I’m truly looking forward to bringing this exciting piece, Adès’ Violin Concerto: Concentric Paths, to you. When I first heard it, I fell in love with it. I was astounded by the colours and textures, the celestial sounds of the violin and the orchestra with references to the baroque era, while still at the same time sounding completely contemporary. I found Adès’ sounds in this piece some of the most memorable in all of 20th and 21st-century music this far. I really hope that it speaks to you and awakens your mind to new sounds and emotions.
With this week’s concerts, the NAC Orchestra is giving their first interpretations of James MacMillan’s Woman of the Apocalypse.
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This is the second time the NAC Orchestra has interpreted Thomas Adès’ Violin Concerto. The ensemble’s first performance took place in 2011 under the direction of Hannu Lintu with the same soloist we are hearing tonight, Leila Josefowicz.
Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, July 16, 1959
Now living in Ayrshire
James MacMillan sprang to international attention in 1990 with the premiere of his tone poem The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, which became one of his most often played works. Since then he has composed three piano concertos, two percussion concertos, a cello concerto for Mstislav Rostropovich, a cello sonata for Julian Lloyd Webber, four symphonies, two operas, and numerous works with liturgical, religious or spiritual implications. These include Veni, Veni Emmanuel (another of his most frequently played works), Mass, St. Anne’s Mass, Galloway Mass, Magnificat, St. John Passion, Seven Last Words from the Cross, O Bone Jesu and The Sacrifice. In addition to aspects of the composer’s devout Catholicism (he is a Dominican), MacMillan’s music is distinguished by references to Scottish folklore and by rhythmic and textural elements drawn from non-European cultures. It is also often infused with an overtly sensual quality. MacMillan was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004, and a Knight Bachelor in 2015.
Woman of the Apocalypse was commissioned for the 2012 Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz, California. Marin Alsop, director of the Festival, conducted the Festival Orchestra on August 4 of that year. The half-hour work is laid out as a single movement in five connected sections. MacMillan describes it as a “kind of tone poem or concerto for orchestra.” Each section refers to some aspect of the title, which takes its point of departure from chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation, wherein is described the appearance of “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet” prior to the last battle between good and evil. The score calls for a large orchestra including such exotica in the percussion department as a lion’s roar, cowbells, metal bar and metal pipe. The San Jose Mercury News reported that in this music “one seems to hear the melting of cosmic tears and the lumbering power of the dragon that assaults the Woman of the Apocalypse.”
The composer describes each section as follows:
1. A Woman Clothed by the Sun – The main themes are presented, includ-ing a falling figure on piano, harp and percussion, before the drama of the movement is carried forward by call-and-response developments led by trombones, then horns and then trumpets as the music progresses through metric modulations. The falling figure appears in reverse before leading to…
2. The Great Battle – There are growls in the low brass but the main thread in this section is led by violas and English horn. An extended series of declamations in the brass choir then leads to…
3. She is Given the Wings of a Great Eagle – Here the music scurries and floats, sometimes interrupted by one of the main fragments from the beginning before culminating in a violent surging on strings and percussion.
4 . She is Taken Up – Comprised mainly of a series of fanfares and ecstatic soloistic writing for string quartet. The violent surging returns before the final section.
5. Coronation – This begins with very high violins and a return of some of the declamatory music for brass, this time in a slow, solemn, ritualistic procession. The strings gradually descend into their lower registers as the music heads to a relentless, pounding conclusion.
— Program notes by Robert Markow
Born in London, March 1, 1971
Now living in London
“A bright new star of British music… a youth prodigiously gifted” was critic Andrew Porter’s assessment of Thomas Adès a few years ago. Alex Ross, writing in the New Yorker, called him the “frighteningly talented boy wonder of English music.” Adès (pronounced AH-diss) was turning out mature compositions even before he reached his own maturity. Five Eliot Landscapes was published as Op. 1 when he was eighteen. His first opera, Powder Her Face, was a huge success at its British premiere in 1995 and has seen equal success at venues on the continent, in the United States and Australia. In 2000, Adès became the youngest composer ever to win the prestigious US $200,000 Grawemeyer Prize for Asyla, written when he was just 26. Adès is also a formidable pianist and a busy conductor. This past March saw him conducting the Boston Symphony in the world premiere of his Piano Concerto with Kirill Gerstein as soloist.
The Violin Concerto dates from 2005, a joint commission from the Berlin Festival and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The world premiere was given in Berlin by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and soloist Anthony Marwood with the composer conducting on September 4, 2005.
“An unerring sense of theatre seems to be allied, for Adès, with his instinct for shaping convincing forms of the abstract symphonic works he has undertaken,” wrote musicologist Thomas May. “His scores incorporate a plurality of impulses that circulate around each other and simultaneously pull in opposite directions: centrifugal and centripetal energy.” And so does the Violin Concerto, which the composer has described succinctly as follows:
“The outer movements are circular in design, the first fast, with sheets of unstable harmony in different orbits, the third playful, at ease, with stable cycles moving in harmony at different rates. The slow movement [is] built from two large, and very many small, independent cycles, which overlap and clash, sometimes violently, in their motion towards resolution.”
The three movements last just twenty minutes, but those twenty minutes are densely packed with musical events. The concerto opens with both orchestra and soloist intertwined in a closely woven tapestry. The violin, almost continuously busy, spends most of its time in the stratosphere of its range. Thomas May suggests that the origin of this predilection “might be traced to the otherworldly, high-wire coloratura Adès assigns to his soprano Ariel in The Tempest. … the effect is at times of an uneasy, slow-motion fall through gravity-less space.”
The central movement is the longest by far and serves as the emotional centre of gravity. It is based on the Baroque chaconne technique, whereby the opening sequence of notes is heard repeatedly while a series of variations play out over the chaconne’s pattern. Here the mood is sombre, the orchestral colours muted, the musical progress “often expressed as if the music were stumbling forward in heavy, dragging feet,” as critic Paul Griffiths so eloquently puts it. Soloist and orchestra struggle to maintain their separate identities, with the separation in range often extreme.
The third movement begins ominously but soon dissolves into the jocular spirit that will remain for the rest of the concerto. Again, stratospheric writing for the soloist prevails. Highly syncopated rhythms and sharply defined melodic lines evoke what Griffiths calls “rhythmic machinery,” bringing to mind the analogous movement of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto. The work ends unexpectedly, abruptly, as if Adès had maliciously chosen to snap off the narrative at a critical juncture.
— Program notes by Robert Markow