Violin Concertos - difficulty of orchestra parts

March 12, 2016 at 08:03 PM · I've heard that the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto orchestra part is relatively easy for the orchestra. On the other hand, I've heard that the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto orchestra part is relatively hard. I'm wondering if folks here could comment on the relative difficulties of the orchestra parts for the following violin concertos:

- Sibelius, in D-minor

- Beethoven, in D-major

- Bruch, No.1 in G-minor

- Lalo, Symphonie Espagnole

- Saint-Saens, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso


Replies (40)

March 12, 2016 at 08:46 PM · S-S I & R easy

Beethoven medium--you need an orchestra with excellent rhythm

Bruch--mostly easy but there is one tricky spot towards the end of the first movement for the violins. Smiley may remember that--he was concertmaster of my youth orchestra when I played the first movement as soloist.

Lalo - easy

Sibelius - quite difficult, and you need an excellent principal viola. Not a problem for a pro orchestra but I would be wary of playing that with amateurs.

March 12, 2016 at 11:50 PM · Thank you, Mary Ellen. That's just the feedback I was looking for. It's a shame about the Sibelius... ;)

March 13, 2016 at 05:56 AM · Broadly, it is easier for a mediocre amateur or student orchestra to accompany a Romantic concerto than it is for them to accompany a Classical concerto (Mozart, Paganini, to some extent Haydn and Beethoven) requiring precise intonation and timing. Baroque (Bach, Telemann, etc.) is okay; intonation can be a problem but imprecision is less problematic.

Some Romantic concertos are tougher than others. The last movement of the Tchaikovsky is rough on string players. (The last movement of Mendelssohn, especially the soloist's last page, is no picnic for the strings either, though.)

Beethoven, the notes are straightforward but people need to be precise on their entrances and rhythm. The conductor is important here; if you can trust that he'll be precise on his cues, it should be fine. Strings get it much easier than winds/brass here.

March 13, 2016 at 03:56 PM · - Sibelius, in D-minor

This can be fairly difficult for the orchestra. Even worse when the soloist takes too much liberty with tempos and rhythm. I still remember fondly the first time performing this with a soloist whom kept taking too many ritardandos in the last movement. Half the orchestra ended with the soloist, the other half before...

- Beethoven, in D-major

Not difficult at all.

- Bruch, No.1 in G-minor

Some hairy passages here and there but until the last movement fairly straightforward and even then nothing an average orchestra wouldn't have issues with.

- Lalo, Symphonie Espagnole

Again, nothing difficult about this.

- Saint-Saens, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso

A bit boring for orchestra.

March 13, 2016 at 04:40 PM · Lydia and John -- Thanks for your responses! I am looking for a piece I can present to the director of my community orchestra, which consists mainly of amateur musicians. So, something that is doable and fun for the orchestra. This info is very helpful.

March 13, 2016 at 05:07 PM · Concerto accompaniments are often not fun for the orchestra per se, although some are more interesting (read: melodic) than others.

Have you considered the Glazunov? Nice wind and brass solos, some meaty bits for all the strings, not a difficult accompaniment, and a light enough orchestration that it's not a struggle for the soloist to be heard. It's also relatively short at 20 minutes, so you will effectively get more rehearsal time with the orchestra than if you picked, say, the Tchaikovsky at double that length.

Also worth considering, if you're just looking for repertoire and you want a great concertmaster's work, Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, or Scheherezade.

March 13, 2016 at 06:10 PM · The Glazunov may not have a difficult accompaniment, but it has a very difficult solo part.

March 13, 2016 at 06:45 PM · The OP is contemplating Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, though. Glazunov is easier by a significant margin.

March 13, 2016 at 07:58 PM · I respectfully disagree, and so does Dorothy Delay.

I have taught all three--Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Glazunov, and I'm not in a hurry to teach the Glazunov ever again.

March 13, 2016 at 09:07 PM · That's interesting. I performed the Glazunov with my community orchestra a little less than a year after coming back to the violin after a decade of not playing at all. It was much more difficult than either my teacher or I thought it was going to be -- it turned out that my ability to play old repertoire from muscle memory did not mean that the memory of how to play the violin extended to learning new repertoire -- but I thought it was nowhere near as difficult as the Tchaikovsky (which I learned as a teenager). I haven't played the Sibelius, though, which my teacher regards (somewhat unusually, I think) as significantly more difficult than Tchaikovsky.

