Virtuosity of the Soloist

Louisville Orchestra concertmaster Gabe Lefkowitz performs Tchaikovsky dazzler.

Gabe Lefkowitz.

By Bill Doolittle

Try this:

Count from one to 10 as fast as you can.

Can you do it in one second?

How about one to 12?

Pretty tough, eh? Well, think of the difficulty of bowing that many notes – that fast – on the violin and playing them in lightning-quick passages as Gabe Lefkowitz will do when he performs the celebrated Tchaikovsky violin concerto in concerts Friday and Saturday with the Louisville Orchestra.

Lefkowitz, the symphony’s youthful concertmaster, says the fast passages in the concerto’s third movement are called moto perpetuo – literally, perpetual motion – a series of running fast notes.

“So, if I had to estimate notes per second, let’s see, somewhere around 12 notes per second – for a very long period of time,” says Lefkowitz, who has given some thought to the difficulties of the work. “It’s something that seems almost incomprehensible that a human being can do that. But when you’ve spent years of your life training for it, it is within the realm of human ability, shall we say.”

Of course, the music is Tchaikovsky, so it is not just a bow in a blur and fingers flying. The music is touching, beautiful in a Russian peasant way.

“The thing about Tchaikovsky’s music is because it is so lyrical you can never let the technical challenges get in the way of the tune, of the lyrics,” says Lefkowitz. “If you start with the first theme, the technique and all the technical fireworks come out of that. They are never supposed to sound difficult for the sake of virtuosity.”

Then again, concertos are meant to be virtuosic. They’re showcase pieces for soloists, skittering up and down the scale and rising in high-wire cadenzas. But even when the notes are fast, they can be full of grace and beauty.

“And some of Tchaikovsky’s greatest accomplishments were in ballet, so you can’t help but kind of dance to the music,” says Lefkowitz. “He had a natural gift for writing music that inspires you to move.”

But you better have fast feet. Or serious chops, as musicians like to say.

And be ready to log plenty of practice hours.

“My process is I start working on it in earnest two or three months before the performance,” says Lefkowitz, who previously played Tchaikovsky when he was concertmaster with the Knoxville Symphony.

“I will play it slowly, making exercises out of the music – devising ways to work on difficult passages. Then work up to speed,” he explains. “I will do it that way until maybe two weeks before the performance – and only then will I try to play things in performance tempo.”

The violinist says the go-slow-to-start process is necessary for learning a difficult piece, in the same way athletes practice sports techniques – a receiver running a new route, a hitter perfecting his swing. “It’s just necessary, and I think that’s how muscle memory is built,” he says.

Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in 1878 with the assistance of a violinist friend named Iosif Kotek who tried out the composer’s passages as the writing progressed.

But Lefkowitz says the concerto was not initially well-received.

“When it was premiered, it was actually considered ugly, in a way, for how difficult it was,” says Lefkowitz. “Most violinists of the day thought Tchaikovsky had gone a little overboard in what he was demanding of the player. A lot of the extended techniques and the type of virtuosity required weren’t common up to that point.”

Today, violinists are more skilled. Top players can play it. But Lefkowitz thinks it is important not to get caught up in a speed trap.

“The important thing to remember is that as entertaining as that is, as artists we strive to go beyond in expression,” he says. “I think if you give a performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto and the audience comes away thinking, ‘Well, that was so difficult and impressive, and look at how many notes that person played,’ you’ve failed a little bit.

“You really want to move people,” says Lefkowitz. “And the slower themes are really so beautiful that you hope to provide an emotional experience, as well – not just a dazzling one.”

The violinist thinks about that for a second.

“But if people are dazzled, that’s OK, too.”

Lefkowitz, 29, is an integral part of the youth movement underway in the Louisville Orchestra under director Teddy Abrams. As concertmaster, he is first chair of the first violin section, and leader of the orchestra. He’s also a composer of video game music and has performed with rock and roll bands, including an appearance with Vampire Weekend on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Lefkowitz found his first celebrity at the of 16 with a performance of “Amazing Grace” on opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. He graduated magna cum laude from Columbia, taking his masters in performance at Julliard.

When Lefkowitz was named concertmaster in Knoxville, his father Ronan Lefkowitz, who plays in the Boston Symphony, traded violins with Gabe – handing along a family-owned 1869 Vuillaume violin to his son.

The orchestra will be under the baton of guest conductor Jayce Ogren for this weekend’s concerts, which include Jean Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony. Performances are in Whitney Hall on Friday at 11 a.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. VT

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto

Tickets: $25-85