I will say another word for the choicest ears: what I really want from music is that it be cheerful and profound, like an afternoon in October. “” friedrich nietzsche, Ecce Homo
my favourite piece of music in all of that blessed month will be a part of the finale to the TSO’s 18/19 season: sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D Minor. so daunting is this composition for the soloist that new vernacular is constantly evolving to describe the caliber of violinists able to pull it off. for example, hilary hahn’s performance of the Concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France a couple weeks ago has earned her the coveted status of ‘Ling Ling’ amongst Youtube’s classical music community. allegedly able to practise 40 hours a day, Ling Ling is a fictional character invented by the sensational Youtube classical music duo called TwoSetViolin, and has been exaggerated on Urban Dictionary as the “kid who learned all Paganini caprices when he/she was 1 and can play them while being upside down and while improvising jazz on every instrument and while performing cardiac surgery”. watching her performance got me even more excited to see our concertmaster, jonathan crow, take on the same task alongside incoming music director gustavo gimeno. with his consistent exactitude as principal violinist--especially in a season replete with guest conductors with contrasting styles--crow has been, in his own way, Ling Ling. it is a very befitting acknowledgement of the dynamics of his role as concertmaster this season that he is stepping out of the orchestra to perform as soloist for the last production of what has been an exhilarating season.
i had the pleasure of talking with the concertmaster yesterday about his preparations for the program on June 28th, especially as relates to the sibelius Concerto. the program also includes prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 and stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird and runs from june 28th to 30th.
(interview with jonathan crow)
this Concerto is certainly one of the more challenging pieces in the repertoire for violinists, when what the first time you performed it with an orchestra?
That’s a really interesting question: I first played it as a student when I was 15, though not with an orchestra. I actually hadn’t played it with an orchestra until this year, it’s one of those things that’s such a difficult piece to fit together and to conduct and to play that whenever I got asked to play it I’d always ask if we can do Tchaikovsky instead or Mendelsohn or something that I knew better. All this time went by and it’s like oh my gosh I’m 40 and I’ve never actually performed this Sibelius Concerto, though it’s one of my favourite pieces.
was that first performance with the Georgioan Bay Symphony?
The first I actually did it was with the Etobicoke Philharmonic in October.
over the years since you first played it, how has the piece acquired personal significance to you as a violinist but also as a music lover in general?
In an interesting way this is the one piece that I’ve taught the most because it’s such a great piece for students to work on just because of the sound and the idea of the long lines and what you’re trying to create with it. I’ve played it as a member of the orchestra as well, maybe one of the most frequent Concertos that I’ve done in the orchestra. It has such an interesting backstory behind it, the idea that Sibelius himself was a violinist and he wanted so badly to play his own concerto but no one would let him because he wasn’t quite good enough. You can imagine this composer writing this piece--in my opinion his best piece--the love of his life, and then heavily revising it. There’s a lot of pressure to do what Sibelius would have wanted, you can just imagine him over your shoulder saying “No no I don’t want it that way!” and wishing he could do it himself.
It’s such an amazing sound that comes out, such an unusual sounding Concerto compared to one by Mendelsohn, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and stuff life that. I think there’s so much to it that you can sink your teeth into in the world of colour and sound that it’s a great piece to teach and to play in the orchestra. I’m glad that I did it so many times before performing the solo part, I think I know the piece better than any other Concerto, and I think I know all the inner workings of it a little bit more.
how does the TSO’s approach to it compare to other orchestras that you’ve played this piece in?
I think it’s just a learning curve. When you think of the TSO, the orchestra’s probably played that piece a hundred times, everybody in the orchestra has played it multiple dozens of times. Everybody from the very beginning just knowing where everything should go...it just starts at a level where everybody’s played it before. Whereas playing it with the Etobicoke Philharmonic or a smaller ensemble, it’s kind of amazing to play the piece together for the first time with a lot of people who haven’t necessarily played it and getting to see everybody’s joy in how amazing that is.
do you have a favourite performance of the piece by a violinist
I don’t know whether it’s the best one out there but when I was growing up I always loved the Heifetz recording, just so amazing. I think I probably listened to the beginning over and over, just the sound that he created was kind of incredible. It’s Heifetz, so everything he does sounds like Heifetz in a certain way. But when that works it does really really work. That very first note with the sound that he’s making you can imagine that close up it almost sounds like metal...it’s so incredibly intense. That’s hard to get across on a recording, I think with a lot of the recordings of violinist that I love, I feel somehow I’ve lost something that’s kind of softened compared to a live performance. The thing I loved about the Heifetz--and that’s probably because he put the mic probably two inches from his bridge--was the intensity that comes across from the recording, so great.
you worked briefly with yehudi menuhin, was this a piece that you ever talked about?
