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Randall Goosby: the rising star violinist on his hope to bring music to a wider audience

The American violinist talks to Brian Wise about his hope to bring classical music to a wider audience, the advantages and trials of his mixed heritage, and about broadening the repertoire with his debut album 'Roots', which celebrates the work of black composers and performers

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Between the entrances, bows, dramatic pauses and other wordless rituals of the concert stage, Randall Goosby ponders what truly connects him to his audiences. ‘I look back at the audiences that I’ve stood in front of, and I try and think about the things I have in common with them other than our interest in classical music,’ he says. ‘There are probably little to none. And I’d like for there to be a little bit more of a real community around this music and more knowledge of the fact that this music really is by and for everyone.’

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Goosby comes to his views not just as a Juilliard School-trained violinist who has studied with Itzhak Perlman, performed at Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall, and plays on a loaned ‘Sennhauser’ Guarneri del Gesù from 1735. He is also the 24-year-old son of an African-American father and a Korean mother, who enjoys video games, cross-training workouts, the NBA, sushi and hip-hop. He believes there is an audience that shares such passions which has eluded traditional concert halls. ‘As much as I love performing in big halls with big orchestras, I want to put the same level of commitment into performing and interacting,’ he says. That means ‘being with members of communities that are currently not really a part of this classical music community.’

Goosby does regular outreach work in urban classrooms, hospitals and community centers, his relatable manner seen in the way he has donned a T-shirt featuring the former NBA star Dwyane Wade. Amid the social justice protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, Goosby helped to organise a series of online talks with prominent black musicians to discuss inequities in the field.

Randall Goosby’s first recording

With his newly released debut recording on Decca Classics, Goosby says he seeks to ‘amplify the black voices and the voices of those who didn’t have a chance to have their music widely heard and appreciated during their lifetime.’ Titled Roots, the album features composers such as William Grant Still, Florence Price and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, as well as those inspired by African-American culture, notably George Gershwin and Antonín Dvořák.

Read our review of Randall Goosby’s Roots here.

‘When I was younger I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t really want to be the black violinist who plays music by black composers,’ Goosby says. ‘I’m in love with Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, the way that so many other violinists and musicians are. But especially in the past couple of years, I’ve become aware of the fact that there’s a lot of other music out there that we don’t know about that is also great.’

The album features the first commercial recordings of three works by Florence Price, a trailblazer whose music fell into neglect after her death in 1953. Goosby plays her Fantasies Nos 1 & 2 for violin and piano, along with Adoration, a miniature presented in a violin-and-piano arrangement. The rescued treasures have an easy appeal, blending European forms with the melodic stamp of African-American spirituals. More personal in meaning is Still’s 1943 Suite for Violin and Piano, nicknamed Mother and Child. ‘My mother was a big part of my growing up and of my development as a person, but very much so as a musician,’ Goosby says. ‘We didn’t really know what we were getting into when I started violin but the piece always brings back memories of the good times, the bad times, the butting of heads, the tears after a hard lesson and all of the travel.’

Where is Randall Goosby from?

Goosby’s parents met in Japan, where his Korean mother, Jiji, was raised, and where his American father, Ralph, was teaching English as part of a post-collegiate programme. The couple moved to the US and married, eventually settling in Jacksonville, Florida, to raise a family.

Having grown up with a robust music education in Japan, Jiji Kim-Goosby wanted her three children to have similar opportunities and started each on an instrument. Randall took up the violin at the age of seven after deciding that the piano wasn’t a fit. ‘In those first couple of years of having a violin in my hands I don’t think I put it down,’ he recalls.

The young violinist progressed rapidly as he studied with a teacher in Daytona Beach, making his orchestral debut with the Jacksonville Symphony at nine. Two years later, he began commuting to New York City once a month for lessons with Philippe Quint. ‘My mom would sit there for the whole time, taking notes and recording on the camcorder,’ Goosby says of the sessions. ‘I’d go back to the hotel, practise a little bit, and come back on Sunday for another three-hour lesson. And then we’d fly home.’

