Tai Murray

Solo Violin

November 11, 2018, 4 pm

Music Room

Violinist Tai Murray was born in Chicago and made her debut with the Chicago Symphony when she was just nine-years-old. She later studied at Indiana University and the Juilliard School in New York. From 2008–10 she was a BBC New Generation Artist, and plays as a chamber musician at the Marlboro Festival and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As a soloist, she appears regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, with concerts in Britain and Germany as well as with leading American orchestras. Her acclaimed debut recording for Harmonia Mundi was of the Six Sonatas for Solo Violin by Eugène Ysaÿe, which was described in Gramophone as a “superlative disc.” Her solo violin recital will pay homage to some of the great violinists in history such as Nathan Milstein and Fritz Kreisler.


Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764)
L'Arte del Violino Caprice No. 6 from Sonata in D minor, Op. 6, No. 12

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)
Caprice No. 24

Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962)
Recitativo and Scherzo

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1812-65)
Last Rose of Summer

Nathan Milstein (1904-92)

John Corigliano (b. 1938)
Red Violin

An inspiring talent with a silky and sweet tone from even the highest registers of her instrument, impeccable intonation, dexterity, subtlety yet always vigorous and dramatic, the well-schooled and hugely musical Tai Murray has become an essential personality in today's classical musical world.

A former BBC young generation artist, member of the Marlboro Festival and of Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society, she gives her London Proms Debut during the summer of 2016 with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Thomas Sondergard. Living between New York and Berlin, Tai has been heard on stages such as the Barbican, Queen Elisabeth and London Royal Albert Hall, aside orchestras such as Chicago Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Manchester BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

In Germany, she has been invited by the Philharmonic Staatsorchester of Mainz, the Göttinger Symphonie Orchester and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, and has toured with the Brandenburger Symphoniker and the Niederrheinische Sinfoniker.

Tai Murray's critically acclaimed debut recording for harmonia mundi of Ysaye's six sonatas for solo violin was released in February 2012. Her second recording with works by American Composers of the 20th was released in November 2013 by the Berlin-based label eaSonus and her third disc with Bernstein’s Serenade in 2014 by the French label mirare.

The sight of the solo violinist on an empty stage, with only their instrument mediating between performer and audience, has long been an intoxicating one. For many years, violin virtuosi have enraptured audiences and as reports of their performances transformed into legends, these legends became myths. Such violinists regularly composed works of their own to flaunt their skills and prove their technical credentials. This quest to prove oneself as a talented performer unsurprisingly resulted in a degree of compositional one-upmanship, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet, the competitive atmosphere also fostered a repertoire peculiarly focused on the farthest reaches of this performing endeavor. This afternoon’s program explores the remarkable diversity of these compositions, beginning with work from the height of the Baroque, and concluding with an extract from a Hollywood film score from the late 1990s.

In order to cement their reputation, a violinist-composer had to succeed at both performance and composition. This required the possession not only of a supreme command of the technical complexities of the violin, but also a thorough knowledge of musical structure and a deep understanding of how to create emotional contrast within music. Display of instrumental virtuosity can often be accompanied by charges of unsubtlety or of a seeming lack of musicality, so it is particularly interesting to look for the moments within these showpieces where this is not the case. The virtuosic instincts of the violinist-composers were regularly coupled with often-overlooked senses of drama, pacing, and emotional intelligence. This duality blurred the lines between composer and performer, with works often tailored to their very specific strengths.

The great skill of luthiers in the prominent cities of modern-day Italy, particularly between 1650-1750, sustained a rich cultivation of music for stringed instruments. The work of Venetian Antonio Vivaldi and Roman Arcangelo Corelli saw Italy become synonymous with the developing genres of the solo concerto and the more collaborative concerto grosso. Pietro Locatelli, a younger Italian contemporary of Vivaldi and Corelli, was well-versed in this tradition, but chose to abandon the collaborative spirit of the concerto grosso in favor of exploiting the virtuosic potential of the solo violin. Locatelli’s work exploits the very limits of the violin, especially within its highest reaches, and his Caprices (which functioned as optional cadenzas for several of his more “traditional” sonatas) focus attention on the soloist’s technical prowess in a manner not previously seen in instrumental music.

The Caprice from the Sonata in D minor, Op. 6, No. 12 makes particularly striking use of this register, at one point reaching the stratospheric heights of 22nd position. Whilst the harmonic thrust of the music is cut from the same cloth as Corelli and Vivaldi, Locatelli’s flair for melodic gesture marks out his work as representative of a new (and perhaps rather shameless) virtuosity, hitherto unseen in violin performance.

