Defining 'Virtuosic': Exploring a Controversial Adjective

June 12, 2017, 5:17 PM · I recently had the opportunity to attend and perform in a recital for winners of a scholarship program in my small hometown. The scholarship is only offered to those who live in the immediate area, but the recital given for the winners attracts an impressive audience every year.

The personnel and program for the recital was dictated by the director of the scholarship foundation, which, in theory, made sense in order to offer an interesting variety of instruments, performers, and pieces. Since it’s a small town, there was a lot of buzz about who would play, and what, even weeks before the date of the concert. While waiting for the recital to begin, I heard a woman talking about the performance like it had already happened; “they’re wonderful! They’re just so virtuosic.”


“Virtuosic.” This word echoed through my head for the rest of the night, as I listened to a violinist, a vocalist, a trombonist, a pianist, a saxophonist, another violinist, etc. New Oxford American Dictionary defines virtuoso as “a person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit.” Note that there is no mention of tempo or emotion in this definition (or any others I could find).

After considering this for a moment, I realized that we as a population have been generally miseducated about what “virtuosic” really means; much like how when asked what “staccato” means, many musicians will answer “short” instead of the literal definition, “separated.”

Those who are generally unfamiliar with a showpiece like Zigeunerweisen or Carmen Fantasy will applaud wildly for a showy and fast performance, even if the violinist played half of the correct notes with no sensitivity or dynamic nuance. That same audience will regard a performance of a Beethoven Romance with a generally lackadaisical and polite response, even if the performance was full of beautiful tone, control, dynamic nuance, and stunning intonation. Of course, I’m speaking generally, but those who have been really moved by a slow movement of something and feel that it was not given the proper reception know what I mean.

At this particular recital, I was asked to perform just the second movement from Handel’s Violin Sonata No. 4 in D Major; one of my favorite sonatas by one of my favorite composers. It was difficult (and frankly, awkward) to perform this tricky Allegro movement out of context after sitting for half an hour. However, I reminded myself why I was there, and the goal of the recital. We perform to share the gift of music with an audience, and it is our job as musicians to convey our authentic interpretation of a piece, with as much real emotion and correct technique as we know how. If a performance fits these parameters, then it is indeed “virtuosic.” It is important for this definition of the word to be understood, but it is even more important to realize that a mature performance of a work, slow or fast, is what needs to be encouraged and properly lauded.

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