Most violin concertos are written for violin and orchestra, but practicing with orchestra is a mighty inconvenient proposition at any time -- particularly during a pandemic!
Of course, most players who want accompaniment turn to a pianist who uses a "piano reduction," a version in which the many instrumental voices of the orchestra are all condensed into one piano part. This works wonderfully, if you have a pianist on hand. But what if you don't? For example, I like to accompany my students when they play, but I don't play the piano.
What if there were....a "violin reduction" that allowed one violinist to be the "orchestra"?
I have some great news: there is!
Atlanta-based violinist and arranger Martha Yasuda, who is known for the licensed duet arrangements she created for all the Suzuki Books and other violin pieces, has created what I'd call "violin reductions" (and "viola reductions") of the orchestra part for some of the most popular concertos for violin and viola. So far she has made violin duet arrangements of Mozart's Concertos 3, 4 and 5, the Bach A Minor Concerto; the Vivaldi A and G minor concertos; the Telemann Viola Concerto (for two violas) -- and just last month she released her latest: the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, arranged for two violins! (Click here to purchase the PDF).
I have been reading through Martha's new "violin reduction" of the orchestra part for the Mendelssohn, and I'm thrilled to find something that provides such a complete picture of what goes on in the orchestra. In the past, when a student was ready to play with accompaniment, I've tried both improvising from the piano part, or simply reading the first violin part. It required a lot of juggling, and the result was somewhat helpful for the student, but not ideal.
Of course, Martha's duet part is a workout -- I found myself dropping a few of the double-stops when reading it! But what a treat, to be able to accompany a student in a way that will provide a real feeling for the orchestra part. Short of having a pianist present at every lesson (a luxury I'd welcome, of course), playing duets really helps students put that last bit of icing on the cake: checking the accuracy of their rhythms and counting, making sense of the musical interplay, and putting it all together.
And even in this day of Zoom lessons, it's possible to play duets on "mute" - for the benefit of a student who is well-prepared. While the teacher won't be able to hear it, the student can test the waters. The success of this, of course, varies from student to student. Undoubtedly, duets will be much more fun and productive when we can all go back to in-person interactions!
With Martha's Mendelssohn arrangement newly completed, I thought it would be a great time to chat with her. After all, when we last spoke in 2014, her Mozart arrangements were still in the early stages of development, and Mendelssohn was not even on the horizon!
Laurie: Do you remember learning the Mendelssohn Concerto yourself?
Martha: Yes, I sure do! I was in high school, probably 11th grade, when I studied it with my teacher, Rudy Hazucha. I remember thinking it was so hard to play!
Laurie: Did you ever play it with orchestra?
Martha: I played the third movement with orchestra, after winning the concerto competition in my junior year of college. I had transferred from Eastman for one year, to go to the University of Tennessee to study with William Starr. I have fond memories of him conducting! I also played the accompaniment part in orchestras at least half a dozen times, probably more. So, I am quite familiar with the awesomeness of this piece, and I've always looked forward to hearing the various soloists warming up backstage. So many breathtaking concerts I can remember!
Laurie: What inspired you to make this arrangement?
Martha: I started dabbling around with it maybe 10-15 years ago because I was thinking of all the students that would surely enjoy playing this popular piece with their teacher or a friend. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the challenges and finally gave up! After reading a Facebook post in mid-July of 2020, where someone asked if there was a duet for the Mendelssohn, I decided to revisit what I had written years ago and see what I thought about it now. I got "in the zone" and cranked out the first draft for all three movements in a matter of days! I think writing duets for the Mozart Concerti (3-4-5) several years ago helped give me more experience, making the Mendelssohn easier the second time around.
This arrangement is somewhat unique (like the Mozart concerti) in that teachers can now BE the orchestra for their students, including tutti passages. In an effort to include players of various skill levels, violinists can choose to accompany with either Advanced Double Stops or a Simplified Trio, which is formed by playing the double stops divisi.
Laurie: What are the biggest challenges in turning this into a duet for two violins?
Martha: There are so many things going on simultaneously in the orchestra part to the Mendelssohn that it is physically impossible to include all the neat things within a duet - something will have to be left out! So, one of the biggest challenges is deciding which thematic parts in the score will sound best as a duet. But if the person knows the Mendelssohn well enough, they’ll probably be hearing the other cool parts in their head as they play the duet. Needless to say, having a nice steady beat for a soloist to follow is golden!
Also, I tried to make the double stops as easy as I could, without sacrificing the rich harmonies. This is always a huge challenge. Sometimes, the simpler way was the winner and sometimes the more difficult version had to be used in order to be true to the score. It's a juggling act. I had to be super organized and totally realistic, ready to toss out "my favorite version" if it really didn’t work as well, in the bigger picture. Sometimes, that’s hard to do! I had papers flying all over the house, with lots of versions saved on the computer before the winning scores were chosen.
Laurie: Did you have anyone to help you?
Martha: I would be remiss to not mention my amazing colleagues that helped to get this piece polished quickly and ready for publication in the record time of a month and a half! Most of my music friends are literally starved for a creative experience because of being isolated during the pandemic, with orchestra concerts cancelled. I drove for two hours to the first rehearsal, and when I heard the glorious sounds of my Cleveland Institute of Music violin friend, Ashley Dean Whittle, meshing with my newly written duet, I felt I was given the internal "green light" to continue working on this project. You just never know how something that is relatively unexplored will turn out, so I had some real apprehensions, for sure!
I also never expected to have two major orchestra players join me in this musical adventure! They contributed so much that I have listed them as co-arrangers. Alison Fujito, first violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony, who knows this piece in her sleep (!), sent me a long list of small details that I should consider. The details were quite valuable and, after a couple of weeks of exchanges, we both finally felt like, "This is it!" The timing was perfect for Alison to record the duet part for the entire concerto with her student, Chloe Yofan, before she went back to Eastman for her sophomore year. The gorgeous recording was so helpful as further changes were added after I listened!
Here's an excerpt from mvt. 2:
(Listen to an excerpt from mvt. 1 here, and from mvt. 3 here.)
Also in the mix were two amazing rehearsals with Carolyn Hancock, first violinist with the Atlanta Symphony. She surprised both of us by adding a few note changes that were so elegant and quite well-crafted. Carolyn had no idea she was so skilled at arranging! Comically, we both had misplaced our copies of the Mendelssohn so, we were reading from piano scores. Finally, I broke down and printed out a copy of the solo part from IMSLP. It made me feel "normal" to know that other teachers also lose music, from time to time!
Lastly, Kerren Berz, an accomplished arranger, freelance artist and teacher at the Galloway School, put the icing on the cake during a final hour-long rehearsal, smoothing out quite nicely the last few details before I was ready to launch.
I was absolutely shocked that this arrangement of the Mendelssohn got done so quickly, with results I’m proud of, knowing that this was only possible with the collaboration of my talented friends! I’m also glad I could provide a creative outlet for them as they sincerely miss playing live orchestra concerts.
Martha Yasuda's arrangements are available at her website, yasudamusic.com/. Her Mendelssohn Violin Concerto arrangement is available here.
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The Mendelssohn is respected by performers because it's hard to take your violin out of the box, walk on stage, and play those vaulting octaves on the first page. If I were performing that piece I would just ask the concertmaster to play the lower notes.
This is awesome!
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September 9, 2020 at 11:30 PM · The duet is beautiful!