Unmistakably Beethoven

UT Symphony concludes its Beethoven concerts with the demanding but lyrical Violin Concerto

When Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major was premiered in Vienna in 1806, it was reported that the violin soloist, the eminent Franz Clement, inserted a virtuosic sonata of his own composition between the first and second movements, played on one string and with the violin held upside down.

Tricks like that weren't unusual at the time. But it's highly unlikely guest violinist Alexander Kerr will have to resort to such stunts to impress the audience when he appears with the University of Tennessee Symphony in a performance of Beethoven's only violin concerto. Instead, Kerr, who was Concertmaster of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra until 2006 and now has both a solo career and a violin professorship at the Indiana University School of Music, will offer—in his own words—"a slightly different feel to the Beethoven Concerto than one might usually hear." What that "different feel" might entail—tempo, dynamics, bowing—should be intriguing for both the audience and musicians to discover.

UT conductor James Fellenbaum chose the concerto as the featured work of the second of two concerts entitled "A Beethoven Celebration" for several reasons. "I had decided to do the Beethoven Five to start the year in September," Fellenbaum says. "I asked, ‘What other Beethoven can we do that's not another symphony?' Well, the violin concerto—and Alex Kerr came instantly to mind."

Fellenbaum and Kerr first met as eighth-grade orchestral players in the Northern Virginia Junior Regional Orchestra. They met up again years later at the 2002 Aspen Summer Music Festival; Kerr was serving as one of the concertmasters and Fellenbaum was there for David Zinman's American Academy of Conducting. "Ever since then, I've wanted to bring Alex to UT for something," Fellenbaum says. "Not only is he a great orchestral player, but I believe he began his music career as a concerto and recital soloist."

The uniqueness of the Beethoven Violin Concerto is that it stands without real precedents—demanding and serious, but not merely a showcase for violin virtuosity. Nevertheless, the concerto has a bit of a history of revealing exceptional talent. The late violinist Yehudi Menuhin, at age 11, startled a Carnegie Hall audience in 1927 when he performed the concerto to acclaim to begin his six-decade career. In essence, Beethoven has offered a piece that allows violinists who have something to say to say it.

Although the opening Allegro movement begins with a timpani motif that might imply heaviness to follow, the woodwinds, then strings, lightly pick up the theme. What follows in the lengthy movement is not heavy, but rather—a few surprises aside—lyrical and sweet. The slow Larghetto is one of sublime peacefulness, almost programmatically pastoral in its hints of distant hunting horns and dappled sunlight. It leads without pause into the concluding Rondo, with an up-tempo country, folksy, dance-like sense of energy and motion. Afterwards, the hunting horns arrive front and center in a scene that is full of down-to-earth human warmth and vitality that is unmistakably Beethoven. Although it is speculation on how Kerr's "different feel" might manifest itself given the concerto's aforementioned qualities, one can easily imagine an active, dancing bow and a warmth of tone that is lush without being overwrought.

Fellenbaum has chosen to fill out the concert with a work that has similar themes of human warmth and festivity, but with an entirely different ethnic feel. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien is a fantasy suite inspired by his visit to Rome and the Roman Carnival in 1880. Tchaikovsky spent time there researching Italian folk songs and dances, and absorbed a lot of the local celebration and its music. With his hotel near an army barracks, he even integrated the morning trumpet calls he heard into the opening bars. As far as the humanity, Tchaikovsky said, "When one observes the people closely, in their wild behavior... one soon comes to the conclusion that the merriment of the Roman crowd, however strange it may appear, is sincere and natural... they are intoxicated by the air of Rome." While critical comments run from "light-hearted" and "uncomplicated" to "trivial," it is evident from the work's simplicity and joy that Tchaikovsky was impressed by the atmosphere and warmth of the very human celebration.