March 13, 2016 at 10:52 PM · With all due respect, it's possible that the reason you remember the Tchaikovsky as being so terribly difficult to learn is that you were much younger and less experienced when you were working on it. Also, it is incredibly long, and the Glazunov is, as you have pointed out, much shorter. But it's significantly harder than the Tchaikovsky. I could never teach Glazunov again and die happy. (It was at a student's request and in retrospect I should have said no. I underestimated it by a large margin.)

March 13, 2016 at 11:23 PM · Interesting. There are two pieces that I learned when younger that I think are beyond my current technical abilities -- the Tchaikovsky is one, and the Brahms concerto is the other. What was a real pain with the Glazunov was the cadenza, and one particular passage of double-stops that seemed intractable. (My husband eventually claimed that it seemed like I was practicing nothing but 8 measures over and over again. I was amused last summer when I was backstage at BSO Academy and could hear Jonathan Carney, BSO concertmaster, in his dressing-room, woodshedding those same measures.)

March 13, 2016 at 11:30 PM · The community orchestra I'm in played the Sibelius concerto in our last concert. It was pretty awesome, but it was difficult. I agree that the romantic concertos have difficult accompaniments. For a piece that would fun for the soloist and orchestra, why not Mozart?

March 13, 2016 at 11:43 PM · It's generally not much fun to accompany Mozart. The orchestral parts other than the tuttis are kind of dull for the strings at least, and for the soloist, anything less than excellent intonation from the orchestra can really spoil the impression of precision (and make it hard to hold on to one's own sense of pitch). Ragged orchestral entrances also spoil that graceful precision that makes for a great Mozart concerto performance.

March 14, 2016 at 01:34 AM · Agree with Frieda, a concerto is never boring, it is always an adventure and one learns so much from observing the soloists. For hard orchestra parts I would vote for the last movement of the Barber (the passage where the orchestra has to play the theme) and the Martinu, which is a lovely work but quite rhythmically complex.

March 14, 2016 at 02:08 AM · Pretty sure the OP is trying to *avoid* hard orchestral parts.

I did Khachaturian with the UTSA orchestra several years ago and the students seemed to do OK... score rental was around $500 though which is another possible barrier.

I agree with Lydia about accompanying Mozart.

March 14, 2016 at 02:53 AM · Wow, thanks for all the great replies. Mary Ellen is right -- in general, I am trying to avoid harder orchestral parts. We recently performed Mendelssohn, 1st movement, and it went reasonably well -- orchestra and I were in sync for the most part and I think folks had fun. I'm weary of attempting Tchaikovsky based on what I've heard about the orchestral part (might be stretching my own abilities as well). I've got plenty of suggestions to consider here. Thanks again!

March 14, 2016 at 04:07 AM · I don't remember Tchaikovsky being too difficult when I played it with my national youth orchestra. I was in the viola section though, so it probably wasn't the nastiest most exposed part.

March 14, 2016 at 05:21 AM · If you can do single movements (which it seems like you can), you could consider doing the 2nd movement of the Tchaikovsky, which is lovely and pretty straightforward for both soloist and orchestra.

I've been a community orchestra as well as a youth orchestra accompanying the Tchaikovsky. The third movement is rather hard for the violins, especially if the soloist chooses a particularly fast tempo. I don't recall the first movement as being especially difficult to accompany, though.

I second the comment about the last movement of the Barber, by the way. I've been in two different community orchestras accompanying that. Once was a teenage Rachel Barton who took the third movement at a terrific clip and pretty much dusted the frantic string section -- it might as well have been unplayable. Another time, my teacher (normally a pro orchestra player who didn't often play concertos) was the soloist and the tempo was on the slow side (slower than the typical recording) and it was hard but not impossible. But the first and second movements of the Barber are easily doable for a community orchestra, so if you're going to take just one movement of a concerto, the first movement of the Barber is certainly very doable and enjoyable for both soloist and orchestra.

And one more, on the subject of Khachaturian... Not easy accompaniment (I was in a youth symphony that did the flute transcription), but there are also plenty of places to hide, so it can sound fine without needing to be exactly right.

March 14, 2016 at 06:44 AM · I don't recall Khachaturian being particularly difficult, but one can easily hide in the piece as Lydia pointed out, not to mention is abstract enough to tolerate intonation issues and such. I do remember the 2nd movement a pain to deal with and the 3rd movement tiresome.

Dvorak has a relatively smooth orchestral accompaniment. As does Saint-Saëns 3rd.

