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Classical Notes

Number-crunching with Sibelius

Posted at 8:39 AM on September 20, 2006 by Rex Levang

A few days ago, Don Lee, and one of our readers, weighed in on the striking popularity of the Sibelius violin concerto.

I have my own theory on why it's performed so often, and it’s more about business and numbers than about the (estimable) quality of that piece.

Let’s say that many symphony concerts feature a guest soloist. And then let’s say that many famous soloists are either violinists or pianists (seems like a safe bet), and that they play concertos.

Now there are lots of good piano concertos. Beethoven wrote five, Chopin and Brahms each wrote two, Mozart wrote a whole stackful, Rachmaninoff wrote two very popular ones. And so on. But with violin concertos, things are much slenderer. One Brahms, one Tchaikovsky, one Sibelius, one Beethoven. And so on. So with lots of violinists, but fewer concertos to choose from, it might just make mathematical sense that violin concertos would rise to the top of the most-performed charts.

Apropos of that, a true anecdote (sorry, I cannot remember the musicians of whom this is told). A famous violinist is at the airport, heading off to an engagement, and he bumps into a famous pianist.

They greet each other, ask where the other one is going, etc.

“Tell me,” says the violinist. “When you get to [name of town], what will you be performing?”

“Oh, you know,” groans the pianist. “Another performance of one of those @#$%@ Rachmaninoff concertos.”

The violinist looks at him very gravely. “You must never talk like that,” he says. “Do you know what we violinists would give to have a Rachmaninoff violin concerto?”