Mateusz Wolski was just a young boy in Warsaw, Poland, when he first heard Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
“I had an aunt who went to music school, and I remember her trying to convince me that I should listen to this record,” he says. “Of course, me being 7 years old, I was like, ‘I don’t want to listen to that!’ But as soon as she left the room, I would put it on and start listening. It was the first violin concerto that I fell in love with.
At the time, Wolski was a young violinist and the fundamentals of the concerto format were new to him. Much to the amusement of his music teacher at the time, he tried to show his appreciation for the work by attempting to play both the orchestral and solo parts himself.
Nearly four decades later, he still feels the tug of war between those two roles. As the Spokane Symphony’s concertmaster, Wolski is responsible for conducting the orchestra, acting as a sort of liaison between the musicians and the conductor. But once a year he can “change hats completely” and take center stage as a solo performer with a work of his choice.
“As a concertmaster, you’re kind of like a sheepdog, trying to lead the flock. As a soloist, you’re in an antagonistic relationship with the orchestra. It’s kind of a story of David vs. Goliath where the whole fun of the concerto is that you have this little violin that has to carry a melody, and the orchestra roars back to it. It’s an imbalance by design. That’s what creates this absolutely wonderful tension that great composers know how to exploit.
And so, in preparation for this weekend’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the orchestra he usually helps conduct, Wolski finds himself deliberately trying to embrace that more independent and rival.
“The way the soloist usually works is we bring people in from out of town. They fly in, they say hello, they show up for two rehearsals, they play their piece, and they go home. And in a way, in order to deliver your performance well, you have to get into that headspace,” he says.
“As a concertmaster, you’re a bit like a sheepdog, trying to lead the flock. As a soloist, you’re in an antagonistic relationship with the orchestra.”
Aalongside Tchaikovsky’s concerto, the Spokane Symphony Masterpieces No. 5 “Pictured Within” program features works by three other composers born at various points in the 19th century. There’s “Negro Dance” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, “William Grant Still” Notes of wood and that of Edward Elgar Variations of puzzles. Each work draws on a very different source of external inspiration.
In the case of Coleridge-Taylor, it was the poems and pro-African cultural advocacy of American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar that prompted the English composer to create his African Suite, from which “Negro Dance” is taken. Although he enjoyed transatlantic fame during his lifetime with the choral cantata The Hiawatha Wedding Feast (itself inspired by the epic of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Hiawatha’s Song), Coleridge-Taylor sold the rights to his music for short-term income and died in near poverty in 1912.
Similarly, Still was also inspired by poetry, but his four-part orchestral suite Notes of wood was a very intentional collaboration that originated in the pastoral verses of former Alabama Poet Laureate J. Mitchell Pilcher.
“It’s a sequel that depicts the countryside of the Deep South. Grant Still himself said it was very important because he was a black southerner who wrote music inspired by a white southerner. It’s very clear that there was a symbol of unity in writing this music to him,” says James Lowe, Music Director of the Spokane Symphony, who will conduct this Masterworks concert.
“It’s such a beautiful and evocative piece. Grant Still paints these images of landscapes so wonderfully at times of the day and times of the year. And his sketch of extra-musical things seemed to fit so well with the Elgar.”
As famous for his dedication “to my friends depicted within” (hence the title of this concert) as for his lingering unsolved musical enigmas, Variations of puzzles was the work that made Elgar, a belated professional bloomer and a prickly outsider of sorts, a recognized talent in classical music.
“The theme and variation is a very common form of music. You play a melody and then you play it for half an hour,” laughs Lowe. “But what Elgar does is he takes it and plays it through the characters of his friends. He captures the laughter of one, the seriousness of another. It’s such a compelling portrayal, and he’s so inventive with it. It really feels like getting to know their personalities through these variations.”
More than that, however, he says, the program shows how “humanity is united through music”. Even Wolski, in his temporarily “antagonistic” role, says that unity between soloist and orchestra is the necessary conclusion of Tchaikovsky’s concerto: “It’s a happy ending when we achieve harmony and join forces in the end together. ♦
Spokane Symphony Masterworks 5: Pictured Within • Saturday, February 5 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, February 6 at 3 p.m. • $19 to $62 • Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • spokanesymphony.org • 624-1200