During the 20th century, America witnessed an explosion of new creative ideas, and
composers were at the forefront of this cultural revolution. Some, like Copland and
Bernstein, drew upon folk and jazz music to create a distinctive ‘American’ sound;
others, like John Cage, pioneered avant-garde techniques still considered controversial
today. In the midst of this maelstrom, Samuel Barber resolutely refused to follow
fashion, determined to write the music he wanted to write. The results were often rich
and romantic, but they have endured alongside those of his more overtly innovative
contemporaries. The relationship between Barber and the Italian-American composer
Gian Carlo Menotti was one of the most long-lived and fruitful in recent music history.
Like Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, the pair offered one another mutual inspiration
and advice, and Menotti’s works are gaining an increasing level of recognition.
The proliferation of musical ideas in 20th-century America has spilled over into the
America of the 21st, with composers like Theodore Wiprud fusing minimalism,
modernism and jazz styles to reflect events which have shaped the country’s history; in
particular, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Despite the diversity
of their styles, these composers have in common their vivid and expressive writing for
violin and orchestra, as displayed by the three Concerti on this disc.
Menotti’s Violin Concerto was written in 1952 for the Russian-born violinist Efrem
Zimbalist, who was a teacher at the Curtis Institute while Menotti was studying there.
Zimbalist was the Institute’s Principal between 1941 and 1968, and, although he had
officially retired from performance, Zimbalist made an exception in order to premiere
Menotti’s Concerto in December 1952, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia
Zimbalist’s playing had been described as ‘noble, fine-grained, never extrovert’, and
Menotti somehow managed to reflect this character in his music, without inhibiting the
need for display in a Concerto. Thus, the virtuosity of the violin part is tempered by the
work’s overall tone, which is enigmatic and intimate, with lyrical, singing lines for the
soloist, often in its highest register. The rich and dramatic first movement is characterised by the alternation between A minor and A major, beginning in the
violin’s opening material; the ambiguity created by this melody is only resolved by the
movement’s final A minor chord.
The Adagio includes the Concerto’s most substantial cadenza, after which the tension
of the movement is dissipated, drifting into a soporific D major. Initially, the violin’s
rather melancholic theme intertwines with woodwind solos, surging into more
passionate territory with tonally ambiguous brass interjections. The cadenza follows,
ranging from a powerful soliloquy to snatches of dancing, folk-like melody. The
orchestra’s return signals the dissipation of previous tensions, with lush textures and
warm harmonies above which the violin soars. Menotti’s Concerto concludes with an
energetic C major finale featuring three main themes. The last of these is a triple-time
dance, which adds an exotic flavour to the otherwise jaunty and effervescent music.
Towards the end of his life, Samuel Barber explained his reluctance to pander to
I myself wrote always as I wished, and without a tremendous desire to find the
latest thing possible... I wrote as I wanted to for myself...
Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, expanded on this in his book The Rest Is
Noise: ‘While so many of his generation favoured lean textures and brief motifs, Barber
produced long melodic lines and rich orchestral textures, leaving audiences with the
feeling that they had consumed a high-protein meal’.
It was the affluent soap manufacturer Samuel Fels who commissioned Barber to write a
violin concerto, to be performed by Fels’ adopted son, Iso Briselli. The commission
came early in 1939, and Barber set to work during the summer while staying in Sils-
Maria in Switzerland. In late August, all Americans residing in Europe were instructed
to leave: the Nazi invasion of Poland loomed. Barber duly returned home and was able
to continue work on the Concerto in the relative safety of his family’s cottage at
Pocono Lake Preserve, Pennsylvania.
Briselli was underwhelmed with the two movements sent to him by Barber, arguing
that they were ‘too simple, not brilliant enough’. Barber responded by declaring that
the finale would provide ‘ample opportunity to display the artist’s technical powers’. It
is difficult to discern whether the finale which followed was deliberately fiendish as a
kind of musical riposte to Briselli’s criticism, or whether Barber had already conceived
it as such. Whatever Barber’s reasons, the level of difficulty rocketed, and Briselli
found the finale too taxing. The $1000 commission was withdrawn, but Barber’s
patron, Mary Curtis Bok – founder of the Curtis Institute of Music – organised a sort
of trial, at which a student violinist, Herbert Baumel, having been given only a few
hours’ notice, demonstrated that the Concerto was indeed playable.
At last, Barber’s Violin Concerto was premiered on 7 February 1941, played by the
acclaimed violinist Albert Spalding, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene
Ormandy – the same conductor and orchestra who would premiere Menotti’s Concerto
over a decade later. Critics hailed Barber’s Violin Concerto as being ‘refreshingly free
from arbitrary tricks and musical mannerisms’, with ‘straightforwardness and sincerity
being among its most engaging qualities’. The American composer and critic Virgil
Thomson put it even more vividly, praising the Concerto for ‘its gracious lyrical
plenitude and its complete absence of tawdry swank’.
