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Viola Concerto


This new concerto for Viola is inspired essentially by its extraordinary soloist whose playing I’ve known over many years. Paul Neubauer and I first worked together in 1993 when American Public Radio commissioned my Still Movement with Hymn for piano quartet which he premiered on air and toured with three other remarkable musicians. In some ways this new concerto follows up on the tone of that piece. More recently I was extremely moved by Paul’s recording (with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott) of viola music of Robert Schumann, and this lead me to re-explore the music of Robert and Clara Schumann in depth once again. I have always been drawn to the soulful character of the viola, and have been excited to write this work from the moment Paul requested it.

This concerto shows many contradictory elements in tone, and the use of a very wide terrain of musical language and moods. The profiles of the melodies that suffuse it are highly varied, as are the wide contrasts of lyricism and harshness. Yet throughout there are linked musical ideas in each movement which give the entire work continuity.

The opening movement, 'Braid', is a series of elaborations and embellishments of a sequence of harmonies and melodies. Throughout its compact length it shifts from clear three-note chords at the opening and closing to a thickening gauze of colors that weave around the viola line and lead, at its peak, to a chaotic frenzy.

The second movement, 'Romance', is a lyrical, romantic intermezzo, which grows out of breathing, fluid gestures and harmonies that link to the Brahms/early Schoenberg tradition. The title came from discovering a number of lovely piano pieces by Clara Schumann titled Romanze, clearly written in mind of her husband.

The final movement, 'A song my mother taught me', is the longest and darkest in the concerto, lasting about 20 minutes. Knowing of the Paul Neubauer’s interest in folk music, as soon as I decided to write the work I chose to base this movement on the well-known Yiddish song, Tumbalalaika, which I had first learned in my childhood. I had always felt it had very penetrating words and a sad melody, and was later surprised to hear it sung in many ways—as a romantic wedding song, wildly gyrating dance tune, and even in an ironic, comedic rendition. After hearing Paul’s Schumann CD, a melody from his Op 34 set of short piano pieces lodged in my ear and would not leave it, so its melody and distinctive rhythm became the frame of the movement, with Tumbalalaika as its essential musical material. Both melodies have a strong rhythmic kinship with the other.

The third movement begins with plaintive, virtuosic lines in the clarinet and bass clarinet, then the Schumann melody is heard in its simplest form. It returns repeatedly at important moments throughout, and is increasingly deconstructed and harmonically decayed. The use of the Yiddish tune takes the opposite approach—while it is formed like a theme and series of variations, the ten linked variations proceed backwards toward the tune, starting at their most fragmented and least melodic. The tune has been pulverized, made wildly improvisatory, and at times, very harsh and bitter. Only very late in the movement is the simple, original tune heard, above pulsating strummed chords. The form could be construed to be variations in search of their melody. A short, intense solo viola cadenza is followed by a dense and frenzied climax with the two clarinets leading the way. A decisively bleak battle between bass drum and viola pounds the opening Schumann-esque rhythms into silence. To close, the ghostly irony of a brief quote from Mahler, a final blanket of opposing chords that reference the Schumann one last time, and a pensive coda completes the work.

Viola Concerto was written in 2013- 2014 and generously commissioned for Paul Neubauer by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with the leadership support of Linda and Stuart Nelson; Idyllwild Arts Academy; Chautauqua Institution; and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It is dedicated to Paul Neubauer, in great admiration and appreciation.

from notes by Aaron Jay Kernis © 2018


Kernis: Dreamsongs & other concertos
Studio Master: SIGCD524Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Movement 1: Braid
Movement 2: Romance
Movement 3: A song my mother taught me

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