Max Bruch is not exactly one of the Three Bs of classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
“I don’t even know if he’d make a second tier of Three Bs,” says Daniel Mason, concertmaster of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
But Bruch (1838-1920) did write an iconic work: his unique “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor.” This month, Lexington has a chance to hear two live performances of this work.
On Friday night, rising violin star Arnaud Sussmann will perform the piece, which was written in 1866, with conductor Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic. Eight days later, on Feb. 20, international recording star Sarah Chang will play the concerto with conductor John Nardolillo and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. Chang released a recording of the concerto, along with Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto, last year.
To get a little perspective on the piece, I caught up with Mason and his concertmaster counterpart in the UK Symphony, Jessica Miskelly, to talk about the masterwork.
Question: I was looking up the Bruch concerto in iTunes, and there were recordings from Jascha Heifetz to Joshua Bell and everyone in between. Why is it so popular?
Mason: It’s very user-friendly. It’s the kind of piece you can learn for the first time as an advanced student, so for many violinists, it’s one of their early big pieces. That means it’s one of the pieces that tends to be most comfortable for life.
If you set a recipe for a violin concerto, the things that you would want as a violinist are all there in the Bruch concerto. For example, at the beginning of the piece, you don’t have to wait very long to play. When you do play, you play a beautiful, sonorous G-minor melody. It makes it very inviting to play because the sound on the open G-string on the violin is one of the better features of the instrument. So, at the beginning of the piece, it makes you as a player say, “Oh! Nice sound.” …
So you do that thing a little bit, and it lets you warm up and settle down, and then, bit by bit, are layered more demanding things which are written to show off the skill of the player, but not written in a way to be more difficult than they sound. …
It’s interesting that a composer such as Bruch, who is not one of the Three Bs, was able to pack so many good musical ideas into this one piece. If he had spread them out over several pieces, he would be a good composer of that rank. But because he was able to concentrate all those good ideas in one piece, that piece really makes the reputation of the composer. … You wonder, was this person always working below that level, or was he just working way above his level? How did that happen, that one real stroke of genius?
Miskelly: I can still remember the first time that I ever heard the piece. We were driving along in my parents’ car, and it came on halfway through the first movement, and then it went into that gorgeous second movement, and it gripped me. I probably had my mouth open the whole time. And I think it is for that second movement that violinists and audiences keep coming back to it over and over again. The melodic line, I can’t get over. He just wrote a really inspirational piece that I think speaks to many people.
Q: Both of you have played it as soloists. What is it like to play?
Mason: Everybody has recorded it. So the challenge is to play how you as an artist want to present it. Since we were very young, we have heard it over and over again. I am sure I have heard more different violinists’ performances and recordings of that concerto than (of) any other concerto. So to be able to put yourself in a hermetically sealed self and figure out how exactly you want to do it is a challenge.
Q: What are the challenges for the orchestra in playing this piece?
Mason: It’s arguable that there is a passage in the first violin part in the accompaniment by the orchestra which is more technically demanding than anything in the violin solo part.
Being too loud is probably the biggest challenge, both in the melodic sections of the first movement and (in) the second movement. It has this warm, glowing quality about it, because a lot of time the violinist is playing on the middle two strings of the instrument, and the middle two strings are where the projection is more difficult. So the orchestra has to be sensitive to when the violinist is in that range.
Miskelly: The hard part can be to remember that you’re not the soloist, because you can get so into the melodies you can revert into, “This is the Bruch, and I’m the one playing it,” even though you’re really not.
Another thing is being distracted and watching the soloist instead of watching the conductor. That can be slightly challenging for a student orchestra that is excited to have a great soloist here.
Q: For music lovers in town, what kind of opportunity is this to hear an iconic piece like this live, twice, in such quick succession?
Mason: It’s often the case with very, very popular pieces: You don’t get a chance to hear them often. It sounds like a contradiction, but often with soloists coming through with the Lexington Philharmonic over the years, they’ll say, “What about Bruch? Oh, everybody knows Bruch. We should do something less familiar.” So to have two orchestras agree to do a piece that many think is possibly overexposed is unusual.
To find two world-class performances of it in a span of eight days in a relatively small city is probably unique in the country this year.