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Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35
Concertos

Concertos

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In March of 1878, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky began working on his violin concerto in Clarens, Switzerland, finishing the initial sketches soon after. But the story of this concerto is much longer.After a three-month marriage to Antonina Milyukova and a failed suicide attempt, Tchaikovsky finished work on his famous Fourth Symphony in January, and his masterpiece opera Eugene Onegin in February. In March, he moved to Clarens where he was visited by his friend Yosif Kotek. After playing through Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with Kotek, Tchaikovsky was inspired to write his first—and as it turned out, only—violin concerto.The two of them played through the concerto, but Kotek felt the second movement was a little weak. Tchaikovsky then wrote a new slow movement and recycled his previous version in his Souvenir d’un lieu cher for violin and piano.From the start, Tchaikovsky had intended this concerto for the concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg, Leopold Auer. Although Auer was a champion of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works, after seeing the concerto for the first time Auer declared it “unplayable.” Gradually, though, Auer warmed to the concerto and taught it to his students.The work premiered three years later in Vienna, with violinist Adolf Brodsky, conductor Hans Richter, and the Vienna Philharmonic. Although Brodsky was prepared, the orchestra was not. It ended up playing everything pianissimo. This soft performance led to an infamous review by prominent critic Eduard Hanslick, who said, “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for the first time confronts us with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.”Despite numerous setbacks, the concerto was ultimately destined for fame. The introduction of the first movement is a unison statement of a melody by the violins that does not return, as if Tchaikovsky is teasing the listeners but also preparing them for what is to come.The soloist’s first entrance interrupts with a short, virtuosic cadenza that morphs into the beautiful first theme. Tchaikovsky encapsulates the first movement within these opening ideas: gorgeous melodies followed by virtuosic statements that transition back into melodies.The second movement, a canzonetta (usually a short vocal work), is introduced by a woodwind chorale before the entrance of the violin with a soulful melody in G minor. The listener is then jolted out of the peaceful reverie with an attacca subito (attack at once) into the third movement.The Russian influences in this movement are particularly prominent, especially in the slower theme—an accompaniment figure in the cellos that resembles a drone while the solo plays a folk-like melody on top. Poco a poco, the tempo picks up until we return to the main theme. Finally, a short but virtuosic cadenza leads us back to the main theme again faster than ever, culminating in a grandiose finish.Now, over 140 years later, enjoy the performance of this timeless classic by rising star Catherine Zhang, Russian-trained conductor Milen Nachev, and the entire Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra.