Once reviled, the Korngold has a new sheen
One person’s corn is another person’s gold.
Take, for example, Erich Korngold’s “Violin Concerto” op. 35. Completed in 1945 with themes borrowed from such late-1930s Korngold soundtracks as “Another Dawn,” “Juarez,” “Anthony Adverse” and “The Prince and the Pauper,” Korngold’s lone fiddle concerto was savaged by the music critics of the day.
On hearing it in Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1947, The New York Times’ Olin Downes wrote, “This is a Hollywood concerto, with vibraphone effects and liked devices; fully orchestrated in the (Richard) Straussian manner; commonplace in its thoughts; liveliest in the final movement, which Mr. (Jascha) Heifetz played in top virtuoso style. Other pages … are in more lyrical vein, but the melodies are ordinary and sentimental in character; the facility of the writing is matched by the mediocrity of ideas.”
And then there was The New York Sun’s Irving Kolodin, who dipped his pen in acid and surly opined that the Korngold was “more corn than gold.”
Ouch. So much for those late-1940s make-believe gatekeepers to the mythological Temple of the Muses on Mt. Parnassus.
“Yeah,” chuckled Lara St. John over the phone from her New York City digs last week. “Well, it’s come a long way.”
Indeed, Korngold’s “Violin Concerto” has come a long way. But just like The Fabs’ fabled alter egos, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Korngold, too, has been going in and out of style, but it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.
“When I was a kid it was totally not in vogue. Nobody was doing it,” said the London (Ontario)-born St. John, 46, about the Korngold. “I knew the (1953) Heifetz recording when I was a kid. Basically, the first time I heard it was up at (violinist-conductor) Jaime Laredo’s house in Burlington, Vermont. He put it on and said, ‘You have to listen to this. Man, this is the most exciting violin playing there ever was.’”
Over the past decade or so, St. John has been in the thick of the Korngold renaissance, reckoning that she’s performed the concerto around a dozen times. This Saturday, May 6, she’ll make it a baker’s dozen when she performs the Korngold at her Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra debut with Gemma New conducting.
“It seems to be having quite a resurgence,” said St. John. “It’s like sometimes concertos just sort of fall out of favour for 20 years and then they come roaring back. And that seems to be what’s happening a little bit with the Korngold.
“It’s so much fun. It’s a very highly kind of romantic and shmaltzy piece. The last movement is so joyful. It’s like laughter all the way through.”
Shmaltzy, luscious and picturesque, equally enjoyable for soloist, orchestra, and listener? Yep, but that doesn’t mean everything is hunky-dory under the hood.
“It’s quite heavily composed,” said St. John. “There are a lot of polyrhythms. It really depends on the fiddle player knowing exactly what’s happening in the orchestra. You should always know what’s happening in the orchestra, but this more so than the others. It has its awkward moments. I don’t believe Korngold was much of a violinist, but everything (written in the concerto) is possible. There’s, like, permutations of fingers that you don’t do in any other concerto, but they all work, and I find it actually an effective piece. It goes so nicely with other 20th century music.”
Like Igor Stravinsky’s 1947 revised version of “Petrushka” and Canadian composer Glenn Buhr’s 1989 “Akasha” (Sky), which also appear on Saturday’s Mainstage season finale in FirstOntario Concert Hall along with Richard Strauss’s 1888 orchestral tone poem “Don Juan.”
Friday, May 5, at 7 p.m. in St. John’s Lutheran, 104 Hughson St. N., William Renwick’s 14-voice Hamilton Schola Cantorum presents “A Lutheran Mass.” This is not Martin Luther’s German Mass, or one of the other two mass varieties Luther advocated, but a concert liturgy (no sermon or communion) comprised of chant, chorale settings, congregational chorales, and post-Luther era organ music with organists Stillman Matheson and Vicky Chen. Free admission.
Friday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m. in Grace Lutheran, 1107 Main St. W., Stéphane Potvin’s a cappella Villanella presents “Mozart and Robin Hood,” songs of love and longing. Tickets: $25, under 30 $15, family $50. Call 905-522-6841.
Leonard Turnevicius writes about classical music for The Hamilton Spectator. firstname.lastname@example.org
Lara St. John says some concertos seem to fall out of favour then come roaring back. “And that seems to be what’s happening a little bit with the Korngold.”