A Deathly Violin Solo and its Unique Challenges

—By Jennifer Cho, California Symphony Concertmaster.

Arnold Böcklin’s self portrait inspired the chilling, creepy violin solo in the second movement of Mahler Symphony №4

According to Gustav Mahler’s wife Alma, the second movement in his Symphony №4, which features a uniquely challenging violin solo, was inspired by a self portrait of Arnold Böcklin. Behind the artist, the grim reaper — a symbol of death for many centuries — is portrayed playing the violin.

It’s very interesting to play this work after performing Saint Saen’s Danse Macabre last season and representing the devil. I never thought I would be portraying the devil or death so often! But I love any opportunity to be a little bit evil at work…

There are some unique challenges to preparing this solo, which requires the violin to be tuned up a whole note from normal. My mental check list as I prep for the piece looks something like this:

  1. Acquire second violin.
  2. Break in new strings, before transferring them to second violin and tuning them up an entire whole step.
  3. Cross fingers that weather won’t be too wonky, adding extra stress on an extremely taut instrument.
  4. Have plenty of back up strings on hand, especially the thinnest E string which is tuned up to an F.
  5. Prepare second shoulder rest, and some sort of violin stand to rest the second instrument.
  6. Learn solo based on muscle memory and fingerings rather than by ear. Having perfect pitch presents an extra challenge since the notes I see will not be the notes I hear.

This solo requires an unusual amount of preparation. But the effect is chilling, creepy, and certainly one of a kind.

California Symphony Concertmaster Jennifer Cho plays the violin solo in the Mahler Symphony №4 at our season opener LYRICAL DREAMS, Sunday, September 24 at 4pm, at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

· Donato Cabrera, conductor

· Maria Valdes, soprano


· Barber — Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op. 24

· Stookey — YTTE (Yield To Total Elation)

· Mahler — Symphony №4


Music Director Donato Cabrera gives a pre-concert talk, free to ticket holders, offering insights about the music, beginning one hour before the performance at 3 pm. Cabrera will be joined on stage by soprano Maria Valdes, Bay Area Composer Nathaniel Stookey, and Grammy-award nominated sound engineer and inventor Oliver DiCicco.


Tickets are $42 to $72 and $20 for students and are available by calling 925.943.SHOW and online at californiasymphony.org.

Season ticket packages are also on sale for as little as $99 — just $33 per concert — including the new Saturday night series.


A Lemony Snicket Holiday — Saturday, December 23, 2017 at 4PM and 8PM

Pastoral Beethoven — Saturday, January 20, 2018 at 8PM & Sunday, January 21 at 4PM

Mozart Requiem — Saturday, March 17, 2018 at 8PM & Sunday, March 18 at 4PM

Something Old, Something New — Sunday, May 6, 2018 at 4PM


The California Symphony, now in its fifth season under the leadership of Music Director Donato Cabrera, is a world-class, professional orchestra based in Walnut Creek, in the heart of the San Francisco East Bay since 1990. Our vibrant concert series is renowned for featuring classics alongside American repertoire and works by living composers. The Orchestra is comprised of musicians who have performed with the orchestras of the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, and others, and many of its musicians have been performing with the California Symphony for nearly all its existence.

Outside of the concert hall, the symphony actively supports music education for social change through its El Sistema-inspired Sound Minds program at Downer Elementary School in San Pablo, CA. The initiative brings intensive music instruction and academic enrichment to Contra Costa County schoolchildren for free, in an area where 94% of students qualify for the federal free or reduced price lunch program.

We also host the highly competitive Young American Composer-in-Residence program, which this year welcomes its first female composer, Katherine Balch.

California Symphony has launched the careers of some of today’s most-performed soloists and composers, including violinists Sarah Chang and Anne Akiko Meyers, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and composers such as Mason Bates, Christopher Theofanidis, and Kevin Puts. The Orchestra performs at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.

For more information, please visit californiasymphony.org.


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