Double Violin Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra (revised 2008)
Instrumentation - 3333/4331/timp/perc/strings
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REVIEW - September 2010: Evansville Courier and Press
Violinists add fire, conviction to Philharmonic opener
WILLIAM NESMITH / CORRESPONDENT
...Americana to start the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra's 76th season on Patriot Day...Charles Ives's "Variations on 'America'" served very nicely...
The featured artist of the evening, violinist and composer Mark O'Connor was simply astonishing. His sheer virtuosity as a violinist (he might prefer "fiddler") is hard to describe. I have heard him play in virtually every popular musical idiom, except rock, with perfect authenticity. This is more rare than you might suppose, and O'Connor is unique in his incorporation of all these types of music into his symphonic works.
You may read that Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky were influenced by jazz, but their music never really sounds like it. Mark O'Connor's music sounds like all of it at once.
It has been suggested by people who are undoubtedly smarter than me that his music is the herald of a new direction in American symphonic music, but I really don't think so, as his talent is so distinct it would be very difficult for a nonvirtuosos violinist, or a composer without O'Connor's familiarity with all of these kinds of music to pick up his influence.
Watching O'Connor play is a revelation as well. Virtually all of the movement in his playing is in the fingers of the left hand and in his right arm. He does no strutting around the stage, no artistic tossing of the head as if to say "Wow, can you tell I'm really feeling this?" He simply stands and tosses out the most brilliant and unbelievable streams of music with no histrionics. You could put a glass of water on his head while he plays, and he wouldn't spill a drop.
The evening featured two pieces by O'Connor. The first, six short movements from his "Strings and Threads Suite" had a distinctly Irish feel to it, opening with reels and jigs.
The second, and more substantial, piece, his "Double Concerto for Two Violins" brought out the evening's other violinist, Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who is herself a prodigious fiddler.
Her background is more thoroughly classical than O'Connor's, but she had no trouble at all in matching him note for note and making it look easy, especially with a devilish cadenza in the third movement. She plays with a great amount of fire and conviction, and would probably deliver a terrific reading of the Brahms or Sibelius concertos.
The concerto itself is, according to O'Connor's notes, based on swing music and it has all of the eurhythmic devices you would expect. It is full of life and vitality in the outer movements and the middle movement is meant to evoke "midnight on the dance floor." It does, too.
This is a piece that would reward a second listen. There's a lot going on in it, with THOUSANDS of notes from the violinists, dense counterpoint and rhythms that keep catching you off guard. The audience loved it.
In fact, the audience loved the whole evening, which ended with two favorite chestnuts of the American symphonic repertoire, Aaron Copland's "Suite from Appalachian Spring" and George Gershwin's "An America in Paris."
There isn't much to say about these that hasn't been said. They are as familiar to American music lovers as any music could be, and they are foolproof unless played poorly. On this evening, they were certainly not played poorly, and the audience roared its approval at the end of the evening.
All in all, this was a good start to the season, sort of like winning the home opener.
I had only been playing the fiddle for seven months when I entered my first contest at the age of 11. For the tunes of choice in the contest rounds, I was the only contestant who routinely chose to play the Blues. By the time I was 13, I was quoting the solos of Jazz greats Stephane Grappelli and Joe Venuti in my jams with other musicians. (Grappelli was later to become my most significant mentor when I began touring with him in 1979.)
In this concerto, I wanted to concentrate on swing rhythms in the outer movements. For this I employed the use of canonic writing, both in the violin solo parts and the orchestration, to emphasize the swing feel. The accents and melodic phrasing within the cannon bring out the syncopation, an essential element in achieving the feel of Jazz and Swing. In some cases, the swing rhythms are the result of implication rather than performance. In the case of the two violins, how the parts fit together; in the case of the orchestra, how the layers of parts in fugue-like configurations all create rhythmic pulses in the music. My method of creating canonic syncopation is a unique and possibly even a new idea for orchestration. Rather than using vertical writing as has been commonly used in orchestral jazz, I use an almost completely linear writing technique in the 1st and 3rd movements.
A refrain can be heard again and again throughout the three movements, melodically linking them, though the refrain is delivered contrarily in the three corresponding tempos and rhythmic feels. The 9-note motive stated once then immediately repeated an octave lower is the germ phrase of the 1st movement and then becomes an introduction, interlude and ending for the 2nd movement. Lastly, the refrain is used as a subordinate counterpoint theme in the last movement.
With the slow theme of the 2nd movement, I wanted to conjure a nostalgic, big-band ambiance... the feeling of midnight on the dance floor. Alternately, the two violins speak to each other in classical and bluesy melodic language.
The two-violin cadenza in movement 1 is a duel, in Jazz terms, a "cutting" contest. The violins begin trading long passages that get incrementally shorter. Each attempts to "out do" the other until there is nothing more to do but join forces. Each plays over the top of the other in a furious, jazzy barrage. In the 3rd movement, each violinist takes a cadenza. The first soloist interprets the music in a more melodic, romantic and classically modern voice. The second soloist musically "struts" alongside a walking bass line in the truest of the Jazz solo traditions -- improvisation.
Mark O'Connor and Kelly Hall-Tompkins
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