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.
[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.