March 14, 2016 at 01:46 PM · That's true about the Barber--all of the difficulty is in the third movement. First movement as a stand-alone would be nice.

March 14, 2016 at 05:56 PM · Weird, I must have been pretty zoned out. I played both the first and second violin part of Sibelius, and I remember it being pretty easy back then. Of course, it was in a community orchestra and my standards are higher now. I don't remember a ton of action in the violin parts. Maybe other sections have it worse?

I just looked through the violin orchestral part, and it isn't too bad.

March 14, 2016 at 07:33 PM · The difficulty in the Sibelius orchestra part is in rhythm and ensemble, not in passagework, although there is a very exposed viola solo that you don't want to hear done by a less-than-polished amateur. If you don't remember it as difficult, you must have either had a very good conductor or, as you yourself suggest, your standards have risen since then.

March 15, 2016 at 12:12 AM · The Third movement of the Barber concerto can be a train wreck sometimes. :P

March 15, 2016 at 02:38 AM · If by "sometimes" you mean "nearly always," I agree.

March 15, 2016 at 12:02 PM · I think we should keep something in mind that Perlman has emphasized: that something is not necessarily more or less difficult for EVERYBODY. Highly accomplished violinist A will find a certain piece more difficult than another while his equally accomplished colleague B will rightly feel the opposite.

That said, having studied the solo part of the Tchaikovsky as well as accompanied a few different soloists in orchestra, there is a nasty orchestral passage in both the 1st and 2nd violin parts near the end of the 3rd movement that rivals about anything in the solo part of that movement.

I've also found that there is a tricky rythmic lick in the 1st movement - a kind of a staggered answer to the soloist. But I've also found that the conductor makes all the difference there. With one, it's very tricky; with another it's like what was ever the problem the previous time?

March 15, 2016 at 02:57 PM · Mary Ellen -- You mentioned Dorothy Delay's concerto sequence earlier. It's interesting that Beethoven comes at the end of Group 2, after all the other major concertos. I haven't attempted to learn it yet, but it seems to me that at least the first movement is not as technically difficult as Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms or even Mendelssohn. Maybe the musical phrasing is tricky, or the sheer length of it for memorization? (I know I have now gone off topic, talking about difficulty of the solo part!)

March 15, 2016 at 03:54 PM · Mary Ellen,

We did have a good conductor. We did pretty well with ensemble in the Glazunov and some other works that take more careful accompaniment. The Sibelius is just so much trading passages between the soloist and orchestra - As long as the orchestra members are listening to themselves and the soloist, I don't really see the issue. It's not like there are a ton of big conflicts where the soloist really could get buried. Maybe I had just listened to the concerto so many times by the time I played it that the tricky parts were pretty obvious by that time. I always had more trouble with purely technical work.

March 15, 2016 at 05:35 PM · The Beethoven concerto (which I recently learned, and which was chosen by my teacher) is harder than it looks.

First, Beethoven totally doesn't care about being violinistic. You will look at something that appears to be a simple arpeggio, for instance, and then discover that you need to hide the shifts and the way that it's written leaves you with no mercy in terms of where you can do it, so the shift has to be immaculate. (Yes, you can do an expressive shift, but we mostly don't play Beethoven that way in contemporary performance practice.) You'll also find that for sound reasons some things have to be left on a single string, leaving you with shifts that feel dangerous every time.

Second, the absolute tonality forces every note to be in tune, or it will be obviously not right. There is nowhere to hide.

Third, your right hand has to be completely controlled. Anything that isn't precise, including not-quite-right bow distribution that spoils the continuity of the tone, will be heard. The transparency is absolute.

Also, most people play the Kreisler cadenzas, which are not easy. In fact, the Kreisler cadenza for the 1st movement is an absolute b*tch.

In terms of raw difficulty to get the notes down? Not bad. In terms of really truly getting it precisely right? Eats practice hours.

March 15, 2016 at 10:14 PM · Lydia's analysis of the difficulty in the Beethoven is spot on. It is much, MUCH harder than it looks on paper.

When we have auditions for my orchestra, hardly anyone ever chooses Beethoven for their concerto, and I don't think that anyone who has tried playing Beethoven has ever advanced. It's a little bit like wearing a bikini on the beach in bright sunshine--every flaw is magnified. (I don't wear bikinis either.)

March 15, 2016 at 10:40 PM · Lydia / Mary Ellen -- Really good for me to know this. Thanks!

