Viola Concerto (2013-2014)
I. Braid
II. Romance
III. A Song My Mother Taught Me

This new concerto for Viola is inspired essentially by its extraordinary soloist, Paul Neubauer, whose playing I’ve known over many years. Paul and I first worked together in 1993 when American Public Radio commissioned my Still Movement with Hymn for piano quartet which he premiered on air and toured. In some ways this new concerto follows up on the tone of that piece. I have always been drawn to the soulful character of the viola, and have been excited to write this work from the moment Paul asked for it.

Knowing of Paul Neubauer’s interest in folk music, after our very first meeting I decided to base this movement on the well-known Yiddish song, Tumbalalaika, which I had known since my early childhood. I had always felt this song has very penetrating words and a sad melody, and was later surprised to hear it sung in many ways – as a romantic wedding song, wildly gyrating dance tune, and even in an ironic, comedic rendition. It can withstand so many interpretations! The words to the song (included below) are very soulful and deep. They are both light and dark in tone, playful yet very serious in intent. In the song a young man questions a girl who might become his bride, and she answer his simple questions with surprisingly deep answers. The relationship between them that these words hint at are at the center of the entire concerto. The melody of Tumbalalaika is used as the basis of the entire third movement (A Song My Mother Taught Me), and it is varied and presented in many different emotional contexts throughout its nearly 20 minute length. This movement is the longest and most substantial in the piece.

The use of the Yiddish tune is formed like a theme and series of variations, but the ten linked variations proceed backwards toward the tune, starting at their most fragmented and least melodic. The tune has been pulverized, made wildly improvisatory, and at times, very harsh and bitter. The melody is never heard in its original form, but there is late in the movement more of it is exposed against a background of strumming strings that suggest the sound of a balalaika orchestra. The shape of this movement could be construed to be variations in search of their melody.

Another important influence on the concerto was the music of Robert and Clara Schumann. I was drawn to this incredible music and unique relationship once again by Paul Neubauer’s splendid CD of transcriptions of Robert’s works for viola and piano. After hearing this disc I found further inspiration from Robert’s Opus 34 Fughetta and Clara’s Romance (both for piano), out of which grew my own Romance, this concerto’s second movement. My Romance is a lyrical, romantic intermezzo, which grows out of breathing, fluid gestures and harmonies that link to the Brahms/early Schoenberg tradition as well. This was the first movement I completed of the concerto, and hope with it was to fit Paul’s gorgeous singing sound like a glove.

So the entire work is steeped in personal relationships in one way or another, direct indirect and abstracted. Probably most abstract (but still lyrical in tone) is the opening movement, Braid, which I imagined as a constantly shifting and transforming relationship between the viola and orchestra. The fast moving line that opens in the vibraphone weaves around a singing melody that the viola introduces, building, redefining through a thickening gauze of colors that leads, at its peak, to a chaotic frenzy, winding down suddenly as the opening music returns.

I am so delighted that LACO is a partner in this commission. It has been many years since we’d worked together in person, when in 1998 my jazzy Double Concerto for Violin and Guitar was presented with Jeff Kahane conducting. (I was not able to attend last season’s performances of Musica Celestis). I so look forward to returning to Los Angeles and LACO after a long hiatus.

TUMBALALIAKA LYRICS

Transliteration of Yiddish Lyrics
Shteyt a bokher, un er trakht
Trakht un trakht a gantse nakht
Vemen tzu nemen un nisht farshemen
Vemen tzu nemen un nisht farshemen

((chorus))
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbalalaika, shpil balalaika
Tumbalalaika,freylekh zol zaynMeydl, meydl, kh’vil bay dir fregn,
Vos ken vaksn, vaksn on regn?
Vos ken brenen un nit oyfhern?
Vos ken benken, veynen on trern?

((chorus))

Narisher bokher, vos darfstu fregn?
A shteyn ken vaksn, vaksn on regn.
Libe ken brenen un nit oyfhern.
A harts ken benken, veynen on trern.

((chorus))

Vos iz hekher fun a hoyz?
Vos iz flinker fun a moyz?
Vos iz tifer fun a kval?
Vos iz biter, biterer vi gal?

((chorus))

A koymen iz hekher fun a hoyz.
A kats iz flinker fun a moyz.
Di toyre iz tifer fun a kval.
Der toyt iz biter, biterer vi gal.

((chorus))

Translation:
A young lad stands, and he thinks
Thinks and thinks the whole night through
Whom to take and not to shame
Whom to take and not to shame

((chorus))
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbala, Tumbala, Tumbalalaika
Tumbalalaika, strum balalaika
Tumbalalaika, may we be happyGirl, girl, I want to ask of you
What can grow, grow without rain?
What can burn and never end?
What can yearn, cry without tears?

((chorus))

Foolish lad, why do you have to ask?
A stone can grow, grow without rain
Love can burn and never end
A heart can yearn, cry without tears

((chorus))

What is higher than a house?
What is swifter than a mouse?
What is deeper than a well?
What is bitter, more bitter than gall?

((chorus))

A chimney is higher than a house
A cat is swifter than a mouse
The Torah is deeper than a well
Death is bitter, more bitter than gall

((chorus))

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Produced in collaboration with Four Larks, SESSION featured the world premiere of The Body Overcome by Derrick Spiva Jr, hindustani vocalist Saili Oak, a US premiere by composer Juan Pablo Contreras and works by Conor Brown, Salina Fisher and Reena Esmail.

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