Jonathan Carney grew up in a family of violinists and his father directed a community orchestra. So he was only seven or eight years old when he played the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (also known as the Bach Double) for the first time. Since then, Jonathan estimates that he has played it more than 100 times! So, how do musicians keep popular repertoire fresh and exciting for the audience?
For Jonathan, it starts with his approach to practicing. “Every time I open up a piece of music, I see something different—perhaps a new thought on the tempo relationships, coloring or phrasing. If you can’t come back to it fresh, then it is time to pack it up,” Jonathan exclaimed. He noted that the legendary violinist Nathan Milstein once observed that after his 500th performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, “he was just starting to understand the work.” Jonathan isn’t looking for that one perfect version. “There is more than one way to drive to Brooklyn and more than one way to play Bach,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be fresh. I don’t go with trends. I just open up the music and start practicing. I don’t use a GPS in my car; I don’t call ahead to make reservations in a hotel or restaurant when I travel. I just go and see what is available. This method of practicing just suits my personality.”
Jonathan remarked that the BSO’s recent performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 9 under Music Director Marin Alsop was quite different than the previous time Maestra Alsop had directed the work. “It took the orchestra a few rehearsals to get our heads around this new interpretation. But, we had a lot of fun with it. We can’t begin to make music interesting for the audience if we don’t first make it interesting for ourselves,” he explained. “The most frustrating rehearsals are when a guest conductor plays through the music without a convincing vision or interpretation. We are hungry for new ideas—something that makes us look at the music in a new way. We collectively sense when a conductor doesn’t have a clear vision.”
Jonathan’s early music studies emphasized this approach. His teacher would not let him listen to recordings of a work until he himself had developed a convincing interpretation. Then she would recommend various recordings. He does use YouTube to research new works, but doesn’t listen to music at home. “The only time I listen to recordings is in the car,” Jonathan said. “And then it is mostly music from my youth—the popular music from after WWII to the early 70s.”
Jonathan won’t spend much time in rehearsal on the Bach Double Concerto. “When I’m leading this group, I trust our musicians to respond in crunch time, and we can move forward quickly. We won’t do the Double until the dress rehearsal. We will spend most of the rehearsal time on the Scarlatti and Bach Cantata. In these lesser known works, we need to experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t. That takes a lot of time. Once we get everybody’s radar up, we don’t need more rehearsal time,” Jonathan explained.
In addition to his work as BSO Concertmaster and as a leader of these Baroque concerts, Jonathan has another job in Montgomery County. For the last five seasons, he has served as the artistic director of the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra (MCYO). “I supervise all the different MCYO orchestras. I work with the entire orchestra, not just the strings,” Jonathan said. ” I go to rehearsals about two to three times per month. Sometimes I sit in the orchestra and play with the kids. I also work with the conductors on programming. We use our smaller string orchestras to train the strings so that they can eventually play the big repertoire for full orchestra.”
Carney will perform and lead members of the BSO in an “All Baroque” concert at the Music Center at Strathmore on Thursday, July 10th at 8 pm. In addition to Bach, the program also features music of Corelli and Scarlatti. You can come early and enjoy pre-concert dining at the Party on the Patio. It makes a wonderful summer concert for those who have never heard the Bach Double or for those who have heard it 100 times!