In tribute to the composer William Schuman and his violin concerto

August 4, 2022, 6:22 p.m. · I wanted to pay a special tribute to the great American composer William Schuman (1910-1992), whose birthday is today.

Writing in the Washington Post in 1992, critic Joseph D. McLellan claimed that although Schuman never achieved name recognition from his colleagues Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he “probably had a stronger and more lasting effect on American musical life”. (Source: The New York Times.)

In the early 2000s, when I was still a student at the Juilliard School, I was asked to intervene on a short-term basis for a performance of Schuman’s Violin Concerto with the Mexico City Philharmonic Orchestra and Maestro Jorge Mester .

I immediately accepted, believing it was Schuman with two “nn”, alias Sir Robert. To my great surprise, when the music came on, I discovered the name “William Schuman” on the cover. I thought there must be a mistake.

LR: Composer William Schumann; conductor Jorge Mester and violinist Philippe Quint.

Upon opening the package with the music, I was rather shaken to realize that there was a very complex contemporary score in front of me, something I had virtually no experience with at the time, having grown up on a repertoire mainly romantic. Nevertheless, as I had already agreed to perform it, I decided it was a good challenge and embarked on a grueling schedule of learning the new piece, practicing about nine hours a day. Or at least that’s how I felt!

Fast forward: four weeks later, on stage in Mexico City: I have to admit, it wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t like the music too much and didn’t feel like I had built a good relationship with the work.

A few months later, another offer came: to make a first recording with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra which would feature this Concerto for Naxos’ American Classics series. I was disappointed, because I had always imagined that my first recording would be of the romantic violin concertos I had grown up with – Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch. But after some thinking, I felt that maybe it could be an interesting and different way of recording.

It was during these recording sessions that I began to realize how monumental this Concerto is and how brilliantly orchestrated it is. Skillfully intertwined melodic lines sit strongly on a harmonic foundation with a very stimulating and virtuosic violin part. Isaac Stern may have something to do with this, as he was the first performer of the work with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

“William Schuman’s Violin Concerto, a heartfelt, moving and original work, received its New York premiere last night at Carnegie Hall from those who recently premiered it in Boston – soloist Isaac Stern and the Boston Symphony, under Charles Munch.”
– New York Times, March 16, 1950

Although the Concerto may still be quite underrated, it remains one of America’s great violin concertos. It’s an absolute masterpiece that I love to play. Have you heard the music of William Schuman? Do you know his Violin Concerto? Here is my recording, enjoy!

“William Schuman was someone very special, as a composer, educator, administrator and defender of culture. He was also a person of great wisdom, charm and wit. A truly special human being. “
-Morton Gould

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