On July 2, I made a three-plus hour trip to Toki city in Gifu Prefecture to hear a performance of the Violin Concerto No 1 in G-minor by Max Bruch (1838-1920). The Bruch concerto has been a favorite since I first turned on to classical music in my early teens, more than six decades ago. But I would not have invested the time or money for this performance had there not been something very special about it. The violinist Randall Goosby is the eldest son of one of the only two former students I have remained in contact with from my teaching of Japanese history at the University of California, Davis, 1977–1989.
Randall's performance lived up to the rave reviews that have followed his performances with world-class orchestras. These include the Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the London Philharmonic. Although on the small side for a "symphony orchestra," the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa (OEK) was a solid background to Randall's virtuosity.
He was repeatedly called back to the stage and performed two encores, the Bach adagio in G and the Louisiana Blues Strut by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. His performance of the Bruch concerto and the two encores were enthusiastically received by the audience. The members of the orchestra also joined in the vigorous and sustained applause.
The First Multinational Orchestra in Japan
Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa was founded in 1988 with support from Ishikawa Prefecture and Kanazawa City. The initiative was taken by conductor Hiroyuki Iwaki to create the country's first multinational chamber orchestra, consisting of 40 musicians from all over the world.
Aside from Randall with his Black American father and Osaka-born Korean mother, the conductor Kachun Wong is from Singapore. The concertmaster and numerous other members of the orchestra are European or North American, both men and women.
This is a striking contrast to what I see in some classical music YouTube videos, with famous European orchestras that are predominantly middle-aged white men.
The venue was not up to the standard of the Ishikawa Ongakudo in Kanazawa where Randall and the OEK had performed the same program the previous day. But I thought the acoustics were quite good. I heard aspects of the Bruch concerto that I had not previously noted even when listening to recordings on headphones.
Also, I was impressed by the size of the audience. The Sun Hall in the Tokishi Bunka Plaza (Toki City Culture Plaza) appeared to be at least two-thirds full. A notable number of them were young people and children accompanied by one or both parents.
Watching the audience come in, I could not help wondering whether a similar number would come to a classical concert in an American city as small as Toki (population of about 57,000).
About Randall Goosby
Randall started his violin studies at the age of seven with the Suzuki Method. This was at the behest of his mother who wanted each of her three children to learn a musical instrument.
Randall started with piano but quickly switched to violin. In interviews, he stresses the importance of his mother. She collected recordings of violin concertos, timed his practice sessions, and later accompanied him on regular flights to New York City for advanced lessons. Randall states that his mother brought an "iron fist" to his practice route whereas his father was more laid back.
In this narrative, one point stands out. The young musician's mother introduced music into his life after growing up in Japan. There, his mother saw that every child had the opportunity to enjoy an education in music. She wanted the same for her son, and he chose the violin.
"She took it upon herself to make sure I was fulfilling my potential to the best of my ability," said Goosby.
As for his choice of violin, Randall plays a Stradivarius known as the "Strauss." It was crafted in Cremona, Italy, in 1708 and was provided by The Samsung Foundation of Culture.
At age thirteen, Randall was the youngest performer to participate in the Sphinx Organization Concerto Competition.
Sphinx was founded in 1996 by the American violinist Aaron Dworkin to provide encouragement and support for Black and Latino musicians.
Randall has repeatedly noted the role of the Sphinx Organization in his own career. In fact, he has personally followed its program of taking live performances of classical music to children and young people. He aims to reach those who might otherwise have no exposure to the genre or at least not from a Black performer who they can relate to as someone like themselves.
Randall initially studied violin with Philippe Quint who had trained at the Juilliard School of Music. Then, he developed a close relationship with the Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. This was first through his attendance at the Perlman Music Program and later as the recipient of a full scholarship for The Juilliard School's Pre-College.
Then, he pursued a Bachelor of Music and Master of Music from Juilliard under the tutelage of violinists Itzhak Perlman, Catherine Cho, Laurie Smukler, and Donald Weilerstein. He was the recipient of an all-expenses Kovner Fellowship throughout his studies at Juilliard.
Classical Music Resurgence
After years of reported decline, there seems to be something of a resurgence of classical music. It seems to be attracting an increasing audience of young people. A recent BBC article entitled "Gen Z and young millennials' surprising obsession" presented survey data on this. It described how some young musicians have been using social media including TikTok to generate interest.
Randall is a performer well-suited to further this trend. Aside from his racial and ethnic heritage, he is singularly engaging in talking about music and its performance. Watching his videos, I immediately thought of Leonard Bernstein and his book The Joy of Music (1959).
An LA Times interviewer characterized Randall as "the face of the next generation of classical artists." To this, Randall responded, "It's incredibly humbling. It's an honor for me to continue the legacy that many other Black classical musicians and other under-represented musicians, composers, and performers have started. It didn't start with me."
Randall radiates the joy of classical music in concerts — even when he is not playing. Many soloists stand motionless when they are not performing. In the concert in Toki, he turned to the orchestra and visibly vibrated with the music. His father told me that some people complain about this, but I thought it was great. It is something I myself do when I am really moved by something like the Bruch Concerto.
Randall Goosby's Albums
As of this writing, Randall has two CDS out. The first from Decca has him performing the Max Bruch Concerto No 1 in G minor, which he performed in Kanazawa and Toki, coupled with the first and second violin concertos by Florence B Price.
Price was a Black American composer whose works were essentially unknown until her scores and other materials were discovered in 1953. They were found during renovations to her house following her death.
On first hearing, I did not quite know what to think about her compositions. Randall himself admits to an initial difficulty with her first concerto, saying, "It took me a while to get hip to the First Concerto."
After listening again, I came to feel that she had great talent. But it had been stunted by the racism prevailing in the United States of her era.
Randall's second album is also from Decca. It has performances of works by Xavier Dubois Foley, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, George Gershwin, William Grant Still, Florence Price, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Antonin Dvorak.
Randall explains, "I included Dvorak and Gershwin because a lot of people might not appreciate the fact that neither composer's music would be what it is without the inspiration they took from black music and black artists."
Zhu Wang provides piano accompaniment for the Coleridge-Taylor and Dvorak pieces. Xavier Dubois Foley plays double bass for his own composition Shelter Island, the first track on this album.
Among the videos in which Randall talks and performs, here are the ones I recommend. In "Violinist Randall Goosby in Performance and Conversation," Randall talks about and performs works by Florence Price. In "Randall Goosby on Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto," he explains how he practices particularly difficult passages. More practical tips are found in "Randall Goosby on Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto," where he also shares his love of slow, romantic passages. But my highest recommendation is "Randall Goosby: Tiny Desk Concert," in which he relates the influence of Black musicians and Black music on classical composers including Dvorak.
Randall Off Stage
You might wonder what a violin virtuoso does when not performing and practicing. The answer in Randall's case is golf, again due to the influence of his mother. He also describes himself as a "basketball nut."
Celebrating Black Musicians
I turned to classical music in my early teens and have listened to little other music since then. Growing up in the Chicago area, I did, however, occasionally listen to live broadcasts of religious services from churches with predominantly Black congregations, not for the religion but for the music.
Aside from a bit of Frank Zappa, Cajun, and Irish pub music, the only non-classical music in my personal collection is Chicago Blues. This makes me all that much more appreciative of Randall's efforts to celebrate the Black composers and to bring classical music to young Black people who could in the future greatly enrich the genre. Black performers have long enriched opera. Having them contribute to concert music is only to be welcomed and encouraged.
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Author: Earl H Kinmonth
Find other stories about Tokyo and nearby areas by Dr Kinmonth on JAPAN Forward.