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Composed: 2011
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo 1, 2nd = piccolo 2), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (Almglocken, bass drum, bongos, crotales, glockenspiel, marimba, snare drum, tam-tam, tom-toms, tubular bells, tuned gongs. vibraphone, and xylophone), harp, piano (= celesta), strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere)

James Matheson’s new Violin Concerto reminds us that, in performance at least, music is as much about the connection between people – composer/performer/audience – as it about connections between notes. Matheson met the violinist Baird Dodge as a fellow student at Swarthmore College, where Dodge first began playing Matheson’s violin music. Dodge joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1996, becoming Principal Second Violin in 2002, and Matheson went on to various teaching and composing posts, among them becoming the Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Composer Fellowship Program in 2009. (Matheson recently received the Charles Ives Living, a two-year grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.)

“We’re both attracted to dramatic works,” Matheson says, and to music that “speaks strongly and directly to the listener.” As Dodge continued to play Matheson’s works featuring violin, the idea of a concerto, perhaps the most overtly dramatic of instrumental genres, may have been inevitable. Last summer they began an intense but remote collaboration via email, texting, and telephone, working out technical details and discussing the form of the work.

The result was a big, traditionally shaped concerto in three movements. (Dodge played the world premiere of the piece in December, with Los Angeles Philharmonic Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the work.) Matheson had listened to many violin concertos, old and new, while working on the piece, and he “really wanted to write something that would acknowledge and contribute to the repertory of concertos for the violin without being a slave to tradition.” That, he says, played out in a number of ways, including the interaction of soloist and orchestra, as well as matters of harmony and texture.

“There are, for instance, a number of episodes, particularly in the first movement, in which the soloist leads the orchestra through a variety of shifting, quixotic materials. And the original ideas for many of these can be traced back fairly easily to the solo violin works of Bach. But it’s Bach re-imagined with contemporary harmonies, with a modern attention to large-scale structure and, more significantly, to a modern TV-age audience’s hunger for the sensibly unpredictable. (I am tube-glued to Breaking Bad and Modern Family, which are modern masterpieces of ‘plotting,’ insofar as they draw on traditional tropes, while at the same time subverting and upending them.)”

Matheson labeled that first movement a Caprice, and it is indeed a wild mercurial ride for the soloist. It begins with the soloist already in patterned motion, very softly but growing louder, like steampunk Baroque. Soloist and orchestra deconstruct and interrupt this in a series of episodes, including a premonition of the ensuing Chaconne, and at the end of the movement the soloist sneaks in under the orchestra with the initial patterns.

The two linked movements that follow are shorter and tighter. The Chaconne is another tradition revisited, a variation form much loved by Bach and other Baroque composers. Matheson’s chromatically inflected interpretation and the rich solo double-stopping give it a reflective cast, although the outburst in the middle recalls the energies of the Caprice.

As the Chaconne closes, the soloist abandons the double-stopping and powers into the stratosphere, leading directly into the highly kinetic Dance. The main theme of this rondo-like movement, volatile in its contrast, is a manic hoedown, with the timpani providing the bass line and the strings turning into percussionists with snap pizzicatos.

– John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.