The Pizzicato Five

Illustration by Dienstelle 75

The violin concerto is an unfair contest in which the underdog always wins. A lone combatant armed with a pound or two of kindling, catgut, and horsehair stares down a battalion reinforced with brass and drums, yet the outcome is never in doubt. Composers regularly try to reinvent the genre, only to find that a violin concerto still sets off a soloist’s preternatural powers from a collective of more common talents, still glories in speed and high notes, still explores the inherent drama of the lone instrument’s sound cutting through an ensemble’s rounder, more muscled mass. It’s been that way for 300 years, since a priest named Antonio Vivaldi stepped in front of an ensemble of white-clad illegitimate girls in a Venetian orphanage and fiddled with more dexterity than charm. The form he brought to maturity with a series called L’Estro armonico is still with us, the expressive language altered but the scaffolding still in place.

Every generation keeps refreshing the pedigree, making the concerto a vibrant, perpetually contemporary form. In a serendipitous cornucopia of local premieres, five violinists recently performed five new concertos with five different orchestras and conductors, in as many styles. Anyone tempted to pronounce doleful eulogies over classical traditions might consider these few festive weeks, which yielded fine performances of several good scores and a pair of great ones. Every one of the half-hour works aspires to the status of Major Statement, and each begins with a big gesture that sweeps across the score’s topography. The Pulitzer Prize–winning concerto that Jennifer Higdon composed for Hilary Hahn opens with wind-chime tinklings: a whispered high staccato on the violin and knitting needles on a glockenspiel. Almost immediately, a soulful violin soliloquy rises rapidly from the lowest string to Himalayan heights. Higdon has efficiently mapped out the work’s romantic sense of intimacy in a vast landscape of sound, the meditative mood expanding into confessional theatrics and the sheer athleticism of the violin part. Even if we have not heard this piece before, we have a sense of where it’s going.

Like the title credit sequence in a movie, the beginning of a new violin concerto can capitalize on a moment of expectant tension, in which the audience hopes desperately to be transfixed. James MacMillan tries to get the job done right away. In his new concerto, which Vadim Repin performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the first downbeat throws open the door on a wild, jagged dance. The violin saws and sparks, like a barroom fiddler on speed, periodically crashing into a big syncopated caesura.

Harrison Birtwistle injects his mercurial new concerto with an even higher dose of agitation. In the first 30 seconds, the solo line shoots more than two octaves into the air and hangs on a triple fortissimo before subsiding to a low, pianissimo crackle. Birtwistle’s cerebral dazzle suits Christian Tetzlaff, who played the piece with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though the score’s complexity may leave some listeners in the dust. Beginnings are easy, but the form’s built-in asymmetries and extensive repertoire of clichés can confound even composers as expert as Higdon, MacMillan, and Birtwistle. The energy of their openings eventually dissipates in busy passagework, murky textures, and contrasts too contrived to startle.

The old workhorse has some masterpieces left in it yet, though. At Carnegie Hall, Leila Josefowicz and the St. Louis Symphony gave the belated New York concert premiere of Thomas Adès’s six-year-old Concentric Paths, a fluorescing concerto that turns others brittle and dull by comparison. In the first movement, the violin acts as a shamanistic spirit, whipping up the orchestra to terrifying ecstasies. We’re on the edge of madness here: After eerie, agitated noodling in the upper register, the soloist drifts close to dog-whistle range, while a flute babbles just below. The brief movement flows toward a cataclysmic finale, a primal, lopsided rhythm, like the footstep of a wounded brontosaurus.

Adès steers violin and orchestra into a relationship that is less battle than dream. The fiddle speaks, and the orchestra flares, intensifying the solo line’s terrors and contorting its logic. In the second movement, the violin declaims a Bach-like chord, and the brasses chime in with a sharp metallic blurt that magnifies the sound to surreal proportions—a murmur into a P.A. system. A moment later, violin and stammering brass veer apart, and the passage shatters into a Cubist still life. Adès has a genius for thickening textures so they nearly overwhelm the ears but retain a hard, kaleidoscopic clarity.

The other recent milestone is Sofia Gubaidulina’s In Tempus Praesens, which Anne-Sophie Mutter played with the New York Philharmonic. The title is Latin for “In the Present Time,” and if Gubaidulina perversely invokes nowness in an ancient tongue, it’s because her aspirations have the flavor of another era. She erects her score on mathematical symmetries, encrypts religious allusions in the manner of Bach, and distills each measure into moments of explosive spontaneity.

In its episodes of toughness, solace, and abject prostration, the concerto feels at once polished and raw, a meticulously carpentered representation of rough experience. The violin moves through horror and comfort, and the orchestra takes up its utterances or tries vainly to overwhelm them. A climax comes in the form of a crashing gong so massive it sometimes takes two people to dampen its aftershocks. Later, the violin skitters up to a series of ever-loftier peaks, answered by flutter-tongued flutes that perch effortlessly higher still. It’s like struggling up a mountain path to find that the birds have gotten there with far less drama; triumph sharpens the sense of limitation.

The bounty keeps coming: This week, the Philharmonic revives Gubaidulina’s Two Paths, a concerto for two violas that has haunted me ever since the orchestra first performed it a dozen years ago. Like that mountain-climbing violin line, these weathered forms, too, keeping staggering on, bringing old solace and new chills.

Two Paths
By Sofia Gubaidulina.
New York Philharmonic. April 13, 14, and 16.

The Pizzicato Five