Sadly no! It never came up, we did two pieces together, the Tchaikovsky Concerto and Bach E Major. So we talked at length about Tchaikovsky. I learned so much from him, mainly that he’s an immortal violinist and I’m not. I remember rehearsing with him and playing Tchaikovsky as a 17 year old in his hotel room, and him saying ‘Okay, that’s great, so now let’s work through the piece.” So we went through the piece and he made all these suggestions and it took me a while to realize that he wanted me to change all these things for the next day...and I’m like...I don’t know if I can do that. But for him he could. So without working on Sibelius, what I still learned from him was the flexibility necessary when you’re performing. I think that applies to any Concerto, the idea that you should never be locked into only one way of doing something, because every concert is different, everyone you’re working with is different.
shifting gears a bit, as this season is coming to a close what have been some of the challenges of going without a permanent musical director/conductor. how does that change your role as Concertmaster.
One of the exciting things about not having a permanent conductor who’s there 10 or 15 weeks a year is that you get a lot of variety, a lot of flexibility demanded from the orchestra by way of interpretation. Every week you’ll get a guest conductor who wants something slightly different. We of course had Sir Andrew Davis as our regular Artistic Advisor and that’s been wonderful, but it’s still only five weeks as opposed to thirteen. So as Concertmaster there’s definitely a little bit more responsibility to make sure that there’s a consistent way of attack and that we still remain true to the way that we want to do things as a symphony. There’s a certain style that every orchestra has and obviously you want to be flexible to a guest conductor, but you have to make sure you don’t lose what makes the TSO the TSO. So without the coach--which the conductor is--kind of overseeing things on a regular basis, it maybe falls to the Concertmaster and to other section principals to make sure that we keep our levels consistently high.
what are you looking forward to the most next year? have you had an opportunity to work with conductor gimeno? what are your impressions of him so far?
We only did the one concert, the Dvorak Cello Concerto and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony last year, it was an amazing concert. The thing that I love about him, which makes sense based on his background, is that he seems to have a really instinctive knowledge of what we needed as musicians to feel great at the concert. It’s a nerve-wrecking thing to perform in public, and there’s a certain kind of comfort zone that you want to have with the music and with the hard things, so that you can go in and you’re like “No, we know this is going to be okay.” And the way he rehearsed, we got to the concert and we all felt “great, we got this.” We felt like we know what we needed to do to sound good and that we’ve had enough time. It’s a very hard thing to plan, there’s strict time-limitations and you need to be very efficient, there’s a lot to get through. The most amazing thing about him for me in this whole process was that he knew exactly what we needed to do, how long to spend on something and when to let something go and when to work on something more. He puts everybody in a position where they feel great and they can do their absolute best to perform at the top of their ability.
how was it working with jan lisiecki?
Jan’s always amazing, every time he comes back he gets better. That’s a nice thing to see, that doesn’t always happen with the prodigy type. Some people do really continue to improve, but everytime he comes back his sound is more complicated and nuanced. He’s always been technically superb, but every time he comes back he’s got something more to say and that’s an amazing thing. It’s what we need, especially for those coming to see us: if you’re thinking it’s going to be exactly the same as last time, then why go to the concert? With him you know you’re going to get something different, that he’s grown as an artist and as a performer.
the Toronto Summer Music Festival begins july 11th and you wrap up the sibelius/Firebird concert at the end of june, how are you able to maintain this pace?
It’s sounds somewhat banal, but I never could have done what I do now in the days before cell phones and emails and Icalendars. On a plane flight I can get so much work done, which means that as long as I’m kind of thinking ahead and quite efficient with what I do a lot of my planning, especially for TSM, can be done in advance. Having said that, I’ve got an amazing administrative team at TSM, they’re incredible so I don’t have to do that much of the general day-to-day stuff. It’s more of the thought process of how to keep everything going at once, I can’t just focus on the Sibelius for the next couple weeks and then suddenly shift to learning my other pieces. For example this morning before we talked, I was going through my forScore app and setting up music for TSM, making sure all my parts are set-up for a concert that’s in about a month. That’s kind of how I keep things going, so I don’t get there and get stressed out last minute because I haven’t done things. It’s a little bit of what I was saying about Gimeno, I need to figure out how to make sure that I put myself in a situation where I feel comfortable with what I’m going to do, and for me that has to do with being as efficient and as ahead of the game as much as possible.
any non-musical plans for the summer?
Yes actually, last summer right after the TSO ended I went off to the festival for five weeks straight and it was a little bit too much. So this summer I’m putting my violin away and going on an East Coast road-trip with my family. We’re going to Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Saint Pierre and Miquelon. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for several years.
many many thanks to jonathan crow for his time; toi toi toi!