The Galveston Symphony Orchestra’s next concert features Music Director Trond Saeverud as both conductor and violinist. He talked about the program.
Q: The program is in two parts: “Violin Favorites,” featuring you as the violinist, and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Let’s talk about the violin pieces first. Chausson’s “Poeme” for violin and orchestra is such a beautiful piece. Oddly, Chausson is not that well known in this country — perhaps because he died early in a bicycle accident. What makes this piece great to you?
A: In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful pieces every written for the violin — almost heart-wrenchingly passionate, with the soaring solo violin suspended over mysterious and darker shades in the orchestra. Intense, virtuosic, sensuous — even sultry — it has got it all.
Q: Bloch’s “Nigun” is from a period in which he left Europe, came to the United States and then explored what he called the “complex, glowing, agitated Jewish soul I feel vibrating through the Bible.” His idea was to find a connection to the divine or the sublime through music. Do you think that’s possible? Why did you choose this piece?
A: Yes, Bloch did make several such statements — but I must admit I also understood them as celebrations of the expressive power and intense emotion he found in his favorite Bible passages. I believe he saw his connection to his Jewish heritage in a cultural (artistic) light as much as in a strictly religious one, combining both to make incredibly expressive and deeply devotional music.
As a kid, this was my first real favorite composition for the violin. Having both my father and grandfather as composers, it was natural that I wanted to try, and Bloch’s “Nigun” was the piece I held up as the “ideal” — the kind of piece I wanted to try to write. It was very surprising for me now to read articles in this country referring to this as a “sad” piece. I never though of it that way. For me it was fascinating, mysterious, exciting — with intense passion and drama that just made it deeply satisfying.
Q: “Tzigane” is one of Maurice Ravel’s popular pieces. It was commissioned by a violinist for violin and piano, and Ravel, arguably the great orchestrator, soon orchestrated it. All the great violinists seem to love this energetic piece. Why?
A: Most violinists are excited by the opening solo cadenza. Almost a hundred years later, it is still crazy — powerful and intense, with room for a wide range of personal emotions, making it a popular vehicle for showing off the performer’s emotional “prowess.” But, as a student, I was lucky to have a few lessons on this piece with Henryk Szeryng, who warned against going too wild and suggested following Ravel’s rhythm more strictly. Either way, it is quite a ride.
Q: Saint-Saens’s “Havanaise for Violin and Orchestra” is often included in recordings that feature pieces for violin and orchestra. Were you tempted to include it? Is it a possibility for a future season?
A: Yes, that is also a beautiful piece — and is certainly high on the list for future programs.
Q: What about the challenges of conducting while performing? Do pianists have an easier time of it? Is it easier to keep an eye on the orchestra from a keyboard?
A: Yes, it is challenging to combine the roles. And, yes, nowadays it seems to happen more often from the keyboard. One reason is that the keyboard is stationary and doesn’t turn with the performer. It also helps that the pianist is already sitting sideways, thus “halfway” toward the orchestra. The violinist, on the other hand, needs to face the audience for the violin to carry the sound toward the hall. When addressing the orchestra, he or she must turn away from the audience — and the violin follows that turn and looses dynamic power in the room. The only option is often to lead without facing the orchestra — by gestures and no eye contact.
Q: The second part of the program is Mussorgsky’s famous “Pictures at an Exhibition.” This piece started out as a composition for piano, but Ravel got a commission to orchestrate it in 1925. So we see Ravel working his magic again. Why did you choose to pair this work, which began as a piano piece, with “Violin Favorites”?
A: Well, the transition from violin works to the world of piano was actually one of the reasons. Another was the Ravel connection — as I consider Ravel’s orchestration to be almost as important as Mussorgsky’s original. But mostly it was the piece that fit musically: After a first half of shorter solo works, we need something monumental and exciting that showcases the entire orchestra — and I cannot think of a more satisfying ending for our Valentines concert.
Q: I’ve got to ask: Which version of “Pictures” do you like best: the one for solo piano or for orchestra?
A: That’s difficult. Both are so interesting — and they are completely different experiences, even though Ravel was meticulous in following Mussorgsky’s notation.
And, if for orchestra, it must be Ravel’s orchestration. Others actually withdrew theirs once they heard Ravel’s, realizing immediately that this was one of the most marvelous orchestrations ever created.