. This push to highlight and unearth and bring to light the voices of underrepresented composers is really a way to bring everyone closer together, closer to the experience of another group of people. Hers is an experience and a story that most classical music listeners have never heard before. She went through quite a lot of trials and tribulations and hardships to achieve what really wasn’t enough success in terms of what she deserved.