(3/14/2015) “Curtis On Tour” is the Curtis Institute of Music’s annual showcase of its students and some distinguished alumni. Last year I attended their concert in Boston, and just last night I was thrilled to be able to hear their chamber orchestra at U.C. Davis’s Mondavi Center. The conductor was (Curtis alum) Robert Spano, and a featured work was Curtis Faculty member Jennifer Higdon’s new Viola Concerto. The soloist is violist Roberto Diaz, also Curtis’ President. The work premiered just last Saturday, and is the recipient of one of our Performance Grants. The tour is continuing with two more concerts in California, and I urge you see it if you have the chance!
In the pre-concert discussion, the Curtis Institute student who spoke about the piece said that Higdon had wanted to write something that contrasted with the melancholy of other viola concertos – I imagine she meant the anguished Walton or the self-absorbed gloom of Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy.” She succeeded, creating a work of sweeping momentum and rugged determination. Underpinning this is Higdon’s genius at using the colors of the orchestra, creating a magical, varied and atmospheric expanse of sound.
The work opens with a hushed, close sonority of muted strings, with a stark melody in the solo viola beginning on a low string but in a high register, giving a kind of restrained warmth. The ensemble slowly builds in several grand expansive waves of growing intensity, with woodwinds and brass entering for interludes at the peak of the wave, at which the viola yields to them. The effect is of heartfelt resolution.
The middle movement breaks loose with intensity, with a first theme of rapid-fire repeated notes, followed by running scalar lines. The viola gets a work-out in this breathless moto perpetuo, with some of the melodies heightened by glockenspiel doubling, with amazing virtuosic playing. Relentless, it leaves us gasping.
The final movement returns to legato, but now with a more strongly chiseled melody – taking broad steps of fourths and fifths, and eventually with the viola playing in octaves, and then introducing a spiky, staccato theme. The orchestra interweaves in a contrapuntal texture and the vast expanse of activity is supported by a contrabassoon. With the broad legato melody resonating in all the instruments, conclusion was majestic.
Although Diaz’ body language is reserved, his playing is passionate and (as needed) full of warmth, brilliance, or edgy intensity, and is absolutely surefooted in all the technical demands. Let us hope that this work enters into the repertoire for the viola, just as Higdon’s Violin Concerto is now doing!
There are reviews of the premiere here — David Stearns enthused “Subtle construction elements kept that lyricism aloft so artfully you didn’t want the movement to end.”
And and also here: “An appealing piece that deserves to be heard — a lot.” (Joan Reinthaler)
Disclaimer: Liane Curtis is not related to the Curtis family of the Curtis Institute of music. Liane’s distant cousin who does genealogy has researched this back to 1562(!)