An Olympic Challenge: the Violin Concerto

Athletes have the Olympics.  Composers have — the violin concerto?

So it seems to me these days, as I spend long hours chipping away at the silence around my new fiddle concerto.  The exceptional Anne Akiko Meyers will premiere it under Leonard Slatkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony this December, followed by touchdowns in a variety of places (Detroit and Nashville, to name a few).

But first, I have to finish it.

Few symphonic forms challenge the composer as much as the violin concerto.  The instrument possesses so much emotional and virtuosic power, but it doesn’t have the sonic power of the piano, the cello, or the clarinet.   Yet a violin concerto provokes weighty, powerful music from composers, who often approach the piece with the same import they’d devote to a numbered symphony.  So one finds, in many new violin concertos, the soloist fiddling like mad over an explosive orchestra — but not being heard.

That’s problem number one.

The second problem, arising naturally from the first, is how one writes for the instrument itself.  The violin has been explored for centuries, and star soloists want music that is both new yet idiomatic.  Thus returns that age-old challenge: how to be fresh and inevitable at the same time.  I’ve always looked fearfully at the strings, the most-heard (and most populated) section of an orchestra.  The basic rules of thumb we composers keep in mind — work around 5ths and 6ths, avoid unnatural string crossings, etc — help us in writing for the section as a whole, but they’re too vague to help us with the micro-details of a featured solo part.

I needed a way in.

What has always inspired me is violin’s range : huge, beautiful leaps are possible in even the most lyrical passages.  So I started playing around with wide intervals, and one day I found a long, alluring melody.  It took a few days to fashion that tune into proper shape;but once I had it, the game was afoot.

In a nod to the acoustic challenges of the form, I quickly abandoned the electronic component I once envisioned.  Everyone was intrigued by a violin concerto with electronica, their eyes going wide with visions of light techno.  But it’s problematic idea, not just because of the obvious problems of balance, but also because one’s listening focus would be fractured.  I wanted the fiddle front and center.

Yet that few weeks of playing around with electronic ideas moved me to some strange, loping orchestral rhythms that evoked ancient animals — and I could bring them to life with a small orchestra.  I liked the image of a beautiful, lyrical bird surrounded by these large, ambling creatures.  It’d be a dramatic contrast.

So, before I knew it, I had a tune and an idea: a concerto that was part lyrical bird, part lumbering dinosaur.  There is, in fact, a creature with such an identity called the Archeopteryx — a strange hybrid of the Upper Jurassic, whose name may well end up somewhere in the piece.

Enter Anne Akiko Meyers, who receives digital gift packages with regular previews of her piece.  This is one of the finest, fieriest fiddlers I’ve ever seen, and every note of the piece is written with her blazing musical personality in mind.  And she’s been the perfect collaborator, being painful respectful of my intentions — while thankfully pointing out the problematic passages.  And then, of course, there will the great Leonard Slatkin, an old friend who has shepherded several of my works along.  His input about balance will be crucial.

Where am I now?  The cadenza : my version of the 100-meter butterfly.  Wish me luck — and if you happen to be in Pittsburgh around the holidays, come by!