Has the era of violin concerto as a dominating genre finally arrived? Beethoven has 5 piano concertos, but only one violin concerto. Mozart? 27+ versus 5. The piano was a dominating instrument for solo and concerto genres, but that time has long gone. Modern composers seem to prefer violin's flexibility over piano's polyphonic capacity. Evidence? Since 2004, 4 out of 9 winners of the prestigious Grawmeyer Award for Music Composition are for violin concertos (by Unsuk Chin
, George Tsontakis
, Brett Dean
(see also Comment below for details), and Esa-Pekka Salonen
), with an additional double concerto for violin and viola (György Kurtág: ...Concertante...
). If we look further back, John Adams's violin concerto
was also an award winner in 1995. -- How many piano concerto to have won this award? None!
Esa-Pekka Salonen has never been a revolutionary figure. He doesn't set his eyes on pushing the boundaries, in terms of forms, styles etc., despite the composer stating otherwise. (My impression anyway.) Some might complain about his "middle of the road" philosophy, but I don't agree. Salonen, like J.S. Bach, has the ability to absorb all around him and distills the best through his craftsmanship. His compositions are few, but are of uniformly high standard. This violin concerto might just be his best work yet. (I do not claim to have heard all Salonen's works.)
Salonen's style can generally be characterized as post-modern impressionism. He once remarked in an interview that the trend of classical music in the beginning of the 21st century would be closer to Debussy and Ravel than to Schoenberg and Webern. These works betrays the affinity with the impressionism in terms of color, rhythm and texture. (Note however that words are often powerless when it comes to describing music. Do yourself a favor and listen for yourself.)
In terms of performance, there are no better performers for these pieces than the violinist Lelia Josefowicz (for whom this concerto is written) and the composer himself (at the helm). Josefowicz plays the fiendishly difficult violin solo to perfection. One really has to listen to believe, but then again, the technical facility of this younger generation of performers has *on the average* reached a level unheard of previously.
The recorded sound is clear, well-balanced and full-bodied. In the violin concerto, the violin solo is placed up-close front center. One can almost hear the bow hair splashing through the air molecules and landing on the strings. It is not easy to record the full orchestra in the dual-channel stereo recordings, but here the engineers have done a beautiful job. For example, listen to Nyx and marvel at Salonen's skillful orchestration and recording engineers' excellent work: All contrapuntal lines can be easily picked up even when the full orchestra is employed. (My guess is that multi-miking was used and balancing achieved in the studio.)
The following are composer's notes. Personal reference only! (For more details, please visit composer's own website, where you can download pp.1-17 of the full score of the 2009 Violin Concerto.)
Violin Concerto (2009)
Note by Esa-Pekka Salonen
I wrote my Violin Concerto between June 2008 and March 2009. Nine months, the length of human gestation, a beautiful coincidence. I decided to cover as wide a range of expression as I could imagine over the four movements of the Concerto: from the virtuosic and flashy to the aggressive and brutal, from the meditative and static to the nostalgic and autumnal. Leila Josefowicz turned out to be a fantastic partner in this process. She knows no limits, she knows no fear, and she was constantly encouraging me to go to places I was not sure I would dare to go. As a result of that process, this Concerto is as much a portrait of her as it is my more private narrative, a kind of summary of my experiences as a musician and a human being at the watershed age of 50.
Movement I. Mirage
The violin starts alone, as if the music had been going on for some time already. Very light bell-like sounds comment on the virtuosic line here and there. Suddenly we zoom in to maximum magnification: the open strings of the violin continue their resonance, but amplified; the light playfulness has been replaced by an extreme close-up of the strings, now played by the cellos and basses; the sound is dark and resonant.
Zoom out again, and back in after a while. The third close-up leads into a recitative. Solo violin is playing an embellished melodic line that leads into some impossibly fast music. I zoom out once again at the very end, this time straight up in the air. The violin follows.
Finally all movement stops on the note D, which leads to...
Movement II: Pulse I
All is quiet, static. I imagined a room, silent: all you can hear is the heartbeat of the person next to you in bed, sound asleep. You cannot sleep, but there is no angst, just some gentle, diffuse thoughts on your mind. Finally the first rays of the sun can be seen through the curtains, here represented by the flutes.
Movement III: Pulse II
The pulse is no longer a heartbeat. This music is bizarre and urban, heavily leaning towards popular culture with traces of (synthetic) folk music. The violin is pushed to its very limits physically. Something very Californian in all this. Hooray for freedom of expression. And thank you, guys!
Movement IV: Adieu
This is not a specific farewell to anything in particular. It is more related to the very basic process of nature, of something coming to an end and something new being born out of the old. Of course this music has a strong element of nostalgia, and some of the short outbursts of the full orchestra are almost violent, but I tried to illuminate the harmony from within. Not with big gestures, but with
When I had written the very last chord of the piece I felt confused: why does the last chord - and only that - sound completely different from all other harmony of the piece? As if it belonged to a different composition.
Now I believe I have the answer. That chord is a beginning of something new.
Note by Esa-Pekka Salonen
Nyx is my return to the genre of pure orchestral music since Helix (2005). It employs a large orchestra, and has exposed concertante parts for solo clarinet and the horn section.
Rather than utilizing the principle of continuous variation of material, as is the case mostly in my recent music, Nyx behaves rather differently. Its themes and ideas essentially keep their properties throughout the piece while the environment surrounding them keeps changing constantly. Mere whispers grow into roar; an intimate line of the solo clarinet becomes a slowly breathing broad melody of tutti strings at the end of the 18-minute arch of Nyx.
I set myself a particular challenge when starting the composition process, something I hadn't done earlier: to write complex counterpoint for almost one hundred musicians playing tutti at full throttle without losing clarity of the different layers and lines; something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered. Not an easy task, but a fascinating one. I leave it to the listener to judge how well I succeeded.
Nyx is a shadowy figure in Greek mythology. At the very beginning of everything there's a big mass of dark stuff called Chaos, out of which comes Gaia or Ge, the Earth, who gives birth (spontaneously!) to Uranus, the starry heaven, and Pontus, the sea. Nyx (also sometimes known as Nox) is supposed to have been another child of Gaia, along with Erebus. The union of Nyx and Erebus produces Day.
Another version says that Cronos (as Time) was there from the beginning. Chaos came from Time. Nyx was present as a sort of membrane surrounding Chaos, which had Phanes (Light) at its centre. The union of Nyx with Phanes produced Heaven & Earth.
She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether; we have no sense of her character or personality. It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her.
I'm not trying to describe this mythical goddess in any precise way musically. However, the almost constant flickering and rapid changing of textures and moods as well as a certain elusive character of many musical gestures may well be related to the subject.
I have always enjoyed the unrivalled dynamic range of a large symphony orchestra, but Nyx seems to take a somewhat new direction from my earlier orchestral music: there are many very delicate and light textures, chiaroscuro instead of details bathing in clear direct sunlight. I guess this is symptomatic of growing older as we realize there are no simple truths, no pure blacks and whites but an endless variety of half shades.
Nyx was commissioned by Radio France, the Barbican Centre, Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall and the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE. It had its first performance in Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, in February 2011 in the final concert of the Festival Présences. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was conducted by the composer.