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Violin Concerto, Opus 55 (1996)

Movement 1, Chorale: Expansive
Movement 2, Dances: Fast and vibrant

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

My Violin Concerto was written in 1996 but was unperformed for many years.  The work was commissioned by The Hunter Orchestra – based in Newcastle, Australia – and the commission was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. The work was drafted at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the northern summer of 1996 – the superb natural setting and the sounds of echoed music and voices across lakes, forests and mountains certainly played their part in stimulating my imagination. But having dreamed big and completed the composition, and prior to its first scheduled performance, the orchestra fell bankrupt and ceased operations.  The work was written, the commission paid, the parts copied but the orchestra had literally disappeared and with it my piece.

Any work sitting unperformed is a terrible thing for a composer. The more so for me in this case because the work was of such large scale and high ambition that it had stretched my creativity and technique to compose. Although I approached them, other Australian orchestras showed indifference to the work, preferring to dwell safely on the tried and tested than risk something new. And so – frustrated by perpetual Australian timidity - I moved in 1997, with my young family, to take up a post as Head of Composition and Music Studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. A move without which, the piece may not have reached the public ear at all.

David Takeno, Head of Strings at Guildhall, and I became close friends and his support and encouragement helped me to sustain interest in the work. Partly through David’s influence, the piece eventually reached the notice of the brilliant young virtuoso and Takeno student, Jennifer Pike. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra took up the challenge and, prior to this recording in 2008, Jenny and I worked closely on the piece and made some revisions and enhancements.

The Concerto itself is in two movements and is a work imagined on a large canvas – by turns dramatic, virtuosic, tender and lyrical. The first movement, Chorale, is slow and expansive and rotates simply between a monolithic chordal passage in hymn style and a long, widely spaced melodic line. The melodic line is shared by the solo violin and the offstage horn and then freely embellished by the soloist and echoed in the orchestra.  The hymn-like passages are block-like in their architecture and focused on combined sonorities of plucked strings, harp and percussion until they are later taken up by forceful, muted brass against low percussive bass anchors.

By contrast to the gentle but inexorable pace of the first movement, the second movement, Dances, is fast, rhythmic, joyous and exuberant. The movement opens with a jubilant and brassy leaping chordal-melodic passage – an idea, and a group of notes, that I had been carrying around in my head for many years before it finally found its way out in this piece.  The idea reappears throughout the large-scale movement as a kind of refrain between the dances (some ironic, some visceral, some sweet) that soloist and orchestra lay out. The violin writing throughout makes use of many double-stopping and drone techniques and is possibly influenced by the rich world of folk-style violin playing with its sheer rhythmic energy and heterophony.

c. Andrew Schultz, 2011

 

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