I remember at the age of eight, waiting for a lesson outside my teacher Ms. DeLay’s studio, repeating the opening of the Beethoven Violin Concerto over and over until I felt I could get deeply into the mood of it. Concentrating on just the opening lines, I believed I could play the whole piece in the same stream of inspiration, if I could truly feel Beethoven’s soul. I’m still the same way today, but only perhaps more aware of complexity. Still, often it’s the pure sound of a piece that for me is a gateway to the music, the sound that speaks like the music’s voice; or it’s the rubbing of sounds together, or the way the turn of a phrase is shaped that seems to encapsulate the fingerprint of the piece. And from there, by fitting into its place each phrase of the work, by following and attempting to solve the complex puzzle of its own logic, a singular relationship develops.
My relationship with a concerto, whether a work I’ve played many times (where much of the groundwork has already been laid) or a new one, is an ever-evolving process of wrestling with it layer by layer — among many other aspects, the shaping of each phrase, the delineation of character, the building of climaxes. Preparation is a process of ingestion and digestion, of gaining clarity and access to the essence of the music. The goal of all this is freedom onstage — freedom to be in dialogue with the orchestra and conductor, and to make decisions in the moment. And above all, to bring it closer to the original moment it was conceived, fresh out of the mind of the composer.
This past spring, as I prepared for my return to the Buffalo Philharmonic in May, delving back into Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 was a pure joy. Arrestingly beautiful, lush, and gently ethereal, this concerto’s allure for me is the completeness of the world Prokofiev has created. Many times during my practice, I felt the compulsion to start it again as soon as I finished, like the desire to stay on a ferris wheel or turn the lever of a music box to keep the music going. Some music is interested in what is beyond, while other music is interested in the memory of the past; this work is about what is just ahead. Prokofiev creates a sort of hovering consciousness: you know the heights and depths of the landscape because, as you gently climb and swoop, he unveils it right in front of you. The telling of the tale is speaking the music into being, as if a gentle wizard is showing you the mountain vistas, the colors of the vast sky, and the birds, but only what is just ahead of you — there may be unknown creatures in the forest lurking around the corner. In the biting middle Scherzo movement, a gnome clown suddenly comes out for a virtuosic solo show that is alternately whimsical and grotesque. Prokofiev structures the experience as an episodic journey: each section leads to a new place, texture, color, dance, or a quickening or slackening of pulse, as if you’re going through a series of doors, one leading to the next; yet in another feat of magic, the final destination is the opening melody, which closes both the first movement and the entire concerto. At times, if you look closely, you can recognize the material it is made out of, notice the seams of its construction and realize that it was almost too well constructed. As the opening melody runs its course through the last movement, with its richly exotic harmonies, spices, and perfume, the powerful spell expires. The music comes to stillness slowly, with the gentleness of Shakespeare’s Prospero saying goodbye.
The opening melody, marked sognando (“dreamily”), is unforgettable; it has an enchanting, peaceful quality that immediately lures in the listener. Yet it was conceiving of the concerto as a fairy tale, an unreal reality spun out of air and spoken by a storyteller, that unlocked the key to this piece for me. What I mean by a key is a way inside the piece, which erases the distance between your observation of it and your stepping inside it with a full knowledge of its intricacies. In the case of the Prokofiev, the elusive key was quite literally a key to unlocking a magical world. Yet there is no repeatable key that I’ve found. Each piece has its quirks, points that reveal its character, its exclusive challenges.
Two weeks after my Prokofiev Concerto performances, I was on tour in China playing an avalanche of new music, with stops at the Beijing Modern Music Festival, Tianjin Conservatory May Festival, and Shenyang Conservatory of Music. I performed seven new works for violin with the Asia/America New Music Institute, a non-profit that promotes cross-cultural understanding between Asia and the Americas by commissioning a group of young composers and presenting their works at partner festivals. (Incidentally, Prokofiev wrote his First Violin Concerto in his mid to late twenties, which was close to the average age of the composers.) The works, each about six minutes long, were written as recently as a month and a half earlier. Following a week of rehearsals with the ensemble in New York, and working directly with the composers in person, by email, and by Skype, I boarded a plane to Beijing and went straight to dress rehearsal from the airport for the first concert that evening. With new music, I believe the idea of each piece’s essence is best even slightly exaggerated, so that the audience can hear a distinctive take on a first listening. The aim was to get a foothold into the dramatic freedom of Sunyoung Park’s Annex, the vivacious dynamism of Shaosheng Li’s LingHu and Far Away, the lyrical searching of Matthew Aucoin’s Sprich auch du (from the Celan Fragments), the wild energy of Sayo Kosugi’s Delirious Distortion, the baroque lilting of George Holloway’s Dances in Time and Vertical Space, and the mystical expressiveness of Xiaogang Ye’s Lamura Cuo, which we performed to very warm audiences. Whether in standard repertoire or new, the search for a unique path into the music remains.
Rachel Lee Priday