March 16, 2016 at 06:25 AM · I was just listening to your YouTube'd Mendelssohn (, which I'm guessing is probably a good guide to the playing level of your orchestra. (Harder to guess whether or not this is a good guide to your own playing. I see like myself, you're an adult returnee post-long-hiatus, which means that like me you might still be recovering your earlier technique, making it hard to predict how well you'll play the next piece.)

If you chose Beethoven, the orchestra's intonation would likely have a negative impact on the end result.

You, as the soloist, have to nail your notes -- all those arpeggios have to be perfectly in tune, including ensuring that all the repeated notes (whether in the same octave or a different octave) match exactly, and for extra joy, there's a lot of stuff, especially in the first movement, that's either octave double-stops or broken octaves. (Think first-page octaves of the Mendelssohn were a pain? Beethoven will vastly solidify your octaves -- regular and fingered. But think of whatever time you spent practicing that passage and imagine applying it to large swathes of a movement.)

The orchestra, in turn, needs to maintained a perfectly centered pitch so all your work spent getting things in tune doesn't clash against what they're playing -- and that your ear isn't thrown off by what you're hearing from the orchestra. It's unlikely they'd be able to do that for you. (It's just a fact of life for community orchestras. Stable pitch isn't always a trait you can get out of one.)

You probably don't want to do Mozart, Beethoven, or Paganini with this orchestra, even if you decide that you're unfazed by the soloist's challenges in the Beethoven.

EDIT: Just realized that I had recorded myself practicing the concerto early on in the learning process. I'm going to share the clip for the sake of demonstrating how you can hear, with brutal clarity, everything that's not utterly perfect. This is the first two pages, after I had probably put in a total of a half-dozen hours (spread across a few weeks) working on just this three and a half minutes of music. Click here for clip.

March 16, 2016 at 06:31 PM · Hi Lydia,

Thanks for the great advice. I played through the first couple pages of Beethoven a few times this morning -- a benefit of being unemployed ;) -- and it is indeed harder than it appears. The notes themselves are not hard, but anything slightly out of tune really stands out.

P.S. Thanks also for posting your practice recording. I've read many of your commentaries on, so it's nice to finally put a sound to the name!

March 16, 2016 at 07:51 PM · I wish more people would post clips, even embarrassing clips. :-)

The aforementioned Glazunov performance is on YouTube: This link.

March 16, 2016 at 11:46 PM · Thanks for posting, Lydia, and great work. I must admit, I am completely unfamiliar with the Glazunov concerto...

March 17, 2016 at 02:00 AM · Thanks.

The classic recording of it is Milstein's: YouTube link.

December 23, 2016 at 01:54 AM · The one "concerto" where I remember the orchestral first violin part as being more difficult than the solo (viola) part is Harold In Italy. Of course, the piano reduction piano part isn't totally child's play either (but then would you expect Monsieur Liszt to be writing child's play for the piano?).

December 23, 2016 at 04:10 PM · The two times I have been in an orchestra that got raked over the coals during violin concerto accompaniments were:

Tchaikovsky, by Kurt Masur: "Friends... you may think this is just an accompaniment... but we will do it over and over... I will be in your dreams tonight!"

Sibelius, by Otto-Werner Mueller: "Mmm? You did not bother counting this one, because it will not be on your next audition?"

December 23, 2016 at 05:36 PM · Brahms is not especially easy for the orchestra, but the usual cost of doing it poorly is covering the soloist. On the other hand, Sibelius done less than very well can leave the violinist hanging out to dry. It's transparent enough that all the mistakes will be heard. Not fun.

From my own experience, Beethoven is pretty easy for the orchestra to play reasonably well, as long as the conductor doesn't screw things up by thinking too hard. When you have someone determined to follow the soloist through every bit of rubato rather than playing the tunes straight, the whole thing can drag slower and slower right into the graveyard.

December 23, 2016 at 05:36 PM · We were once rehearsing the Beethoven violin concerto, in a tutti passage where the first violins had a melodic line while the seconds had repetitive sixteenth notes. The first violins kept emoting on their line (i.e. falling behind the seconds, forcing us to adjust our tempo) and the conductor kept stopping and scolding the second violins for not playing rhythmically. Finally in exasperation I asked the conductor if he would prefer that we simply ignore the first violins, at which point he realized what the issue was and told the firsts to listen to us. Problem solved.

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