Mateusz Wolski has no one but himself to blame for the “world of hurt” he’s experienced over the last two or three months trying to master Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto.
After all, Wolski was the one who suggested the piece when music director Eckart Preu asked him if there was anything he’d especially like to play this season.
Though he’s performed portions of the concerto before, Wolski, concertmaster of the Spokane Symphony, has never played the piece in full.
In a bucket list moment for Wolski, he’ll make his personal debut of the concerto during “Classics 9: Love’s Inspiration” at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox on Saturday and Sunday.
“Love’s Inspiration” also features Johann Sebastian Bach’s Ouverture from Orchestral Suite No. 1 and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4.
Brahms’ Violin Concerto is widely considered to be one of the most difficult yet essential pieces of the violin repertoire.
For one thing, the concerto, in terms of length, is fairly substantial; Wolski estimates the first movement clocks in around 15 minutes.
Then there’s the fact that Brahms was not a violinist, but a pianist.
“Some of the musical language that pianists use is based on having the ability to play five notes in a row easily because you have four fingers plus thumb,” Wolski said. “The challenge is that in the violin you use four fingers because the thumb cannot play a note by itself. It’s almost like dealing with the metric system versus the imperial system of measurement.”
Brahms’ close friend and collaborator, Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, gave him some advice to make the piece more playable, but even still, Brahms’ use of tenth intervals requires a lot of stretching from violinists.
Wolski said tenths are rarely used in violin music and when violinists are training, they are advised not to practice them for more than a few minutes at a time or risk injuring their hand because of the stretch.
In Wolski’s mind, Brahms’ uncommon ideas for violin put him ahead of his time.
“It’s like a great engineer having an idea of building a skyscraper and yet we don’t really have technology for it,” he said. “Nobody ever has done anything like that and that’s the concept when it was conceived, purely musical. You have this amazing piece because he was not thinking about ‘Is this playable?’ No, the only question in his mind was ‘Is this going to be great music?’ ”
Wolski has been rehearsing the concerto for the past few months, estimating that, at an average of two hours of “decently intense” work a day, he’s spent about 300 to 350 hours on the concerto.
The muscle memory that’s come after performing excerpts of the concerto while in school and for auditions helped Wolski to some degree, but as he’s gotten more and more seasoned as a musician, he’s developed techniques he didn’t have years ago.
“You’re dealing with situations if you’ve played the piece before or parts of it, that you have to train your hands to do things in a completely new and different way,” he said. “On one hand you’re doing research and development. On the other hand you’re trying to construct this absolutely marvelous work of art.”
Difficulty aside, Brahms’ Violin Concerto is also iconic because it musically contains a little bit of everything, from melodies that pull at heartstrings to dance elements that make listeners tap their toes.
“I think that’s what makes it so successful, because he got everything in the piece right and that is very, very rare,” Wolski said. “Very few composers manage to put this much in such a way into one piece.”
A piece as technically difficult and musically varied as Brahms’ Violin Concerto is considered a rite of passage for many violinists, including Wolski.
After performing the concerto, Wolski said a violinist can look at themselves and convincingly say “I graduated … I can actually play it. I can actually make it sound good.
“I think I should get a passing grade on this one, at least from myself,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been a fascinating journey. If you ask me today, I’m feeling pretty good about this. We’ll see how the audience receives it but I think we’re all going to have a wonderful time experiencing the music together because ultimately that’s the whole goal.”