Randall Goosby on Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Classics, Guest Artist

As a precocious, conventionally trained violinist, Randall Goosby spent his youth learning the standard repertoire. But in the last four or five years, he has begun to explore the vast range of composers of color.

Goosby will make his Milwaukee Symphony debut February 23-25 with Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, a staple of the solo repertoire. His first two CDs, however, have mostly featured the work of Black composers.

“The industry as a whole has broadened its focus to include more diverse repertoire,” he said, “but it might not be from an honest and genuine place. It might be to check off the box.” But what he hopes to do is to “create a landscape across the programming, to show that this composer knew this composer and took inspiration from this piece.”

During the racial reckoning of 2020, Goosby posted some solidarity concerts online, like many other artists did. “But in some ways it made me feel worse,” he said. “It wasn’t really making an impact.”

When Decca signed him to a recording contract that year, his debut album was an opportunity to make some of those connections. It included music from William Grant Still and Florence Price, two African-American composers who are better known now than they were five years ago, along with white composers such as Gershwin and Dvořák, who were influenced by the sounds of Black music.

In the Los Angeles Times, critic Mark Swed wrote, “Goosby plays like an angel with nothing to prove. A cool, calm, collected angel. … Thus far he has steered clear of high-volume repertory show pieces. His focus has been on Black composers, for which he advocates with erudite modesty.”

But Goosby’s relationship to the Mendelssohn concerto dates to his teenage years. “The Mendelssohn is one of the first major concertos that young violinists learn,” Goosby said. “It’s got moments of joy and exuberance and also deeply felt melancholy – nostalgic, complicated emotions.” Some of the directions in the piece seem to contradict each other, he said, but every violinist figures out a solution.

In any case, he said, “I never want to play it twice the same way. I can be influenced by what I’m feeling in the moment. Maybe a particular note in a particular phrase will stand out in the string section, and I can switch it up and be spontaneous with it.”

He and guest conductor Christian Reif have performed the piece before with other orchestras, and he said, “It’s fun working with Christian. He values that spontaneity.” Rehearsals are for setting the basic ground rules, but changing minor details on the spur of the moment “keeps everyone engaged.”

Goosby started violin when he was 7 and progressed quickly. From ages 11 to 14, he and his mother flew to New York every month from their home in Memphis or Jacksonville for lessons at Juilliard. “Lots of time, energy, resources, it was a big sacrifice for everyone,” he said. But at Juilliard, he studied with Itzhak Perlman and was “surrounded by other fantastic musicians my age of equal talent and dedication.”

At age 13, he won a concerto competition sponsored by Sphinx, a nonprofit that encourages Black and Latino participation in classical music. That honor took him not only to downtown concert halls but also to many schools in low-income areas — which made him more nervous than sharing the stage with major orchestras. As a 13-year-old who looked younger, he felt intimidated by taller students with tattoos and facial hair. “I expected boos, almost,” he remembered. But after introducing himself and playing Bach, “the kids’ jaws were on the floor. They had never experienced those vibrations from a piece of wood before. And I thought, there’s a whole lot of kids who could be finding and developing a love of music.”