Southbank SinfoniaWhat is a concerto?

Check out our new video which gives a brief history of the concerto – 400 years in 150 seconds!

A concerto is a piece of music that features one player (the soloist) standing or sitting at the front of the stage playing the melody, while the rest of the orchestra accompanies them. The soloist is the hero, the prima donna. Often they don’t even follow the conductor – the conductor follows them!

Concertos are a lot of fun for the audience. If you haven’t heard one, you’re in for a treat; many audience members go to a concert just to see a famous soloist play a concerto.

In most cases, a concerto is in three sections or ‘movements’, usually in a fast-slow-fast pattern. This setup enables the soloist to show off their amazing technique in the first and last movements and to play beautiful, emotional melodies in the middle.

Concertos present the ultimate challenge for musicians. They are often seen as the peak of a musician’s career. Some concertos, such as Piano Concerto No.3 by Sergei Rachmaninov, contain almost 30,000 notes for the soloist to play! That’s about the same number of notes in one piece as there are McDonald’s restaurants in the world! You can listen to this piece below:

Even though concertos are usually very difficult, almost all soloists play them from memory to make it that much more impressive. One of the violinists in our orchestra, Sujin Park, wrote a blog post about how she went about memorising all those notes. You can read it here.

Concertos have been written for pretty much every instrument you can think of – in our Family Concert on 15 October, you can hear one on the clarinet, the violin, the cello, and the trumpet, but there are also thousands that have been written for piano, flute, harp, oboe… even turntables! Percussion concertos are especially exciting because they often have one musician playing dozens and dozens of different instruments: check out this video of James Macmillan’s percussion concerto Veni Veni Emmanuel.