Susan Oliver caught up with Guest Artist Jonathan Crow who joins us for the Saturday, November 2 concert “Between Us” and they talked about his family, the Brahms concerto he is performing, his 1742 del Gesu violin, and more…

SUSAN: What are the five things you can’t live without?

JONATHAN: Conveniently I have five lovely women in my life- my wife, two daughters, and two cats!!

SUSAN: What is your motto, or the advice you live by?

JONATHAN: There are so many options- I’d be interested to see what others say I’d live by… Perhaps- “just show up”?

SUSAN: Do you still carry your daughter Sabina’s cast-off pink lunch box to work?

JONATHAN: I do! It’s getting pretty ratty, but it’s a great lunch bag- insulated and everything!

Jonathan practicing with his daughter Lucy

SUSAN: Michael Newnham, the PSO’s Music Director and Conductor, has called you a “great friend” of the PSO. What is your relationship with the organization, and what draws you to play with the orchestra?

JONATHAN: I had a great time [the] last time [I] performed with the PSO and Michael- it’s an orchestra with a great attitude! It was amazing to see every musician committed to make something incredible onstage, and having a great time while doing it.

SUSAN: You are concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony, Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music, Associate Professor of Violin at the University of Toronto, and founding member of the JUNO Award–winning New Orford String Quartet, as well as a father and husband… with the piece being uncharacteristically collaborative – “a concerto not so much for the violin as against the violin” – do you have to work differently/more intensely with the orchestra than if you were performing a solo piece?

JONATHAN: I’m not officially rehearsing the Brahms yet with the PSO, but I’m certainly practicing it and getting it back in my fingers. This is an interesting concerto, because even though it’s technically a violin solo, much of the piece is actually soloistic for the orchestra, with the violin perhaps expanding and decorating the tunes that come from the orchestra. It’s certainly and intense play for the soloist- it takes a lot of stamina to get through the piece, as there are a lot of balance issues that need to be worked out in rehearsal, and need the soloist to really understand how to project through a big orchestra.

Jonathan with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

SUSAN: What are the first three words that come to mind when you think of the Brahms’ epic Violin Concerto ? And, why?

JONATHAN: Epic. Exhausting. Exhilarating. This is one of the cornerstones of the violin repertoire, and one of the greatest pieces ever written for the violin! But it’s so tiring!

SUSAN: The piece is considered technically difficult with multiple stopping, broken chords, rapid scale passages, and rhythmic variation. It has been described as “almost excessively demanding and awkward” and “unviolinistic.” You are universally known for your virtuosic performing, and your chamber music teacher at McGill, Andre J. Roy, has described your style of playing as “extremely meticulous. He understands music and structures very well.” As such, how do you view this piece?

JONATHAN: I think structure is a great word here- so much of the power of the concerto comes from building and releasing of tension, using rhythm and register to create an arc throughout the entire piece. The overall effect is incredible, and despite the awkward passages a soloist shouldn’t ever show difficulty to the audience- they don’t care how hard it is!

SUSAN: The first movement is notable for its improvised cadenza. In an interview with James Strecker in 2017, he asked you “What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?” and you replied “Improvisation! I’m too nervous to do it in public…” So, Will you be performing the cadenza composed by Joseph Joachim, or improvising your own? 

JONATHAN: I will be performing the Joachim cadenza. I’ve written my own cadenza to this and other concerti, but I always come back to the Joachim for performances- his connection to Brahms and contributions to the creation of this piece are just too strong for me not to play his cadenza!

SUSAN: Can you say a few words about your violin?

JONATHAN: It’s a 1742 del Gesu that is on loan to me. It’s an amazing violin and has everything you could ever want from an instrument. Exploring the different sounds and colours that it holds is a lifelong journey.

SUSAN: In an interview with your alma mater, the Victoria Conservatory of Music, you said that you’ve been “…lucky to perform with some of the world’s conductors, both as a soloist and orchestral players, as well as collaborating with amazing world-class musicians in chamber music settings. I feel like I’ve managed to find a great mix of everything I love about music!” With so much accomplished, in five/ten years from now, professionally you will be….?

JONATHAN: I think one of the joys of music is that you’re never finished- I’ll never master the Brahms concerto, but trying to bring something new to every performance is part of the joy of being a musician!

SUSAN: What would you want to convey to the PSO audience, or those who have not been to the symphony but are reading the concert article, about classical music?

JONATHAN: I think I’d just remove the word “classical”! Music is music- it doesn’t really matter what kind of music it is- there is something amazing about every concert and everything on stage. Brahms didn’t write a “classical” concerto- he just wrote a piece that meant something to him. And hopefully to everyone in the audience! We’ve all heard and loved classical music in films and in pop songs, but somehow we think of an orchestra concert as something different and foreboding- it’s not!

SUSAN: What is your favorite song to belt out at the bar/in the car/for karaoke?

JONATHAN: I guess something from Wicked? Can you tell I have two teenage daughters?