In 2014, at the age of 16, Australian violinist Grace Clifford won the ABC Young Performer of the Year award, the biggest prize in Australia for classical musicians.
Since then, Grace has been studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and has performed with a number of orchestras around the world. This July, she joins the MSO and Associate Conductor Benjamin Northey to perform Bruch’s First Violin Concerto.
What are you looking forward to most about coming to Melbourne?
It is an incredible privilege to be able to work with the extraordinary musicians of the MSO and with Benjamin Northey, and Melbourne is such a beautiful city to explore.
What does the Bruch Violin Concerto mean to you, and why are you looking forward to performing it with the MSO?
The Bruch Violin Concerto is one of the most loved works ever written, and so oft performed — there is a real sense of wanting to do the work justice for the composer and for the audience. The second movement is so direct, so pure and heartfelt in its expression and yearning. The orchestration is beautiful and there are so many moments where the violin and orchestra converse and are co-dependent that it sometimes feels like large-scale chamber music. I have played it with piano reduction but this is my first time playing Bruch with an orchestra, which will of course be challenging but also a special experience.
Tell us about the work?
Max Bruch completed his Violin Concerto No. 1 in 1866 and was conductor of its first performance on 24 April of that year with Otto von Königslow as soloist. After its premiere Bruch, together with revered violinist Joseph Joachim, revised the concerto and Joachim performed the edited work in Bremen in 1868. Bruch wrote four violin concertos (including his ‘Scottish Fantasy’) — several more than most composers — so he must have loved the violin sonority. It’s interesting to consider the inspiration he might have drawn from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto — there are many similarities in form, like the linked movements and the immediate entrance of the soloist.
The story of the score is tragic. Bruch kept a copy of his score after selling it to publisher Nimrock for a small sum. The economic conditions of World War I left Bruch destitute, so he sent his autograph score to friends Rose and Ottilie Sutro (for whom he had written his Concerto in A-flat minor for Two Pianos and Orchestra) in the hope that they would sell it in the United States and send him the profit. Bruch died in 1920 having never received any money. The Sutro sisters had instead kept the score for profit themselves (alleging that they had sold it) and sent worthless German paper money to Bruch’s family.
Between 1933-1945 (after his death) Bruch’s music was banned in Germany because he had written music with Jewish themes and was considered a possible Jew. From Bruch’s plight we can learn that true art will rise to the top in spite of fashion, in spite of racism, in spite of fraud…that true art is timeless.
What is the history of your instrument and how old is it?
I am very fortunate to play on a violin by Jean-Baptise Vuillaume, made just outside of Paris in 1859: this year it is 159 years old. I find it fascinating to think about what was happening in the world artistically at that time: in January, Brahms premiered his first piano concerto; in March, Gounod’s Faust premiered in Paris; in April, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was first published; and in November, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species. Bruch would write his first Violin Concerto seven years later! It is very humbling to think of my violin being a vessel of its time.
How do you spend your spare time?
Curtis [Institute of Music, where Clifford is a student] is an extraordinarily busy place, there is no such thing as a weekend and there are so many chamber and orchestral ensembles and rehearsals as well as classes, tutorials and lessons — I love having time to read the newspaper or go on walks. At home, time with family is very special and I love bushwalking and reading.
What would you like Melbourne audiences to know about you?
I wish politicians were more engaged with the environment and the arts. I’m disappointed by the political process where climate change can be denied, human rights can be ignored and greed is good. Thankfully music is indiscriminate and universal, and a performance is always about the composer and the music.
See Grace Clifford perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 with the MSO during Beethoven’s Fifth at Melbourne Town Hall on 29 and 30 July.