This will be my fourth and final installment of my blog series about a month in my life as a traveling violinist. These four weeks took me to performances in Boston, New York, Eindhoven, London, and Cleveland, and it was one of the most exciting months of the year!
After returning from London, I had one day to prepare for the next trip to Cleveland. The repertoire was Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, which I played in Eindhoven a week before. The conductor originally scheduled to conduct in Cleveland had canceled, but fortunately the young Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä was able to step in with a week’s notice. Whenever I work with a conductor I don’t know, I never know whether the chemistry between us is going to work. I had heard great things about Mäkelä, and he rose to the occasion, arriving totally prepared. In the rehearsals, he quickly solved the puzzles and untangled the knots of the Prokofiev in a way that felt quite effortless. He not only has a great musical mind, he also conducts as though he is playing with us. Something that I also noticed about John Storgards when I played the Prokofiev with him a week earlier. With this approach, he established a great rapport with the Cleveland Orchestra.
I think of Prokofiev as the storyteller among composers, because his music is so descriptive. When playing Prokofiev, I often find it helpful to imagine a story, or picture a scene. This concerto is cinematic with dark castles, verdant mountains, and dangers lurking behind the corner! The opening of the first movement is portentous, dark, brooding—the solo violin begins alone, and the theme has a structure of 5/4 superimposed over the movement’s 4/4 meter. The 5/4 meter returns at the frenzied end of the concerto, but here at the beginning, there is a sense of mystery and foreboding. It’s followed by joyful, fast passagework and a lyrical, achingly beautiful second theme.
Parts of this piece sound like some sort of dangerous sorcery or witchcraft is afoot! It’s the kind of eerie feeling that Berlioz first put into music in the “witches sabbath” movement of Symphonie Fantastique. While something frightening is happening, it is told in the context of a fairy tale (in Berlioz’s case, the whole witches sabbath is a dream). Rather than being truly scary, it is a spookiness that is enjoyable and fun—Prokofiev captures this mood so well that it is not surprising that John Williams, when writing the theme to Harry Potter, wrote it in the same key, and used the same pitches, as the opening of this concerto!
In the German tradition (from Haydn to Beethoven to Brahms) the narrative is usually driven by the tension and release of the harmonies, which always have a functional relationship to each other, in terms of how one chord resolves into the next.
[Klaus Mäkelä] quickly solved the puzzles and untangled the knots of the Prokofiev in a way that felt quite effortless. He not only has a great musical mind, he also conducts as though he is playing with us.
Debussy was the first to experiment with a totally different approach to harmony—where harmonies are used for their color, the way the chords make us feel. We move from harmony to harmony, sensually enjoying each one, and it is not that important how exactly they are related to each other. Prokofiev takes this idea even further—there are many passages (particularly the “creepy”-sounding parts of the concerto) where rows of chords are assembled just for the effect, but where there is no particular reason or logic to why he chose those exact notes—even if most of the notes were changed but all the details of rhythm, articulation and orchestration stayed the same, the musical meaning of these passages would not change substantially.
This is why I find Prokofiev’s music to be among the hardest to memorize—while the themes are extremely lyrical and memorable, the passagework is sometimes a thicket of notes. In Bartók’s music, there is usually a strong logic and every note is in the only place it could be. With Prokofiev, I have to almost make up my own logic as I memorize it!
But this is also what makes his music unique—there are many surprising moments because things don’t happen according to the “rules.” The tale that he is spinning is full of plot twists.
I like to test my memorization of a work like this by slowly playing the violin line with my right hand on the piano. Since I’m using my right hand, I can’t really access the subconscious muscle memory of my violin-playing left hand, and will be able to only access my “conscious” memory of it, and will get stuck in places where this memory is not solid enough. With this technique I become easily aware of places where I need to solidify my memorization of the piece.
When I do this, I always become aware that Prokofiev was a pianist and not a violinist—many passages lie quite well on the piano, while on the violin they are knuckle-busters! His approach to articulation is often very percussive, and thus kind of pianistic, too. He wrote well for the violin in the most important way of all—he knew that the greatest strength of the violin is its singing quality, and the lyrical themes that are found in the concerto are a joy to play.
I spend so much time in my life traveling, planning and practicing, but the moment when I walk onstage is when everything comes together and makes it all worth it. I can immerse myself in a piece of music and forget everything else! Even after years of performing, stepping on a stage in front of thousands of people is always an intense experience. Each of the concert halls I played over the past four weeks was quite different—whereas the Royal Festival Hall in London and David Geffen Hall in New York are large halls whose crowds look enormous from the stage, Severance Hall in Cleveland is a hall that feels more intimate, with a wonderful sense of closeness to the audience. It is not very deep or wide and the sound is warm and resonant. Although I perform on a beautiful (and on loan) 1723 Stradivari violin, I think of the hall as a second instrument, and the two need to work together in order for my sound to reach its full potential.
Over the next week, I will be spending time with my family before traveling again, to concerts in Seattle, Hamburg, Nagoya, Tokyo and Copenhagen!