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Violin concertos: All the music that fits

July 25, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Composers

Over the next two weeks, Hollywood Bowl audiences will get a chance to hear what amounts to the heart of the 19th century violin repertoire – concertos by Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Seven artists spoke to me for a Sunday Calendar report about these works, as well as Barber’s Violin Concerto, a 20th century American classic. Here’s a bit more from my interviews.

“Generally speaking, there’s a formula that people have decided works,” violinist James Ehnes said, regarding classical music programming. “It’s your overture, concerto and symphony.”

“Elgar’s Violin Concerto is hard to program,” said Bramwell Tovey, principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. “It’s a quintessentially English, full-blooded Romantic piece that people are coming around to view as a superior work to his Cello Concerto.”

But it’s also about 10 to 15 minutes longer than the Brahms' Violin Concerto. “That’s a problem,” Tovey said. “By the time you’ve finished the overture and concerto, it’s already 9:20. So what do you program for the second half?”

And sometimes difficulty trumps length as a major impediment to getting a worthy concerto before an audience. Mastering the tricky rhythms in William Walton’s Violin Concerto, for example, demands a lot of orchestra rehearsal time. “The parts are hard individually, and they’re hard to play together,” said Ehnes, whose recording with Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony (including the Barber and Korngold Concertos), won a Grammy last year.

Fear of the new, or not so new, may also be a problem. According to Tovey, many concert promoters are still “scared to death” of Schoenberg.

Then there’s the question of how a concerto sends an audience home. Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony, loves Bruch’s “Serenade, for Violin and Orchestra,” but there’s a snag. “It’s an extraordinary piece,” he said. “But perhaps because it ends softly, nobody does it.”

Read the rest of the report on violin concertos here.

-- Rick Schultz

Images: Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

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