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The Concerto that Changed Everything for Violinists


Tchaikovsky wrote his violin concerto in 1878, but his friends and family were critical and he didn’t find a violinist to premiere it for over three years. Now, according to Gil Shaham, the concerto is one of the most frequently performed concertos in the repertoire.

You can hear Gil Shaham perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra on WRTI 90.1, Sunday, October 31st at 1 PM, and on WRTI HD-2, Monday, November 1st at 7 PM.

WRTI's Susan Lewis interviews Gil Shaham backstage at Verizon Hall.

Radio script:

[Music: a violin line from Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto]

Susan Lewis: That’s violinist Gil Shaham. 

Gil Shaham: And you want it to resolve...

SL: He's talking about the suspense in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. 

GS: And then we finally achieve A Major and the orchestra plays the tune: dum dum.

[Music: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, Isaac Stern,]

SL: Shaham has loved this music since he was a child.

I think this piece qualifies as being iconic. I know that's a term that people overuse. But writing for the violin before Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, or after, there's a clear point of demarcation. Here is where things change. —Gil Shaham

GS: I had a recording of The Philadelphia Orchestra with Isaac Stern playing the solo part and I used to listen to that part over and over...

SL: Shaham says Tchaikovsky’s mastery of music was encyclopedic; he referenced and built on other composers.

GS: A melody like [Henryk] Wieniawski’s second violin concerto was very popular in the day.  Might be mentioned in [PLAYS]. He was clearly a composer who studied many violin concertos, who was so fluent with them.  

SL: But back in 1878, violinist Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky first dedicated it,  judged it unplayable. When Adolph Brodsky premiered it in 1881, a prominent critic panned it as music that “stinks to the ear.”  Why the rocky reception?

GS: I think, for Tchaikovsky, the expression and the emotion of the music was just on a different level of anything that was written before. He really felt that music can take you to all extremes of emotion. He was out there to push the limits. 

SL: The concerto soon not only survived, but thrived, eventually championed by Auer himself, as well as Jascha Heifetz, Efrem Zimbalist and today’s virtuosos, including Gil Shaham. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.