I wanted to pay a special tribute to the great American composer William Schuman (1910-1992), whose birthday is today.
Writing in Washington Post in 1992, the critic Joseph D. McLellan asserted that although Schuman never achieved the name recognition of his colleagues Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, he "probably had a stronger and more durable effect on American musical life." (Source: The New York Times.)
Sometime in early 2000s when I was still a student at the Juilliard School, I was asked to step in on a short notice for a performance of Schuman’s Violin Concerto with the Mexico City Philharmonic and Maestro Jorge Mester.
I immediately accepted, believing that it was Schuman with two "nn's," aka Sir Robert. To my great surprise, when the music arrived, I discovered on the cover the name of "William Schuman." I thought there must have been a mistake.
Upon opening the parcel with the music, I was rather shaken to realize that there was a very complex contemporary score in front of me, something I barely had any experience with at the time, growing up on mostly Romantic repertoire. Nevertheless, as I had already agreed to perform it, I decided that this was a good challenge and embarked on a grueling schedule of learning the new piece, practicing about nine hours every day. Or at least that's what it felt like!
Fast-forward: four weeks later, onstage in Mexico City: I must confess, it was not love at first sight. I did not quite love the music and did not feel that I built a good relationship with the work.
A few months later - another offer came: to make a debut recording with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that would feature this Concerto for Naxos’s American Classics Series. I was disappointed, as I had always imagined my debut recording to be of the Romantic violin concertos I grew up with - Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch. But after some contemplation, I felt that perhaps this could be an interesting and different recording path.
It was during those recording sessions when I started to realize what a monumental work this Concerto is and how brilliantly it is orchestrated. Cleverly interwoven melodic lines strongly lie on harmonic foundation with a very challenging and virtuosic violin part. Perhaps Isaac Stern had something to do with that, as he was the work's first performer with Charles Munch conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra:
"William Schuman's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, a sincere, moving, original work, received its first New York performance last night at Carnegie Hall at the hands of those who offered its premiere recently in Boston - the soloist Isaac Stern and the Boston Symphony, under Charles Munch."
- New York Times, March 16, 1950
Even though the Concerto perhaps is still rather underrated, it remains one of the great American Violin Concertos. It is an absolute master piece that I love to perform. Have you heard William Schuman’s music? Do you know his Violin Concerto? Here is my recording, please enjoy!
"William Schuman was a very special, as a composer, educator, administrator and cultural advocate. He was also a person of great wisdom, charm and wit. A truly special human being."
- Morton Gould
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