There has been one concerto that has been there since the beginning – through the good and bad, the great and the ugly. In fact, we have had a relationship for fifteen years at this point. This piece tolerates eccentricities, different venues, extreme climates, particular conductors. Since its premiere in 1845, this stalwart has been a mainstay of the repertoire, and Arthur Grumiaux’s recording was my preferred to blast on my archaic CD player while I followed along with the score. What piece am I referring to?
In 1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his violin virtuoso friend, Ferdinand David: “I should like to write for you a violin concerto this winter. The beginning of one in e minor runs constantly through my thoughts, leaving me no peace.” The beginning has certainly left me busy the last fifteen years. I auditioned for the concertmaster chair of my former youth orchestra with it – a seat I would have for four years (and had quite the learning experience in the process). I auditioned at 15 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the ENCORE School – with the Mendelssohn. Around 17 or 18, I realized just how difficult Op. 64 is, and put it away until 2008. At that point, I had not intended to return to the Mendelssohn, but no less than 3 conductors had asked for it that season – non-negotiable – so I was out of luck. Following stints in California, Texas and Ohio, I decided – not a bad piece, nor a bad idea. Audiences seemed to enjoy it, and (naively) we never needed more than one rehearsal. I told my manager that the 09-10 season should feature the Mendelssohn, and we quickly arranged 15-20 different orchestras with it; the last Mendelssohn of the season was with my dear friend Robert Franz. At the first rehearsal of the season, my brain had a panic attack and started sending messages to my left hand fingers…messages like, “You don’t know how to play in e minor!” “This piece is much more nuanced than you thought!” “How dare you play the Beethoven concerto but abuse ole Felix like this?!” It was at that rehearsal when I began to comprehend the depth, sophistication and architecture of this legendary opus. Fast forward to 2013 – I’m at a more centered, mature place in my life (adulthood, perhaps), appearances with over 120 orchestras under my belt, and yet, when I begin on the second position ‘B’, my pulse raises and I experience tremors. I’m beginning to think that one never “conquers” the Mendelssohn, yet it can certainly reveal and expose flaws, inspiration, and extremes of the same artist at different points in their development. Earlier today, I experienced the same excitement that I felt twenty years ago when hearing the bariolage transition out of the cadenza. This season, I return to the Mendelssohn with a number of different orchestras and conductors, and I can’t wait! Delving into sonatas by Elgar and Ysaye in the same key certainly solidifies violinistic concepts, but it is now Schubert and Chopin that seem to be beckoning musically, whereas before, Mendelssohn seemed to immediately preface the Romantic blockbuster concerti of the 1880’s.
I may feel different in another decade, but for now – come to the concerts and decide for yourselves!