No violinist-composer’s name embodies such shameless virtuosity more than Niccolò Paganini. As famous for his flamboyant stage presence as for his playing, Paganini is arguably better remembered today for later composers’ adaptations of his work than for his own compositions. Yet, his influence on both the popular perception of the violin and cementing the desirability of technical virtuosity in a soloist is felt to this day. The virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt wrote an obituary of Paganini, remarking on the latter’s transformative influence on the “miserable strings” of the violin.

The opening melody of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 has been used widely in TV and film, and formed the theme for works by 20th-century composers Sergey Rachmaninoff and Witold Lutosławski. The Caprice itself is structured as a set a variations on said theme, and exploits a wide range of musical color and technique. Perhaps what is most significant about this work is the combination of highly memorable melodic material with technical fireworks; this is no vapid showpiece, but a clearly structured vehicle for Paganini to demonstrate his command of both his instrument and his compositional palette.

The Austrian Fritz Kreisler was one of the most famous violinists of the early 20th century, and as such is often associated with the early age of recording. He is also remembered as the perpetrator of a famous musical fraud. He published many pieces under the names of obscure 18th-century composers, such as Gaetano Pugnani and François Francoeur. Kreisler only revealed in 1935 that the pieces were composed by him rather than by the supposed 18th-century masters. Critics were split between those angered that Kreisler had dared to publish compositions under false names and those who greeted the announcement with mild amusement. These pieces, regardless of the question of their authorship, have entered the violin teaching repertoire, and are learnt by many elementary violinists across the world.

His virtuosic (and highly un-elementary) 1911 Recitative and Scherzo, however, was not published under an assumed name. The opening Recitative is lyrical and relatively restrained by the standards of solo violin showpieces, but it leads into a fiery Scherzo, making extensive use of double and triple-stopping, as well as the technique of “artificial harmonics,” enabling the player to reach exceptionally high pitches.

Paganini’s influence was keenly felt by the Moravian violinist-composer, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst. After hearing the older violinist perform in Vienna in 1828, Ernst became a great admirer of Paganini, eventually appearing with him in Marseilles in 1837. Ernst was regarded as one of the foremost violinists of his age, with Felix Mendelssohn acting as his occasional accompanist, and regularly performing Hector Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy,” Symphony for Viola and Orchestra under the baton of the composer.

Ernst’s six variations on the Irish folk tune, “The Last Rose of Summer,” are conceived on a grand scale and encompass the full range of the extended techniques. Ernst creates harmony through the solo instrument not only through the double and triple-stopping familiar from Paganini and Locatelli, but also by instructing the violinist to pluck the string with their left hand whilst independently bowing a separate phrase with their right; this technique can be most clearly heard in the fourth variation.

The generation immediately following Kreisler produced, among others, three world-famous violinists: David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, and Nathan Milstein were all born into Jewish families in what was then the Russian Empire, and enjoyed enormous fame and success across the globe. While Oistrakh remained domiciled in the Soviet Union throughout his career, Heifetz and his family immigrated to the USA in 1917, and Milstein later settled in New York. Milstein, whose performing career only ended in the 1980s, composed several of his own concerto cadenzas, as well as solo works such as Paganiniana.

Paganiniana, dating from 1954, is an original set of variations on the theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice. During the course of the variations, Milstein also references several other of Paganini’s caprices in a knowing nod to the figure who inspired so much of this repertoire. Paganiniana is a tour-de-force of violin virtuosity, not just making great technical demands on the performer, but interpretative ones as well. The remarkably delicate texture of the fourth variation, where an adaptation of the theme is contrasted with a soft tremolo accompaniment, proves that this is no empty showpiece. In Paganiniana, Milstein complements display of extensive technical facility with masterful emotional pacing. It is a worthy addition to the significant number of compositions based on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

The contemporary American composer John Corigliano has won multiple Grammy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and an Academy Award. As well as being a distinguished composer in his own right, his work as a teacher of composition at the Julliard School has seen him mentor several well-known younger American composers, including Eric Whitacre and Nico Muhly.

François Girard’s 1998 film The Red Violin tells the story of the remarkable journey of a single instrument through its multiple owners found across the globe. Corigliano’s score for The Red Violin is unusual amongst film compositions in that a significant portion of it had to be composed before filming had even begun. This enabled the movements of actor Jason Flemyng and violinist and child prodigy Christoph Koncz (both of whom were filmed, albeit to differing extents, “playing” the violin) to be synchronized precisely with the music Corigliano had written.

The extensive violin solos, largely written in the style of the Baroque chaconne, were performed on the soundtrack by violinist Joshua Bell, and provide a unique insight into the power of the solo violin. Corigliano’s work bridges the gap between the past and present, and represents a contemporary take on two centuries of repertoire continuously written against the grains of technical possibility and compositional “good taste.” Here, the dual facets of the personality of a violinist-composer are mirrored by the dialogue between the historical nature of the solo violin repertoire and the modernity of the medium of film.

—Anthony Chater, 2018