Randall Goosby, the fast-rising 25-year-old star violinist, joins the Baltimore Symphony on Sept. 25 and 26 to play one of the Big Romantic Concertos: Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor (Op. 26). “One of the most perfect, perfect pieces,” Goosby says on the phone with pure matter-of-factness. “One of the greatest of all time.”
He should know. Goosby knows this piece, which Bruch completed in 1866, back and forth. His former teacher, the violinist Philippe Quint, recently got to hear his erstwhile pupil lead the concerto with the Atlanta Symphony and was gratified to hear some of his lessons intact within Goosby’s rapidly expanding stylistic universe. One of those lessons was about the very first note of the violin — a wide open G that cracks open like first light before soaring into a cresting cadenza.
“There’s nothing more important than the first impression,” he remembers telling Goosby sometime in their first year of study together. “The note has a beginning, a middle and an end. This open string must not sound like an open string!”
Goosby remembers one 30-minute lesson dedicated to that opening note in the year he spent learning the Violin Concerto. Quint, who may hold the note in more architectural regard to the structure of the rest of the piece, remembers differently: “Overall, we probably spent maybe a hundred hours on that G,” he says.
For a work so grand that Bruch himself seems to get routinely lost in its shadow, a soloist needs more than a spotlight to stand out: It’s a work that demands a sustained and precarious balance between power and grace, dominance and submission, but most importantly, technical virtuosity and unvarnished honesty. And each demand begins with that first note. Done right, it sounds like the concerto taking its first breath.
As such, it’s a completely different experience through the bodies of different players. I’d liken it to a fingerprint, but it’s something less static and more intimate than that. It’s something more instantly identifiable: an embrace of the music.
Give it a try: Go on a little Bruch Violin Concerto Video Tour on YouTube, and hear how the single line of that opening note — the liberation of its ad libitum notation — holds infinite expressive possibilities: See Itzhak Perlman. Or Jascha Heifetz. Or Gil Shaham. Or Hilary Hahn.
And then go back to 2009, and watch a much younger Goosby, at 12 years old, having just taken first place in a junior-level competition at the Music in the Mountains Festival in Durango, Colo., and drawing a bow across a note that would launch not just a concerto, but his career.
Quint first met Goosby at Music in the Mountains a year before that performance, when Goosby was randomly assigned to Quint’s master class. By this point, the young Goosby had already struck up an auspicious regional presence back home — wherever home happened to be.
Born in San Diego, Goosby is the son of a Korean mother and a Black father — Jiji and Ralph, who met in Osaka, Japan, where the former lived and the latter was teaching English. He grew up with two younger siblings, each of whom would inherit Jiji’s love for music. Goosby describes his mother as not just a “passionate singer and dancer,” but a “catalyst from day one.”
“Your parents could easily want a little bit of quiet time after a long day at work,” he says, “but my parents were always there to say, ‘Hey, what’s the next piece you’re going to work on?’ “
These early pushes toward music (and long hauls to lessons) quickly paid off.
After moving to Jacksonville, Fla., Jiji drove Goosby to weekly lessons at Stetson University with Routa Kroumotvitch-Gomez, leading to his debut with the Jacksonville Symphony at age 9.
When the family moved to Memphis two years later, the 11-year-old Randall started commuting with his dad to Nashville for lessons with Alvaro Gomez at Austin Peay State.
The following summer, Goosby went to Durango.
“I’ll never forget that first impression,” Quint says on the phone from Chicago. He marveled at the wide-eyed kid’s budding virtuosity, but more so at how easily he picked up on the finer points of instruction, how readily he dispensed with iffy habits, how effortlessly he made his instrument sing. At first, Quint worried about overwhelming the kid with too much information — then he realized he was the one feeling overwhelmed.
“I changed a lot of nitty-gritty violin details,” Quint says. “I changed his position, his bowings, his fingerings, and I was just in absolute shock that he was able to take everything in so quickly. I knew I was working with somebody special.”
Quint ended up taking on Goosby as his own student, with Jiji and son making monthly trips to New York City.
They worked on Bruch. They worked on Bruch some more. The Bruch worked. Goosby returned to Music in the Mountains in 2009 to win top prize in its Young Artist Competition.
From there, at 13, he became the youngest ever winner in the junior division of the Sphinx Competition — a prestigious national competition and mentorship program for young Black and Latino string players — and performed at a Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic. In 2011, Goosby was accepted into the Perlman Music Program, after which Itzhak Perlman himself referred him into Juilliard’s pre-college program.
And in 2014, Goosby entered Juilliard full time, where his studies continued with Perlman and Catherine Cho; where he pursued a master’s degree with Laurie Smukler and Don Weilerstein; and where, in between a full calendar of performances, he’s working with Cho and Perlman once again toward attaining his artist diploma.
Goosby’s upward trajectory was turned into something like an uncertain spiral in 2020, as the tumult of mounting protests against racial injustice and police brutality against Black Americans overlapped with the turmoil of the pandemic.
“I was stuck in a weird place where I was aware of all these tragic, horrific manifestations of racism and systemic racism and all of these things, but I felt powerless, like I didn’t know what to do about it,” Goosby says. “I didn’t feel that going out and protesting was what would satisfy me. I didn’t feel that posting yet another online performance tribute was going to be enough for me.”
When word came that Decca would release his debut, Goosby felt a different kind of release.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is it,’ “ he says. “This is the chance to really do something that’s meaningful not only to me, but meaningful to the classical music world at large. Just giving voice and paying respect to some of these artists and composers who, without them, I probably wouldn’t be here doing what I’m doing today.”
The result is “Roots.” Recorded in New York City in December and February, it’s a centuries-spanning selection of composers — all of whom are tangled up in the idea of the title.
Some are Goosby’s enduring influences — like Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, whose “Blue/s Forms” were dedicated to Sanford Allen, another of Goosby’s heroes and the first Black member of the New York Philharmonic. Others are recent discoveries — like a world-premiere recording of two of Florence Price’s recently recovered Fantasies for violin and piano, as well as a piece titled “Adoration.”
The collection includes works from non-Black composers — Gershwin and Dvorak among them — which honor the still-young roots of a new American tradition.
And its searing, searching opening salvo, “Shelter Island,” is a brand-new work: a stirring duo featuring Goosby and the composer and talented double-bassist Xavier Foley that blends blues, bluegrass and a theme that hangs around in your head — a folkloric echo of the “Cupid Shuffle.”
Taken together, “Roots” feels more like a set than a recital, shaking the timidity that cushions so many debut efforts and stretching between genres and eras with the ease and ache of Goosby’s notes on “Shelter Island” — drawn between blues and jubilation.
With its astutely selected program and crisp capture of Goosby’s natural talent — a sound that sways between fierce confidence and somber sweetness — “Roots” comes off as both a corrective measure for our cultural moment and an intensely personal document for the ages.
But what makes “Roots” most impressive is how its mix of mastery and mystery leaves one with that rarest of pleasures — something sometimes reserved for the opening notes of well-worn concertos: a first impression worth repeating.