In 2007 I unexpectedly heard from the BBC in London asking me to write a recital piece for a violinist whose playing I didn’t know. Once I was supplied with some recordings, it was clear that he was a re-breathing (young) master at the instrument, and I unhesitatingly agreed. Out of that came my first collaboration with James Ehnes, Two Movements (with Bells), a piece that he has now played many times and recorded. Making (playing, writing, and listening to) music is indeed a journey, often starting when you least expect it; my journey with James Ehnes has led directly to this moment and this big new violin concerto.
Since 2009 I’ve had the good fortune to write concertos for various wonderful players and combinations – cello, viola, ute, trumpet, chamber orchestra, and piano, with one for horn upcoming. I’ve tried to make them all different, keeping their form, content and expression fresh for me and for listeners.
This newest work for James Ehnes follows the essential three-movement form on which many bedrock concertos of the past are built: the largest, most searching arguments come first, followed by the shorter, slower lyrical utterance, and ending with the even shorter closer that is fast, zippy, and hair- raisingly difficult.
But here there is much that differs from the past.
The first movement, Chaconne, comes distantly from the Baroque form of a set of variations over a repeated series of chords. This is the most dramatically charged and changeable movement, with the opening downward melody (and underlying chords) in the violin being the basis of all that follows. This theme is constantly varied in character and color over the entire movement, and returns in its original, most dramatic statement at its end.
Ballad is the songful, jazzy, French-tinged lyrical middle movement with an angular, wrenching center. The language of Two Movements (with Bells) returns here with hints of the blues and the in uence of the harmony of composer Olivier Messiaen, an idol of mine.
Finally, the energy of Toccatini closes the piece. A toccata is a fast and virtuosic “touch-piece” from the Baroque era. I thought this would be a tiny or teeny toccata, and the idea of creating a new martini – the Toccatini – helped get me through the post-election torpor of 2016. It’s not atypical to find this type of mashup in my music, with bits of jazz, hints of Stravinsky and Messiaen, machine-music, and wild strings of notes all over the violin. It gives James ever more chances to show his mettle, and it showcases his great ability to shape many thousands of notes with air, joy and intensity.
The concerto is dedicated to James Ehnes, with great admiration and friendship. It was generously commissioned by four splendid orchestras and music directors: the Toronto Symphony and Peter Oundjian; the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, with the generous support of Patricia Tall-Takacs and Gary Takacs; the Dallas Symphony and Jaap van Zweden; and the Melbourne Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis.
— Aaron Jay Kernis