In Defense of Violin Music

Times have changed for violinists. For generations, typical violin recital programs were like variety shows. Most often, the formula was to start with a baroque or classical sonata, followed by a large-scale romantic work (sometimes even a concerto with piano accompaniment), and to finish with a collection of shorter works -- true "violin" pieces. Alongside concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, violinists played virtuoso works by Paganini, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, and Lalo. George Bernard Shaw (writing under the pseudonym of Corno Di Bassetto) once wrote of the difference between great composers of music for the violin and composers of great violin music. It was this ''great violin music" that was, for so many years, the dessert at the end of the violin recital meal and a welcome and regular feature of orchestral programs.

Things are different today. Despite their continued popularity with players and audiences alike, many of the great 19th century virtuoso concertos, former cornerstones of the repertoire, have been banished to obscurity or near-obscurity, receiving only the occasional performance, usually by young performers, for whom such transgressions are considered forgivable by the press and the "cultural elite". Recital programs, particularly in the biggest musical centers, have become quite serious affairs, practically guaranteed to consist of large, "important" sonatas, with the occasional world-premiere or avant-garde work thrown in the mix (I don't pine for the days of hearing concertos with piano accompaniment -- that is a tradition that rightfully belongs in history's scrap heap, in my opinion).

The violin literature is, of course, blessed with a tremendous number of works by history's greatest and most profound composers. But it is also blessed with a bountiful quantity of the finest "lighter fare." So what has happened to the Wieniawski, the Sarasate, the Paganini, the Kreisler? We hear this music in our conservatories, but all too rarely on the concert circuit, despite the fact that this is the music to which many concertgoers respond most warmly and enthusiastically. It is also worth pointing out that this kind of music often most clearly reveals the personality of the performer. It is my opinion that when one plays Beethoven or Brahms, it should sound like Beethoven or Brahms ("Beethoven Concerto, as interpreted by violinist X''). However, with this great virtuoso music the performer can, and perhaps should, impose somewhat more of himself or herself on the performance ("violinist X plays Wieniawski's Polonaise in D''). Food for thought, considering that a common (if bizarre and of questionable veracity) lament of music critics today is that performers have lost their individuality.

In 2008 I performed Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen, a piece familiar and beloved to music lovers everywhere, with the New York Philharmonic. It was the New York Philharmonic's first performance of the piece since 1968. How many pieces of music had the New York Philharmonic played in those 40 years? And how many times in those 40 years had Ziguenerweisen been heard across the street at The Juilliard School?

Last year, at the request of the conductor Charles Dutoit, I played Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, one of my favorite pieces, with the San Francisco Symphony, where it had not been played in a generation. Consider the review it received in the San Francisco Chronicle:

The 'Symphonie espagnole,' Edouard Lalo's broad but tissue-thin 1874 concerto for violin and orchestra, is one of those pieces that gets pulled out of mothballs periodically just to see whether it's acquired any new substance or appeal in the interim... endless streams of light-footed banalities that would not be out of place (or even noticeable) in a candle-lit cafe. The poverty of Lalo's harmonic palette -- he seems to have only a few basic tonalities at his disposal, and clings to them relentlessly...

There is a double-standard in the music world when Liszt's E-flat piano concerto is played regularly but Wieniawski's D-minor violin concerto is not; where Bellini and Donizetti are heard year after year at the Metropolitan Opera but Sarasate's Ziguenerweisen is not heard next door at the New York Philharmonic for 40 years.

Why has this happened? Violinists themselves are surely at least partially to blame. This music is hard, and in an age when heavily edited recordings are accepted as "live" and technical wunderkinds are sprouting up left and right, the very real danger that a technical infelicity on a bad night might end up living on forever on YouTube probably plays a part in convincing many established virtuosi that a technically dangerous showpiece isn't worth the risk. But I also feel that a musical snobbism has crept into world of music journalism. Music that has been beloved by players and audiences for generations is now being denied its place in the repertoire because it does not fit the within the narrative of "important" music.

It is time for a true revival of this wonderful genre of violin music -- time for violinists to return to the days of living dangerously, and time for critics and concert presenters to accept that music doesn't have to be by Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms to be worthwhile and enjoyable.