The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Which violin concertos have the hardest openings? You may be surprised | September 18, 2016

By Jacob Stockinger

Recently The Ear stumbled upon a fascinating story, on a blog by Nathan Cole, about famous violin concertos.

It was NOT about the Top 10 Best Violin Concertos ranked in order.

It was NOT about the Top 10 Most Difficult Violin Concertos.

It was simply about the most difficult openings of violin concertos – about what happens when the violinist walks on stage and starts up along with the orchestra or before it or after it.

It uses the Olympics’ sports competitions as a model and awards degrees of difficulty along with explanations for the scoring.

(For a close to simultaneous start by orchestra and soloist, listen to American violinist Hillary Hahn, who played a recital last spring at the Wisconsin Union Theater, and conductor Paavo Jarvi in the opening of the popular Violin Concerto in E Minor by Felix Mendelssohn in the YouTube video at the bottom. It has over 8 million hits and it is very relevant to the story.)


The story reminds The Ear of famous literary critic Frank Kermode’s classic book “The Sense of an Ending” — only now it would be “The Sense of a Beginning,” a subject the late literary critic, cultural analyst and Palestinian activist Edward Said wrote about in his book “Beginnings: Intention and Method.”

The musical discussion features accessible and informative analysis by an accomplished violinist as well as terrific audio-visual clips of each concerto and the openings in question.

It’s a long piece – good for weekend reading, perhaps because it can be done in different segments at different times.

But even if you read only a part of it, it certainly imparts a sense of the challenges that a soloist faces. You vicariously experience the thrill and intimidation of walking out on stage and starting to play.

And it enhances your appreciation of some famous violin concertos and of what it takes to pull them off in live performance.

Like The Ear, you will come away with a new appreciation of the challenges that any concerto soloist – violinist, pianist, cellist, brass player, wind player, whatever — faces.

Here is a link:

The Ear also hopes the website follows up with a listing or ranking of the most difficult ENDINGS of violin concertos and a discussion of what makes them so difficult.

In the meantime, The Ears asks:

Do violinists out there agree or disagree with the scoring and reasons?

Do they care to leave a comment one way or the other?

Do they have other candidates – say, Baroque concertos by Antonio Vivaldi or Johann Sebastian Bach — to rank for the difficult of starting?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. And I was mistaken about Nathan Cole. He is Bob Cole’s grandson (not son) and he is now Assistant Principal Second with the LA Phil. He had been Second Principal with Chicago.


    Comment by Wini — September 18, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

  2. Is this the Nathan Cole who is the son of Bob Cole, flutist and founding member of the Wingra Woodwind Quintet at UW-Madison?


    Comment by Wini — September 18, 2016 @ 1:48 pm

    • Ooops. Sorry for the duplicate post.Wini


      Comment by Wini — September 18, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    • I am already a subscriber. Wonder why my post triggered this.




      Comment by GLENN H BOWEN — September 18, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

  3. Is this the Nathan Cole the son of Bob Cole, flutist and founding member of the Wingra Woodwind Quintet at UW-Madison?


    Comment by Wini — September 18, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

  4. Your interesting question evoked memories of a concert I attended at the Civic Opera House in Chicago when I was a college student (c. 1960). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra accompanied David Oistrakh (sp?), then a newly arrived refugee from the Soviet Union, in the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos in the same program. The concert was held in this venue because it was not part of the season subscription series at Orchestra Hall and, understandably, public interest was very high.
    Post-concert gossip alleged that the the first one to be played was the opposite of what the soloist was expecting. He nevertheless played both to a warmly enthusiastic audience. I have no idea whether the gossip had any basis in fact or whether there is any way to authenticate it, though I’ll bet you could confirm the existence of that concert. In any case, Oistrakh was an enormously gifted musician and I am forever grateful to have heard him at the peak of his career.


    Comment by Johanna Fabke — September 18, 2016 @ 11:50 am

    • David Oistrakh was not a “newly arrived refugee from the Soviet Union” circa 1960. He lived almost all of his life in the Soviet Union although he was permitted to concertize abroad. As late as 1968, for instance, there were wide celebrations in the USSR for the violinist’s sixtieth birthday, which included a celebratory performance in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatory of the Tchaikovsky concerto, one of his favorite works, under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

      He toured the USA in 1955.


      Comment by fflambeau — September 18, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

  5. That was a great article about the difficulty of violin concerti openings. My son is an almost world-class violinist & he’s performed the Mendelssohn publicly with a wind ensemble in California. But in my book, the most technically demanding piece he’s ever done is Sarasate’s Ziegunerweisen when he was about 12. That night @ the American School in Japan’s auditorium, he was zoning. Almost perfect. I’ll never forget it.


    Comment by Larry Retzack — September 18, 2016 @ 1:15 am

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