The Lunch That Launched Stravinsky's Famous Violin Concerto

Jan 12, 2015

Twentieth-century composer Igor Stravinsky was at first reluctant to accept a commission for a violin concerto because he didn’t know the instrument well enough. But as WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, he changed his mind after consulting the intended violinist – who was game to try an unusual approach.  

On Sunday, January 18, 2015 on WRTI, Juliette Kang and The Philadelphia Orchestra play Stravinsky’s violin concerto in a program that also features music by Brahms and Respighi.

Radio script:

Susan Lewis: The story goes that Stravinsky, while lunching with violinist Samuel Dushkin, wrote out a chord on a piece of paper and asked Dushkin if he could play it.  

Juliette Kang: Dushkin said no. I think it was more like 'I’ve never seen anything like that chord. NO.' But then he got home and tried it out, and found it could work. It’s a big reach and its just an unusual interval to play  It’s a little bit hard to pick out in your ear before you play it.

SL: Stravinsky wasn’t aiming for the usual. The same chord starts each of four movements, which then take off in different directions. Kang says in contrast to other works that feature the violin as a solo voice.

Violinist Juliette Kang is the first associate concertmaster of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
Credit Jessica Griffin

JK: This one seems almost like chamber music, with the wind players, with the trumpets, it's so intricately and rhythmically complicated.

SL: The solo violin, says Kang, becomes an unconventional protagonist.

JK: Veering on the side of grotesque, or supremely playful, almost caricatures of the traditional solo hero of the piece. The last movement is a real romp. I think it's a lot of fun, actually. It has all these unexpected accents...They’re tongue in cheek in a way.

SL: Stravinsky’s violin concerto premiered in 1931 with the composer conducting soloist Dushkin. The music was later used by George Balanchine in two ballets.