Jiji ensured that her teenage son devoted three hours a day to the violin, sometimes hovering nearby with a kitchen timer or bribing him with sushi, his favourite food. Soon, other doors opened. Quint recommended him to the Perlman Music Program, a summer camp on Shelter Island, NY, run by the famed violinist and his wife, Toby Perlman. Goosby continued to study with Itzhak Perlman in Juilliard Pre-College, a weekend programme, before moving to New York and attending the conservatory full-time, earning both his bachelor and master’s degrees (he is currently pursuing an artist diploma at the school). ‘A lot of what I remember getting from Mr Perlman was that you have to be moved by this music in order to be in a position to move your audience,’ says Goosby. ‘It’s not that this was a new concept to me. But it wasn’t always a focus and he really changed that.’ His other teachers included Catherine Cho, Donald Weilerstein and Laurie Smukler.

There were some difficult moments. During Goosby’s junior year, he was forced to curtail his playing for a semester while recovering from tendonitis on his left shoulder. He admits his video gaming also caused a certain lack of focus. But he had already demonstrated a capacity for mental toughness and introspection, having won first prize at 13 in the Junior Division of the Sphinx Competition, a contest for black and Latino string players held in Detroit. In 2018, he placed first in the Young Concert Artists auditions, a competition that brings a management contract and recitals in New York and Washington, DC.

On his new recording, Goosby channels some of Perlman’s honeyed tone and rhapsodic phrasing in a set of transcriptions of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. ‘He’s a big fan of that heart-on-your-sleeve, kind-of cheesy music,’ Goosby says with a chuckle. ‘That’s probably at least a little part of where I get my affinity for that.’

The mentors

Another mentor is the violinist Sanford Allen, the first black member of the New York Philharmonic, whom Goosby came to know through the Sphinx Organization. Goosby’s new album includes Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s Blue/s Forms, a solo piece that Allen premiered in 1972. In a Zoom call, Allen advised Goosby to play it with the ‘throaty’ sound of an old-time blues singer. ‘He’s been a role model in a very different way from a lot of other violinists, simply because of the way that his life and career has played out,’ Goosby says.

Goosby speaks highly of Allen’s achievements, yet recognises that progress is still needed. Allen joined the Philharmonic in 1962, but resigned in 1977, telling the New York Times he ‘was tired of being a symbol’. On the online music talk show, Basic Pitch, Goosby himself recalled encountering racially insensitive comments from fellow students. ‘I’ve been the butt of affirmative action jokes,’ he said, alluding to remarks that his achievements were somehow not the product of hard work but a hidden favouritism. ‘This is something I am constantly thinking about, not only in institutions, but in the field in general.’ He is especially troubled by tokenism, as when an orchestra invites a black musician to perform on a Martin Luther King Jr. Day concert but never on a traditional subscription programme.

Still, he is largely optimistic. ‘Over the past year there’s a there’s been a real, substantial shift in the focus of presenters,’ he says. ‘Obviously, they are trying to keep their audiences’ interests and tastes in mind. But they are also making sure that their audiences have a chance for their horizons to be broadened and for their taste to be more inclusive as well.’

Goosby’s upcoming concert diary includes concertos by Mozart, Bruch and Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the latter with conductor Gustav Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic: broad repertoire is clearly a priority. Less visibly, his manager tells me how Goosby regularly speaks to boards of directors and with major donors, understanding that, to affect change in classical music, one has to reach people at every level.

Goosby credits some of his outlook, including maintaining a community-minded spirit, to his Japanese and Korean heritage. ‘One of the most important life lessons and mantras that I’ve gotten from my mom is that if you put a hundred per cent of your heart, your mind and your effort into something that you love to do, it’s going to pay itself forward,’ he says. ‘What you put in comes back to you at some point down the road.’

Read all Randall Goosby reviews here.

Randall Goosby’s new recording ‘Roots’ is out now on Decca Classics. 

Read our review of Randall Goosby’s ‘Roots’ here.

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Top image credit: Kaupo Kikkas