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AMERICAN VIOLIN CONCERTOS
Ittai Shapira

 

 

Artist(s):
Ittai Shapira, Violin
Neil Thomson, Conductor


Israeli virtuoso violinist Ittai Shapira is a distnguished performer and composer, the recent disc of performances of his own compositions on Champs Hill Records (“The Old Man and the Sea” CHRCD032) demonstrates this admirably.

Ittai Shapira’s American Violin Concertos disc brings together three diverse concertos whose composers have in common a vivid and expressive writing style for violin and orchestra.

Italian-­‐American composer Menootti wrote his violin concerto as a tribute to his former teacher the Russian-­‐born violinist Efrem Zimbalist. He managed to capture Zimbalist’s character as a violinist, ‘noble, fine-­‐grained, never extrovert’, in this work without inhibiting the need for display in a concerto. The virtuosity of the violin is tempered by the overall tone, which is enigmatic and intimate, with lyrical, singing lines for the soloist.

Barber’s Violin Concerto was originally commissioned in early 1939 by the affluent soap manufacturer Samual Fels to be performed by Fel’s adopted son Iso Briselli. Although Briselli claimed that the first two movements were ‘too simple, not brilliant enough’ he inevitably found the finale too taxing and the commission was withdrawn. Barber’s Violin Concerto was finally premiered in 1941 by Albert Spalding, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and critics hailed it for being ‘refreshingly free from arbitrary tricks and musical mannerisms’ with ‘straightforwardness and sincerity being among its most engaging qualities’. Since then it has become a favourite 20th century work for the instrument.

In its world-premiere recording, Washington born composer Theodore Wiprud’s Violin concerto, ‘Katrina’ was wrtten for Ittai Shapira. This work is Wiprud’s first concerto for a solo instrument with orchestra, and reflects not only the devastation and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina but a hopeful undercurrent, with emphasis on the varied and deeply felt musical life of the whole Delta. ‘Katrina’ explores the power and importance of music in times of struggle;


 

 


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 Orchestra.

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 musical trends:

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 violin writing.

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. 


"A fascinating disc all round, and one with something to suit all tastes."

Gavin Dixon, Classical CD Reviews

“Its slow movement, beautifully captured by Ittai Shapira, conveys a strange feeling of loss and disillusion, but at the same time reinforces the fact that the essence of the life force behind the music itself will never die.”

Jean-Yves Duperron, Classical Music Sentinel

"Shapira takes command in this vintage Barber - and the finale is stunning."

Peter Dickinson, Gramophone, March 2013

   
   

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