Barber’s Violin Concerto opens with delicately orchestrated textures exuding a wistful
lyricism, the warm harmony and romantic, singing violin writing creating a sense of
nostalgia. Darker, more dramatic moments creep in, but a passionate build-up using
the power of the full orchestra unfurls an expansive, unfettered atmosphere brimming
with emotion. Particularly striking in this movement is Barber’s use of a sustained
orchestral chord, above which the violin plays an exquisite, enigmatic line.
An elegiac oboe solo sets the scene for the second movement, which is characterised
by its long-breathed phrases and poignant harmonic twinges. The music is full of
longing, an emotion which increases in intensity to create a palpable sense of loss.
Yet, as the movement reaches its resolution, peace seems to have been reached.
It is difficult to comprehend Briselli’s disappointment with the first two movements of
Barber’s Concerto, but the finale certainly offers a marked contrast of tone and
technique. Whereas in the previous movements, Barber wore his heart on his sleeve,
this finale – with its frenetic, unremitting writing for the violin – is more guarded in
tone, more ambiguous. Even the final chords leave one wondering at what we have just
heard; and, above all, marvelling at the sheer prowess demanded by such virtuosic
Composer Theodore Wiprud was born in Washington, D.C. and now lives in New York,
where he is currently the New York Philharmonic’s Director of Education. Wiprud
composed his Violin Concerto, ‘Katrina’, specifically for Ittai Shapira. Written in 2011,
the work is a direct response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath – which is still felt
by the people of New Orleans, where the disaster struck in 2005. This work is Wiprud’s
first concerto for a solo instrument with orchestra, and in it he reflects on the impact
of the hurricane; on the devastating effects of the storm itself and the ensuing flood.
Yet there is a hopeful undercurrent, too, with emphasis on the varied and deeply-felt
musical life of the whole Delta. Wiprud sought to explore the power and importance of
music in times of struggle; and, indeed, the enduring nature of music, and of life itself,
even when apparently crushed by such overwhelming events.
When approaching the task of composing this work, Wiprud studied the violin concerto
repertoire in detail. Alongside Wiprud’s strong affinity with the music of Barber, two
recent works stood out: the Violin Concertos by Ligeti and John Adams. Elements of the
contrasting styles of both works informed and infiltrated Wiprud’s own language.
Specifically, Wiprud was inspired by Ligeti’s use of ocarinas in his Violin Concerto, and
thus chose to incorporate an unusual effect into the orchestral framework of ‘Katrina’:
the use of harmonicas to evoke accordions, which have a strong association with Cajun
and Acadian music.
The opening movement of Wiprud’s ‘Katrina’ Concerto is entitled Les Bons Temps,
meaning ‘the good times’, as used in the phrase ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ – ‘let
the good times roll’. This immediately conjures up the spirit of New Orleans, and its
French Quarter in particular; Wiprud accordingly infuses his work with elements of
jazz, blues and Cajun music, all of which feed into the rich musical life of the region.
Wiprud’s blend of contemporary classical techniques and jazz styles creates a fusion
that conjures up a kind of 21st-century Gershwin. Yet there is a new, more sinister
edge, with a tension-building rhythmic momentum reflecting the disaster’s impact.
This tension manifests itself via what is essentially a series of variations, each one
including a wave of sound representing the flooding of New Orleans. In Wiprud’s
words: ‘The waves get bigger and bigger until the soloist is completely submerged.’
The central movement of Wiprud’s Concerto is called Acadiana, the name given to the
French Louisiana region, home to a large Cajun French population. The material is
based on the Acadian tune ‘Disez Goodbye à Votre Mère’, chosen by Wiprud both for
its distinctive harmonic structure, and for its elegiac title, suggestive of loss and
departure. Wiprud’s treatment of this tune, with overlapping, intertwining string
textures, expresses this sense of desolation, felt in the wake of the storm.
The Concerto’s finale, ‘Fly Away’, is a free fantasy on the jazz funeral standard ‘I'll Fly
Away’. New Orleans is famed for its unique approach to death, and its funeral
processions have what Wiprud calls “a celebratory side”, a sense of appreciating a
person’s life and then moving on. ‘Fly Away’ also alludes to the fact that hordes of
musicians had to flee their homes, literally moving on in order to escape the disaster:
an important transition to make, but a real loss for New Orleans. Fittingly, Wiprud’s
music is characterised by a restless sense of forward-motion, vigorous rhythms and
sinewy, mysterious violin writing, unfolding into a movement which combines
acknowledgement of the ongoing struggles brought about by Katrina, with a sense of
looking forwards; of hope.