A new release from Nonesuch of the John Adams 1993 Violin Concerto features the great American violinist Leila Josefowicz with David Robertson conducting the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The Boston Globe described the work as having “the qualities of intelligence, craftsmanship, and quirkiness that have always marked the composer and his work; this time Adams also mingles virtuoso show with soul, popular appeal with the staying power that comes from intellectual interest,”
Gidon Kremer made the first recording of the piece for Nonesuch in 1994 with the London Symphony Orchestra led by Kent Nagano. Since then the work has gained a firm place in the violin repertoire and has been recorded numerous times, but the Josefowicz version bears the imprimature of her long history with the piece combined with her incomparably brilliant technical command.
Josefowicz said of the concerto in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “It was the piece where [Adams] first got to know me as a person and a player, when I was twenty-one. I’m now thirty-eight. When I started playing this piece, it was the confirmation of the new path that I was on, to really go down this new road with new music and with composers, because this experience was so inspiring for me.” She further said, “It has a really dancelike feeling, so the violin line is often incredibly syncopated with everything else going on in the orchestra … Basically, it’s supposed to make you groove.”
Leila Josefowicz has performed the Adams concerto over 100 times, and over the past decade and a half she has become the authoritative voice for all his violin music, having also recorded his “Road Movies” for violin & piano and “Scheherazade.2,” the 50-minute dramatic symphony that Adams composed for her in 2014, as well as taking up the six-string electric violin to play “The Dharma at Big Sur.”
John Adams on the Violin Concerto
The proposal to write a violin concerto came from the violinist Jorja Fleezanis, a close friend and enthusiastic champion of new music. Composers who are not string players are seriously challenged when it comes to writing a concerto, and close collaborations are the rule, as it was in this case. For those who have not played a violin or a cello, the physical relation of the turned-over left wrist and grasping fingers defies logic. Intervals that ought to be simple are awkward, while gestures that seem humanly impossible turn out to be rudimentary.
A concerto without a strong melodic statement is hard to imagine. I knew that if I were to compose a violin concerto I would have to solve the issue of melody. I could not possibly have produced such a thing in the 1980’s because my compositional language was principally one of massed sonorities riding on great rippling waves of energy. Harmony and rhythm were the driving forces in my music of that decade; melody was almost non-existent. The “News” aria in Nixon in China, for example, is less melody than it is declamation riding over what feels like the chords of a giant ukelele.
But in the early 1990’s, during the composition of The Death of Klinghoffer, I began to think more about melody. This was perhaps a result of being partially liberated by a new chromatic richness that was creeping into my sound, but it was more likely due to the need to find a melodic means to set Alice Goodman’s psychologically complex libretto.
As if to compensate for years of neglecting the “singing line,” the Violin Concerto (1993) emerged as an almost implacably melodic piece—a example of “hypermelody.” The violin spins one long phrase after another wihout stop for nearly the full thirty-five minutes of the piece. I adopted the classic form of the concerto as a kind of Platonic model, even to the point of placing a brief cadenza for the soloist at the traditional locus near the end of the first movement. The concerto opens with a long extended rhapsody for the violin, a free, fantastical “endless melody” over the regularly pulsing staircase of upwardly rising figures in the orchestra. The second movement takes a received form, the chaconne, and gently stretches, compresses, and transfigures its contours and modalities while the violin floats like a disembodied spirit around and about the orchestral tissue. The chaconne’s title, “Body through which the dream flows,” is a phrase from a poem by Robert Haas, words that suggested to me the duality of flesh and spirit that permeates the movement. It is as if the violin is the “dream” that flows through the slow, regular heartbeat of the the orchestral “body.”
The “Toccare” utilizes the surging, motoric power of Shaker Loops to create a virtuoso vehicle for the solo violin. After Jorja Fleezanis’s memorable premiere, many violinists have taken on the piece, and each has played it with his or her unique flair and understanding. Among them are Gidon Kremer (who made the first recording with the London Symphony), Vadim Repin, Robert McDuffie, Midori and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, Leila Josefowicz, who made the piece a personal calling card for years.
The Violin Concerto is dedicated to the memory of David Huntley, longtime enthusiast and great champion of my and much other contemporary music.