LACO’s upcoming concert on Nov 10 & 11 features a special treat. Award-winning composer Benjamin Wallfisch has composed a violin concerto expressly for our very own assistant concertmaster, Tereza Stanislav. Composing music specifically for a performer is an old and established tradition. Many composers have traditionally been keyboardists (a great number of whom were proficient on other instruments as well), and in both the Classical and Romantic periods, these keyboardists wrote many concertos and sonatas that they composed to show off their own performing talent.
Chopin, whose output included almost nothing but piano pieces, wrote fewer than a dozen works for other instruments (and even those feature piano as well!). One of them was a Cello Sonata. Why would Chopin step out of his comfort zone to write a cello sonata? Well, to show off the talent of one of his friends, of course. Chopin composed his one and only Cello Sonata for cellist Auguste Franchomme. The two played the piece together at Chopin’s last public concert.
Johannes Brahms is another example of a composer who wrote for an instrument he was not himself familiar with in order to allow a friend to shine. Brahms wrote his only violin concerto for his dear friend, Joseph Joachim. Joachim was very hands-on in his contribution to the piece, at Brahms’ request. So that he could be certain the piece be playable and that it was notated properly, Brahms sent passages to Joachim, who made plenty of suggestions. (Brahms didn’t use all of them, but he incorporated many.) Joachim also contributed to the piece by writing the cadenza for the opening movement.
Writing for a specific person must slightly alter the creative process for the composer. The composer must consider the things the subject does well, perhaps the things he or she does better than anyone else. The composer must also think about the way the performer’s style interacts with his compositional style. Where are there intersections? Is there anything to avoid? A technique or a particular part of the range? There is also the question of how well a composer understands the solo instrument. Nothing substitutes for hands-on experience, of course, but it’s the rare composer who can play every instrument in the orchestra. Some composers find it essential to ask advice from performers as they write. They learn what’s idiomatic for the instrument, and they learn what’s possible. No matter how beautiful a passage is, if it’s un-playable by the soloist, it won’t see the light of day.
Years ago, when communication was slow, advice from the experts came slowly as well. Now, I imagine that composers and performers email, chat on the phone, Skype, and even share files instantly, all things that make the compositional process faster, if not necessarily easier. Composition is still an art, and a complex one at that. We are fortunate, then, to hear new music at just about everyLACO concert. And in the case of Benjamin Wallfisch’s new Violin Concerto, we will get to hear a work that was tailor-made for the soloist, Tereza Stanislav on Nov 10 & 11. Perhaps a hundred years from now, someone will blog (or whatever the future equivalent will be) about the way Benjamin Wallfisch was able to capture the nuances of Tereza Stanislav’s unique talent in his Violin Concerto from 2012. Here’s hoping we make history!