Brahms Double Concerto: Notes from the performer

It’s always a neat insight to speak to the soloist of a performance. It’s a chance to really get to see what they are trying to convey, more than just getting the notes right, it’s a chance to see their journey from practicing to the performance.

Cellist Dr. Ka-Wai Yu has been gracious enough to share with me his thoughts on this fabulous piece and his preparation for it. The following are his words. Don’t miss the chance to see him perform with Dr. Paul Abegg Friday, April 27th!

Brahms is one of my favorite composers.   His Double Concerto has always been one of my favorite concertos of all time— the rich symphonic sound paired with the unique combination of virtuosity and musical depth really attracted me.  Of course, it helps to have the cello begin with an extensive “cool” solo(like a monologue) in the beginning (after a brief orchestral intro) too, haha!    As a child I have always wanted to play it after watching performance recordings of it.  The idea of actually doing this began when I first started teaching at Dixie. Former SWSO director Gary Caldwell kindly invited me to play a concerto with the orchestra sometime in future seasons.  I talked to my colleague Dr. Paul Abegg and he was just as excited as I was about doing it together.   So I told Gary I would like to play Brahms.   When Lucas became the new director and was very enthusiastic about doing the Double Concerto, we decided to make it happen! I admire Lucas for challenging the orchestra musicians to the next level by bringing in repertoire such as Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony this season.  The Brahms piece its in perfectly with the Beethoven for the upcoming concert.

It is a very well-written piece where the solo violin and cello parts are conversational— sometimes commenting each other, sometimes playing in unison (like the second movement) and sometimes sound like interrupting or even arguing against each other.  The way Brahms wrote it, the soloists interact and juxtapose with the active orchestral parts organically.  I remember playing the orchestral cello part in concert before.  Unlike many other concertos where the orchestral parts sometimes get less interesting rhythm and long supporting notes too often, it is never boring to play the orchestral accompaniment part in Brahms’ concertos— think about the heaven-like extended cello solo in the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2!

The Double Concerto is like another Brahms symphony rather than merely a piece for two soloists with accompaniment.  The solo parts sound like a part of the orchestra in many aspects.  And remember it is “soloists” not “soloist,” very unusual yet interesting to bring back the idea of featuring more than one soloist in the concerto, since Baroque concerti grossi and Beethoven’s famous Triple Concerto.

Paul and I have been practicing this piece together regularly since last Fall.  What an honor for me to perform with a great musician like him!  In order to prepare for this piece, each of the two of us has to master our own part first with deal with plenty of technical challenges and musical complexity.  On top of that, Paul and I have been spending as much effort and time practicing together as well in order to match each other in tempo, articulations, bowings, musical interpretation, among other things.  But I would say there is never a lack of fun and excitement as we are getting ready for the piece!

Written in 1887, this Double Concerto is Brahms’ final composition for orchestra.  There is an interesting story behind it.  The piece was actually Brahms’ gesture of reconciliation for his best friend — violinist Joseph Joachim, after their long friendship had been estranged after Joachim’s divorce with his wife Amalie (Brahms had sided with Amalie in the dispute).  I think the story of tested but reconciled friendship can be reflected in the beautiful yet deep music in this piece.  The cellist dedicatee of this piece Robert Hausmann was the cellist in the Joachim Quartet playing with Joachim— great friend with both Joachim and Brahms.  He premiered Brahms Cello Sonata No. 2 and championed Brahms’ chamber music for strings.