Between sips of coffee at St. Louis Bread Company, SLSO Concertmaster David Halen thinks back to what first drew him to Alexander Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor, which he performs with the Symphony and guest conductor Asher Fisch, April 29 and 30 at Powell Symphony Hall. "Often I fall in love with a piece because I played it with the Orchestra and a great soloist who really illuminates the work," Halen says. "I remember very well doing this piece a number of years ago with a young violinist named Leila Josefowicz. And Joshua Bell played it once with us. Both times, I was struck by how incredibly attractive the work was. On first hearing, it sounded very Hollywood to me, very 1930s, and so melodic."
Written in 1904, when Glazunov was 39 and at the peak of his creative powers, the Violin Concerto betrays the composer's essential conservatism. It is lyrical, nostalgic, virtuosic, and relentlessly pretty, unadulterated by any of the dissonant tendencies of the nascent modern age. A member of Russia's musical establishment since his prodigious debut at 16, Glazunov soon became a man out of time, an object of contempt for Stravinsky and the emerging avant-garde.
"He wasn't blazing new territory," Halen observes with a wry smile. "In the case of his students Prokofiev and Shostakovich, they were considered so unbelievably different, each in his own way, and they continued to evolve and change; their early works resembled nothing of their later compositions. Glazunov's Violin Concerto was written the year of the World's Fair in St. Louis, and I can imagine that, had you played it in St. Louis then, it would have been immediately well-received. At the same time, 1904 was when Schoenberg was writing some of his last tonal works‹really ground-breaking in terms of their chromaticism and colors that had never been heard in a concert hall before with those same combinations of instruments. You hear the Glazunov Concerto, and it sounds like it could have been written by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. It sounds a little like Schéhérazade, with melodies that could have been written by Tchaikovsky going back 20 or 25 years."
As Halen became more intimately acquainted with the work, however, he began to see beyond its retro charms. "The writing is just so masterful," he says. "That's what the late 19th-century Russians were famous for; their orchestrations are one of the reasons that orchestras survive today. One of the reasons that we have such powerful orchestrations and music that was written after that time is because of people like Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov."
If Glazunov's Concerto sounds clichéd to us now, Halen suggests it might be "because we're listening to it through the filter of the Hollywood film-score generation of the last 100 years, which was so profoundly influenced by the Russian school of composition. When you go beyond it, if you try to listen to this as a work of the old world of St. Petersburg 100 years ago, when the winters were cold and it was hard to keep warm for six months of the year, then you start to hear a lot more profundity and depth in this music. It's not superficial, feel-good music."
Halen's richly nuanced understanding of the piece reflects his method of study. In keeping with his usual approach, he began practicing the concerto several seasons earlier, working on it whenever he had a spare hour or a vacation day. He owns many recordings of the concerto, his current favorite being Maxim Vengerov's interpretation. He also tries to play the work with other orchestras when the opportunity arises. But most of his preparation, he confides, "is done in ways that you don't know over many years, through life experiences that you bring to a piece of music."
Ultimately, of course, the performer learns through performance. "You may think you're learning a piece by practicing it," he says, "but you relearn it all over again when you go out and play it in public. That's another form of practicing, and maybe the most important. It's the most nerve-wracking thing, and yet at the same time the most exciting, wonderful affirmation of life. I don't do it for self-aggrandizement or anything like that, but I feel as if there's a real growth that happens through it, and when it works, you feel as if you're making life better for yourself and hopefully for the audience."
When asked what he hopes the audience will take from his performance of the Glazunov Concerto, Halen modestly demurs. "As a musician, I'm not always able to think in that broad a scope, you know what I mean?" He chuckles softly. "It's hard because, listen, I'm just trying to get all the notes! But it would really mean a lot to me if someone is touched in some personal way. If it makes them think of someone whom they love, or a turn of phrase takes them someplace, makes them think of something they would never have thought of otherwise that's very important to them‹that is the most important goal. The goal is not to go out and just impress someone, or to make them think how good you are; it's to make them discover something about themselves."
René Spencer Saller is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.